I had intended to finish the year reading a stack of German literature that I have acquired, but instead I have fallen down a John Berger rabbit hole. Bento’s Sketchbook is one of those titles recommended by a friend with the very strong assertion that it is something I “must read.”
We know from different sources that the philosopher Baruch (Benedict or Bento) Spinoza (1632-1677) enjoyed drawing and that he always carried his sketchbooks around with him, none of which seemed to have survived. When John Berger’s friend gives him a virgin sketchbook, he decides, “This is Bento’s!” Berger begins to making drawings “prompted by something asking to be drawn.” He comments about the development of his book, “As time goes by, however, the two of us—Bento and I—become less distinct. Within the act of looking, the act of questioning with our eyes, we become somewhat interchangeable. And this happens, I guess, because of a shared awareness about where and to what the practice of drawing can lead.”
For Berger a cluster of irises, a painting in the National Gallery, a friend’s old bicycle all become subjects for drawing and reflection. The stories and the sketches are simple yet fascinating. My favorite, one of the more abstract and philosophical pieces, begins:
Around her is a block. The block is invisible because totally transparent. Nor does the block restrict her movements. Is the block what separates Being from Becoming? I don’t know, for this is happening where there are not words.
Normally, we face words frontally and so can read them, speak them or think them. This was happening somewhere to the side of language. Any frontal view of language was impossible there. From the side I could see how language was paper thin, and all its words were foreshortened to become a single vertical stroke—I—like a single post in a vast landscape.
The task was to dismantle the block—to take it apart and lift it off piece by piece. She allowed this to happen—No. Active and Passive have merged together. Let us say: She happened this to herself with the utmost ease. I was with her in what she (we) were doing.
The lovers slowly begin to dismantle the block starting from her head. The task is tiring, he says, and he needs to take breaks. But when he is tired he also embraces her and they gain strength from one another. Finally the block is completely gone and:
She was there whole, looking exactly as she had at the beginning, capable of the same actions and no more, having the same name, the same habits, the same history. Yet, freed from the block, the relations between her and everything which was not her had changed. An absolute yet invisible change. She was now the centre of what surrounded her. All that was not her made space for her.
This passage of Berger’s pulled my thoughts toward Ovid’s version of the Pygmalion myth. Although it is oftentimes viewed as a commentary about unattainable standards of beauty, I’ve always seen more in the Latin than this message. Pygmalion, in his daily solitude, uses the utmost care and love to gently coax a form out of the white block of marble that will become his beloved: “Pygmalion is amazed at his creation and drinks up the with his heart the passionate fires of her simulated body.” Both stories demonstrate the power that love, kindness, and, most importantly, patience can have on our relationships.