On Reading

A dear friend WW gave a book to me a week or so after J died. I don't remember exactly what she said - but something about how the book had so moved her when she lost someone close.

The book is John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos.

Berger is one of those multi-hyphenates. A novelist, art critic, poet, painter, playwright, thinker. He wrote his most popular work Ways of Seeing in 1972 as part of a BBC series of the same name (1972 was J’s birth year - a meaningless coincidence, but my mind works this way nowadays). He wrote And Our Faces in 1984. He died in 2017, age 90. 

Reading is often a healing and expansive process because it is one of constant unknowing, imagining, seeking meaning, and of losing and finding yourself - others - in the stories, or sometimes just the sound of the words. 

However, it took me months to finish reading And Our Faces even though it is only a slim 101-page book. 

A series of vignettes: part prose, part poetry; seemingly personal, yet at times abstract, at times incisive in its social commentary or art history. There is a dream-like quality to this desultory prose. It is obvious when one is given Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking or CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed - the classics of “grief literature which surely must be a genre of its own - but why did my friend WW think that this strange creature of an elliptical book is a comfort for someone experiencing loss?

Maybe to help the reader, Berger declares this at the start of the book: "Part One is about Time. Part Two is about space".  

Time and space - the parameters of all human experience. We exist together in time and in space. Time and space can also separate us.

With loss through death, time in particular is thrown into a bit of a disarray.  This is easy enough for anyone to imagine. The past constantly interrupts but it reminds only of its absence in the very present. It is hard, in this state, to imagine a future - to want a future. Part One of the book therefore visits memories, photographs, letters and stories of separation because of politics, injustice, distance, death. These remain as the recording of time.  

It was only in Part Two, as I read this description of a domestic setting, that I found my own way into the book. 
The days are becoming long, and in the evening I sit in the kitchen reading without a light. On the windowsill is a jug with a flowering branch of lilac, which I cut in a friend's garden. It is pale purple, the colour of a much-washed ultra-marine blue shirt. When I was young, I had a shirt of that colour, and the great Indonesian painter, Affandi, painted a portrait of me in it. Both the portrait and shirt have disappeared. Through the open window I can hear a cuckoo, and the chain saws of the woodcutters still working.
When I glanced up a moment ago, the branch of lilac in the fading light looked like a distant hill of blossoming trees merging into the dusk. It was disappearing.
The walls of the house are thick, for the winters are cold. On the window embrasure, close to the windowpanes, hangs a shaving mirror. As I look up now, I see reflected in the mirror a sprig of the lilac branch: each petal of each tiny flower is vivid, distinct, near, so near that the petals look like the pores of a skin. At first I do not understand why what I see in the mirror is so much more intense than the rest of the branch which, in fact, is nearer to me. Then I realise that what I am looking at in the mirror is the far side of the lilac, the side fully lit by the last light of the sun.
Every evening my love for you is placed like that mirror.
He follows this aestheticised experience of longing with a section about home, homesickness and the kind of exile the modern world knows well through emigration. If the immigrant experiences displacement in every emotional, economic and political sense of the word, lovers experience the opposite - union - in every physical and metaphysical sense of the word. So it is that in a marital union (or its equivalent), lovers make a home. Berger observes, "Without a home everything was fragmentation."

And from this point on, the book became less distant. A door has opened up for me in this section.

I began to understand this book as saying that all life is living with separation as well as a desire for union - the experiences but also the language of this reality.  From birth we are separated from our mothers. My Christian faith tells me that by our sin we are separated from God, displaced from a heavenly earth. So by nature we are always longing. For home and for union.

The writing would be too burdensome if Berger wasn't ultimately writing about living and what enables us to continue living till that day, despite our displacement and despite the reality of death. It is very clear at the end of Part One where, as a writer, he reminds - "Stories are not read by the dead!" And stories, in part, help us get through that living. And by the same power of imagination the living have, he is able to reconcile with his own eventual death at the end of Part Two,  "where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together". Death imagined as a space of union becomes a portal to home.

Of course the reality for the living is that Death is separation. All living is separation. Yet in living we constantly seek and make a home - even if temporarily and imperfectly - in our own bodies, in our relationships, in our spaces. Until that day.

The photograph above is a recent photograph of the room where J used to work (friends, do you still recognise the amps studio?). What has changed is that J's very comfortable Herman Miller office chair is now in my own office instead. The room still has some of his favourite bromeliads by the window and a large milk bush that he rescued and loved - and then some, several new plants I bought since.  The lounge chair, walnut stool and Persian rug are all new - treats I got for myself in the last few months. This is now my favourite corner in a home J so lovingly cared for. It is where I spend the last bits of each day before bed, sometimes reading, mostly just being still and - thankful.


quiet notes said…
I am also writing about time today. :) And I was reminded of some lines in Auden's poem where he says that time is a glacier in a cupboard, a crack in a tea cup, a shadow that watches as lovers kiss. Perhaps it is also in that poem that time is compared to a river, silent, deep, swift; many other poets say this too. And how true it is. We are in a river of time, and we just have to try our best to swim on. There will be times when we need to rest, and there it is, the river bank or a small tree conveniently waving its branch over the water for us to hold on to, just long enough to catch our breath. Above us and all around us, there is light, even when night falls. That is the light that makes everything infinitely better, somehow it just does.
ampulets said…
@Quietnotes - about the light, yes. When we are not too caught up looking inward, it is there.

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