By Gerald Hausman
Santa Fe, NM, USA

I was surprised to hear a few days ago that a class of MFA students in college were totally befuddled by Ways of Seeing by John Berger, a profound, world-class book. They didn’t know what to make of it. They didn’t know how to get into it or out of it, and when they finished it, they could not say what the book was about.

How could they have been puzzled by Berger’s masterful vision of how human beings actually see the world around them?

Was it possible, I wondered, that the simple relationship between eye, mind and audience eluded an entire class of graduate students? Having read the book five times simply for pleasure, I didn’t get what they didn’t get. To be perfectly clear on this, here is what Berger states:
Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.
This seems stunningly, profoundly, cogent to me.
In a sense you could say that the child’s first word, though unformed, is light. This holds true, as well, for someone passing from this world to the next. They always speak of light at the end of life. The guiding light. The light of life. The light beyond.
The poet Aram Saroyan in his great one-word poem expresses it this way:

As an art teacher once said to me: “Everything that we see around us is influenced either by our individual perception or the collective view of society, or both. Usually both at the same time.”
I would put it this way … think of a cave painting or a petroglyph. In Berger’s sense of seeing, we view an image of, say, a bison. But this image is informed by how others have seen the same pictograph.

This perception would hold true for a painting by Dali or Picasso or even an advertisement on a subway wall. We see, Berger says, what our society sees. We see what we have been told to see. We see, not what we want to see, free of influence, but what we have been taught to imagine when looking at something.

Gerald Hausman

In truth, it’s difficult to view anything objectively. Maybe there is no such thing. A good example of this is seen in classical nude paintings as well as any photographs of nudity on the human scene.

Berger states, in viewing classical nudity “… the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him.”

Thus the painting is transformed from one thing to another, just by an observer’s eye.
Berger elucidates his idea with perfect clarity:

If you have any doubt that this is so, make the following experiment. Choose from this book an image of a traditional nude. Transform the woman into a man. Either in your mind’s eye or by drawing on the reproduction. Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the image, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer.
Roshi Philip Whalen once asked: “WHAT IS IT I’M SEEING? & WHO’S LOOKING?” In Whalen’s mind, as he once told me, nothing is what it seems and everything is what it is … but it’s also conditioned by who is doing the looking.

Philip Whalen and John Berger might’ve seen eye-to-eye. But that statement is also a picture, an image, a transformation of truth.

If nothing else Berger awakens us to the debatable mystery of human vision – “Look into the pewter pot” wrote English poet A.E Housman, “to see the world as the world is not.”



Gerald Hausman is an award-winning, bestselling author and storyteller. 
His memoir, Little Miracles, was published in July 2019.


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.