I’m literally sitting writing this reading list in a Hugo Boss jacket that’s a bit too large for my small feminine frame. I found it barely worn in freshly dry cleaned in a “giveaway” box in my neighborhood. Everyone in the neighborhood leaves books, clothes and appliances out to share and trade. Some neighbors are a bit more well off than others. It’s not uncommon to find a wealthy student’s small collection of hand-me-downs that are clean, expensive and barely a year old. I almost like men’s jackets more than I like books, but as the season begins to change, and Fall makes chills the air crisp and chill, I can enjoy both at the same time. No need to choose.
These books are a combination of favorites, like my friend China Martens epic zine anthology, Future Generation and the enthralling Womanist literary effort, Hope is in the Holler: A Womanist Theory and a collection of books I’ve compiled while preparing for my feminist lectures and writing workshops like “Masculinity Studies & Feminist Theory: New Directions.” I rummage through libraries and independent books stores like Red Emma’s Books to find just what I need for my never ending literary pursuits.
The fall season is perfect for learning new things and growing our minds and perspectives, especially since school is now in session.
Do you ever wonder how people go from completely sane to wholly mad? Or, think about how each of us is equally exposed to the possibility of catching insanity every time we open ourselves to the outside world?
One of these answers can be found in the film In Mouth of Madness (1995) directed by John Carpenter. The film understands madness as “that thing [which is] messing with the church [values]”; “that thing that offers pain and suffering beyond human understanding.” Madness is an abstract being that “wasn’t here [in this material world] before l wrote it”, says the character Sutter Cane. The question is how this very abstract matter known as “madness” manifests itself into material form, and thus becomes viewable, spreadable, discussable, and perhaps “curable”.
Such a journey can be seen in the character John Trent, who has gone from a “sane” insurance investigator to a patient in a psychiatric hospital. Trent is one out of a number of people who show schizophrenic symptoms after reading Sutter Cane’s horror books, including the Hobb’s End Horror and In the Mouth of Madness. Books that are known for their success in generating a kind of seed of “madness” in the mind of a “less stable reader”. These seeds range from “disorientation, memory loss, to severe paranoid reaction”. Trent’s case is significant in that it may offer a potential clue to the outbreak of mass murders and riots in the city, which are claimed to only involve those who read Cane’s book.
At this point, it is safe to say that “madness” made its way to be among us by finding representation. “Homecoming instrument (s)” the film calls it. I would say that its first representation is in the mind of Sutter Cane. Then it manages to move Cane to write about his encounter with “madness” in the form of books. These books then could be considered as the second form of representation of “madness”. This second representation is special in that it signifies the presence of “madness” in the material world. With Cane’s books, “madness” is now viewable, discussable and spreadable to each individual. It will keep spreading until it achieved its fullest form, Hegel would say.
The fullest form of which every single being strive for is equal to life because it supposedly represents an achievement of completely being oneself, as Hegel implied in the Phenomenology of Spirit. What is often forgotten is that the way to the fullest form is violent and painful in that it constantly requires analysis of what one already achieved. In this analyzing process, the defective representation must be abandoned and destroyed, Hegel would further assert. Only by doing so, one can continue to find a new and better representation. In the case of this film, we can see that only when Cane [as first representation of “madness”] sees the book Hobb’s End Horror is not perfect, he then can proceed to write the new one, that is In the Mouth of Madness. This new book [and other new form of representation that might come later] supposed to be better representation of “madness” as it corrects flaws of the previous book. Thus, the quality of this new book is stronger than that of the previous one. The new book In the Mouth of Madness is so strong that it “will drive you absolutely mad; choked [you] with the gleaming white bones, the hideous unholy abominations, countless unhallowed centuries”, says the character Cane when persuades Trent to open himself for “madness”. Trent does open himself for “madness” and, thus, rendered as insane.
Trent’s case shows that the desire for self-examination, which “madness” inspires in whoever come in contact with it, is more challenging with human beings than with the madness being [the abstract matter called madness]. This is partly because human beings reflect social values. Identifying some of those values as “wrong” and abandoning them not only challenges the individual’s inner stability but also disrupts the stability of the society in which one lives. As a consequence, once society classifies a person as “insane”, the individual may find himself lonely and isolated, or he may even be killed for such apparent “deviation”, Berger warned us in his Sacred Canopy. There are plenty of examples of killing done on the basis of “deviation,” and one of them is the religious conflict involving the Ahmadiyya community. To anticipate such horrific effect of madness, society advises those who are infected by madness, like Trent, must be made named, isolated from the healthy society, and cured before sent back to society.
