In his Nature, Justice and the Geography of Difference, David Harvey theorises space and place while giving a broad perspective over the development of the conceptualising of place in philosophy and human geography. He endeavours to understand and formulate the persistence of place particularity in the increased interconnection of places within the globalised capitalist framework. The reason why we are looking at him is that as a Marxist social geographer, Harvey speaks about the global accumulation of capital and the expression of this process in multiple differentiated social spaces and some of his observations of this process can be related to Berger’s representation of the urban environment within the fictional realm of his novel.
In the chapter called “From Space to Place and Back Again”, Harvey strives to propose a way of providing a sense of place that would be powerful enough to counter the dominant logic of capitalism under which places gain permanence as long as they play some role in the flux and flow of capital circulation which is unstable because constantly crisis prone. He speaks about the process of the accumulation of capital that causes uneven geographical development not only in urban areas but also in the larger world and about the necessity to rescue particular poverty-stricken places as well as a broader world by an overarching perspective of a political-economic narrative.25 The fact that Harvey so firmly maintains an overarching political-economic perspective appears, however, slightly problematic. Before we come to explaining why this is so, more attention needs to be paid to his rhetoric of place.
Though his analysis of geographically uneven development all over the world is Marxist because he sees the material social practices as underlying the production of space26, he also stresses the necessity of paying attention and being sensitive to the particular places and their differences. He argues that the “internationalist working-class politics” (Harvey, Nature 314) tends to become abstracted from the material world of the particularities of environment and community. To counter such an abstraction in this Marxist discourse, he turns to Heidegger and his notion of dwelling in place (314). Harvey presents Heidegger’s argument as another extreme which “totally rejects any sense of moral responsibility beyond the world of immediate sensuous and contemplative experience” (314). For Marx, as he later on elaborates, “the potential repressions, misconceptions, and exploitations are […] an outcome of a purely place-based politics in a spatially dynamic capitalist world. […] Marx regards experience within the fetishism as authentic enough but superficial and misleading” (Harvey, Nature 315). As opposed to Marx, for Heidegger, “the phenomenological realism of a place-based experience of dwelling is the only respite from that world. […] Heidegger views the same world of commodity exchange and technological rationality as at the root of an inauthenticity in daily life which has to be repudiated” (Harvey, Nature 315). Harvey then proposes an understanding of these two arguments not as mutually exclusive but rather as oppositions to enter into a possible dialog. In other words, Harvey says that what goes on in a place cannot be abstracted from broader spatial relations which sustain that place any more than the broader spatial relations cannot be abstracted from social practices which go on in the particular places. He thus prepares for himself an abstract and very general substrate for an articulation of politics which would embrace the notion of global spatial and economic awareness on the basis of a thorough Marxist analysis of capital circulation and, at the same time, would pay enough attention to differences between particular places.
In the following pages of his debate, Harvey basically argues that the process of differentiation of places is closely related to the process production of commodities. In the process of production, places become subjects of the global spatial logic of capitalism which is disinterested in the distinctive qualities of the places. Some places are hence stricken by poverty throughout this process while being abused as a source of cheap labour etc. in the vision of seeking ever more profit. Thus, for Harvey, under capitalism, places are brought within the same sphere and, though they may be subject to other differentiating processes, it is possible to generalize their particularities under his over-arching Marxist perspective. For Harvey, the “true” difference of places stems from their position in the global capitalist economic order: “Everyone who moves to establish difference in the contemporary world has to do so through social practices that engage with the mediating power of money” (Nature 319).
Harvey’s analyses of the capital accumulation causing marginalisation of large groups of people and places within growing disparities between the rich and the poor in the globalised world are always very insightful, since he combines his knowledge from various disciplines. We will apply his observation about the capital accumulation in the analysis of the fictional space of the city in Lilac and Flag. However, Harvey seems to be sometimes slightly aggressive in placing too much emphasis on political-economics as the root of difference and his demand for a global class-struggle remains rather vague in its articulation.27 There are other space theorists, such as Doreen Massey, who argue that difference does not only stem from the uneven distribution of capital but also from, for example, gender and ethnicity, i.e. categories, to which Harvey pays only insufficient attention and which are not and cannot be accommodated by his demand for an over-arching Marxist perspective.28
Another theorist to look at here is Manuel Castells, since in his The Information Trilogy, he is among others interested in how especially urban space and time are produced in the informational society by social practices and how the organisation of space reflects the organisation of power. The trilogy presents a study of the sociological dimensions of power, production and experience in the informational or network society. Castells combines many disciplines, such as political economy, urban sociology or internet studies to offer a very broad perspective on the rise and character of the network society and the complexities of social changes and developments associated with the process. In the following section we will look at his two concepts fundamental for his analysis of the spatial production – the space of flows and timeless time.
Generally, Castells understands space not as a representation or reflection of society, but as an “expression” thereof. (Rise 440) Space does not represent society – it is society. In this overall sense, his perspective is similar to the one of Henri Lefebvre whom we have mentioned while articulating the aims of this thesis in the introduction. Space is seen by Castells as a material product which is related to “other material products – including poeple – who engage in [historically] determined social relationships that provide space with a form, a function, and a social meaning” (Rise 441). Castells defines space from the point of view of social practices and he does so while identifying the historicity and specificity of social practices common in the informational society. Since, according to Castells, a significant amount of time-sharing social practices in the informational society works through flows of various entities such as capital, information, images, sounds and symbols, he speaks about the so called “space of flows” (Rise 442). To describe the space of flows he comes up with three levels, of which the space of flows actually consists.
