Friday, February 26, 2021

The intimate and the stranger

(Passion must hurl itself against time. Lovers fuck time together so that it opens, advances, withdraws upon itself and bends backwards. Time which their hearts pump. Time whose vagina is moist with timelessness. Time which spends itself when it ejaculates generations.)

John Berger is perhaps better known as an art critic than as a novelist. His essays have given me food for thought. However, I am not particularly inclined to read another of his novels. 

I recently came across Berger's novel G. listed among underrated erotic writings. I'm not one for bodice rippers, or any of the infinite shades of grey, but I do appreciate a subversively sensual story. I hoped the title was a clever allusion to the Gräfenberg spot (but it's merely the protagonist's initial, with perhaps a hopeful nod to Garibaldi). Although praised for its experimental nature, I found G. to be pretentious and boring.  

His privilege is more important to him than his life, not because he could not survive without his American mistress, four servants at home, a fountain in his garden, hand-made silk shirts, or his wife's dinner parties, but because implicit in his privilege are the values and judgement by which he must make sense of his lived life. All values stem from his belief — that his privileges are deserved.

Berger clearly writes from a place of privilege, but he is transparent about it, and if I understand his Ways of Seeing, then his awareness of it, without fully excusing it, is the point — it's the friction, the thing that makes art spark.

Most men when they stare at an unknown woman who attracts them, have already begun in their imagination the process of seducing and undressing her; they already see her in certain positions with certain expressions on her face; they are already beginning to dream about her. 

Experimental means something like a hodgepodge of lovesick poems, history lessons, and philosophical treatises on the nature of love and sexual attraction. And drawings! Giovanni's adventures are set across the backdrop of the triumph of Garibaldi, the Boer war, the first airplane crossing of the Alps, the outbreak of World War I and the plight of Slovenians at that time. Experimental also means that occasionally a first-person narrator intrudes upon the story reflecting upon anecdotes from his own life.

Despite being a Booker Prize winner, the novel has very few reviews. It seems it spoke to a critical mindset of the time but had limited mass appeal.

He bends his head to kiss her breast and take the nipple in his mouth. His awareness of what he is doing certifies the death of his childhood.

The New York Times review of 1972 summarizes G.'s behaviour this way:

G. is not a victimizer but a willing victim whose nature is a release for the nature of others. He has the ability to evoke more reaction in others than he feels in himself, but always on the sexual basis of a one‐to‐one encounter, not on the grandiose scale of previous standards of heroism.

That critic also notes that this novel, to which sexuality is central, is colder and more impersonal than many of Berger's art essays. It occurred to me more than once that what I was reading sounded more like an outtake from Ways of Seeing (published the same year) — too much of a digression into Berger's (likely) personal experience, however deliberately detached to disguise the singularity of it and pronounce a generality.  

Beatrice plays a large role in G.'s upbringing and his experience of her is formative.

Beatrice is a woman without morality or ambition because she is incapable of surprising herself. She can propose nothing unfamiliar to herself. This self-knowledge is not the result of prolonged introspection but, rather, of having always been familiar, like an animal, with the patterns of action and reaction necessary to satisfy her own unquestioned needs. It is possible that I make her sound like an idiot. If so, I do her an injustice.

This description of self-knowledge sounds like confidence and certainty, which to my mind would reinforce morality and ambition. But I'm not particularly interested in untangling Berger's rhetorical gymnastics. 

To follow her look, we enter her state of being. There, desire is its satisfaction, or, perhaps, neither desire not satisfaction can be said to exist since there is no antinomy between them: every experience becomes the experience of freedom there: freedom there precludes all that is not itself.

The look in her eyes is an expression of freedom which he receives as such, but which we, in order to locate it in our world of third persons, must call a look of simultaneous appeal and gratitude.

But it is striking that he has so much insight into the woman's look, whereas the male viewer is essentially a blank canvas. (I wonder what kind of lover Berger would be. He has looked at women, watched women, and considered what they mean to him, sexually and perhaps socially, as he stands at the center of his own universe. But has he entered into honest and intimate dialogue with women, and stood truly naked before them?)

When Zeus, in order to approach a woman he had fallen in love with, disguised himself as a bull, a satyr, an eagle, a swan, it was not only to gain the advantage of surprise: it was to encounter her (within the terms of those strange myths) as a stranger. The stranger who desires you and convinces you that it is truly you in all your particularity whom he desires, brings a message from all that you might be, to you as you actually are. Impatience to receive that message will be almost as strong as your sense of life itself. The desire to know oneself surpasses curiosity. But he must be a stranger, for the better you, as you actually are, know him, and likewise the better he knows you, the less he can reveal to you of your unknown but possible self. He must be a stranger. But equally he must be mysteriously intimate with you, for otherwise instead of revealing your unknown self, he simply represents all those who are unknowable to you and for whom you are unknowable. The intimate and the stranger. From this contradiction in terms, this dream, is born the great erotic god which every woman in her imagination either feeds or starves to death.

Here's a review that expands my understanding of the book. G. is a historical curiosity, but I didn't enjoy reading it.

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