John Berger In Silence

By Tereza Stehlikova


He comes to this forest for the same reason that one might visit a church. Here, in the dark temple built of tall spruces and dappled light, he gives himself to stillness. The wood is like a pause in a long heated conversation, a space where one takes a deep breath.  

If one thinks of a landscape as a visible reflection of the internal topography of the mind, then this forest is the twilight boundary between wakefulness and sleep. It is a place where the tangible and intangible meet, and hidden thoughts become revealed.  

Bright sunlight greets him through small gaps in the treetops. He sits down and opens a notebook on his knees, a pen at the ready. The empty white page stares back at him defiantly. Its surface is a blank face, capable of an infinite number of expressions. Beneath this surface he searches for thoughts, those underground streams waiting to be discovered. The water that flows through them is the essence of life.

Writing is an alchemical process of distilling the essence of life from the beating heart of the world and pouring it into words. Words are vessels that he constructs in order to contain the essence of a stream, and transport it to those who are hoping to be refreshed. The vessels are made of soft clay that should never be fired, as their form needs to be flexible, living.

Patiently, he reshapes every word anew, careful not to pollute the content with unwanted associations. Even in conversation he sculpts his words with the utmost care. He knows that spoken words have a physical presence which can, if used thoughtlessly, obscure their essence. There are times when this powerful presence of spoken words is used as a weapon of persuasion, yet his speech is full of silence, the weight of each word balanced by the pause that follows.

To pause in a conversation means to stand still on a little island in the stream of unceasing thoughts. On such an island one becomes separate from the thought that carried him there, seeing everything from a little distance.

His pauses are not passive; they are an act of defiance against the flow of easy words. They remind him of hope; it too is a form of defiance.

There is much hope in silence, much silence in hope.

He looks down at the white page, now covered in his notes. Instead of words, he sees the empty white spaces between them. They contain everything that cannot be put into words. He realises that what is beckoning to him in the stillness of the forest, is hope. Not hope as a simple word, but as an infinite space which stands outside of time, a place where everything can happen, and where nothing has happened yet.

There lives hope, beyond words, in the silence of a pause, in the gaps between treetops, through which the sun finds its way into the darkest forest.

This piece was written in response to a conversation between John Berger and Geoff Dyer at the National Film Theatre, London, 19th April 2005, as part of the season John Berger: Here Is Where We Meet(

Tereza Stehlikova works as a filmmaker, writer, illustrator and visiting lecturer at the RCA. She is currently involved in ‘Tactile Experiments’ (using the sense of touch as a means of exploring hidden aspects of ordinary objects, the results of which she will turn into a film). She is also making a short documentary for the BBC (Untold London).