The first level is the infrastructural one: it is “constituted by a circuit of electronic exchanges” (Castells, Rise 442) and it basically forms the material basis for the processes crucial in the network society because the spatial realisation of dominant social functions takes place in the electronic networks of exchanges. The second level is the organisational one and it consists of “nodes and hubs” since, though the structural logic of the space of flows is placeless, the space of flows itself is not. That is to say, the electronic network links up certain places with highly developed cultural and physical characteristics and thus located at the top of a hierarchical structure which makes the information society operate. The most eminent example Castells gives of such “nodes” and “hubs” are global cities in which directional functions are located and accumulated and on which, therefore, local societies and economies are dependent despite their own nodes connecting them to the global network. The third level of the space of flows is the managerial one and it refers to “the spatial organisation of the dominant, managerial elites” (Castells, Rise 445). Castells at this point explains that the space of flows is a dominant spatial logic of our society because it is inseparably related to the dominant spatial interests. He then goes on to pointing out that the domination of the “technocratic-financial-managerial elite” (Castells, Rise 445) that occupies the leading position in our societies is based on its organisational capacity, in other words, its articulation which goes hand in hand with disorganisation and segmentation of the masses who are in various ways being excluded from the communication networks and hence from social power. From a spatial point of view, “elites of the informational society are cosmopolitan”, their social practices underline the space of flows, whereas “people are local” (Castells, Rise 446), they live in places outside the hubs and nodes. While people’s lives are still rooted in certain places, with certain cultures and histories, the identity of the managerial culture is not linked to any specific, local society but to managerial circles located all over the world and connected through informational networks. This sociological insight links us to Antonio Gramsci and his notion of cultural hegemony because what Castells is basically pointing to is that the more the dominant spatial organization is superseding the logic of any specific place and its history, the more the global power can and does escape specific local societies and their socio-political control.
This has been a lenghty but nevertheless necessary description of a concept that will become clearer when compared with the concept of “the space of places” (Castells, Rise 453) which Castells sets in opposition to the space of flows. According to Castells, “a place is a locale whose form, function, and meaning are self-contained within the boundaries of physical contiguity” (Rise 453). In the space of places, people actively interact with their physical environment in a meaningful way. They share a “collective memory” (Castells, Rise 455) based on experience of the place which exists between their homes and the world. The emphasis on a “collective memory” and experience of a place links us to Walter Benjamin and his notion of experience as lived historical time. As opposed to historical time, the space of flows induces what Castells calls “timeless time” (Rise 465).
Since electronic media provide access to information in accordance with the impulses of the consumer or the producer, the chronological and meaningful ordering of events is disrupted and becomes subordinated to the social context of their utilisation. Because of its non-sequential time ordering of events, the informational culture is then one of “the eternal” and, at the same time, “the ephemeral” (Castells, Rise 492). In the informational society, time becomes an undiferrentiated flow of unrelated events. At its extreme, there are no causes and no consequences. Castells contrasts this eternal and ephemeral time of the network environment with the rhythm of biological time with its life cycles in nature and bodies and says that “time in society and life is measured by death” (Rise 481). He provides examples of how, in the network society, both biological and social life-cycles are constantly being subverted by various social mechanisms stemming from, for example, the obsession with health and hygiene. Death is something to be avoided at all costs; it tends to be dealt with as if it did not exist. Ultimately, “life becomes a flat landscape puctuated by chosen moments of high and low experiences, in the endless boutique of customized feelings” (Castells, Rise 481) implying no possibility of meaning. What Castells puts into opposition to timeless time is not only historical time of experience but also “glacial time” (Rise 498) which is an evolutionary notion that has a very long relation between humans and nature and links Castells’ analysis to enviromental movements.29 Thus, whereas the space of flows in which power is concetrated in the network society induces timeless time, the space of places is time-bounded.30
Even though people still live in places, their lives are dominated by the logic of the networks, by the space of flows. In the informational society, experience becomes ever more abstracted from power and meaning separated from knowledge. Castells’ references to some aspects of the logic of the space of flows as well as timeless time, such as the lack of meaningful interaction between humans and a particular place will be related to the following analysis of Berger’s novel Lilac and Flag and its representation and dramatisation of the city space. The notion of ephemeral and ahistorical time induced by informational flows will also be related to the role stories and storytelling play in Berger’s novel.
4.2 A Modern Myth of Dislocation
Taking place in an urban environment, Lilac and Flag is a tragic love story that in several ways deepens the contrast between the city and the country which, as we have seen, is an important aspect of the two previous parts of the trilogy. The social practices underlying the urban space as depicted in the novel stand in stark contrast to the peasant way of life in Pig Earth and in some stories in Once in Europa As in the case of the story of Odile in Once in Europa, the narrative perspective in Lilac and Flag is extremely crucial in intensifying this contrast.
The story of Zsuzsa and Sucus is told from the perspective of an old woman who, though never having left the peasant village, ponders over the main characters’ lives as a sort of eternalized and powerful presence. Her overarching worldview enables her to uphold the peasant way of life and, at the same time, challenge the disorienting order dominating the space of the city in the novel. Similar to Odile’s in “Once in Europa”, the old lady’s perspective permits temporal leaps that broaden the perspective as they keep reminding the reader of the previous two parts of the trilogy and the existence of the peasant world. Through her free moving between the present of the story and the distant past of the peasant life enabled by the sort of eternal mode of her being, the narrator offers a temporal perspective broader than a simple linear narrative would do. Hence, the novel not only stresses the coexistence of the past, present and possible future, but the act of narrating also challenges some of the discontinuous aspects of modernity. It also encourages the potential reader to look at the trilogy as a whole.
The work opens with a short poem called “Old Love Poem” which, using the language of the peasant existence, embraces the theme of eroticism and connection to the land. It is written in the second person singular and the lover addressed is assimilated to “the pain in my [the poem’s I’s] ribs / aching / from the carts unloaded” and to “the house / the candle under the plum tree and my eternity” (LF 3). The past tense used in the lines and the word “eternity” proposes a reading of the poem as a remembrance of some moments which once took place but which, nevertheless, have never really passed as they are stretched into the present and eternalised by the act of remembering. The poem functions as one of the echoes of the past that regularly appear in the novel in various narrative digressions of the old woman. At the beginning of the chapter called “Water” for example, the reader learns that “the third of June was Félix’s birthday” and that even though he had to sell his seventeen cows when he “fell ill with jaundice” and had to be “taken away to hospital”, he “bought six more” (LF 24) when he came back home. At another point the narrator as if accidentally mentions that Marcel “who went to prison for kidnapping the two government inspectors” (LF 34) is a distant ancestor in Sucus’ family and the reader is reminded of the story called “The Value of Money” in Pig Earth.
The narrator’s digressions are supplemented by frequent references to the peasant past by the characters themselves. When Sucus dreams of a return to the village where his parents were born, he muses about how Zsuzsa would “gather mushrooms and sell them on the other side of the frontier, like the woman Father told us [Sucus and his mother] about” (LF 94). The section referring to Cocadrille closes with a question directed at the reader motivating to remember her name: “What was her [the woman’s] name?” (LF 94). The references to the peasant past might, at times, be characterised as haunted as there tend to be some ghostly overtones to them. They accentuate the remoteness of the peasant experience for its descendants, embodied by the main characters of Zsuzsa and Sucus. At the same time, they also stand as a reminder of how desolated the lives of the migrants have become in the urban environment and they help to challenge some ahistorical tendencies of modernity.
