On John Berger and Writing As an
Act of Distancing

Guy Gunaratne at the Intersection of Isolation and Hope

In Pig Earth, John Berger suggests that “the act of writing is nothing except the act of approaching the experience written about.” Berger felt that the act of reading was comparable in this regard. I have been thinking about these acts of approach in the context of our present moment. I have been asking myself whether the act of reading, the act of writing, as well as the act of reading images, could not also be considered acts of distancing.

I am sitting now at a window overlooking a crossroads in Malmö’s city centre. Occasional traffic passes between Amiralsgatan and Föreningsgatan. My daughter is asleep in the other room. I usually take a moment before beginning my morning writing routine. I sip strong bitter coffee. I breathe and glance over at yesterday’s notes. I am able to read and write here without interruption, but only in these early hours. I am eager to start, knowing that my daughter (a one-year old who is all beautiful will and insistence) will awaken soon and demand my attention.

Recently, during these small pockets of quiet, I have started to think about how attentive I have become to the proximity of strangers. Quiet bike rides along empty streets, the self-checkout aisles at supermarkets, passing a neighbor in the hallway outside. This pandemic has rendered meaningful moments out of the seemingly mundane. There has been a physical contraction, however, especially when thinking about the purpose of public spaces—what they are for, how they are used—as well as a widening of sensitivity, particularly around the obligation to ourselves within private space. 

When I am alone now, I think about my responsibility toward other people. By this, I mean also, the communities to which I belong, both immediate and distant, and what my participation within these groups relates. I think about what behaviors have contributed to my current sense of unease, my isolation and estrangement from them. I imagine the answers to these questions will not leave me with much comfort, and though the degree of my own self-isolation has not been as stressful as for some, my time alone has given me cause to reflect.

The act of approaching, as Berger suggested, allows each of us to draw closer to experience. Recent events, both in the Global North and elsewhere, continue to surface discomforting and dislocating questions about how we read our history, and how we have chosen to use our public spaces as seats for our stories. Perhaps, as I’ve begun to think, these ruptures are evidence of many millions of moments of imposed solitude culminating into mass action.

For example, the re-examining of old stories about our everyday selves, as well as those, more broadly speaking, our society have chosen to tell itself, especially in regard to how it has treated people, and how, in the present, we are expected to read our collective history, may have greater implication when it is approached from inside collective experiences.

I have wondered, for instance, what it is about the proliferation of videos depicting state violence—the images of black and brown bodies being assaulted and killed, the hearing of testimonies from communities affected by structural oppression—that has moved those for whom these experiences are far removed into breaking distancing rules and joining others in marching, protesting and into forming social justice organizations. We are at the point where these movements may have truly revolutionary potential.

Why this time and not others? Perhaps because many more have had the opportunity to confront the roles that they themselves play in the present structure. Maybe they, like myself, have had pockets of time to confront and see clearly.

Everything urgent, everything necessary, happens among other people. Among strangers, neighbors and loved ones.

This might also be the case for those who do not, or cannot, leave their homes. Many are instead buying and sharing books on subjects that might previously have felt too uncomfortable to approach. The UK bestseller charts for non-fiction includes writers such as Reni Eddo-Lodge, Akala and Adam Rutherford. The chart for fiction is currently topped by Bernadine Evaristo’s brilliant Girl, Woman, Other. Here I see a level of public engagement in trying to situate ourselves in the present.

But this can also be read in another way. Berger was wise enough to qualify his suggestion of reading as an act of approach as a hopeful one. There are those for whom acts of writing, acts of reading, and acts of seeing the world as filtered through images and art, are actually modes of distancing. With every word and repeated image, some of us place a little more distance between ourselves and the subject. 

I note, however, that the nature of this pandemic has meant that the reporting of it has been absent of the kind of spectacle that usually follows global crises. Think of how news agencies cover wars, terrorist attacks, and climate catastrophes. Think of the repeating image of the falling man at the World Trade Centre attacks or the burning spire of the Notre-Dame cathedral. We live in an image-saturated world and yet we find ourselves groping for any singular principal image to which we can project our collective apprehensions this time. There can’t be one image of an experience that unites everywhere affected; no single narrative that can be approached in order to define our fears. We are forced instead to make sense of it for ourselves. The effect is an inversion.

I myself am a solitary person. I can admit that at times, I have used my writing to distance myself from the world. I prefer it. Whenever I am angry or overjoyed, I am inarticulate, discordant. I have tended instead to invert my approach. My writing is politically engaged, but I’ve always resisted what is termed political fiction. My writing is where I search, try to confront or better understand some discomforting aspect of experience. Sometimes I tend to hide there, however insufficiently, behind language, behind reading, or by contributing with words in place of my body. 

What am I doing when approaching the world this way? Am I working within a mode of resistance against an absurdly disparate reality, or am merely measuring distances within it?

As I sit at this window and perceive the outside in various degrees of isolation, I am forced to realize the vitality of public spaces. Everything urgent, everything necessary, happens among other people. Among strangers, neighbors and loved ones. It is here that I discover the significance of Berger message. It is that hope is not concentrated upon words like approach or distance but upon action. Every engagement brings with it a commitment of ourselves among others. The degree to which we act in accordance with that commitment is what matters.

Guy Gunaratne
Guy Gunaratne
Guy Gunaratne is the author of In Our Mad and Furious City which won the International Dylan Thomas Prize, Jhalak Prize and Authors Club Award in 2019. The novel was also longlisted for the Booker Prize and the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. He is the current Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge as well as a trustee of human rights organization EnglishPEN which campaigns for freedom of expression around the world.





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