John Berger (RIP) and Susan Sontag Take Us Inside the Art of Storytelling (1983)

“Some­body dies,” says John Berg­er. “It’s not just a ques­tion of tact that one then says, well, per­haps it is pos­si­ble to tell that sto­ry,” but “it’s because, after that death, one can read that life. The life becomes read­able.” His inter­locu­tor, a cer­tain Susan Son­tag, inter­jects: “A per­son who dies at 37 is not the same as a per­son who dies at 77.” True, he replies, “but it can be some­body who dies at 90. The life becomes read­able to the sto­ry­teller, to the writer. Then she or he can begin to write.” Berg­er, the con­sum­mate sto­ry­teller as well as thinker about sto­ries, left behind these and mil­lions of oth­er mem­o­rable words, spo­ken and writ­ten, when he yes­ter­day passed away at age 90 him­self.

This con­ver­sa­tion aired 35 years ago as “To Tell a Sto­ry,” an hour­long episode of Chan­nel 4’s Voic­es, “a forum of debate about the key issues in the world of the arts and the life of the mind.” Though Berg­er and Son­tag sure­ly agreed in life on more than they dis­agreed (“not since [D.H.] Lawrence has there been a writer who offers such atten­tive­ness to the sen­su­al world with respon­sive­ness to the imper­a­tives of con­science,” the lat­ter once said of the for­mer), they here enter into a kind of debate about sto­ry­telling itself: why we do it, how we do it, when we can do it. Berg­er, for his part, char­ac­ter­izes all fic­tion as “a fight against the absurd,” against “that end­less, ter­ri­fy­ing space in which we live.”

Son­tag, in the words of Lily Dessau at Berg­er’s pub­lish­er Ver­so, “con­sid­ers the sto­ry­teller as inven­tor, in con­trol of the mate­r­i­al, out of which the ‘peo­ple come.’ Berg­er con­verse­ly takes the form of the sto­ry as the result of the lan­guage com­ing out of the peo­ple — but he does char­ac­ter­ize their dif­fer­ing views as arriv­ing at the same place — the scene of the text.” While both of them wrote fic­tion as well as essays, “Berg­er con­sid­ers the sto­ry and essay in one breath, both as a form of strug­gle to mod­el the unsayable,” while “for Son­tag the two are entire­ly sep­a­rate, although the strug­gle per­sists in both.”

Or, as Berg­er puts it in high­light­ing anoth­er aspect of the dif­fer­ence in their per­spec­tives, “You say you want to be car­ried away by the sto­ry. I want the sto­ry to stop things being car­ried away into obliv­ion, into indif­fer­ence.” The many trib­utes already paid to him, espe­cial­ly by influ­en­tial cre­ators formed in part by the influ­ence of his work, indi­cate that Berg­er’s lega­cy hard­ly finds itself now on the brink of an indif­fer­ent obliv­ion. Now that his long life has reached the end of its final chap­ter, well, per­haps we can begin to read, and to tell, his sto­ry.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Til­da Swin­ton Gets a Por­trait Drawn by Art Crit­ic John Berg­er

Susan Sontag’s 50 Favorite Films (and Her Own Cin­e­mat­ic Cre­ations)

48 Hours of Joseph Camp­bell Lec­tures Free Online: The Pow­er of Myth & Sto­ry­telling

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • James Barrett says:

    One thing that struck me per­son­al­ly from this con­ver­sa­tion is that the first sto­ries I remem­ber were told to me oral­ly, about mem­bers of my fam­i­ly that I nev­er met. Sol­diers, farm­ers and explor­ers. It then occurred to me that my moth­er came from an oral sto­ry­telling cul­ture — she did not go to school until she was 13, her moth­er did not go to school at all. They lived on a huge cat­tle prop­er­ty in cen­tral Queens­land in Aus­tralia that had been in the fam­i­ly for over 100 years. My father on the oth­er hand grew up in near­est big tow town, (5 hours dri­ve on the sealed roads that had been cre­at­ed by the time I was a child, when they were kids it took a lot longer), which was becom­ing a city as he came of age. He lived in books and our house was lit­er­al­ly a library. I once packed up my father’s library to move him, and it came in at 300 banana box­es. That is a lot of books. But my mater­nal grand­moth­er told me the sto­ries of the bush, and the world that she remem­bered from the 1920s as a child.

  • Robin Kinross says:

    Those were the days, when Chan­nel 4 (and BBC2) could broad­cast such unvar­nished, seri­ous con­ver­sa­tion. The very nice intro/outro graph­ics + music (writ­ten by Bob­by Lamb) brings it all back instant­ly.

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