The story of Zsuzsa and Sucus, who nickname each other Lilac and Flag, takes place in the city of Troy, that is, in the place of classical Greek and more generally European mythology. There is, however, “Alexanderplatz” (LF 123), a railway station known as “Budapest” (LF 5), a city district called “Sankt Pauli” (LF 89) or a place called “Champ-de-Mars” (LF 9) in the novel’s fictional city. The mythological city of Troy therefore gains a new dimension in the novel as it consists of geographical fragments of actual European cities and in a broader sense symbolises today’s urban environment. The dangers, fears and hopes of present-day urban metropolises which the novel endeavours to communicate are thus framed in an extensive metaphor of its fictional city of Troy which puts it into a broader context of European mythology. The novel includes a couple of other allusions to The Illiad such as the police officer who interrogates Sucus and who is given the name of Hector which links us to the Trojan prince Hector. The names of the bank robbers, “Nestor”, “Margalon” and “Diomedes” (LF 83) are another example of such allusions as they refer to the characters in the famous epic poem. Even the narrator may be considered a slight reference to the mythological genre by her walking the line between a sort of divine and human figure. The allusions to mythology underline the novel’s concern of communicating a broader social experience of the modern mental climate. At the same time, they also correspond with some mythological-like features of the novel that we will discuss later on in the analysis and that generally emphasize the trilogy’s concern with the interpretation of history.
The environment of Troy is depicted as having geographical divisions within itself related to the dynamics of social exclusion. Both Zsuzsa and Sucus are basically social outsiders because members of the population of the excluded. Zsuzsa lives in the squalor of a city district called “Rat Hill” (LF 5). The area of her home is characterised a run-down area where, besides poor and substandard houses, there are also some neglected buildings of an old tannery. The narrator relates that these old buildings had been for years brought into focus in discussions which favoured pulling them down and building new ones somewhere else. However, as the narrator explains a bit later, the plans had failed when challenged by the dominant logic of the city health department: “If the old sheds were destroyed, so the health department threatened, the million rats who lived and bred there would quit the hill and invade Troy” (LF 5). In the language of the institution, Rat Hill is not even a part of the city of Troy and the word “rats” is dubious in how easily it may refer not only to the non-human inhabitants of the district. The novel dramatizes Rat Hill as a place subordinated to the exclusionary logic of some institutions. It is a site of poverty and unemployment.
Drawing notable contrast to Rat Hill and other similar shanty parts of Troy is a district called Escorial. The narrator relates that this part of the town is known for having trees everywhere and for its lawns “greener in the summer than anything else in Troy” because they are “watered for hours on end every day” (LF 17). Further on, the narrator adds: “The lawns surrounded swimming pools […]. Around the pools people gathered before dinner to drink aperitifs. After dinner, when they had drunk some more, they often dove into the water naked. The water was often lit up from underneath so that the pools glowed like precious stones” (LF 17). In contrast, the yellowing grass of Rat Hill is “criss-crossed by dozens of dust paths” making it look like “an animal losing its fur” (LF 28). Compared to the neglected district of Rat Hill, Escorial is depicted as a place of incomparably higher environmental quality and even unnecessary luxury. The contrast is underscored by how Zsuzsa and Sucus are perceived with detachment by some of Escorial’s inhabitants. When the main characters sit in a café in the district, two women with lace gloves stare at them and the narrator comments: “What alarmed the two ladies was the fact that the man with his stubbed belt and the young woman, who had been walking barefoot, were too close. Far too close. They should have been in another part of the city, not at the next table” (LF 14). Zsuzsa and Sucus are immune or rather indifferent to the two women’s stares because they are geared by their teenage insolence and, above all, by the desire of their romantic love, which is, again, a crucial aspect of the novel which we come to later in the analysis. The novel, nevertheless, speculatively points to the social division within the city and the exclusionary process is also shown to be associated with the division of labour.
Except for some digressions of the narrator to the past of the peasant life, the rhythms of the peasant labour corresponding with the rhythm of the land are totally effaced in Lilac and Flag. What constituted modes of production and therefore also modes of life in Pig Earth and in some of the stories of Once in Europa is now substituted by unemployment or, at best, menial labour. Sucus’ father first works as a janitor in one of the city’s auction rooms; however, having been found asleep on an eighteenth-century chair, he is “naturally […] sacked on the spot” (LF 33). Afterwards, the social conditions force him to accept a repetitive job of opening oysters which is what he does for the rest of his life. Zsuzsa’s mother cleans offices and Sucus is fired when he complains about the unsafe working conditions at the building site where he is employed. Most of the migrants live precariously; the adversity of economic circumstances seems to force them to provide for themselves by employing their cunning usually on the black market. The way migrant work is stripped of any other aim but earning money is illustrated by Sucus’ pragmatic conclusions which he presents to Zsuzsa:
I’ll explain you how I see things […] and your life will never be the same again. […] Everyone needs some little thing to make them a bit happier or a bit less sad. They don’t talk about it. Usually they can’t get it themselves. To discover somebody’s real need, even a little one, requires talent.
When you’ve discovered the little need of twenty people, and when you know where to go to fetch them satisfaction, then you’ve got a living. Because however poor they are, they pay. If not in money, then in something. (LF 17)
In general terms, the passage outlines the logic of the economics of consumerism, in which the stress is put on consumption rather then production. The novel speculatively points to this logic when Sucus moves from a more conventional activity of selling coffee to men freshly released from prison to another one of measuring people’s blood pressure in the street, where the task of the service provider is basically to persuade people that they need something they do not really need. Sucus’ mother opposes her son’s reasoning while saying: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, trying to profit from other people’s suffering” and suggests that he should find a “regular job” (LF 93). But to this Sucus can have but one answer: “There aren’t regular jobs any more. They’ve gone. There’s no way” (LF 94).
