Bertolt Brecht was a teacher of doubt, carried with him on his many forced travels a Chinese scroll representing the Doubter. He distinguished firmly between doubt and vacillation, and he seems to have thought that even doubt, or at least the expression of doubt, was politically undesirable at times. But his writings are unequivocal on this score.
Disbelief can move mountains, he wrote. “What has not been altered for a long time seems unalterable,” but “a long time is not forever”; only doubt can make us see the possibility of alteration. “Propaganda that stimulates thinking, in no matter what field, is useful to the cause of the oppressed.” We must above all not see our man-made disorders as natural, unavoidable, like the moss around ponds, as one poem has it; like falling rain, as another poem says. “The more there are suffering, the more natural their sufferings appear. Who wants to prevent the fishes in the sea from getting wet?” “Pictures of morning and night are misleading,” Brecht wrote in 1938, thinking of the darkness and barbarism of Germany, and trying to imagine an almost unimaginable future. “Happy times do not come in the way morning comes after a good night’s sleep.”
Brecht was born in 1898 in Augsburg, in southern Germany; he died in East Berlin in 1956. His early work was much influenced by Rimbaud and can be seen as a continuation and refutation of Expressionism. The French critic Bernard Dort has nicely called Baal, Brecht’s first play, the biography of an expressionist without illusions. Brecht liked the ballads of Villon and Kipling, as well as the early work of Chaplin, and he had a thorough distaste for everything that seemed solid and respectable. He devised imaginary worlds, Englands, Americas, Chinas of the mind, where contemporary problems could be viewed in a sharp, ironic light, and he elaborated his notion of “epic theater,” a mode of performance in which both actors and audience would continuously be aware not only that they were in a theater, but that their theater was in the world. A theater of solidarity, as Roland Barthes put it, but not of contagion; a theater that was “critical” but not “magical”; that avoided what Brecht later called “the great emotion racket.”
With Kurt Weill Brecht wrote The Threepenny Opera, which opened in Berlin in August 1928, and brought both of them enormous success. In 1929 Brecht became a communist, although he appears never to have joined the Party. He devoted much time to the study of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, whom he called “the classics,” and he wrote a series of “didactic plays.” With the rise of Hitler he was forced into exile, first in Denmark, then in Sweden, and finally in the United States, where he worked on some fifty film projects, but sold only one, for which he received no credit. An eloquent poem of the late Thirties, written in Sweden, records Brecht’s sense of what it meant to have his own language evoke an enemy country:
I am now living on the small island of Lidingö.
But one night recently
I had heavy dreams and I dreamed I was in a city
And discovered that its street signs
Were in German. I awoke
Bathed in sweat, saw the fir tree
Black as night before my window, and realized with relief:
I was in a foreign land.
In exile Brecht wrote a series of extraordinary plays, including Galileo, Mother Courage, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and The Good Woman of Setzuan. At the end of the war he hesitated about where to live, thought of Switzerland, applied for (and was granted) Austrian citizenship, but finally settled in East Germany, where he and his wife Helene Weigel founded the Berliner Ensemble, a group dedicated to putting Brecht’s theories of theater into practice, and his real fame began. Lotte Lenya, the widow of Kurt Weill and a star of the original Threepenny Opera, is not enthusiastic about Brecht’s politics or what she sees as his touchy vanity, but she once described him as “about the best” theater director she had known in her life. By the end of the 1950s Brecht was widely recognized as a major modern playwright, and his works were being produced everywhere.
“Don’t write that you admire me,” Brecht told a Protestant pastor shortly before he died. “Write that I was an uncomfortable person and that I intend to remain so after my death. Even then there are certain possibilities.” Much earlier Brecht himself had written that he was a man on whom women couldn’t rely, and earlier still he had looked at his “idiotic face” in a mirror and found in it
many elements of brutality, calm, slackness, boldness and cowardice, but as elements only, and it is more changeable and characterless than a landscape beneath scurrying clouds. That’s why so many people find it impossible to retain….
