John Berger
Notting Hill Editions
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Cataract, John Berger matter-of-factly informs us, comes from the Greek kataraktes, meaning waterfall or portcullis; an obstruction that descends from above. This essay, published by Notting Hill Editions as an attractive little hardback, is Berger’s affectionate tribute to the miracle of sight. In a series of diary entries written in the sparse, elegant prose that is his trademark, Berger takes us through his experience of life under the portcullis. “With cataracts,” Berger explains, “wherever you are, you are in a certain sense indoors.” Indoors, perhaps, but still very much in his element, itemising his unease with a child-like neutral curiosity, his descriptions skilfully complemented by the wonderful illustrations that accompany the text courtesy of Turkish-born artist Selcuk Demirel.

“Exulting in his restored powers after successful surgery, Berger fancies his eyesight has actually improved.”

Exalting in his restored powers a er successful surgery, Berger fancies his eyesight has actually improved: the lifting of the portcullis culminates in “a kind of visual renaissance.” As Berger relates his revitalization with almost giddy exaltation – “the small becomes smaller, the large larger, the immense more immense” – one is struck by the extent of our passivity in the process of seeing, how vulnerable we are to extraneous contingencies. We can, of course, interpret, scrutinise, turn things over in our minds – and few have done so as lucidly as Berger – but we are, ultimately, at the mercy of factors way beyond our control: light, refraction, the laws of physics, our own biology and the competence of medics such as Professor Baudouin, to whose department at the Quinze-Vingts Eye Hospital in Paris this book is dedicated.


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