Both Zsuzsa and Sucus as well as the members of their families are marginalized in a geographical sense which is closely bound to the division of labour. The fictional city of Troy is a European compound but the logic and experience of marginalization and exclusion is common in the globalised world in general and the narrator points to the potential of the fictional city of Troy to be understood as a general representation of globalised cities while saying:
It is possible you have been to Troy without recognising the city. The road from the airport is like many others in the world. It has a superhighway and is often blocked. You leave the airport buildings which are like space vessels never finished, you pass the packed carparks, the international hotels, […], broken fields, the last stray cattle, billboards that advertise cars and Coca-Cola, storage tanks, a cement plant, the first shanty town, several giant depots for big stores, […], working-class flats, a part of an ancient city wall, the old boroughs with trees, crammed shopping streets, new golden office-blocks, a number of ancient domes and spires, and finally you arrive at the acropolis of wealth. (LF 170)
The passage can be seen as referring to the homogenised spaces of globalised cities with the geographical division mirroring the uneven distribution of capital. This aspect of the fictional world of the novel can be related to David Harvey and his critique of increasingly uneven capital distribution in the globalised world. Troy’s environment, particularly the district of Escorial, can also be associated with Castells’ space of flows and managerial elites. Though Zsuzsa and Sucus still live in places such as Rat Hill, they are marginalised under the dominant logic of the city which prevents them from any meaningful interaction with the city space. The novel is, however, not suggesting that such a pointed dichotomy of social exclusion and inclusion is the only outcome of the disappearance of the peasant way of life. It rather dramatizes the extreme potential of the consequences of the cultural transformation where those excluded have to fight the allegedly inevitable adverse economic circumstances at all costs or to end up as beggars.
Pointing to the exclusionary social processes, the novel addresses the question of social justice. This is underscored by the character of Murat who believes that things could be otherwise. Murat works at the same construction site as Sucus where a community of workers are building a bank. In his essay, Peter Hitchcock relates the scene of the construction site in Lilac and Flag with “the ghostly construction that occurs in Lucie Cabrol’s third life” (36). He says that while “the latter is a product of the community’s will […] to provide a chalet for Lucie, […] it is an act of repentance and memory”, the former, that is, the building of the bank that the workers are erecting, is “almost entirely divorced from” the worker’s community and “one whose operations work to exclude them from the benefits of labor they exert”. (Hitchcock 37) The fact that the building of the bank is divorced from the worker’s life is further on expressed when Murat tells Sucus: “My father dreamt of the village he left, and you, you dream of the future. Meanwhile we’re here, you and I are here, mixing concrete here for the Mond Bank” (LF 59). The “here”, the presence of their lives, is separated from what they dream of or hope for.
This passage in Lilac and Flag where Sucus talks with Murat can remind one of some passages in A Fortunate Man, a book about the experience of urban migrant life that we have briefly discussed as one of the spring boards for Berger’s work on the trilogy. In one part of the work, Berger comments on the migrant’s perception of time:
The only present reality for the migrant is work and fatigue which follows it. […] Beyond the present of work and his own exertion, the rest of his life is reduced to a series of fixed images relating to past and future, to his values and hopes. These images are landmarks of his life, but they remain static; they do not develop. […] As soon as he stops working, he is haunted by static images. The images are static in themselves and yet they are shifting in a terrible way. He has the impression that his own image and those of his previous life are hurtling through space, like stars travelling in different directions, so that the distance between them is always increasing and becoming greater. (FM 171)
The migrant’s perception of time is examined in contrast with a normal awareness of a life’s time which Berger characterises as “a space around and yet within the person” (FM 176). He uses a rough drawing of a circle filled with lots of tiny little circles and lines (FM 177) to illustrate his idea. The drawing symbolises elements of past and future (the little circles and lines) forming an amalgam with the present (the space inside the big circle). The juxtaposition points to how continuity between the tenses of a normal awareness of time affirms the stability of one’s life and identity and provides temporal orientation.
As opposed to Pig Earth where the perception of time as cyclic enabled the characters to sustain a sense of orientation and direction, the characters in Lilac and Flag are depicted as isolated and lost in the relentless present of their often miserable lives. The old woman’s flashbacks of the peasant life as well the references to the peasant past made by some of the actual characters are often haunted because they suggest that a return to the village life is impossible. Yet, they also stress how the separation from history disorientates the characters. The novel explicitly deals with the idea of history kept alive when Sucus talks with Clement, his father. When Clement tells his son about the past of the peasant life and concludes that it is just history which does not have much to do with their present condition, Sucus asks: “And what we live now is what?” (LF 41). To his question Clement replies: “Don’t ask me. I don’t know. It’s not history. It’s a kind of waiting” (LF 41). The novel stresses the importance of history for one’s temporal orientation. This is also obvious when the narrator speaks about the role of the dead in the village life and juxtaposes it with how the dead is dealt with in Troy:
When people die here they are all buried in the village cemetery. With time, their names, cut in marble, are effaced […]. Yet, nameless they are still remembered in the course a road follows, in the placing of a bridge over a river, in the way a wall runs, in the paths that lead over the mountains. In Troy it is different. There the names of the dead are forgotten more quickly. The only ones remembered are those with streets named after them. Otherwise, millions disappear without trace, leaving behind no landmark. In the city the bereaved alone carry their dead in their hands. The only memorials are private choices. Here we have so few choices. In Troy they need the dead to help them, because they face so many. (LF 44)
This particular entry of the narrator into the novel challenges the discontinuous aspects of the migrants’ condition. History is presented as a background for orientation in the present and, similar to its interpretation in Pig Earth, it is also presented with a slightly redemptive tone stemming from a historical materialist approach that we have briefly dealt with in relation to some of Walter Benjamin’s ideas. Though the novel concentrates on the life of migrants, its dealing with history may also be related to the condition of the network society and to Castells’ notion of timeless time. The characters’ experience of temporal dislocation may be associated with the condition of the informational society and the logic of the network where events tend to be non-sequentially ordered and where death looses its function as a means of measuring life. The novel presents the loss of a broader temporal perspective as a result of the characters’ being lost in the space of the city which does not allow for any meaningful interaction. At the same time, since the story of Zsuzsa’s and Sucus’ desire is often fractured by the narrator’s flashbacks, changing narrative modes and frequent juxtapositions, the novel’s structure not only reflects the fragmented nature of modernity. It also helps the reader to see the dislocated condition of modernity as depicted in the novel against a broader temporal setting.