He was “strictly provisional,” he said in his poems and in his diaries. “I mustn’t let myself get pinned down here by realities.” “Realities” included his children and their mothers and a number of other women who loved him. Elisabeth Hauptmann, Brecht’s lifelong friend and collaborator, who found for him Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, which was his starting point for The Threepenny Opera, and to whose memory Klaus Völker’s biography is dedicated, attempted suicide in 1929 when she learned that Brecht, unbeknownst to almost everyone and claiming that it was a matter of no consequence, had married Helene Weigel.
A biographer doesn’t have to be a prosecutor, but one does expect him at least to look into the character of his subject. The chief fault of Klaus Völker’s sensible but pallid portrait of Brecht is that it makes the poet seem such a tame and comfortable fellow, and offers us mere glimpses of the great man caught in a haze of mild-mannered admiration. Völker is the author of an earlier Brecht-Chronik (1971), an assembly of facts and dates and places meant to serve as a frame for future biographical work. Here the frame is blurred without being filled. Völker is well informed and fairly deft at steering his way past threatening political rocks—“For Brecht, to be anti-Stalinist was not a full-time occupation,” he writes, where the real question appears to be whether Brecht was not a nearly full-time pro-Stalinist—but the blandness becomes alarming after a while. Völker has no sense of the bundle of contradictions which made up Brecht’s personality. The poet kept on old girlfriends even when he had new ones because he was “a staunch lover and friend.” But then he also “changed women with as little compunction, as he changed his shirt”—with less compunction, perhaps, if we take note of the affection for scruffy old clothes Brecht records in his diaries. I think I see how both of these propositions might be true, how the staunch lover could remain faithful across what for anyone else would be infidelities, but I need some help, and Völker doesn’t seem to have noticed the problem.
On the subject of Brecht’s renowned prudence, his gift for staying away from anything that looked like danger, Völker cheerfully remarks that Brecht “lacked the courage,” but is not simply to be called a coward because he had none of Hemingway’s delight in adventure. “If he scented danger he had to get to safety.” I wonder what cowards do instead. Brecht himself had clearer and more complicated views on this issue. He saw that heroism cannot be required of anyone, that fear must be forgiven. His Galileo recants not when he is tortured by the Inquisition, but when he is shown the instruments of torture.
Brecht also saw that fear of one danger might produce bravery toward another, as when Mother Courage, terrified of poverty, sheds her fear of death, and drives through the bombardment of Riga trying to sell a cartload of loaves before they turn completely moldy. But Brecht insisted that heroism, which cannot be demanded, is unfortunately often needed, and that a Galileo who had not recanted would have been a greater man, would have enriched the world not only with his books, smuggled out of Italy after his recantation, but with his example. “If I had resisted, scientists might have evolved something like the Hippocratic oath of doctors.” Brecht knew that he might have taken greater risks, that he might have resisted both Stalin and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which interrogated him in 1947. He was his own Galileo, not the man Galileo might have been, and he could be hard on himself, as these dream poems show. The first was written in Santa Monica, the second in East Berlin.
I know of course: it’s simply luck
That I’ve survived so many friends. But last night in a dream
I heard those friends say of me: “Survival of the fittest”
And I hated myself.
* * *
The silver poplar, a celebrated local beauty
Today an old harridan. The lake
A puddle of dish-water, don’t touch!
The fuchsias amongst the snap- dragon cheap and vain.
Last night in a dream I saw fingers pointing at me
As at a leper. They were worn with toil and
They were broken.
You don’t know! I shrieked
Neither of these poems was published in Brecht’s lifetime, although the first was circulated among friends. Only a very small proportion of Brecht’s verse appeared in the three collections he made himself: Devotions for the Home, 1927, Songs Poems Choruses, 1934, Svendborg Poems, 1938. Of course there were songs in most of the plays. H.R. Hays’s Selected Poems, 1947 (and still in print), a bilingual edition with workmanlike translations and Brecht’s approval of the selection, adds one or two pieces, and Brecht himself published a few further poems among his occasional writings. But the discrepancy between this slender production and the ten volumes which now make up the complete poems in German is considerable.
