Bento’s Sketchbook

We sense and experience that we are eternal. For the mind no less senses those things which it conceives in understanding than those which it has in memory. For the eyes of the mind by which it sees things and observes them are proofs. So although we do not remember that we existed before the body, we sense nevertheless that our mind in so far as it involves the essence of the body under a species of eternity is eternal and its existence cannot be defined by time or explained by duration. (Spinoza, Ethics, Part V, Proposition XXIII)

We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination. (Berger)

I am floating on my back in the swimming pool with the painting I’m working on above me, thinking also of Mr. Berger’s practice of floating with whatever story he is thinking about, “above him” as he, we, float, looking at the ceiling. The painting is small, in oils, and is of a view of a hay bale in a field, one of the oblong-shaped ones familiar at this time of year. This one had been left where it had broken apart in the field, sagging into its own weight as gravity tries to suck its bulk back into the ground – as gravity tries to pull me to the floor of the pool. Berger’s stories have the quality of this particular kind of silence. For me they are touchstones for distinguishing between – in Spinoza’s terms – the inadequate and adequate; the false and the genuine. Berger’s writing continues to be, above else, an ethical, as well as intellectual example, as he explores the practice of drawing – the human body, flowers, bicycles – and how art guides our seeing and understanding of the world: how it may protest, may establish forms of resistance to ‘the pitilessness of the new world order’. One protests, he writes, by demonstrating, by striking, by hunger strike, by taking up arms, by occupying, by shouting, by writing, by drawing. One protests because to not to would be humiliating, and would result in an enforced and degrading silence. To draw – rose hip, a cherry leaf, a pebble beach – is to indelibly save the present moment from predatory global capitalism – a fusion of democracy and the free market – and its weak, constricted imagination which is focused almost entirely on maximizing profit. History may be indifferent, but Berger cares, he still has hope, and believes and writes of that sense of belonging to the what-has-been and the yet-to-come. Nowhere perhaps is this more explicit than in the story of his visit to a public library to get a copy of Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. It’s not on the shelf, and after a discussion with the librarian, he is led to understand that they have two copies, but “they’re both out”. So he starts to think: ‘I wonder who’s reading The Brothers Karamazov here today. Do the two of them know each other? Unlikely. Are they reading the book for the first time? Or has one of them read it and, like myself, wants to reread it? Then I find myself asking an odd question: if either of those readers and myself passed one another – in the suburban market on Sunday, coming out of the metro, on a pedestrian crossing, buying bread – might we perhaps exchange glances that we’d both find slightly puzzling? Might we, without recognising it, recognise one another? … What I’m trying to define is more idiosyncratic and personal than a mere cultural inheritance; it is as if the bloodstream of the read story joins the bloodstream of one’s life story. It contributes to our becoming what we will become and will continue to become … Somebody in this Paris suburb, perhaps sitting tonight in a chair and reading The Brothers Karamazov, may already, in this sense, be a distant, distant cousin”. And on the next page, the right-hand page of the book – ‘A recollection from childhood, a question of hope?’ – is a sketch of an empty chair done in pencil and watercolour.

‘… of ghosts among fern and dogwood before they turn their backs / and drift down the garden path, as if the dead / really had somewhere to get to, as if the life-long burden / of things unsaid might be dumped in such a place’ (Harsent, Night)

I start on an ink drawing of sweet William in a vase. I prefer ink that is of the non-waterproof kind; it is softer, more responsive to water, and less blood-like than “permanent” ink. I make marks, I make corrections and the drawing gets darker, moves closer and closer to the edge (of what?) where I hope it will teeter (from the Old Norse, titra, ‘shake, shiver‘) in perpetuity.

John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook (Verso, 2011) The philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) – generally known as Benedict or Bento – earned his living as a lens-grinder and spent his short life writing On the Improvement of the Understanding and the Ethics, both of which were only published posthumously. He was also a sporadic draughtsmen and according to friends carried a sketchbook around with him. De Hooch, Vermeer, Jan Steen were his contemporaries and biographers have suggested that it is likely he met Rembrandt. Following his sudden death his friends found his letters, manuscripts and notes but no sketchbook and for years, Berger has imagined a sketchbook with his drawings in it being found. “I wasn’t expecting great drawings in the sketchbook, were it to be found. I simply wanted to reread some of his words, some of his startling propositions as a philosopher, whilst at the same time being able to look at things he had observed with his own eyes”. Then a friend gave Berger a virgin sketchbook, covered with suede leather the colour of skin and he heard himself saying: “This is Bento’s!” The result is this book – containing Berger’s stories and drawings and extracts of Spinoza’s propositions and notes – an exploration of drawing inspired by the philosopher’s vision.

David Harsent, Night (Faber and Faber, 2011) Harsent’s latest book of poetry begins with a remarkable sequence of poems about a garden in which he explores how, when the lights go out, we variously rage against, weep, regret and rejoice our day-lit selves: our hopes, weaknesses, those that we set out to love and our darker instincts; the night-dreams, the insomnia and shape-shifting desire that accompanies our journey in the shadow-lands as we move inexorably towards the spectre of death. Hallucinatory.