As we have seen in the previous subchapter, Castells sees timeless time as stemming from the logic of information flows. In general terms, he understands these flows as undifferentiated flows of unrelated events where there are no causes and no consequences. This links us to Walter Benjamin and his essay “The Storyteller” that we have discussed in the second chapter devoted to the stories in Pig Earth. In his essay, Benjamin argues that in modernity, the story is increasingly replaced by a new form of communication and “this new form of communication is information” (“Storyteller” 88). If the story can communicate experience, which, as we have observed in our discussion of some of Benjamin’s ideas, is linked to cultural history, information cannot because it lacks the ability of interrelating events.
Benjamin’s ideas about storytelling can be related to the third part of the trilogy too. Lilac and Flag is also a story about the importance of storytelling which can challenge the destabilizing and dislocating tendencies of modernity. In a chapter called “Interrogation”, the narrator speaks about what is happening behind the doors where Sucus is being interrogated and beaten because of a crime, to which he resorted along with Zsuzsa as a result of the inhospitable economic circumstances of their lives. The chapter opens with the following lines: “The doors to the Interrogation Unit were all locked in Cauchy Street Station. To do what they do on the ninth floor they require isolation from everything else in life and death; they need to believe that there were no stories before them and that there will be none after them” (LF 146). As the interrogation scene develops, the narrator still remains on the other side of the door behind which Sucus is being accused of a crime without consideration of the circumstances – the narrative – of his life. The narrator not only relates the linear development of events taking place behind the door, she also reflects upon what is happening and the scene is interrupted by one of her memories. She suddenly starts to relate a story from the country about a death of a dog and then immediately reflects upon it while saying:
Man and women are not like this dog because they have words. With their words they change everything, and nothing. Whatever the circumstances, words add and take away. Either spoken words or ones heard in the head. They are always incongruous, because they never fit. This is why words cause pain and why they offer salvation. (LF 148)
The old woman not only reflects on the existence of language as the basis of human consciousness which distinguishes humans from animals. She also reflects upon the importance of storytelling because her observation is derived from her story of the dog. At the same time, the story about the dog takes the reader to the place of the peasant village again and it hence challenges the discontinuous aspects of modernity as depicted in the novel. The reader is encouraged to think about the importance of words and stories and, at the same time, s/he is obliged to accept a broader temporal perspective going back from the time of modernity to the peasant experience.
There are also other moments in the novel in which the theme of the importance of storytelling and language is addressed. Another example would be the scene where Clement tells Sucus about the old story of the “lucky-horse-with-a-broken-leg” (LF 39) which basically stresses the fact that people not only produce space but they are also partially manifestations of a certain place. Clement is also obsessed with the etymological origin of words. In his learned explanations of words’ basic elements and their earliest known use, he goes back to their original meaning that was often tied to some lived experience and that might have got lost over time throughout the developments of language usage. The novel juxtaposes Clement’s stress on using language that has meaning and relation to people’s lives with the information provided by the media which is often disorientating because emptied of any meaning whatsoever. This is apparent when the narrator for example mentions that Sucus is reading “in a newspaper a story about dolphins being trained to protect nuclear submarines” (LF 79). Given the context of Sucus’ life, such a piece of information is totally unrelated to his condition and hence sounds absurd. Ironically enough, Clement dies from injuries caused by the explosion of a TV set, another example of media which by killing Clement symbolises the potentially destructive impacts the media can have on human consciousness and life.
The characters of the novel are thus depicted as suffering under both spatial and temporal dislocation which is accounted for as a result of the cultural condition of the dominant social system and its logic. As in the case of the previous two parts of the trilogy, there is also the figure of a fallen socialist in Lilac and Flag. It is the character of Murat who believes in the idea of justice and endeavours to pass on his conviction to Sucus by saying: “If we keep the idea of justice alive […], if we keep it alive together, one day the world will belong to us” (LF 59). What Sucus finds disturbing about Murat’s formulation is the use of the word “us”: “You [Murat and other members of his generation] all say us when you start to get old. I talk about me. Who’s us?” (LF 58, italics in original). Rather then expressing disagreement with Murat’s belief, Sucus points to the changing social climate within the life of two generations. There is no “us” in the city, because there is no sense of community among its population. Under the dictate of the social logic of modernity, the city is predominantly concerned with “me”. Murat’s socialist hopes seem, however, futile. He is fired because of an injury he suffers on the site and Sucus is fired because he consequently complains about the insufficient safety conditions in the workplace. Murat is thus the last member of the trio formed by the maquisard in “The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol” and Michel in “Once in Europa”.
In general terms, the main characters are not allowed any meaningful interaction with the space of the city and in this sense, they are spatially dislocated. The only place where Sucus feels liberated from his unstable social situation is in the cabin of a crane on the building site into which he climbs and heroically tells himself: “Now I’m alive, […], now I can do anything!” (LF 62). The ungrounded space of the cabin provides a sense of freedom, unlike the ground where Sucus and Zsuzsa are forced to struggle in adverse economic conditions. However, the sense of freedom that the cabin evocates in Sucus is rather an ephemeral feeling than a capacity to exercise choice and “do anything” because one cannot really do much there. The fact that it is also the place where Zsuzsa and Sucus later on in the novel make love only underlines how their erotic relationship can, on the one hand, drive them and bring them “high” (LF 91); however, on the other hand, it cannot ground and thus sustain them on its own.
The story of Zsuzsa and Sucus is a romantic tragedy set against the spatial and temporal dislocation of the main protagonists. The romantic aspect is again crucial in Lilac and Flag because, first, the erotic drives the characters despite the unfavourable economic circumstances and their relationship is presented as more valuable than mere monetary value. Second, it constitutes the main storyline. As in the case of some of the stories in the previous two parts of the trilogy and in G., the novel again provides an erotics of reading. The progression of events in the love story moves sometimes gratingly and sometimes tenderly between the dynamics of the main protagonists’ desire and the old woman’s contemplations upon it. The love story is at the same time fractured by images of the city in which the events take place and the novel thus creates a complex synchronic pattern. As the city is often characterized as an apathetic chaos without sensation or feeling and with a lack of sense of community, its dynamic stands in opposition to the energy of Lilac and Flag’s desire.
