Brecht in Context: Comparative Approaches
Brecht: A Biography
Auden used to say that of the literary men he had known only three struck him as positively evil: Frost, Yeats, and Brecht. John Willett tells us this, and Ronald Hayman goes further. Auden said that Brecht was one of the few people who deserved the death sentence—“In fact I can imagine doing it to him myself.” Willett and Hayman make a point of understanding and forgiving a great deal in their subject. Here is a quote from the early Brecht:
Why can’t the Jews be disposed of? Because for thousands of years they’ve been quartered, broken on the wheel, tortured, spat at. But the spit runs dry before they do.
And here is Hayman’s comment on it:
Despite his friendship with Feuchtwanger, Warschauer, Hedda and Marianne, there is little sympathy for the Jews; on the other hand, ruthlessness is what gives force to both his thinking and his life style.
What a useful limb “the other hand” is. Here it is offering ruthlessness a recognition long overdue.
Willett, who meets many attacks on Brecht with tones of injured surprise, wonders what lay behind Auden’s feelings of revulsion. Auden on Brecht again: “He was simply a crook. Never gave up either his Austrian nationality or his Swiss bank account.” Willett: “I don’t think myself that these are the kind of actions which make a man a crook, let alone positively evil….” Well, of course not, on their own. Austrian nationality is, for an Austrian, an inalienable right, and for a stateless person an immeasurable boon. And the Swiss would be thoroughly inconvenienced without their banking system. But here is Brecht, in April 1949, applying for Austrian citizenship:
Let me emphasize that I consider myself to be only a poet and do not wish to serve any definite political ideology. Nor do I wish to be regarded as the exponent of any such ideology. I repudiate the idea of repatriating myself in Germany.
Citizenship was granted a year later. And a year after that we find Brecht in Berlin writing to a functionary in the Ministry of Culture: “Our artists are prepared to change and with complete devotion to support you in the battle for a great new art.” A few pages later in Hayman’s biography, Brecht writes to Ulbricht:
History will pay its respect to the revolutionary impatience of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. The great discussion with the masses about the tempo of socialist construction will cause the socialist achievements to be sifted and secured. It is necessary for me at this moment to express to you my allegiance to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.
“At this moment”—the phrase, in what Hayman calls “three cautiously worded sentences,” refers to the crushing by Soviet troops of the Berlin workers’ rising of June 17, 1953. At the same time Brecht suggested that if Grotewohl, the prime minister, wanted to speak on the radio, the program could be accompanied by songs and recitations by Ernst Busch and others.
From Willett we learn that this position of Brecht’s “seems to have altered the official attitude to him almost overnight.” He had been quicker off the mark than “many other intellectuals.” Hayman remarks when talking about Galileo that “later Brecht would apparently submit to pressure in East Germany but would succeed in creating the Berliner Ensemble.” Yet it appears from evidence in both books that it was not by submitting to pressure but by his eagerness to please that Brecht created the Berliner Ensemble. Eagerness to please “at this moment.”
Returning then to the mystery of Auden’s aversion to Brecht, may we not surmise that something of all this was on his mind? To offer your art in vocal support of the Party is one thing. To do so and still to keep a bolt-hole and a nest-egg is quite another. To say to Austria, See, I have no political ambitions at all, I have castrated my art; and to East Germany, Comrade! my songs are at your service: this is egregious.
On the whole, when considering Auden’s remark, one feels sorrier for Yeats and Frost than for Brecht. It was, says Auden’s publisher, Charles Monteith, “one of his favorite conversation-stoppers,” and I suppose that it was intended to be construed along the following lines: The greatest poets of our age have been personally evil; if you do not think this a mere coincidence, you might pause to consider whether there is not a connection between the possession of great gifts and the propensity to abuse them; at the very least, do not expect the artist to be a saint.
This is a recurrent theme with Auden:
The power that corrupts, that power to excess
The beautiful quite naturally possess….
The lover, the dictator, and the artist all share such power, and it was Auden’s reproach against himself that he had come to fame as an essentially frivolous communist or Marxisant. It haunted Auden, this sense that the poet’s influence on the crowd could be like that of the dictator. It was an exaggerated fear. Perhaps it even undermined his later work. But it made him capable of accepting well-aimed criticism—Orwell’s criticism of “Spain,” for instance. It was as a former combatant that Orwell disliked Auden’s noncombatant talk about the necessary murder. But that was a blemish in a work that was very far from extolling murder. Auden had supported the Republican cause. He had not supported Stalinism.
