John Berger Lost His Eyesight to Cataracts and Learned to See

One of the most romantic gifts I ever received was a copy of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. It was the only thing this boyfriend, an artist, ever gave me. I read his desire to share what he felt had made the most meaningful impact on his work as evidence that our relationship was deathless (it turned out quite mortal, but that’s another story). My friend was not alone: Berger’s 1972 book of “pictorial essays,” adapted from a four-part BBC television series, has remained influential to thinkers and artists for over half a century. The British novelist, critic, and poet, who died in his adopted home of France in 2017 at 90 years of age, spent years examining the language of the visible through an idiosyncratic, leftist, and sharply focused lens. This language is the original conveyance of all understanding, he believed; the front cover of the original publication displays its first oracular lines: “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.”

Then the theorist who had devoted much of his career to mastering the arcana of all that is visible lost his vision.

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Drawing by Selçuk Demirel

What might have been a catastrophe Berger took as another opportunity — to re-view sight. Four years before his death he was afflicted by cataracts (“from Greek kataraktes, meaning waterfall or portcullis, an obstruction that descends from above,” he writes on the first page of Cataract). Then his sight was restored by the grace of cataract surgery, one eye at a time, allowing the author a different point of view (literally) on the miracle of binocular vision. The consequences of this experience are collected in a slim volume — a mere 67 pages, half of those occupied by illustrations — as keen as proverb, as concise yet expansive as Imagist poetry.

Drawing by Selçuk Demirel

Berger breaks down the way the eye apprehends in sequence, which those of us who retain full sight rarely do or can. He notes the way lateral vision becomes newly appreciable after his cataracts have been removed; he describes lyrically how depth perception works, the role of light in vision, the poetic attributes of color. The world is made strange and beautiful: “I look up at a fir tree and I have the impression that the little fractal fragments of sky, which I see between the masses of pine needles, are the tree’s blue flowers, the colour of delphiniums.”

These meditations are accompanied by Turkish artist Selçuk Demirel’s line drawings, reminiscent of Jean Cocteau’s art with subtle undertones of Max Ernst. Opposite Berger’s abbreviated reflection on monocular vision, which he plays with by closing one repaired eye followed by the still-occluded one, Demirel’s drawing depicts a pensive reclining figure whose eyes are windows (bearing shutters), each of which contains a figure looking on in a different direction.

Drawing by Selçuk Demirel

Midway through the book, images that had been solely black and white gradually take on increasing concentrations of color, replicating the progress of the author’s regained vision. The experience of losing, then recovering, the ability to see is to Berger the rebirth of noticing — thus a return to childhood, if not to those first insights of Ways of Seeing. Light “bestows a quality of firstness”; it is that “which makes life and the visible possible.” But it is really Berger who shows himself here reborn with a quality of firstness. It made me think this charming Notting Hill publication might do well with an alternative title: Ways of Seeing Anew.

Cataract (2023) by John Berger, with drawings by Selçuk Demirel, is published by Notting Hill Editions and is available online and in bookstores.

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