As the story collects more and more images of the post-industrial landscape of Troy, the impression of anonymity and estrangement derived from the depiction of the city’s environment intensifies. In the section entitled “Crime”, for example, the narrator describes an event in an underground station where people are waiting on the platform when suddenly a man takes out a butcher’s axe from his case and fells another man with one chop into the back of his neck. The frightful brutality of the act, however, does not move the many onlookers on the platform and they remain passive: “No one makes a move or kneels down to help the old man. He lies sprawled on the platform in an empty circle. A train draws in. Then a second train. Their doors open. Passengers get on and off. The train leaves. On the deserted platform the corpse lies there, in its dark stain” (LF 66-7). Later on, the narrator adds: “Six months passed. Despite the hundred of witnesses, the man with the butcher’s chopper was not identified” (LF 67). The incomprehensible brutality of the crime and the numbness of the crowd underline the estrangement of the city space. In a broader perspective, they are symptoms of modernity where the values of community and solidarity are being replaced by materialism and disconnection. This is apparent, for example, when the narrator describes a mass of people waiting on the platform: “Their faces were sad. They hadn’t lost patience, but they’d lost heart. Perhaps heart comes back to them when they step out onto stations in distant suburbs and see the front windows of their houses, surrounded by trees, and lit up” (LF 64). The desire between Lilac and Flag is in stark contrast to this general indifference and apathy of the city’s chaos because it hopes to offer a space of mutuality and cooperation which is precluded in the alienating urban space.
As in the story of Lucie Cabrol in Pig Earthand some stories in Once Europa, romantic love in Lilac and Flag can again be described as “a love uniting or hoping to unite two displaced persons” (AOF 66). It centres the characters and, as in the story of Odile, the female body is dealt with as a site of this centeredness. When Sucus dreams of Zsuzsa, he dreams of a place: “[In his dreams, Sucus] was driving along a one-way street. Zsuzsa was the city centre to which the road signs all pointed. But his street was going away from the centre. At the next round-about he read a sign which said: Zsuzsa 638 km” (LF 26). The intimacy that Sucus feels with Zsuzsa and her body is put into stark contrast with a scene in the strip bar where Zsuzsa is disclosing some of her body parts to the male gaze (LF 141). The image reminds one of Berger’s discussions of the nude in Ways of Seeing and the potentially dehumanizing and objectifying effect of the male gaze. The novel also makes slight reference to the potentially oppressive patriarchal nature of modernity. What can be, however, rather disturbing about its dealing with eroticism is how considerably stereotypically gendered the roles of the main protagonists are. This is, for example, apparent in the old lady’s musing over the nature of male and female desire (LF 88).
However, as literary characters, both Zsuzsa and Sucus are lacking in depth and they can be understood as embodiments of the female and male elements in general terms. Though the novel contains a reference to the power of the male gaze, it does not strive to tackle in depth the problems of gender psychology. Rather, Zsuzsa and Sucus could be classified as sort of archetypal literary types whose quest for a space of mutuality driven by an erotic and emotional desire is set against the unfavourable material and mental conditions of modernity. This is another aspect of the novel which renders it close to the mythological genre. Zsuzsa and Sucus’ love triggers a desire for a more just society – a desire which cannot be accommodated in the dislocated and fragmented realm of modernity. Their story must inevitably end in tragedy. When Sucus falsely thinks he has killed Zsuzsa in rage after seeing her in the strip bar, he commits suicide. This twist in the plot links us to another famous and powerful tragedy of denied love. However, Lilac and Flag are neither aristocrats nor exceptional individuals. They are quite ordinary migrant teenagers. The novelis a tragedy of the ordinary and everyday; it strives to explore the “structure of tragedy in our own culture” (Williams, Modern 62).
The final part of the trilogy enables the reader to see the space of the peasant world with its sense of rooted-ness and community as juxtaposed with the fragmented space of modernity. If in the world of the peasantry as depicted by Berger the individual is able to find meaning in direct relationship to others and his life condition, in the globalised space of modernity the experience of one’s own life is separated from the communal. The erotic and feelings are again put in opposition to this general trend as they activate, and within themselves sustain, a hope for a different social space. Berger, as a kind of a Gramscian organic intellectual, thus sees the task of his writing as articulating the voice of the individual lost in the fragments of modernity which, according to Walter Benjamin, has become “poorer in communicable experience” (“The Storyteller” 84). Lilac and Flag finishes with strong redemptive overtones when Sucus embarks upon a mythical ship of the dead and cannot find Zsuzsa aboard. She, or rather her “soul” (LF 171), as the narrator believes, is namely still surviving in the world of the living – the immediacy of the reader’s situation – where Zsuzsa makes “the others believe, that she’s its centre, its prize and its capital” (LF 171, italics mine). For Berger, the act of writing is an act of rediscovering hope against what he sees as the odds of the capitalist order. Hope for a more just society, however, needs to be supported by other concrete actions. His writing can be easily criticised for its lack of a political narrative effective enough to counter the dominating one. And such a reproach is not a minor one. However, it may also trigger the reader’s imagination and motivate to what Berger defines as “the action of approach, of measuring distances and walking towards” (“Against” 214). Such an action, as Berger says further on, may “lead to collaborations which deny discontinuity,” since “the act of resistance means not only refusing to accept the absurdity of the world-picture offered to us, but denouncing it” (“Against” 214).
as the chorus of the earth find their eyes in the sky
and unwrap them to each other in the teeming dark
hold everything dear
the child who reaches for the truths beyond the door
the yearning to begin again together
animals keen inside the parliament of the world
the people in the room the people in the street the people
hold everything dear
--- Gareth Evans31
The significance of the social development of place in John Berger’s Into Their Labours Trilogy has been explored on various levels in this thesis. The work has yielded an insight into some aspects of Berger’s Marxist political commitment and it has pinpointed some of his objectives in the trilogy. While focusing on some of Berger’s literary outputs which served as a springboard to his endeavour in the trilogy, the discussion has provided some explanation of theoretical concepts such as Antonio Gramsci’s “cultural hegemony” and “organic intellectuals.” It has also looked at some of Walter Benjamin’s intellectual concerns such as “the commodification of the senses” and observations over the nature of modernity which served as the basis for Berger’s endeavour in his Ways of Seeing and later on also in the trilogy. The discussion has shown that before Berger started work on his trilogy, he had been intensely interested in the mechanisms behind the social structure of modern consumer society, characterised by commodity fetishism and the commodification of the senses. The discussion of A Fortunate Man revealed that the result of Berger and Mohr’s collaborative effort can be seen as an articulation of Berger’s later approach to the narrative of the trilogy and his positioning of himself into the role of a Gramscian “organic intellectual”, that is, one who is to articulate the voice of the peasant and, potentially, of the dissatisfied consumer. The attention given to A Fortunate Man also enables one to understand Berger’s desire to examine closely the complex life behind the migrant’s dislocated position that led him, later on in his career, to an exploration of peasant life and to his work on the trilogy.
