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Shameful Behavior

In response to:

Alienating Brecht from the June 3, 1971 issue

To the Editors:

Nigel Dennis’s piece on not liking Brecht [NYR, June 3] elaborates an attitude which is already widespread and which promises to become dominant among critics of both Rightist and Leftist persuasion. Günter Grass’s play Die Plebejer makes very much the same criticisms with very much the same tone of voice. As Mr. Dennis puts it, “It is hard to imagine a sleazier, nastier, more opportunistic life than Brecht’s.” This is becoming the generally accepted attitude because it is based on a great deal of hard evidence. Where Herr Grass and Mr. Dennis distort their picture, however, is in their assumption, explicitly asserted, that Brecht was singleminded in his greedy selfishness, that he was never at any time troubled by his long record of “blatant cynicism” and ruthless double-dealing. Mr. Dennis tells us of the Brecht of the 1950s:

I can only see a rich man, growing elderly and fat, sitting in the park of his large official country mansion and trying to think of ways of getting on at his hosts’ expense.

Günter Grass finishes his play on the same note; Brecht turns his back on the most painful of his acts of betrayal and retreats to admire the trees in the park of his country mansion. Like Herr Grass, Nigel Dennis sees all of Brecht’s aesthetic and political pretensions as being aspects of his hypocrisy:

The “alienation” that Brecht demanded…must have helped him a great deal in his more unscrupulous dealings by putting his conscience at a wide remove from his actions.

The most forceful reply to this would involve a detailed analysis of Galileo, offering a reading diametrically opposed to the one suggested by Mr. Dennis’s concluding remarks—“there are no emotions involved except a fondness for food and comfort”—a reading of Scene 13, for example, which sees some emotional values quite unconnected with the goose. But in the short space available in a letter, the point can perhaps be made by quoting one of the poems Brecht wrote in that park of his country mansion:

A Bad Morning

The white poplar, a local beauty
Today is an old slattern. The lake
The fuchsias among the snapdragons are cheap and worthless.
Why?
Last night in a dream I saw fingers pointing at me
As if I were a leper. They were worn out with labour and
They were broken.
“You do not know!” I cried
Conscious of guilt.
(1953)

The original poem is not of enormous intrinsic poetic value, and this version is crude and clumsy in its attempt to be literal, but the content is very relevant to the point in question, and it is representative of many of the late Brechtian utterances. It seems to us that the starkly unsympathetic picture of Brecht should not spoil its convincing case by ignoring the available evidence about what went on in the mind of that fat old cat sitting in the park of his official country mansion. Those who choose to throw stones can say that Brecht’s behavior was often shameful, but it is only in the face of a good deal of the evidence that anyone can say he was altogether shameless.

James Redmond

H.C. Castein

London University

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