While reading an online preview of John Berger’s new book, Bento’s Sketchbook, I came across the following passage, in which Berger describes a drawing session with a model.
[T]his is happening where there are no words.
Normally, we face words frontally and so can read them, speak them or think them. [But this] was happening somewhere to the side of language. Any frontal view of language was impossible there. From the side I could see how language was paper thin, and all its words were foreshortened to become a single vertical stroke — I — like a single post in a vast landscape.
Berger’s report of an experience that changed his perspective on language, illuminating its inherent limitation, changed my perspective, too, but his visual metaphor led me in a different direction.
Somewhat perversely applying Derrida’s somewhat perverse dictum that “there is nothing outside of the text,” I imagine that the text is the real story of the world. What if, I ask myself, instead of facing life’s story frontally, head-on, I normally see it from the side? What I see, then, is a story that is foreshortened, flat, a paper-thin column of vertical strokes: the letter “I” all the way up and down. If, from this perspective, the story of life is all about I, is it any wonder that it is both fascinating and unsatisfactory for me? Fascinating because, obviously, I am the whole story, yet unsatisfactory for the same reason: it is effectively one-dimensional.
But sometimes something or someone encounters me on life’s sideline and leads me by the hand from the I-nothingness outside of the text into engagement with the multidimensional, multipopulated story of life. Here, I become absorbed in a story that is deep and wide and powerful. And I find, humblingly, that when the word “I” appears it refers not to me but to another. Evidently, the story is not about me.
But it is my story nonetheless, for the “text” and I create it together, its meaning arising from our interaction. Whereas formerly I was reading into, projecting, and therefore reading only “I,” when I engage with life’s story I become co-creator of an infinitely rich narrative.
This movement to multidimensionality I owe to the power of empathy at work in me and in those who “answer that of God” in me, illuminating the distortion and poverty of my customary perspective, leading me to a better vantage point, and encouraging and supporting me as I learn to read, think, and speak — to co-create — our life’s story.
[The quotation is from John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook (Pantheon Books, 2011), p. 35.]