Brecht was quintessentially a noncombatant and I suspect that this was what noncombatant Auden most disliked in him. I do not mean, by the way, that one should only listen to the words of the combatant—that would be to surrender all of politics and philosophy to the military. But one should always be alert to the deformities of noncombatant writing. From the moment of his espousal of communism, Brecht stood on the sidelines, cheering on a party he most emphatically did not wish to join, recommending that others submit to a discipline which he himself refused. This is vividly illustrated in his first contact with American theater in 1935, when Brecht believed that the members of the Theatre Union were under Communist party control. Rehearsals were going badly and so he appealed to V.J. Jerome, the Party’s chief cultural officer. Hayman tells us that Jerome acted as arbitrator but that within two days Brecht was ignoring his rulings, saying: “Ah, but I am not a Party member. I need not keep the agreement. But you are Party members and are under discipline.” I should like to have seen Brecht’s face when he was told that the members of the company were not in the Party.
The Party, that is, he was so wont to praise:
The individual has only two eyes
The Party has a thousand eyes.
The Party can see seven lands.
The individual a single city.
The individual has only his hour
The Party has many hours.
The individual can be annihilated
But the Party cannot be annihilated…
and so on. There is a mentality, the international Stakhanovite mentality, which revels in submission to party discipline. But Brecht was not a Stakhanovite. He liked to see other people submit, and it is typical of the noncombatant mentality that it should be drawn to the justification of the execution of a comrade. Brecht could never have written that phrase Orwell objected to in Auden (“the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder”) because he did not believe in the guilt. It was the murder that got him going.
Then we shot him and
Cast him down into the lime-pit
And when the lime had swallowed him up
We turned back to our work.
On which the chorus chimes in:
And your work was successful
You have propagated
The teachings of the classics
The ABC of Communism….
They shoot the young comrade very tenderly in The Measures Taken. They tell him to rest his head on their arm and to close his eyes. And the young comrade’s dying words are:
In the interests of Communism
In agreement with the progress of the proletarian masses
Of all lands
Consenting to the revolutionizing of the world.
What Orwell saw in Spain told him what Stalinism was like. What Auden saw told him—eventually—that he was in no way a communist. What Brecht saw in Spain…
But no, Brecht didn’t go to Spain. He wrote a play. He sent a speech. But he wouldn’t go, and, when his lover Ruth Berlau wanted to, he tried to dissuade her, and sent her a poem to read morning and evening, which says that she loves him, he needs her, and therefore she is to watch her step, “fearing that each rain-drop / Could kill me.” Hayman tells us that Brecht drove to meet Berlau on her return but that she had met a Swede who had been fighting in Spain and she stayed on board ship, to disembark at the next port and take him home. Brecht drove back:
And all through the hours of his journey
He felt ashamed.
Ashamed of what? One would like to think, not of being a noncombatant, but of the disparity between his public and private position.
The fact was that Brecht did reproach himself often and even came to reproach himself for his very survival:
I know of course: merely through luck
I have survived many friends. But last night in my dream
I heard these friends saying of me: “The strongest survive.”
And I hated myself.
Of all the facts assembled by Hayman the most striking is that, at his death, Brecht’s orders were carried out that a stiletto should be put through his heart. It is as if he had retained from his adolescence the sense of his own capacity for evil. The early works like Baal and the short stories are obsessed with filth, with the dirt under the fingernails of humanity. In later life this obsession was substituted for an aesthetic of whole-someness, the glorification of satisfyingly used objects, the scrubbed-pine look. But he was buried not in pine but in a steel coffin, to protect him from the worms. Filth, ordure, and decay were a fascination and a terror. Human behavior—truly human behavior—was seen either as naked self-seeking and bare-fisted personal combat or as the selfless acceptance of the necessary bullet. Always there was the threatening horror of the personal; and without subscribing to his theology one can see what Auden meant when he wrote of Brecht:
His natural poetic sensibility was pessimistic, even Christian, and he tried to harness this to an optimistic philosophy, e.g., he apparently wants us to take [Mother Courage] as a picture of what life is like under capitalism, but I can only interpret the play as “That is what, since Adam fell, life is like—period.”
