John Berger and Finding Beauty

I am one of those people who tends to avoid silence at all costs. Typically, my avoidance manifests as seeking busier study spaces, constant background music, or a podcast — what I’ve started to casually identify as “a bit of chatter in my ear.” I take my chatter to grocery stores or on long walks; though controversial, sometimes I turn on chatter even as I fall asleep.

I am not a loyal listener, but every now and then I browse Revolutionary Left Radio’s episodes in which host Bret O’Shea of Omaha, Nebraska, explores leftist political and social theory with a different text, person, or historical event as the focus of each episode. In the week leading up to the start of the semester, I stumbled upon their August 20th release, a 70-minute conversation with Jon Greenaway in which the two discuss the life and work of the late European art critic John Berger. 

The interview is now and then interrupted by Berger himself through excerpts from his album with John Christie, “I Send You this Cadmium Red,” in which Berger meditates on color. I happened to be sitting outside of the Giant on the Baltimore Pike when one of the interludes introduced me to Berger’s red. I was situated amongst reds of my own: sitting beneath red letters spelling “GIANT,” letting overripe raspberries stain my fingers (and probably my shirt), and watching the first signs of the smoky pink sunset bleed into the sky. 

Berger’s chatter, written like a love letter, crept into my ears: “Red is not usually innocent, but the red you send me, is. … If I look at it, I wonder what will happen when it grows older. Maybe it won’t be red anymore. … Now, it’s the heaviest red in the world and no bird could fly near it. Perhaps my favorite color red is Caravaggio’s. He uses it in painting after painting. The Death of the Virgin at the Louvre, for example. The red by which you swear to love forever. The red whose father is the knife. The red which Naguib Mahfouz was thinking about in Cairo when he wrote, ‘My beloved may absent herself from existence, but love does not.’ Could it be that red is the one color that is continually asking for a body?” If color is a religion, I stood before red’s altar that day, on the brick ledge of one of postmodernity’s principal milieus: the Supermarket.

No doubt as a reaction to the bouts of ostensible liberation provided by vaccines, the hot, heavy Pennsylvania weather, and my new status as underemployed, over the summer I began a quest for beauty: I desired scenes, sounds, tastes, and even people whom I felt fit my undefined yet particular standards. John Berger fit my parameters, but so did odd fried foods, Loscil’s ominous ambient music, and the small, brown snake in my backyard. 

Now we have made our way through a month of classes, and I am reading about health care, environmental commodification, and prime numbers. Though not without effort, I can find beauty here too — in the Woolman piano being played out of tune or the DIY-looking lamps in Sci Commons — but I will have to invent my own interludes on color. 

I recently called my grandmother and talked with her about grandmother things: her bi-monthly grocery delivery and her recent bird sightings — cardinals and red-winged blackbirds. She lives in Vermillion, South Dakota.

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