Year of Grace, Day 73. A different way of perceiving

The other day I wrote of appreciating Bento’s Notebook — John Berger’s collection of sketches and stories inspired by Spinoza’s books on ethics and understanding. I’ve now taken up another of Berger’s books, About Looking. I had also found this hard to get into at around the same time as Bento’s Sketchbook. And I am pleased that I have come to appreciate it just as much as the Sketchbook. I am wondering if being unwell has something to do with it. That because I am forced to stay in bed and am not in normal active mode, I can slowly savour each of Berger’s statements. This is precisely what my daughter said years back when I’d mentioned that I couldn’t appreciate Berger. His writing is very deep, were her words. At the time I thought, too deep to the point of being abstruse. It has taken me some time to enjoy his prose and his perspective, and perhaps this was for the best. I am glad to have learned a lesson from this. I am grateful that Berger’s insights on how we look at the world have made me more aware of my own way of looking and perceiving.

I am pleased to see that the lone crow on the fir has now been joined by another. Are they now a couple? Interesting. I also observed a couple of black tits flying playfully in and out of the yew – a behaviour I’d always associated with spring. Perhaps the mild winter we’re having has something to do with this unseasonal amorousness? I could be wrong, but it’s heartwarming nonetheless that among the birds in my garden, romance seems to be blooming.

And speaking of blooms, on the window boxes on the balcony, there are yellow Tagetes and red and pink geraniums still blooming. Outdoors, I can glimpse from the upstairs window the cyclamen’s garish magenta and shocking pink flowers, a delight especially on a gloomy, rainy winter’s day like today. It looks as if it might snow.

The birches with their white trunks are arresting at all times, but especially so in winter. They are stunning in the sun, but they are particularly attractive on dark days. They seem to emit a mysterious glow.

What else am I grateful for on this 6th day that I have been unwell? I am thankful for the opportunity to read and enjoy previously unappreciated books. I am thankful that my GP does house calls — a rarity in this modern age — and that with antibiotics, my tonsillitis is now under control. I believe that illness is often the body’s way of telling us to slow down a little, to give ourselves time to rest and recuperate from whatever it is that is stressing us and making us vulnerable to disease. And so despite the discomfort, I am grateful and I look forward to being up and about soon.

Year of Grace, Day 72. Bento’s Sketchbook: Process, not product

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's Dancer

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.