Brecht stands, in his developed aesthetic, for an art that is “usable,” an art which puts itself at the service of the revolution. His life, on the other hand, and those of his lovers, assistants, and colleagues, appears dedicated to the art above all, to the work of the individual genius. It is not perhaps surprising, but it is ironic, that Brecht’s admirers today have a strong tendency to aestheticize his achievements and to ignore their political implications. This is particularly so in the theater, where the word “political” has been drained of all its meaning. Passionate supporters of political theater will be intensely surprised if a critic makes a political objection to, say, the odious argument of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. “Political” for such people means that there are red flags around, not (what Brecht intended) that the arguments of the play should be tested by their application in the world at large, that the play should be responsible and answerable. That is why theater people can still admire Brecht’s Stalinist chinoiserie—they read it the way they would read Arthur Waley.
For this reason alone, we really need a good critical biography of Brecht, one that can address itself beyond the circle of Germanists. It is not simply a question of the political background required. There is also a necessity to sort out what belongs genuinely to Brecht’s artistic achievement and what he picked up from others. A great deal of what looks typically Brechtian, from theory to matters of sheer exuberant taste, is in Brecht because it happened to be in the air at the time. The early fascination with gruesome murder is as typical of his Germany as it is of Victorian England. “The Life Story of the Boxer Samson-Körner” (included in the collected short stories) is the perfect illustration of a 1920s fad. The bicycles in Kuhle Wampe have been celebrated in the graphic art of the period, while the rhetoric of the later scenes is (at least to my eye) not so different from that of Nazi propaganda.
It is said that most biographers grow to detest their subjects and I would certainly not envy anyone the task of doing justice to Brecht. Ronald Hayman appears to have put his head down and charged through the material. He never loses his temper, although sometimes one feels it would have been healthier if he had done so. He never springs to any absurd defense, although he does let things wash over him. In general he is reasonable—and his book is no more than reasonable. The main deficiencies are in the handling of the historical and cultural background. Thus he writes of 1925 that “millions of Germans were adapting to circumstances and suppressing their own opinions by joining the Nazi Party.” This is wrong in fact and nonsensical in its interpretation. The early members of the Nazi party can hardly be supposed to have been suppressing their opinions.
On artistic matters, Hayman’s attempts to sketch in the background are extremely poor and sloppy. Who for instance will benefit from the following?
From the outset Dada in Berlin had been more political than in Switzerland or France, and in his first German Dada manifesto (April 1918) Richard Huelsenbeck proclaimed: “The highest art will be that which represents the multiple problems of the epoch.” Georg Grosz, Wieland Herzfelde and John Heart-field collaborated in 1919 on a series of seditious little reviews, which were each banned on the appearance of the first issue. Grosz’s cartoons drew on the Simplicissimus tradition, but introduced montage, a technique which was developed by Kurt Schwitters, whose review, Merz, began to appear in January 1923, influenced by De Stijl, the magazine edited by the Dutch painter Theo van Doesburg.
Apart from the unreadability of this résumé and the inconsistency of leaving Grosz as Georg while allowing Herzfelde’s brother the Anglicization of his name, I am far from convinced that Grosz’s cartoons had any close connection with the tradition of Simplicissimus, a paper with which the artist had very little in common, and to which he only rarely contributed. Der Simpl was certainly bourgeois. Grosz was proletarian-or-bust. The one succumbed to, the other was exiled by, Nazism.
John Willett’s book begins with a statement made to the 1983 congress of the International Theater Institute in East Berlin. The opening paragraph will give you some idea of what to expect from the rest of the book:
In my view, universal renunciation of talk about “the enemy” would be at least as useful a step forward as the renunciation of nuclear weapons. And I believe that holding the ITI congress behind a tragic but misunderstood Wall will help put a stop to such talk. For you cannot come to East Berlin and regard the people there as enemies. You can only do that if you stand in front of the wall and make speeches.