Through a discussion of the introduction to Pig Earth and some theoretical concepts from Frederic Jameson and Félix Guattari, the closing section of the first chapter suggests that Berger’s literary endeavour in the trilogy can be conceived of as a “cognitive mapping” of the peasant’s relation to place and its transformation in industrial society that can possibly offer some alternatives to the consumerist ideology dominating the space in capitalist society. The analysis of the stories in Pig Earth has shown that the stories are concerned with the peasant’s experience of place, on both its spatial and temporal levels. Rather than trying to represent the peasant environment per se, Berger, as a kind of Gramscian organic intellectual, strives to give meaning to the peasant experience which is inextricably linked to place and to the past, present and possible future of the peasant community. His endeavour has been analysed with respect to both the formal and thematic aspects of the stories.
Taking into account some of Walter Benjamin’s ideas about storytelling and Paul Carter’s concept of “reverent miming”, the stories in Pig Earth can be characterised as open-ended, documentary-like and sensually realistic. These aspects enable them to recreate the peasant experience of place. Their associative nature invites the reader to “co-experience” the peasant life and demands some intellectual work on the reader’s side. Thematically, the stories concentrate on the cooperative and communal nature of the peasant’s work and the peasant’s sense of orientation in the physical landscape. The analysis points to how, in the stories, a sense of history develops from a sense of place, since for the peasant, familiarity with a place means among other things recognising its history. Berger’s work points to how tradition and memories, as well as storytelling, reconnect the characters with the past and thus establishes not only a sense of origin but also that of continuity which is juxtaposed with the new trend of stressing the immediate profit without any consideration of the consequences of one’s actions. The peasant’s bodily relationship to the land underlines the peasant’s dependence on the natural environment that nurtures and sustains the body. The peasant’s detailed knowledge of the surroundings is also juxtaposed with a more abstract world of monetary value that, while casting a universalising perspective of profit seeking, implies disrespect for the particularities of the land and its inhabitants.
Incorporating some of Arran Gare’s ideas about environmental narratives and Paul Carter’s observations on the eradicating and devastating movements of the detached dominant cultures, the analysis of Pig Earth has also been extended to ecological concerns and to a more “green” politico-aesthetics. In its concern with spatial and placial issues, the first part of trilogy stresses the concepts of sustainability, enjoyability and negotiability rather than profitability and efficiency that are so deeply embedded in modern culture and that are especially well illustrated by the last story in the volume.
As it has been argued, “The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol” is the most politically charged story in the volume. The analysis has pointed to the political concerns of the story and to its tackling of the issue of the commodification of the senses that is directly addressed when Lucie Cabrol, having fallen for a vision of an illusionary phantom of material excess, becomes abstracted from herself. Making reference to Marx’s theory of alienation and Benjamin’s “flâneur”, the analysis points to the possibly devastating effects the illusionary world of commodities can have on human life. The theme of redemption in the last story of the volume again stresses the importance of history for the peasant’s sense of direction and meaning. It also underlines Berger’s socialist concerns as it imparts the stories with a moral element and sense of ethics directed at the potential reader. The story of Lucie Cabrol also prefigures further development in the trilogy, since it deals with the contrasting images of the country and the city. Whereas the space of the country stands for an individual’s being grounded in a direct relationship to the natural environment and other members of the community, the space of the city symbolises alienation and abstraction that preclude nurturing of the body. The contrast between these two images is, later on, deepened in several ways in the remaining two parts of the trilogy. Another significant feature of the story is the theme of romantic love that provides the characters with a sense of grounding and that later on proves to be extremely crucial in the remaining two parts of the trilogy.
As opposed to the characters in Pig Earth, the characters in Once in Europa are depicted as dislocated due to the historical and social forces of modernisation that causes the dissolution of traditions. While the stories in Pig Earth endeavour to communicate the experience of a bodily connection to the land and immersion in the practices of village life, the stories in Once in Europa communicate the experience of personal struggles against the process of modernisation. By contrast with the descriptive sensual “heaviness” of the narratives in Pig Earth that imparts the stories with a sense of gravity, the stories in Once in Europa are characterised as comparably “lighter.” They do not pay such a detailed and documentary-like attention to the peasant practices that lie behind the “rooted-ness” of the peasant life in a certain place. The stories in Once in Europa show the characters as dislocated on both a spatial and a temporal level, often having to fight with a contradiction between the sensate world that implies being grounded in a place, and the abstract world of monetary values that implies dislocation. The clash between the sensate and the abstract is underscored by the contrasting images of the country and the city which have been discussed in relation to some of Raymond William’s theoretical observations. The stories in Once in Europa focus upon the theme of dislocation which is often stressed by a narrator whose perspective is distant or “outside”. This perspective evokes a feeling of lightness and only accentuates the fact that the characters are being uprooted from the disappearing peasant way of life with its direct relationship to the land. The perspective of the narrator who often observes the characters from above or tells the story while recalling some memories is thus often in stark contrast to the perspective of the storyteller in Pig Earth who is often “sensually immersed” in the world of the peasantry. However, the narrative perspective also provides a challenge to the discontinuous aspects of social change. The narrator’s temporal leaps stress the importance of the coexistence of the past, present and possible future and thus oblige the reader to accept a broader temporal perspective rather than a simple linear (present) narrative.