The film even prescribes that to survive the influence of madness, one must do what Trent did. ”He did not shriek. He stared into the illimitable gulf of the unknown. And refused to close his eyes”. He continually refused to subjugate his life to the power outside himself i.e. the influence of Cane’s book and the label “insane” from a medical representative. He does it by often announcing his self-knowledge that he is a rational, independent and happy man who has control over himself and that no one will have a chance to control his mind. In short, he fights madness by maintaining his ability to think for himself. Otherwise, madness will seep in and take control over his mind and dictate his body to do things he may not like doing.
The film is indeed very intellectually stimulating in that it not only portrays the origin of madness, but it also alludes to the insidious violence inherent in the transformation of knowledge. The film shows that knowledge transformation is violent because it requires the potential receiver to first destroy what he already knows before this new knowledge rests in their mind, a Foucauldian would say. However, such violence is mostly tolerable, if not acceptable, in almost every society. Why? Because such insidious violence, like the kind that Cane’s book generated, represent “senseless, seemingly unmotivated acts of violence”, says Trent. Only when it obviously threatens the life of the larger society, as in the form of a riot, will the power representatives act. Again, the key to survive both the violence inherent in the madness and in the transformation of knowledge is to maintain the ability to think for oneself.
A few weeks ago, I re-watched the 2002 Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze movie Adaptation, which seemed to be playing at the local cinema as part of a Nicholas Cage retrospective. Cage plays the screenwriter Kaufman as he struggles to adapt Susan Orlean’s mesmerizing book The Orchid Thief into a movie. The structure of the book, described as “that sprawling, New Yorker crap that doesn’t really go anywhere,” does not lend itself easily to a film adaptation. During one of Kaufman’s attempts to start the screenplay, he describes an opening scene that stretches from the beginning of the earth to his birth in mid-twentieth century Los Angeles. Finding a plot (as a verb, to make plans; as a noun, a patch of solid ground) in this sprawling life—that does not really go anywhere—is one of those mammoth mammal tasks that appears so insurmountable that someone invented the snooze button on alarm clocks just so we could ignore this responsibility and return to sleep for a few more precious minutes. I am reminded of the thoughts of Blaise Pascal as he tried to describe this condition:
“We are floating in a medium of vast extent, always drifting uncertainly, blown to and fro; whenever we think we have a fixed point to which we can cling and hold fast, it shifts and leaves us behind; if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips away, and flees eternally before us.”
We are trapped between the infinitely large and infinitesimally small, engulfed by the impenetrable secrecy of life. I suppose it is no wonder that people like bookmarks: to know that you have a place somewhere in the enormity of everything. Considered in this light, dog-earing the top corner of a page is forgivable. You wish to leave a trace of yourself in the copy of a book that left an impression—evanescent or indelible—on your mind and heart.
I promised my mother I would not buy any more books until I returned to England. Back in September 2015, I expected to live in Portland for no more than a year. One of the two suitcases for my first transatlantic flight to Oregon was crammed with books, and I assumed that they would easily satisfy me for a year. I was wrong.
From what I recall, I broke my promise within the first week. The irresistible temptation came from a David Shields’ novel called Dead Languages, which I bought at the famous Powell’s City of Books. When the transaction was complete, the cashier slipped a complementary Powell’s bookmark between the front cover and the title page. The bookmark bears the addresses and contact information of each Powell’s branch on one side, and, on the other, lists their “buying hours” and implores you to “sell us your books.” During my frequent visits, I have spotted several people with cardboard boxes full of books which they hope to exchange for a wallet-wad of dollars.
I am leaving Portland soon. Every so often, I look at the messy piles of books in my apartment then glance at a nearby Powell’s bookmark to check their buying hours. You must book an appointment for an employee to sift through your books and decide whether anything is worth enough money to take off your hands and sell in the store. I think that process discourages me. I could not bear the humiliation of standing in public while someone judges my literary taste before they hand me a few dollars for two boxes of books. Walter Benjamin observed astutely in his breathtaking essay “Unpacking My Library” that “to the book collector . . . the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves,” so I am reluctant to return half of my collection to the coercion of commerce. They will become just another commodity to be repriced, reshelved, and resold.
Luckily, the other half of my collection will endure and travel with me. Unlike Benjamin, I am still in the stage of packing my library—choosing the right volumes and facing the Tetris-esque challenge of fitting them neatly into boxes. Some of them still contain their Powell’s bookmark, ready to help me find and keep my place.