This is politically either disingenuous or ga-ga. In the first sentence Willett appears to say to the East: If you must hang on to your weapons, at least you could step up the peace rhetoric. In the second, he offers a marvelous bone to chew on: the Wall has been “misunderstood.” Behind it, he implies, lie genuine peace-people, with nary an enemy in sight. Only in front of it, through some misapprehension of perspective, is it possible to delude oneself into perceiving the border guards, the barbed wire, the armored divisions, the goose-stepping infantry.
The main interest in Willett’s compilation of essays on Brecht derives from the information he assembles, and from the autobiographical element. The author does not merely give us the results of his inquiries into, say, Auden’s relationship with Brecht—he tells us how the inquiries went, whom he wrote to and what they said. A great deal of this is interesting but, as I indicated at the start, the inquirer has a gift for missing the point. The section dealing with Hannah Arendt will perhaps be of greatest concern to the American reader. On the one hand, Willett clearly has a point in his correspondence with Arendt—her scholarship on the subject of Brecht editions is shown to be lacking (a fact which Arendt admitted in her essay), just as her conclusions about the failing of the poet’s gift may be reasonably controverted. But while the encounter with this impressive mind may leave one with some qualifications (Arendt, on this showing, was at best a bad correspondent who failed to revise her work for republication), the case put by Willett amounts to a Pyrrhic victory in the cause of Brecht.
Arendt calls Brecht’s long poem of 1950, Die Erziehung der Hirse, an ode to Stalin. Willett points out in this book that the poem refers once to Stalin as the Soviet people’s great harvest-leader. The poem is in fifty-two verses. This one reference “doesn’t seem to me to make it exactly an ode to Stalin.” Willett and Ralph Manheim are obviously a little troubled by this work and its tone since they say in their introduction to the English edition of the poems (where it is not included):
Die Erziehung der Hirse, the major poem of 1950, with its fifty-two stanzas in praise of the generally discredited genetic theories of Trofim Lysenko and its one mildly flattering reference to Stalin (“our great harvest-leader”) is hard to stomach for all its technical skill. [My italics.]
This gets us slightly nearer the poem Arendt was talking about, but ironically enough it takes us away from the ostensible subject of the poem, which is actually a ballad in praise of a nomad hero of Kazakhstan, who turns to the cultivation of millet and, through application of the wisdom of Lysenko and his academy, manages to grow enough of it to support the Red Army in their struggle against Hitler. The point is that the combination of the ancient wisdom of the nomad and the new wisdom of Soviet agronomics under Stalin makes great things possible. Ultimately the credit redounds to the leader—even if the hero is the Stakhanovite.
If anybody doubts that Brecht “praised Stalin’s crimes,” as Arendt had claimed, they have only to look at this poem with its glib enthusiasm:
Erd un Himmel hat es lang gegeben
Doch nun gab es auch noch den Kolchos.
Nicht mehr gab es “mein Feld hier” und “deins daneben”
Und die Felder waren plötzlich gross.
(Earth and sky had long existed, but now there was also the Kolkhoz. No more question of “my field here” and “yours nearby”—and the fields were suddenly big.)
The last line is, I think, among the glibbest, stupidest, and most disgusting lines of twentieth-century verse. A rival chorus comes from the same poem:
Hinaus aufs Feld!
Kurz ist der Tag.
Was ihr für Genossen seid
Zeigt der Ertrag!
(Out into the field! The day is short. The produce shows what sort of comrades you are!)
This sounds exactly like the Khmer Rouge—a perfect example of noncombatant poetry. Brecht was going out of his way to praise in the most explicit terms Stalinism, Lysenkoite agronomics, and the Stakhanovite worker (who is even obliged to go against his better judgment—in the use of sheep-shit as manure—for the honor of the academy).
Elsewhere, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, Brecht refers to Stalin as “the useful one,” and Willett tries to make out that this, though a considerable tribute, is not unqualified praise in the poet’s terms. But “useful” and “usable” were highly important attributes in Brechtian terms, where aesthetics and politics turn very speedily into ergonomics. Willett himself quotes Brecht on Stalin’s death:
The oppressed of five continents, those who have already freed themselves and all who are fighting for world peace must have felt their heart stop beating when they heard that Stalin is dead. He was the embodiment of their hopes.
The embodiment of their hopes, Willett glosses, but “not necessarily of Brecht’s.” This is a gloss of truly Brechtian disingenuousness.
‘Brecht in Context’ May 31, 1984