The analysis of Once Europa has also pointed to how the characters, though dislocated by forces over which they have no power as individuals, are driven by a desire to overcome their dislocation. The motif of romantic love is shown to be of crucial importance for the stories as it provides the characters with a means of becoming re-centred. While modernity precludes the characters from finding a place as a site of centred-ness and meaning in the physical environment, the human body becomes the place of this centred-ness or, at least, it is hoped that it will do. Discussing briefly the importance of sexuality and eroticism in Berger’s novel G., the third chapter showed how in Once in Europa Berger continues in what he was doing in the novel. First, the erotic is depicted as something that drives the characters despite the adverse social and economic circumstances and this aspect of the stories highlights that there is something more valuable than mere monetary value, as the capitalist system would try to make one believe. Second, similar to the narrative of G., the stories provide an erotics of reading for the potential reader. As a socialist, Berger thus not only speaks about the importance of labour and capital in the production of space; he also acknowledges the existence of feelings as a power that exceeds mere facts and helps to find a new direction as well as creating hope. It is also this hope that helps the characters in Once in Europa to transcend the inescapable tragic circumstances imposed upon their lives by modernity.
While the stories in both Pig Earth and Once in Europa are set in a village, the protagonists of Lilac and Flag are put into an urban environment. The novel thus reflects the process of increasing urbanisation in modernity and strives to reflect on the changing mental climate brought about by the dominant social logic of capitalism. The motif of romantic love and the erotic are again crucial in the novel as they enable the characters to be driven by something more than mere economic circumstances. However, the erotic relationship between Zsuzsa and Sucus triggers a desire for a space of mutuality which cannot be quenched in the fragmentary and dislocated world of modernity.
The space of the fictional city in Lilac and Flag is depicted as having geographical divisions within itself related to the dynamics of social exclusion, of which Zsuzsa and Sucus, as migrants, are easy and exemplary victims. This aspect of the novel has been related to the work of some recent theorists of globalised space, namely David Harvey and Manuel Castells. The analysis has shown that while making references to the process of capital accumulation, the fictional city of Troy reflects on the increasingly uneven geographical development in the globalised world. Troy is depicted as consisting of spaces which unjustly impose their dominant logic over others. As opposed to Pig Earth in which the characters found a site of meaning in a direct, tactile relationship with the physical environment and in relation to other members of the community, the main protagonists of Lilac and Flag are not allowed any meaningful interaction with the space of the city and are thus spatially dislocated. Spatial dislocation is accompanied by a temporal one, since, while separated from the distant peasant past of their families and facing an uncertain future, Zsuzsa and Sucus are portrayed as being locked in the relentless and fragmentary time of the present. As was the case with the stories in Once in Europa, the temporal leaps of the narrator provide brief but effective allusions to history, which, though often haunted because reminiscent of the remoteness of the peasant past, give a temporal perspective broader than a simple linear narrative would do and help to change the ahistorical tendencies of modernity.
While in Pig Earth Berger put himself into the role of a storyteller creating narratives that communicate the experience of a life embedded in a place, the narrative of Lilac and Flag reflects on the decreasing role of storytelling as a way of making sense of the time of modernity. Elucidating Castells’ concept of “the space of flows” and contrasting the logic of the information flows with Benjamin’s theoretical observations over the importance of storytelling, the analysis has shown how Lilac and Flag points to the potentially destructive impact of undifferentiated flows of unrelated events on human consciousness. This aspect of Lilac and Flag also sheds new light on the trilogy as a whole as it can encourage the reader to reconsider the importance of Berger’s narratives in the context of their own lives. This is also underlined by the novel’s closeness to the mythological genre which finally puts the trilogy into a broader historical and mythological context and thus frames the whole work which has been written into and not from or about their labours.
Thanks to their accessibility, the fact that they concentrate on the life of unexceptional individuals and are concerned with the ordinary and everyday, Berger’s narratives in the Into Their Labours Trilogy as well as most of his other writings underline his egalitarian politics and may appeal to a wide reading public. The emotional charge of the stories in Pig Earth and Once in Europa and the novel Lilac and Flag may trigger the reader’s sympathy. It is also an aspect of the narratives which precludes them from becoming reactionary or nostalgic as it imparts them with a hopeful tone leaving space for the present and possible future and underlines Berger’s socialist objectives.
Berger’s political thinking and literary endeavour stress the fact that globalisation is not just a process of integrating the world’s markets but also an opinion about human beings and why they exist in the world. The socially critical implications of his work can be, however, reproached for not providing a political narrative effective enough to counter the dominant one. There is a potential danger of accepting the revolutionary punch of his writing without sensing – being blind to – its lack of a concrete grounding. Yet, the spell of it – its power and force – cannot be neglected because of the lived experience it communicates and the hope for a more just society that it strives to raise. Berger’s work can be understood as a reflection of how difficult and complex the problems the globalised world is facing and will yet have to deal with in a more profound way. In this respect, his narratives can enrich one’s worldview and influence the understanding of one’s condition. And this is, after all, perhaps also one of the tasks of storytelling itself:
We are both storytellers. Lying on our backs, we look up at the night sky. This is where stories began, under the aegis of that multitude of stars which at night filch certitudes and sometimes return them as faith. Those who first invented and then named the constellations were storytellers. Tracing an imaginary line between a cluster of stars gave them an image and an identity. The stars threaded on that line were like events threaded on a narrative. Imagining the constellations did not of course change the stars, nor did it change the black emptiness that surrounds them. What it changed was the way people read the night sky. (AOF 8)
Works Cited Adams, William. “Aesthetics: Liberating the Senses.” The Cambridge Companion to Marx. Ed. Terrell Carver. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. 246-74.
Arendt, Hannah, ed. Illuminations. New York: Shocken Books, 1969.
Benjamin, Walter. “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.” Arendt 155-200.
---. “Thesis on the Philosophy of History.” Arendt 253-64.
---. “The Return of the Flâneur.” Selected Writings. Ed. Jennings, Michael W. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Harward UP, 2005. 262-7.
---. “The Storyteller.” Arendt 83-109.
---. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Arendt 217-51.
Berger, John. “Against the Great Defeat of the World.” The Shape of a Pocket. London: Bloomsbury, 2002. 209-15.
---. A Fortunate Man. London: Vintage, 1997. (FM)
---. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. New York: Bloomsbury, 2005. (AOF)
---. A Seventh Man. London: Penguin, 1975. (SM)
---. “Ernst Fischer: A Philosopher and Death.” Dyer, Essays 403-12.
---. From A to X. London: Verso, 2008.
---. G. New York: Vintage, 1991. (G)
---. King. New York: Pantheon, 1999.
---. Lilac and Flag. London: Bloomsbury, 2000. (LF)
---. “Living and Writing the Peasant Life.” The New York Times. Interview by Gerald Marzorati. 29 Nov. 1987. 24 Feb. 2009.