The history of the bookmark takes place inside the history of the book. Before the Big Bang of the Gutenberg Galaxy, books were rare and written by a meticulous scribe. The rarity of these texts, writes A.W. Coysh in his 1974 Collecting Bookmarks, demonstrated the “need for some device to mark the place in a book . . . Without bookmarkers, finely bound volumes were at risk. To lay a book face down with pages open might cause injury to its spine, and the crease on a page that had the corner turned down remained as a lasting reproach.” One could put a bookmark between the pages and remove it without leaving a trace. Bookmarks used to be predominantly made with silk and leather, but, as the mass-publishing industry made books more available and affordable, they were made with cheaper material like thin card. The new availability of paperbacks meant that the bookmark became less of a way to protect the pages and spine of a book, and functioned more as an artificial memory aid. It anchored the reader in the text.
And so, I take another tome from my shelf and decide whether it is headed toward my new home or the Powell’s on Hawthorne. Just as every bookmark belongs in a book, every book belongs on a shelf. When I was younger, I dedicated hours to arranging my bedroom library in alphabetical order. Eventually, I ran out of space to organize them into neat rows. Stacks of randomly ordered books rose to the height of my wardrobe, and, occasionally, tumbled to the floor. Benjamin explains that one’s library maintains “a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order.” Regardless of the obsessive order of your books (alphabetical, chronological, thematic), they will fall into a familiar disorder as soon as you take them off the shelf, place them in your lap, and forget to reshelve them according to their original arrangement. An excessively neat library is the mark of the unenthusiastic reader.
Right now, my library is neater than it has ever been. Two different piles for two different fates. Reflecting on his own library, Benjamin opines that the collector desires and respects singular copies of books rather than the book-in-itself. I have not possessed and read Shields’ Dead Languages, but only my own copy of that book. Each copy in these piles is a belonging that I have taken to the various houses and apartment buildings where I have lived over the past two years. Even though I paid the rent to put a roof over their spines, these tales and treatises formed a dwelling—as Benjamin put it, “with books as the building stones”—in which I found peace and purpose. It seemed that I belonged to them more than they belonged to me.
Copies of Dead Languages, Race Matters and Silent Spring that were once mine will soon fall into the hands of someone else. Like Don DeLillo writes in White Noise, “Maybe there is no death as we know it. Just documents changing hands.” Each book bears the bruises of previous owners: creases in the spine, smudges of dirty thumbs in the margins, a scribbled birthday message from a close friend on the title page. The history of the book encompasses the histories of each individual book and each individual reader. Whenever someone turns to a new page and starts to speak with that faint voice inside their head, they are alive. Maybe I will feel less remorse about taking my books to that desk in Powell’s if I understand that I am sharing the opportunity to feel alive with people I will never meet or know.
Once again, I move from one city of strangers to another. I doubt that I will make the same promise to my mother. We have both learnt that books overrule oaths. Speaking of my books, they’re all sorted into their separate boxes and addressed to different destinations. I am going to take them out tomorrow. One trip will take me to the Post Office; the other, Powell’s. I expect one last complementary bookmark. After all, I read a lot of books and I do not want to lose my place as I turn from page to page. I like to follow the plot wherever it goes in this sprawling, New Yorker-style crap of life. I fold over the corners of pages occasionally to remember where I have been and to remind myself to return there in the future. In this way, all the places I’ve been stay with me wherever I go.
I was making my way through Ways of Seeing when I stopped at the end of the third essay and sent a text message to my friend. Within a few minutes he had responded, telling me that he was reading the same essay, at the same time, for a class; he had the same thoughts and was going to get in touch with me. This was not to be the last time this would happen. I worked my way through the rest of the book, finding germs of the theoretical lenses I would be studying in theory-heavy courses outlined with concrete examples. It still guides many things I write about—many of the conversations I have had in the last year were sparked by reading John Berger.
Berger was a multidisciplinary thinker before we used words like “multidisciplinary.” The seventy years of his critical explorations reflected the radical changes in the way we think about art, politics and the act of thinking itself. Berger was, in many ways, responsible for starting the process of consciousness raising many of us needed and still need. His work made us question the preconceptions we brought to analysis in a way that was both serious and playful. I can sum it all up in a single painting by Magritte: The Treachery of Images (Ceci n’est pas un pipe).
The image appears as if it is a pipe; yet as many have said, the viewer cannot take the pipe down and fill it, light it, or smoke it. In the end, it is not a pipe—it is the representation of a pipe. It is in this area of difference—between the thing and its representation—that we find the best of Berger’s work.
The way that of Berger holds most of his influence is bizarre. He is best known for (essentially) a novelization of a television program he presented in the 1970s: Ways of Seeing. The actual program hasn’t been released on video because of copyright issues, so to admit to having seen it is to admit to walking in the grey area of copyright law. The book is broken up between essays and visual (wordless) essays. The two connect together and reinforce one another to the point that they cannot be separated. Seeing image after image reproduced side by side, themes that previously would have required travel around the world to different galleries, close observation, and the persistence of memory in order to connect between point A and Point B, become apparent. Ways of Seeing compresses the journey while preserving a small part of the overall experience. Once these changes are seen, they linger in our consciousness. We can place them in our own world.
