John Berger and Eric Holtzman.
John Berger: Chronicler of Displacement
John Berger occupies a singular place in the ranks of postwar cultural critics. His output alone is staggering--nearly two dozen books and a steady outpouring of screenplays and television scripts, essays, and reviews. His work moves across genres (novel, art history, critical study, biography, photojournalism, essay, poetry) and subjects (working artists, imperiled peasant communities, "guest workers," photography, painting, homelessness), with a renaissance disdain for boundaries that puts specialists to shame. An unembarrassed Marxist, his work has always scorned the formalisms of political economy in favor of the rough flesh-hewn realities of ordinary struggling people. Of late, that work has run chiefly to quirky sketches of everyday life: shoveling shit at his mountain home, a conversation with a young woman on a bus to Derry, a visit to his mother, a meal of heart-breaking intimacy for a shepherd, looking at drawings with an artist in Galicia, a homeless woman with a pram in London. (They only seem cas ual, spilling over easily into heavier matters--a tete-a-tete with a lover, for example, veers off into a nifty lecturette on the achievement of Caravaggio.) It also includes fictional accounts of common people facing uncommon circumstances. His next-to-latest novel, To the Wedding, tells the stories of the protagonists and their dispersed family members who gather to celebrate the nuptials of the HIV-positive bride. Its predecessor, the magnificent alpine trilogy, Unto Their Labours, is a loving, unblinkered account of rural life and the inevitable dislocations that are visited upon village ways in the new Europe.
I think of Berger first and foremost as a chronicler of displacement, someone for whom the contemporary world abounds in ruptures--of home, solidarity, memory, kinship, and community--and for whom the representational arts, stubborn daily rituals, and deliberate acts of connection are attempts to avert or repair them. Distress runs deeply (though it is worn lightly) throughout his work. Fiercely moral in its animating concerns, his writing is by turns elliptical, lyrical, maddeningly elusive, breathtakingly original, blunt, and homespun. And it never fails to surprise. With Berger, it's as though language was being reinvented--in accord with some primal necessity, made available to us only in this way--in the work of inscription. In his hands, narrative re-enacts the original act of creation with traces of the same startling newness.
As a fledgling anthropologist working in public health, I discovered him--quite by accident when a professor was determined to show me that a Marxist could write with heart as well as heat--as a student of medicine. But to appreciate just how distinctive this voice was, a word about the context in which my discovery was made is needed.
The 1970s were boom years for critics and cranks of all stripes who directed their fire at conventional medicine. The more extreme confronted medicine's claim to deliver care manifestly superior to all prior epochs and all other places. Illich, for one, pronounced it nothing short of a "nemesis," doing, in the final analysis, more harm than good when judged by its iatrogenic consequences for health, social cohesion, and spiritual wellbeing ("counter-productive" was his term). Others, while sympathetic to the charge of medicine over-stepping its charge and blunting the perception of the social origin of health disorders, were more concerned with securing minimally adequate health care for the poor.
At the same time, there were those eager to expose the doctor-patient relationship as so uneven in power, so riddled with conflicts of interest, as to constitute a kind of clinical imperialism. Further elaboration of that insight, however, proved no more intellectually challenging than shooting fish in a barrel. Overall, the radical critics proved much better at critiquing medicine as an industry than examining its limits as an art and science, the formidable exception of the feminist critics and women's health collectives notwithstanding. What Joan Robinson fondly characterized as the "rough and gloomy grandeur of Marx" was a useful approach when surveying health-care empires, or taking the measure the of the unequal distribution of morbidity and mortality. It was less relevant to--even clumsy and uncomfortable around--attempts to explore the intimacies of the clinical encounter, to unpack the secret indignation of the sick, or to examine what Elaine Scarry called the "unmaking" power of pain.
But to take on medicine without recognizing suffering as the indispensable lot of the species--to write, instead, as though pain and disease were nasty by-products of capitalism much like slag heaps and brownfields--was to short-change the craft and cheapen the life events that bring us to its attention. Illich (a former priest) got it, but proved too much the theologian to appreciate the common ground of coping, the extent to which cultures are designed in part to enable us to share that work with others. (For him, affliction was interesting principally because it brought one face-to-face with one's inescapable finitude.) Critics were rare who coupled a passion for genuine (if precarious) community with a talent for close observation, struggled to appreciate what it could mean to wield clinical authority as a local trust and to practice medicine as a tragic vocation, and could render that (now receding) world in ways both luminous and moving.
First published in 1967, A Fortunate Man is the best example of its kind that I know. It tells the story of an English country doctor as an exploration of a distinctive kind of work. As documentary (Berger's fine prose is illustrated by Jean Mohr's quietly affecting photographs), it succeeds both as ethnographic record and as a meditative device. In nothing I've read is the healer's sacred charge--to return again and again to the place of the body's betrayal and hope's shipwreck, so that others there for the first time can be brought safely back--so effectively caught.
