Hold Everything Dear: essays by John Berger

By John Berger. Pantheon, 148 pp, $27, hardcover

Every book by John Berger is an adventure, whether it involves the nature of art (Ways of Seeing), agrarian culture (Pig Earth), or the inner life of an itinerant dog (King). This little volume is less engulfing, perhaps, than those earlier works, less driven by a sense of discovery and certainly far less concerned with narrative flow. In fact, Hold Everything Dear is essentially a walk through the 80-year-old Berger's notebook, a collection of late-career pensées that are linked only loosely by the themes of its subtitle, Dispatches on Survival and Resistance. Nonetheless, there are wise and provocative words on every page. In the 2003 essay "Let Us Think About Fear", written shortly after the fall of Baghdad and while Saddam Hussein was still in hiding, Berger presciently outlined the next four years of the conflict in Iraq. "When one tyranny is overthrown, not by the people concerned but by another tyranny, the result risks to be chaos, because it will seem to the people that the ultimate hope of any social order has been totally destroyed, and then the impulse to seize for personal survival takes over and looting begins," he wrote. "It is as simple and terrible as that."

This is not an academic analysis, or, despite Berger's Marxist credentials, an ideological one. Nor is it inspired crystal-ball gazing. It is simply the reasoned assessment of an observer who looks at human behaviour through the multiple prisms of psychology, creativity, political science, and history. Berger's signal achievement is to synthesize those viewpoints into one coherent voice–and it's this clarity that is most impressive here, as ever.

Writing on war, Berger sees it as a manifestation of fear, not strength. Writing on democracy, he sees it failing because "the fundamental decisions”¦are taken unilaterally without any open consultation or participation." Yet, writing about art, he finds an antidote to "the prison of modern time" in the photographs of Jitka Hanslová; writing about love, he surmises "a conspiracy of two" against pain.

Despair exists, he concedes. But there are ways to fight it, and many are outlined here.