Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger
America by Jean Baudrillard
It’s becoming quite obvious that I’m spending much too much time hanging about the Verso Books site lately… Trouble is, they keep having wonderful flash sales and offers, and I confess to being something of a sucker for these. I went a little mad when their e-books were all on sale with 90% off (!) but these two titles are hard copies I picked up recently, and both rather thought-provoking volumes.
John Berger is, of course, an author I’ve been reading recently, and I loved his novel “A Painter of our Time”. “Bento’s Sketchbook”, however, is something completely different; it’s a lovely, large format paperback filled with Berger’s sketches and musings, as well as extracts from the philosopher Spinoza – the Bento of the title. Spinoza was rumoured to have always carried a sketchbook during his short life, which was lost after his death. Berger had often wondered what the sketchbook would hold and when a friend presented him with a brand new sketchbook of his own, he decided this would be Bento’s Sketchbook, and went on to fill it accordingly.
It’s a fascinating work, full of random thoughts and musings; autobiographical tales; quotes from Spinoza; and some wonderful sketches by Berger. He recalls visits to Dresden after the bombing; a recent visit to sketch in the National Gallery when a jobsworth guard behaves like a moron (I’m still cross about that bit); an encounter with an exiled Cambodian artist; and each of these pieces is shot through with Berger’s humanity and intelligence. Much of the writing is concerned with the process of drawing, and as a total amateur who’s always wanted to draw but never been able to, I found these pieces fascinating. Berger observes the world around him with a clear eye, seeing and recognising the inequalities, and I ended up feeling that nothing he writes could ever be dull. The scope is wide-ranging too – in a long life, full of experience, Berger has encountered many people and events, all of which inform his philosophy.
What’s distinct about today’s global tyranny is that it’s faceless. There’s no Führer, no Stalin, no Cortes. Its workings vary according to each continent and its modes are modified by local history, but its overall pattern is the same…
I came to the end of Berger’s book intrigued, interested, thoughtful and oddly reassured – while there are minds like his in the world there is still hope.
“America” however is quite another kettle of fish. Baudrillard is a highly regarded French postmodern thinker, and the book is a collection of his meditations on the USA. Framed by thoughts on the desert landscapes (which haunt the book), Baudrillard muses on the differences between American and French culture, the attitudes of both countries and how geography shapes personality. It’s a complex work which I confess often lost me (I’m not that knowledgeable when it comes to philosophical terminology) and yet there are parts that jumped out at me; places where he nailed the essence of things and also some wry humour at the expense of both countries.
The book was written in the 1980s and much of his analysis still seems relevant. However, once place where I think he was off-centre was in his thoughts on race; he almost seemed to be implying that though there were racial tensions in Europe, in the USA these did not really exist any more and all peoples were getting alone fine in the country’s melting pot. Recent world events show that that’s not the case on either side of the Atlantic and in some ways Baudrillard’s analysis seems a little simplistic.
Nevertheless, this was an intriguing book, if difficult in places, and I might be tempted to try another of his books one day… 🙂