Illness disrupts the everyday, unseats certainty, derails continuity, and makes instant existentialists--stunned by the rule of contingency--of us all. Serious (even potentially so) illness segregates--separating us from routine, from others, and from our own formerly familiar selves. It undermines the mundane trust that holds together what we each take to be our allotted portion of life, in large part unthinkingly. One of the tasks of healing, something that Berger captures with exceptional delicacy, is to repair those breaches and to do so even in advance of the work of curbing, curing, or compensating for the ravages of disease itself. If patients are to collaborate actively in their treatment, they need hope. (Placebos "work" because it's possible to conjure up that hope and enlist the body's recuperative powers even under deceptive terms.)
Berger's term for this aboriginal act of reconstruction (something he borrows from Michael Balint) is recognition. This is what the doctor offers: the settled assurance that, however "the affliction that sets you apart is alien; the more durable stuff, that which defines and connects you with others, is the humanity that is yours by birthright. Trust me. You belong to us." At heart, then, the act of healing is an exercise in empathy more than authority; it rests upon a promise of solidarity renewed. (Nearly three decades later, in To the Wedding, Berger recalls this lesson: "Pain cuts off and paralyses. It also produces a feeling of total failure and defect." This time the healing is vernacular: the transient union, luminous and bittersweet, of guests coming together at the wedding feast.)
And here, I think, is where Berger anticipates the later work on the necessity of connectedness that Michael Ignatieff, Peter Conrad, and Seamus Heaney in very different ways would do. It's as if he realized that, however bracing it may have been as a rule of life for the young Marx, "relentless criticism of existing conditions" would grow pale and formulaic without some vital counterpart, some sense of an alternative world worth fighting for. If the lineaments of such a way of life were at best approximated at rare moments in contemporary practice or could be celebrated (if one had the right sources) in recalled memory, it was still the case that art could capture, condense, and present them to us to ponder--even if, as in Berger's latest book, King, it does so through the eyes of a shantytown dog.
John Berger is an unabashed citizen of the world who uses imagination to build bridges to mystery out of the commonplace. New Yorkers may be interested in knowing that the royalties from To the Wedding go to a Harlem AIDS center. We, his readers, benefit in other, more distant, but no less valuable ways.
On Eric Holtzman: "The Vital, Arrogant, Fatal, Dominant X"
Eric Holtzman was professor of cell biology at Columbia University for many years, but that wasn't the only way (or even the main way) that most of us whose lives he touched knew him. To me, he was the first fully fleshed-out radical intellectual--competent, committed, savvy, and technically skilled, with a redemptive sense of humor--that I had met in my life. I find that many things that matter most to me are now made more difficult for having known Eric--writing this remembrance among them. Check the long roster of his friends and colleagues and you'll find, I suspect, that I'm not alone. We who knew him have this in common: Eric held each of us to a higher standard than any that came naturally. Around him, you soon learned that you either raised the level of your game or would be left behind in the dust. Among his many legacies is this contagious striving, the nagging claim of that elevated standard, no matter how hard you try to shake it.
It is tempting--especially for an anthropologist who cannot distinguish a lysosome from a liver fluke--to read the problem Eric set himself to in the laboratory as a metaphor for his own life. He tackled a puzzle located at the boundaries of cellular communication: how do neurotransmitters, once released into the synaptic cleft, get re-cycled into their original dendritic dock? Crossing boundaries; being alternately on the inside and, defiantly, on the outside; trespassing where and in ways he was not expected to: this disregard for established membranes of distinction became, for Eric, a trademark way of life.
He reveled in seeming contradictions. Few rivaled him in indignation over the heartless logic of the market when applied to the needs of real human beings. But Eric proved unusually adept at disciplining his anger, holding it in check, meting it out as the occasion demanded. He saw, better than most, how the game was rigged from the outset. Yet he excelled at one of its most competitive enterprises, at one of its premier institutions. He was, quite simply, mad about science. He viewed it as a form of high play--a deadly serious play, mind you, but play all the same--and considered it among his highest privileges to be allowed to pursue it as a profession. Being paid to do it, I am quite sure, Eric took as some sort of cosmic/capitalist joke. (He would have richly enjoyed the loopy coincidence that, on the day of his memorial service at Columbia, the stock market closed.) Yet he was relentless in his criticism of scientific elitism, of its complacency and isolation, and of the misuses of the yield of research .
At the same time, for all his skepticism, even his sustained flirtation with the radical critique of scientific knowledge, he never doubted that the untrammeled pursuit of empirical solutions to difficult problems released the best in minds committed to the inquiry. (I remember him once throwing down Paul Feyerabend's Against Method in plain disgust: anybody who could counsel teaching "magic" in tandem with science-- for Feyerabend, neither approach to knowledge could be philosophically defended as sound on first principles--was clearly "a lunatic.") It was, internally, perfectly consistent that so stalwart a defender of the ideals of the Russian revolution would have little regard for the biology it spawned early on, did not hesitate to travel repeatedly to Cuba to help develop its scientific infrastructure, and proved a vital part of the late '70s movement to publicize the plight of exiled Chilean and Argentine health workers.
