Bento’s Sketchbook

Bento's Sketchbook by John Berger by John Berger
ISBN: 9780307379955

The big handwritten question on the book’s cover — How does the impulse to draw begin? — isn’t immediately or succinctly answered within. Berger wanders, takes his time, shows us pages from his sketchbook that may or may not be tightly coupled with his text. They are connected, the reader is willing to believe, but the connection isn’t always obvious.

I suppose this is one of the points Berger is trying to make. The book is a meditation on Spinoza (he is quoted throughout), and on living in the world as a participant and observer. How does the impulse to draw something begin? It isn’t an easy question to answer.

We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.

I don’t believe the word appears in the book, but one answer to how the impulse begins seems to be mindfulness. A quality of paying attention, a willingness to notice, and a desire to somehow interact and deepen understanding: that is the beginning. That compels a person to pick up a pen and draw. Part of the answer is in how you decide or not to interact with the other regulars at the public swimming pool, how you reflect on the threatening messages received as a shopper in a giant discount food warehouse, how you think about riding your motorbike and search for analogies.

…if we imagine the stories being told across the world tonight and consider the outcome, I believe we’ll find two main categories: those whose narratives are emphasising something essential that is hidden, and those which emphasise the revealed.

Drawing and writing aren’t the same thing, but they both involve noticing and creating. They are different avenues of investigation.

What I’m trying to define is more idiosyncratic and personal than a mere cultural inheritance; it is as if the bloodstream of the read story joins the bloodstream of one’s life story. It contributes to our becoming what we become and will continue to become.

It seems I keep reading about storytelling, even when I am not consciously setting out to do so. I set out to read about drawing (which, I understand, can be seen as storytelling in a different form).

Bento’s Sketchbook is a quieter book than Ways of Seeing, and less directly educational that About Looking. Berger is musing here. He’s welcoming the reader to join him, but without an obvious sense of urgency. We should have, one supposes, the sense enough to follow without his being conspicuous in his appeals.

Reading this book does make me want to draw — I have pens and pencils and plenty of paper handy — though I don’t have any illusions about my ability. I don’t think I have the ability to draw things that look like things. Well, not realistic high fidelity depictions of things, at any rate. Berger’s sketches in this book make me appreciate anew how that isn’t the only kind of drawing that “counts”. (The book did not, despite his probable intent, make me want to go study Spinoza.) Toward the end of the book, Berger describes how it feels to draw:

When I’m drawing I feel a little closer to the way birds navigate when flying, or to hares finding shelter if pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light, or to bees constructing their cells.

Who wouldn’t want to feel like that? I suspect any sustained creative pursuit can get us there if we are willing to consistently look, and to bring more to the power of our observations than our sight alone. Perhaps through meditation, one can arrive in the same place. Only it may be harder to communicate it to others without the picture.

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