In Uncategorized on June 16, 2011 at 10:22 am

One reading of John Berger’s Bento’s Sketchbook (2011) is as a handbook elucidating a practice of the secret. Or, unfolding both from and into that, a workings, a politics, a poetics, of what his book identifies as generative, necessary and constructive about the secret, hidden and inconsequential.

This post is a notebook through Berger’s text, a commonplace book of the direct engagements with such ideas that appear in its 178 pages. Such ideas, of course, are also implicit in the essay-ings and drawings that comprise Berger’s book.

It’s the possibilities of this movement between explicit and implicit, fusions and specificities of writing/ reading/ drawing/ thinking/ talking/ looking/ experiencing/ understanding/ critiquing/ and/ self/ other that motivates here, spiraling off into examples and implications whilst aware of matter-resonance of word- lexicon’s themselves as conveyers and containers.

The secret resists attempts to understand it. This is how the practice of the secret commences, continues and conveys.


(a)We who draw do so not only to make something visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination. (9)

(b)…we smiled and glanced at one another. And somewhere behind our agreement was the tacit recognition that any original political initiative has to start off as being clandestine, not through a love of secrecy, but because of the innate paranoia of the politically powerful. (42)

(c) Yet, if we imagine the stories being told across the world tonight and consider their outcome, I believe we’ll find two main categories: those whose narratives are emphasising something essential that is hidden [invisible,86], and those which emphasise the revealed. (72)


(a)Yet what one is warning and protesting continues unchecked and remorselessly [this essay is a letter to Arundhati Roy]. Continues irresistably. Continues as if in a permissive, unbroken silence. Continues as if nobody had written a single word. So one asks oneself: Do words count? And there must sometimes come back a reply something like this: Words here are like stones put into the pockets of roped prisoners before they are thrown into a river. (79)

(b)To protest is to refuse being reduced to zero and to an enforced silence. Therefore, at the very moment a protest is made, if it is made, there is a small victory. The moment, although passing like every moment, acquires a certain indelibility. It passes, yet it has been printed out. A protest is not principally a sacrifice made for some alternative, more just future; it is an inconsequential redemption of the present. The problem is how to live time and again with the adjective inconsequential. (80)

(c) When we are impressed and moved by a story, it engenders something that becomes, or may become, an essential part of us, and this part, whether it be small or extensive, is, as it were, the story’s descendent or offspring… those stories that shape us are our coincidental, as distinct from biological ancestors. (84)


(a)Which of the two [introverted or extroverted stories] is likely to be more adapted to, more trenchant bout what is happening in the world today? I believe the first. (86)

(b)Because its stories remain unfinished. Because they involve sharing. Because in their telling a body refers as much to a body of people as to an individual. Because for them mystery is not something to be solved but to be carried. Because, although they may deal with sudden violence or loss or anger, they are long-sighted. And, above all, because there protagonists are not performers but survivors. (86)

(c)There are two forms of continuity: the acknowledged one of institutions and the unacknowledged one of clandestinity. (87)

(d)The heartfelt hopes, once exemplified in triumphant Hollywood stories, have now become obsolete and belong to another epoch. Hope today is a contraband passed from hand to hand and from story to story. (87)


(a)The Prado in Madrid to look at Velasquez’s Buffoons

They have a secret which it has taken me years to fathom and which maybe still escapes me. (93)

Juan the Pumpkin’s still eyes look at the parade of life and at us through a peephole from eternity. This is the secret that a meeting in the Rambla suggested to me. (96)

Velasquez, Juan Calabazas (Juan the Pumpkin)

(b)A budget supermarket in a suburb of Paris

It’s the opposite of a street market, where the key secret is that of a bargain. In a street market everyone encourages everyone to believe they’ve just made a smart deal; here, every one of us is being considered as a potential thief. (104)

(c)Motorbikes and Drawing

for many years I’ve been fascinated by a certain parallel between the act of piloting  a bike and the act of drawing. The parallel fascinates me because it may reveal a secret. About what? Displacement and vision. Looking brings closer. (111)

Figure 1

Velasquez, Juan Calabazas (Juan the Pumpkin)

NOTE (1): Berger’s “secret” is the ________, _______ of __________ not yet thought through.  Learning as based around the secret, changes/charges pedagogy. Maybe something else has been told in lieu of the secret.  Learning depends on how likely you are believed (by the secret itself) to be a keeper.

Learning becomes removed from metaphors of “bringing into the light” or increased spatial intimacy. The learner is drawn further into the secret, trying to understand it through whispered, implied, hinted, invisible zones of mishearing.

NOTE (2):  The secret is present in/forms (learning) meetings with strangers. It is mediated and given physical form through the acknowledgement/ encouragement of gift giving and receiving.  “Gifts should affect the recipient so deeply as to startle him” writes Walter Benjamin.



(a) I live in a state of habitual confusion. By confronting the confusion I sometimes achieve a certain lucidity. You  showed us how to do this. (139)

(b)When I’m drawing I feel a little close 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 bees constructing their cells. (149)

(c)There is a symbiotic desire to get closer and closer [Berger writes of his drawing of the Russian writer Andrei Platonov], to enter the self of what is being drawn and, simultaneously, there is the foreknowledge of immanent distance. Such drawings aspire to be both a secret rendezvous and an au revoir! Alternately and ad infinitum. (156)



(1)invisible incalculable destination clandestine something stories essential hidden small protest victory secret indelibility inconsequential engenders coincidental ancestors introverted unfinished sharing carried mystery survivors contraband

(2)particularly Photocopies and The Shape of a Pocket, how a writing so concerned with certain forms of attention, commitment, witness, comes to an essaying of people, places, paintings/-ers, the personal migrations, choices of biography, necessary to such a practice

(3)of Andy Warhol’s AMERICA, reissued 2011 as a Penguin Classics (images above). An affinity with Bento’s Sketchbook that can align both around a rejuvenated project of the inconsequential secret constrained neither to rural France or Manhattan

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