In writing Bento’s Sketchbook: How does the impulse to draw something begin?, John Berger has fashioned a book that is a hybrid cobbling of many facets of the his persona—memoirist, philosopher, art historian, artist, political essayist, cultural critic. Berger has a long history as a writer and a well recognized voice, so creating a category-busting book like this one is in some ways a perk that comes with his success. This is Berger doing his “the world according to me,” and the result is a quirky and very personal patchwork of stories.
In many ways Berger’s approach is more blog-like than it is book-like. The reader is invited to roam through Berger’s life and insights without the artifice of a recognizable template or format. Some parts are better than others, but there is much to recommend this unexpected blending of Bergerian insights and ideas.
The fundamental armature of Bento’s Sketchbook is the writings of Spinoza. The Bento of the title, Spinoza spent most of his life—when he wasn’t working as a lens grinder—contesting Descartes’ mind/body duality. And sketching. And in spite of his refusal to publish his works during his lifetime, Spinoza’s writings survived (and ended up playing an influential role in bringing about the Enlightenment.) His sketchbook(s) however did not.
Berger steps in as if to offer himself as a proxy for Bento’s lost visualizations by assembling sketches from his everyday life. In the words of Colin McCabe: “What [Berger] is trying to do is produce an equivalent, in pen and ink, of Spinoza’s attempt to join the particular with the universal. It is from the mundane details of daily life that Berger creates an image of the world.”
In an interview with Berger in the Paris Review, he described his own intentions for this book:
I never really thought of myself as an art critic. I mean, I wrote a lot about art, particularly visual art, but my approach was—how to put it? The primary thing wasn’t to say whether a work was good or bad; it was rather to look and try to discover the stories within it. There was always this connection between art and all the other things that were happening in the world at the time, many of which were, in the wider sense of the word, political. For me, Bento’s Sketchbook, though it’s about drawing and flowers and Velasquez, among other things, is actually a political book. It’s an attempt to look at the world today and to try to face up to both the hope and despair that millions of people live with. In some very small and personal way, that’s what I wanted to address with this book.
Spinoza gets embedded in the warp and woof of Berger’s personal encounters and stories. In an unexpected turn, those 17th century passages offer up a more optimistic view than Berger’s harsher personal sense of a world gone wrong, one that is neither fair nor hopeful.
But from time to time Berger steps away from the world’s troubles and contemplates the simple act of drawing. It is at those moments that he is at his most expansive.
When I’m drawing—and here drawing is very different from writing or reasoning—I have the impression at certain moments of participating in something like a visceral function, such as digestion or sweating, a function that is independent of the conscious will. This impression is exaggerated, but the practice or pursuit of drawing touches, or is touched by, something prototypical and anterior to logical reasoning.
Thanks to the recent work of neurobiologists like Antonio Demasio, it’s now known that the messages which pass from cell to cell in a living body do so in the forms of charts and maps. They are spatial arrangements. They have a geometry.
It is through these ‘maps’ that the body communicates with the brain and the brain with the body. And these messages constitute the basis of the mind, which is the creature of both body and brain, as you believed and foresaw. In the act of drawing there’s perhaps an obscure memory of such map-reading.
As Damasio put it: ‘The entire fabric of a conscious mind is created from the same cloth—images generated by the brain’s map-making abilities.’
Drawing is anyway an exercise in orientation and as such may be compared with other processes of orientation which take place in nature.
When I’m drawing I feel a little closer to the way birds navigate when flying, or to hares finding shelter if pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light, or bees constructing their cells…
Drawing is a form of probing. And the first generic impulse to draw derives from the human need to search, to plot points, to place things and to place oneself…
We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisibile to its incalculable destination.
The freeform (non)format of Bento’s Sketchbook is appealing on many levels. But may I confess to a wandering eye? While reading Berger’s book I kept fantasizing about how much I would love to see a version of this from some of my most thoughtful artist friends. Berger is first and foremost a writer, and his drawings are uneven at best. A more gifted hand could shift the balance to equal parts words and images. Hey there Altoon Sultan, George Wingate, Miriam Louisa Simons, Sally Reed, Tim Rice, Rachael Eastman, Riki Moss, Holly Downing, Elizabeth Mead, Luke Storms, Holly Friesen, Walt Pascoe, Pam Farrell, Paula Overbay, Nancy Natale, Lynette Haggard, Tamar Zinn, Filiz Soyak, Ramah Commanday, Amani Ansari—something to consider?