Bento's Sketchbook

The word "sketch" entered the English language from the Dutch towards the end of the 17th century. From the beginning, it had two meanings: a brief description in words, or the outline of a picture. Berger's book employs both meanings of the word - it is nothing but a series of sketches in words and images.

Such a description would suggest a "slight", even an occasional, book. However, this brief collection is electric with thought and energy as Berger composes what might be called a summum, an attempt to weave together his thoughts from what is now decades of unceasing reflection.

Simply put, Bento's Sketchbook is an extended meditation on the act of drawing and on what is involved in making a likeness. In this respect, Berger could be seen as returning to his original vocation as an art critic. These sketches rarely travel into galleries, however, although there are luminous sorties into both the National Gallery in London and the Prado Museum in Madrid. Most of the reflections come from either suburban Paris or the high mountains of Savoy, and Berger is concerned with the most quotidian of encounters: at the municipal library, for example, and a death and a marriage in the Alps.

There is another thread in this book: a meditation on the thought of the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Spinoza. Spinoza gloried, if that is the word, in three versions of his first name. He was named Baruch, or "blessed", by his Orthodox Jewish family, but when, at the age of 24, he was expelled from the Amsterdam Synagogue he took the name Benedict, the Christian equivalent of the Jewish name he had abandoned. He also used a Portuguese version of his name, Bento, and it is this designation that Berger has chosen for his title.

Spinoza has some claim to being the most difficult of all the great philosophers. His finest work, the Ethics, first published in 1677, was written in Latin and takes the form of an axio­matic deduction of the nature of the world. René Descartes's philosophy, which provided Spinoza with his starting point, was bedevilled by there being no necessary connection between the world of thought and that of "extension" (bodies in space). The upshot was a kind of fundamental scepticism about the existence of the external world. Spinoza resolved this problem by making thought and extension the attributes of a single substance, "God or Nature" (Deus sive Natura). It followed from this that any deduction in the world of thought automatically coincides with an event in the world of extension.

Berger, however, is interested not in expounding a broad philosophy, but in trying to follow the train of Spinoza's thought into art and everyday life. On the one hand, this gives us the most wonderful commonplace book, as Berger copies out passage after luminous passage from Spinoza's exceptionally dense writings. Time and again, he produces insights that are not dependent on an understanding of Spinoza - either his pantheistic system or his thoughts about the relationship between freedom and necessity. What Berger's quotations provide is, at bottom, a vision of freedom within the ineluctable necessities of a comprehensible universe.

His method is not the more geometrico or "geometrical manner" of axioms and theorems favoured by Spinoza; rather, it consists in the ­effort to capture the world in a sketch. The work's conceit is that Berger is reproducing the sketchbooks that we know Spinoza filled, but which have long since disappeared. This does not mean that Berger draws in the manner of 17th-century Amsterdam. What he is trying to do is produce an equivalent, in pen and ink, of Spinoza's attempt to join the particular with the universal. It is from the mundane details of daily life that Berger creates an image of the world. A huge supermarket on the outskirts of Paris reveals a world in which everything is stolen from the poor. A visit to a swimming pool brings home the distant tragedies of Vietnam and Cambodia.

Perhaps the author's greatest gift to readers is his implacable reckoning with the situation in which the world finds itself. There are few consolations on a planet where it becomes ever more difficult to communicate messages of hope about our future. As Berger writes to Arundhati Roy, "Words . . . are like stones put into the pockets of roped prisoners before they are thrown into the river."

And yet, somehow, despite his determination to look the meanness of our times in the face, he manages simultaneously to affirm the possibility of a brighter future. Here Spinoza's belief in an ordered universe that is susceptible to being understood functions as a continuous promise and ambition.

Berger's words and images, rendered serene by age and habit, provide an exhilarating and unflinching account of global devastation and ordinary life. They also offer us an uncommon optimism. l

Colin MacCabe is associate director of the London Consortium, the postgraduate studies programme

Bento's Sketchbook
John Berger
Verso, 176pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools