Philip Bounds holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Wales. He is the author of British Communism and Literary Theory (2007), Cultural Studies (1999) and Orwell and Culture: The Dialogue with British Marxism (forthcoming, 2008). His pamphlet A Bloody Misalliance: Radical Islam and Infantile Marxism is soon to appear in the Libertarian Alliance's Political Notes series. Here Philip writes about John Berger's Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance.
Philip Bounds on Hold Everything Dear by John Berger
If John Berger's Hold Everything Dear were simply a bad book by a very great writer, it would scarcely be worth bothering with. It gives me no pleasure at all to say that it is much more than that. After something like 50 years as one of the European left's most humane, insightful and prophetic voices, Berger has spent much of his time since 9/11 putting an elegant spin on views one usually expects to hear from George Galloway, John Pilger or Arundhati Roy. The result is not merely a bad book but a morally regrettable one which dehumanizes Israelis, glosses over the crimes of Islamism, dismisses the elected government of the USA as a semi-fascist conspiracy and engages in sordid apologetics for suicide bombers. It is a symptom of everything that can go wrong when the left starts to believe that its enemy's enemy is its friend. This is why I'm bending the rules of the 'Writer's choice' series to talk about a book I dislike by an author I greatly admire.
Hold Everything Dear consists of 16 brief essays about geopolitics, poverty and art, the earliest written in November 2001 and the most recent in June 2006. It purports to be a panoramic snapshot of the state of the world in the opening years of the new century. Not everything about it makes one wince. In the first essay, 'Wanting Now', Berger makes some stimulating remarks about the prospects for radical resistance in the modern age. Acknowledging that globalization has consigned the 'visionary political vocabulary of three centuries' to the garbage can, he insists that people all over the world are still animated by the 'desire for justice'. What marks them out from the dispossessed of the past is that their myriad acts of resistance are dispersed, localized and uncoordinated. There are no longer centralized movements with grand visions of change, only 'multitudinous' individuals who co-operate briefly over 'specific issues'. The consequence is that people are more likely to savour the experience of resistance. Eschewing the idea of wholesale change, those who participate in radical politics are possessed by a 'transcendental' sense of freedom - a sort of intuition of pure autonomy which flares up in the act of resistance but disappears when its goals are achieved. Summarizing his argument with some brilliantly aphoristic writing, Berger notes that 'Desire is a wanting. A wanting now. Freedom does not constitute the fulfilment of that wanting, but the acknowledgement of its supremacy.'
Moving back and forth between the constrictions of global capitalism and the momentary freedoms of radical resistance, Berger occasionally recalls the triumphs of his past. 'Ten Dispatches About Endurance' is especially memorable, evoking the minute particulars of poverty as vividly as A Seventh Man or Into Their Labours. What Berger seems to do in essays like these is project himself into the sinews of the poor and register their anguish on his pulses. No one else can write with the same sort of phenomenological immediacy. The problem with Hold Everything Dear is that his sense of nuance completely deserts him when he turns his attention to 'imperialism'. Like a number of other European Marxists who ought to know better, Berger has convinced himself that the relationship between the West and the rest of the world is one of unalloyed colonial barbarism. He is especially exercised by the relationship between Israel and Palestine, which he addresses at length in 'Undefeated Despair', 'Stones' and 'Looking Carefully - Two Women Photographers'. It beggars belief that a man of Berger's gifts could produce writing this unbalanced. Although he has sometimes responded unwisely to the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, not least when he launched an attack on Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, he has never before sounded like a PR man for Hezbollah. His capacity to ignore inconvenient facts is worthy of David Irving. Israel is described as 'fascist' but the cancer of Islamist anti-Semitism goes unmentioned. The Nakbah is evoked in all its ghastliness but the invasion which precipitated it is not. Israeli policy in the occupied territories is rightly condemned but the refusal of the Palestinians to accept a two-state solution in 2001 (or for that matter in 1937 and 1947) is set to one side. Nor is this all. Even worse than the wilful distortions of history is the almost comical sentimentality. None of the Palestinians whom Berger meets on his travels is in the slightest bit ordinary. All of them are noble savages of orientalist vintage, courageously resisting oppression and nurturing immense spiritual gifts. It is not even possible for Berger to do a drawing in a Bedouin camp without attracting the attention of a luminously souled young man, who naturally provides him with a stool and joins him in rapt contemplation of a nearby hill. It all sounds a bit too much like T.E. Lawrence in a donkey jacket.
The corollary of Berger's uncritical support for the Palestinians and other 'anti-imperialists' is all too grimly predictable. In several places in Hold Everything Dear he makes it perfectly clear that he sympathizes with suicide bombing. His reasons for doing so at least have the merit of ingenuity. According to Berger, Israel and other colonial powers can only shore up their rule by 'destroy[ing] the indigenous population's sense of temporal and spatial continuity'. By using checkpoints and other devices to fragment the occupied territories into a mass of micro-regions, Israel inflicts on every Palestinian the feeling that he is unable to move freely through space and time. It is in this context that the activities of the Islamic 'martyrs' become 'comprehensible', since (or so Berger implies) there is no better way of restoring a sense of continuity than by blowing the guardians of space and time to smithereens. And yet, even while insisting that 'the dead help the living to resist' (the single most lamentable line he has ever written), Berger fails to notice that one of his essays suggests that his admiration for the Palestinians may not be all that it seems. In 'Flesh and Speeches', a brief meditation on the terrorist attacks in London in July 2005, he denounces terrorism for the first and last time in the book. Not only were the suicide bombers operating with 'shameful stealth' (note the distinctive air of European amour-propre), they were also possessed of a 'fanaticism' that made them no better than the world system they opposed. The point is this. In failing to extend the same respect to the mass murderers of 7/7 that he ritually showers on their equivalents in the Middle East, Berger gives the strong impression that life in Gaza or Jerusalem is somehow worth less than life in London. This can hardly have been his intention.
Berger's literary persona has always been slightly odd. The writer who has stared out at us from over 20 books often seems preternaturally intense, deeply troubled and earnest to the point of neurasthenia. But he has never seemed arrogant or self-regarding. The curious thing about the last five years is that Berger's ego seems to have expanded in inverse proportion to his moral sense. Time and again in Hold Everything Dear he portrays himself as a man of exceptional sensitivity, scarcely able to cope with a horribly degraded world. He seems to have no doubt that he stands at the saintly end of a moral continuum which has George Bush, Tony Blair and Ariel Sharon at its opposite pole. Having endured this sort of thing for nearly 150 pages, the reader feels an irresistible urge to mail him a copy of Nick Cohen's What's Left? with a message saying 'For God's sake, man - think again!' A book by John Berger should not provoke this sort of response. The left (and the Palestinians) deserve better.