Eric could be impatient with those who refused to take a moral stance when one was called for. When a group of faculty and graduate students got together to oppose the rumored appointment of Henry Kissinger to a chair at Columbia--on grounds (you've got to love the sheer nerve) that he lacked the requisite moral fitness--the issue of academic freedom was raised, Fortunately for the cause, Eric was the one who fielded the question for the nightly news. He correctly dismissed it as a red herring, telling one reporter: "If we can't distinguish the question of fitness from that of freedom, then we're not a community of scholars, we're a community of fools."
This collective, a community of scholars, was something almost sacred to him. In a world riddled with venality, a society in which the logic of the market had infiltrated the last fastnesses of private life, he saw this space as uniquely privileged. He loved the university, Columbia--where he had in effect worked since his early (and typically accelerated) undergraduate days--and especially the college. And it's not hard to see why. He found sanctuary here, a space where misfits and exceptions could, through the alchemy of academic discipline, tam dreams into livelihoods. Here could be found respite--provisional and uneven, to be sure, but respite nonetheless--from the profit and loss ledgers that dominated so much of the rest of life. Hence, too, his celebrated dedication to students: to enable others to acquire tools for thriving in such sanctuaries wasn't simply to perpetuate a tradition of free inquiry. In pursuit of a solution to a problem in cell biology, his enthusiasm and drive were infectious. Commu nicating that love of problem-solving, teaching the tools to put it into action, was tantamount for Eric to a gentle treason, cheating the system out of another casualty, depriving it of another slave.
I never took a course with him, but he ranks among my finest teachers. He was the first person I knew who consistently applied habits of critical thought and thorough research to ordinary life. And he did so mirabile dictu, without ever shelving his sense of humor. A red-diaper kid from the Bronx, who clawed his way into the elite ranks of academia, he knew and bore the scars of the nation's hysteria and destructiveness during the l950s. He saw firsthand the wreckage to repute and career it could do. I once heard him recall being threatened as an undergraduate by some goon in a Columbia classroom for arguing that "Marx was a humanist." But his revenge--aside from an unending struggle to undo the damage and open the eyes of others to its subtler forms--often took a comic turn.
At their apartment on Claremont Avenue, Eric and his wife, Sally Guttmacher, hosted what was a movable feast of political conversation, often revolving around issues of public health and science. For some of us, this was where we encountered the demanding graduate education we had come to New York to seek. Visitors were ushered in past a gallery of posters, many in Socialist Realist style, celebrating international causes. But if you went to use the toilet, there on the wall was a vintage McCarthy-era placard warning that unclean places could radicalize unthinking minds. The poster showed a scowling man wiping his hands on a previously used towel; the caption below read: "Is your bathroom breeding Bolsheviks?"
Nor was his mischief confined to the home front. Upon completion of his graduate degree, he toured the Soviet Union and at one point found himself trapped on a tour bus in Moscow, enduring an interminable recitation of monuments to Lenin. Eric countered in characteristic fashion: he grabbed the microphone and proceeded to give an irreverent, revisionist version of the itinerary. "Ladies and gentlemen, on your right, we are now passing the famous Lenin parking garage, site of early cell meetings. On your left, Lenin alley, site of his first, furtive cigarette smoke--a youthful act of rebellion that presaged his later leadership." And so on...
There was, of course, another lesson at work here. Any doctrine (I'm tempted to say "faith," but he would never have used that term) that couldn't withstand laughter wasn't worth trucking with. Eric was quick to caution those of us inclined to take our radicalism too seriously, not to try to be "more revolutionary than Fidel."
Eric died in April 1994, where he had spent most of the last 30 years, in his laboratory--not because he ceased to struggle, but because he no longer knew how; a man so defined by determination, felled by a disabled will. Family and friends tried hard to understand how he could have misreasoned himself into that last desperate act. Some of his scientific colleagues argued that the answer might have been more primitive, if no less complex, to be sought not in the mysteries of the mind, but in the ruder mechanics of the brain. If they're right, this only adds a final irony: that someone who spent so much of his life bringing order to microscopic events at the synaptic cleft would be undone by a cellular riot staged at those same junctures. So faithful a lover of biology was betrayed, in the end, by his own.
While he lived, he was larger than life, a disheveled heroic misfit who fought all his life to sustain the tension of not quite belonging--and to make those of us similarly ill-suited a little more comfortable with that fact. I've not met anyone since I would rather have behind me, no matter who was against me. Thinking of him brings to mind a line from Wallace Stevens: "The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X." That was Eric.
If there's one word that captures his memory for me, it is "fierce." Fierce in his passions; fierce in his commitment to principle; fierce in his dedication to teaching; fierce in his devotion to Sally and Benjamin, his son. As for myself, I never stopped learning from him--God, how I learned from him. Had I ever summoned the nerve to tell him so, I'm convinced he would have uttered an oath and sent me packing. But it mattered to him, and mattered immensely, that others took courage from his example. I know it did.
Kim Hopper, an anthropologist, works as a research scientist at the Nathan Kline Institute and teaches at Columbia University's School of Public Health.
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|Date:||Dec 22, 1999|
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