January 2015 issue of Sight and Sound magazine carries a piece by John Berger, called “The Lost Art of Falling.” Recalling Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s prophetic words that his friend Charles Chaplin was “undoubtedly the only one of our time who will be talked about a century from now,” Berger proceeds to diagnose the tramp’s trajectories of bodily movements and gestures, humor and laughter, to read in them a prophecy of the struggles of the underdogs, particularly children, who try to survive on the margins of affluence in modernity. The article is a glowing tribute to the lasting legacy of a legend who leaps out of the screen as if he is some kind of unnamed charged force waking you up from your stupor. For Berger, Chaplin’s tramp is an enduring force of carnate powers and ethical embodiments. Chaplin offers an axiomatic reading of social conditions that define the plight of the indigents from South London to Lampedusa to Bolivia. Each gesture of Chaplin’s is a script screaming for attention for those who toil behind the sunlight of the social. He is a cartographer of urban spaces on which he inscribes little freedoms and minor wisdoms. And, he is also a choreographer who cuts the air around him, writing on celluloid the most indelible impressions of innocence and insights. Chaplin’s tramp had to make through further dehumanization caused by the unchecked tides of speculative capital. The sheer grit of these gestures and scripts tells the story of his enduring appeal for the millions. The world in which he finds relevance is illuminated by the resilience of the tramp to begin anew and in the laughter he produced and projected.
This piece is worth reading again, and again; peeling the layers of sharper insights written in lucidly beautiful and respectfully poised language. It is instructive in its structure and inspiring in its incisiveness. Written for a film magazine, it puts Chaplin’s figure at the center, reading in his persona an imprint of the conditions of its survival. It moves from the anecdotal to conceptual, weaving personal with the social and the political. The whole narrative of Chaplin’s survival is placed between the lasting qualities of his appeal and the conditions of existence in which his image survives, from admiration and reverence to the cutting observations on neglect and indifference. Berger’s pedagogic insistence in his writing that each act of reading culture is an ethical act looms large on this piece as well. Along with it comes the imperative to act in the social. The unique gift Berger always offers in his writing comes from his ability to read in the images inscriptions of the larger pathos of our time. For this he has on his side a life-long commitment for the marginal classes and erudition in art history. Berger subtly but firmly brings out the concluding observation in the values of the laughter Chaplin produced and in his own laughing expression. Berger’s observation on a Chaplin image and the Rembrandt self-portrait, Self-portrait as Zeuxis Laughing, is a sudden discovery of a key wonder that unlocks the mystery of Chaplin’s value to humankind. Berger just wrote the epitaph for Chaplin: “In Chaplin’s world Laughter is immortality’s nick-name.”
Berger achieves such a far reaching effect from the local to the global, from the particular to the contextual that I often think of him as a lyrical Walter Benjamin. Think of the opening of his landmark work, Another Way of Telling, where he frames a discourse on the innate tensions of photography by first narrating an encounter with a blind girl. The aesthetic is forever the inseparable twin of the ethical; our right to see and ability to decipher opens up an abyss of limitations. The image of the blind girl in Aligarh in the first pages of the book about imminent visuality of photographs sets forth the central question he explores. With the image as an epistemological frame and its limit, this is reminiscent of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus in Benjamin’s eyes, where we see a blend of the real, the metaphorical and the pedagogical.
I remember an impromptu discussion session one afternoon in Pittsburgh at one of the annual MLG sessions. We drifted to talking about how we should write and whom we emulate. There was no consensus of course, but as it went on, one could sense a deep unease about the limits of academic writing and how it fails in the purpose of the ethical and the political. We already knew then that the obtuse, incestuous and pedantic language of cultural studies was producing a number of “mini-me’s” emulating their “star” critics and theoreticians. Thankfully, the tone of the discussion changed when someone brought up John Berger. It was hard to deny the import of his language which spoke of concepts, principles, and practice without the weighty baggage of obscurantism.
At the beautifully honored age of 88, Berger remains one of the most important critics and a formidable literary figure. He has been as relevant and enduring as Chaplin. For over forty years, his book Ways of Seeing continues to be relevant for generations of students who take their first political charge in their learning of visual culture. His writing- and this piece in S &S is but once instance of it– is sharp as ever. Berger is a public intellectual restlessly homeless everywhere. His collaborations speak volumes of a deft ability to move from one silo of specialization to another. With Jean Mohr, he produced some of the most profound books on photography and visual culture. Edward Said thought of their work as inspiration for circumscribing worldliness of his identity in his pictorial autobiography, After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives. His body of work has been graced in recent years by collaboration with (among others) poetAnne Michaels, photographer Sebastião Salgado, actress and super-cinephile-ambassador Tilda Swinton, and director Isabel Coixet; all of them restless travelers in their own realms. Continuing to read and learn from Berger might just free us from the suffocations of hermetic world of academic writing.
The piece is behind the paywall but hope Sight and Sound makes it available at some point. January issue brings this piece in the midst of other goodies: second piece by Mark Cousins on film school strategies and a cover feature on The Grandmaster which includes Tony Raynes on the film, James Bell’s interview with Wong Kar Wai and Leon Hunt on kung fu films. Get on It!
Public Domain Image: Chaplin-The Kid