I will never forget reading Berger’s essay on the female nude included in Ways of Seeing, particularly the last paragraph, which so many seem to have missed completely:
But the essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. Women are depicted in a quite different way from men—not because the feminine is different from the masculine—but because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him. If you have any doubt that this is so, make the following experiment. Choose from this book an image of a traditional nude. Transform the woman into a man. Either in your mind’s eye or by drawing on the reproduction. Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the images, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer. (64)
Reading this set all the lights in my mind ablaze. In terms of feminist consciousness, this was the moment in which the pose and figure of women across the history of art shifted for me. Going to an art gallery soon after, I came upon a picture and imagined that it was now a naked man looking at himself in a mirror, with a woman viewing from the bed, or two men: a study in homoerotic narcissism. I turned the youth and a wolf (playing with the wolf? being chased by the wolf? actively attacked by the wolf?) from female to male, and the ambiguity of the image was removed—they were playing, roughhousing—because, my consciousness told me, that is how boys and animals interact. I thought too of my transgender friends and lovers, and the way that we assign meaning based on sexual characteristics that may not always be present in the equation. Eventually, I did not even have to go that far. I could look at faces and paint them androgynously, letting them become bodies that were neither female nor male. I could read a painting leaving these assumptions for later, after the pose was discovered.
Outside of his writing, Berger lived the radical practice he wrote about. Almost every obituary recounted how he had donated half of his winnings from the Booker Prize for his picaresque novel, G., to the London branch of the Black Panther Party and used the remainder to finance a book on migrant workers. This was also the man who translated the poetry of Cesaire and Mahmoud Darwish into English and supported revolutionary struggles for independence throughout the world with the same ease he would describe a work by Picasso. At the time that the world was becoming more industrial, Berger moved to France and lived the life of a farmer (who also happened to be one of the most influential critics in the world). This shift in his life was responsible for a new branch of his writing: Berger wrote about the connection with humans and animals in the same tender way he wrote about depictions of lovers in paintings. He removed the distances between a life of the mind and a life of activity, becoming more aware of the difficulties facing those whose work feeds us in the literal sense.
What I miss most about Berger is the constant appeal to looking, for discovering the unseen connection between images, of parts of a single image. In art history and art criticism, we were taught how to read paintings. Unlike the majority of printed books, there seemed no way to instantly grasp the way a painting should be read. One can start with the whole, or the upper left, or move from the right counter-clockwise. The advice to “show, not tell,” seems to run amok here, and art felt like a puzzle with missing pieces. What was it, I wondered, out loud in a gallery by accident, that these critics had done to understands this meaning behind the artwork? (In other words, what sort of drugs had they taken?) Berger made the process of looking, thinking, discovering, a program I could follow through on because he took the mystery out of looking while retaining the beauty of the discovery.
Berger is best in miniature. The strongest works were the most concentrated, as if they had been boiled down and mixed together on a stove top. He revisits the importance we ascribe to objects, either as artworks, historical markers, or personal reminders of past encounters with other people, other places. An essay about a wooden bird given to him by a friend invites a discussion, not about the bird, but about exile, craftsmanship, and a disappearing mode of life. Berger returned to vision again in his short work, Cataract, exploring the way the anatomy of the ocular device impacts the process of vision and thought. Recovering from cataract operations in both eyes, he wrote about the radical shift in clarity—first in one eye, then in the other—that made colors intense again. As he aged, he had become a critic operating in a diminished capacity for some time as things began to come in clearly. Now it seemed as though he was entering a second wind in his late 80s. And so it seemed for the rest of the man and his reputation: Verso had just put out two large collections of his art criticism, a documentary, The Seasons in Quincy, had just been released at film festivals, and it seemed as though the world was turning its vision back to John Berger. Even with this productivity, it was clear that he was slowing down. His death was not unexpected. Still, no one I knew was ready for it.
I think of the way in which so much about Berger is contained in the physical world still. He seems like a man of the 19th century, still working on crisp paper in a digital age. I wonder how he would investigate the new trend of the 360 degree film footage, meant to be viewed on a mobile device, based around the idea of being there without being there. So many of the questions he raised about our critical engagement with images remain unanswered: How do we see the world around us? How do we process what we see? How do we distinguish between the representation and the real? In response, the gentleness of John Berger’s voice keeps asking us: Look.