There are books that need to be set aside for some time — to be read when one is of a different disposition and perchance sufficiently open to appreciation. I am thinking in particular of Bento’s Sketchbook, a book by John Berger, highly praised in a review in The Guardian some years ago and which I got for Christmas that year. For some reason, the first time I took it up, it was such a struggle to get through. I could not connect with it and thought the review over the top. So there it sat for quite a long while very high up on my bookshelf. That is, until yesterday when I took it down as I had the flu and bereft of new reading material.
I surprised myself because I thoroughly enjoyed it! As I closed the book contentedly, I mulled over what it was that made me appreciate it so much more this time around. I particularly liked Berger’s sketches because they look unfinished and …well… sketchy. That is precisely what they are, of course, and all the preliminary lines and strokes – unerased — map where the artist’s eyes and hands have been during their creation. Where before I had wished for a finished product devoid of all the underlying drafting lines, this time I appreciated the dynamics inherent in the making of the product — undisguised and plainly revealed. This is particularly striking in his drawing of the Spanish dancer María Muñoz in the position she calls the Bridge. Despite being a drawing, I could sense the duality of her relaxed left foot and the rest of her body poised to spring to action through the questing lines that Berger had made throughout the sketch.
Berger writes: We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.
The Bento of the title refers to Benedicto de Spinoza, better known as Baruch Spinoza (1632 -1677), the Jewish philosopher excommunicated for his unorthodox views. Passages from Spinoza’s two posthumously published books — On the Improvement of the Understanding and the Ethics – link the collection of Berger’s stories and sketches.
Spinoza worked as a lens grinder and apparently enjoyed drawing, carrying a sketchbook everywhere. No trace of the sketchbook has been found. Berger says: I wasn’t expecting great drawings…were it to be found. I simply wanted to reread some of his words, some of his startling propositions as a philosopher, whilst at the same time being able to look at things he had observed with his own eyes.
On receiving a present of a sketchbook, Berger decided it would be Bento’s sketchbook – wherein he would draw whatever he felt was asking to be drawn. Thus this book. Berger’s drawings that reveal the tentative underdrawing taught me that the process can be equally, if not more, meaningful and enjoyable than the final product. For this insight from Bento’s Sketchbook and for being able to appreciate it this time around, I am thankful.