Poems 1913-1956 prints some 500 items (out of a total of about a thousand), in contrast with the 200-odd which appeared in all the collections prior to the posthumous editions, and it has the air of an excavation: a buried poet comes to light. The English versions, by many different hands but obviously much worked over by the editors and the translators, have a grace and a fluency rarely found in translations from any language, and suggest a good deal of the pace and the tone of Brecht’s verse.
I’m not sure we need to conclude, as the editors do, that “he was writing the tragedy of our time” even “more painfully (and in the long run more powerfully) than in any of his stage works.” He doesn’t seem to me to have been writing the tragedy of our time at all—more like its grim, destructive, and very human comedy—and I see no reason to slight the plays, for the sake of the poems. But the poems are obviously major work, and the question a review needs to address, I think, is what do we now know about Brecht that the Selected Poems didn’t tell us.
Brecht thought of his poems as more private than his plays, part of his life, so to speak, but not really part of his work. He would talk about them, Völker says, as a luxury or a vice. Selected Poems, on the whole, gave us verse that was very close in spirit to the plays: active, critical, lively, sardonic; ballads and fables like the wonderful early “Legend of the Dead Soldier,” where a soldier’s corpse is dug up and packed off to war again, marched through the cheering villages.
And when they passed through villages
The crowd it left no room
To see the soldier, so many ran
With hurrah and tzing-boom-boom.
Around him so many danced and howled
That none could him espy.
You could only see him from above
Where stars looked down from the sky.
Not always do the stars remain:
There comes a dawn at length.
Yet the soldier as he was taught
Pursued his hero’s death.
The last stanza, which is even simpler in German, beginning “The stars are not always there,” illustrates the extraordinary authority Brecht could command with the most modest means. We hear the same note in a fine poem called “Against Temptation,” included neither in Selected Poems nor in Poems 1913-1956, but quoted in part by Hannah Arendt in her remarkable essay on Brecht: “How can fear still touch you? / You die with all the animals / And there is nothing after.”
Another note heard in the Selected Poems is that of the rueful partisan, who without giving up the revolution has learned the revolution’s price:
For we know only too well:
Even the hatred of squalor
Makes the brow grow stern.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh. Alas, we
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.
I think of Isaac Babel’s Gedali being told that the Revolution must have shooting, “because she is the Revolution.” Most of us, I suppose, either don’t see that anything could be worth this sort of price, or being butchers, don’t see that a bit of slaughter is any sort of price at all.
In Poems 1913-1956 we do not discover a formerly hidden Brecht, a man spilling out secrets. Brecht was fairly aloof even with himself and a mocking poem on suicide represents his habitual stance very well:
A certain sense of tragedy, however attractive,
Is to be avoided.
Though there is no need to make a dogma of that….
It should not seem
As if one had put
Too high a value on oneself.
What we do find, along with the continuing public poet, is a quieter, more reflective figure, clearly related to the man who remarked in his diary that the only hours that are lost are those when you have “nothing to tell yourself about things.” And we get, really for the first time, a sense of the full range of his technical interests. Brecht was not a formalist; form was never a goal for him. He objected to “word-worship,” and wrote, “In the beginning was not the word. The word is at the end. It is the thing’s dead body.”
But he admired Joyce and Kafka, for example, when Lukács was urging us to march forward into nineteenth-century realism, and he saw that unchanged forms could not promise a change in the world. He realized that style was an active aspect of meaning, and watching some German actors rehearse in Switzerland after the war he noted glumly, “Before ever I see the ruined theaters I get a sight of the ruined acting.” So there are ballads and songs here, as we might expect, and poems about plays and acting; but there are also sonnets, elegies, epigrams, satires, meditations, visionary prose poems, and all kinds of pieces that defy classification. It is partly, but not entirely, an accident of translation if Brecht sounds like Empson in the first of the following poems, and like Auden in the second. He really had found, in German and on his own, voices quite like theirs, and he was a strong influence on Auden.
When years ago I tied myself to you
It did not seem the ultimate of bliss.
What you don’t want perhaps you never miss
When lust was slight the grief is trivial too.
Better to feel no grief than too much lust.
And better than to lose, to be re- signed.
There’s pleasure in not being hurt, men find.
Good if one can; but too bad if one must.
Of course, this is a pretty shabby moral.
He was not rich who never lost a thing.
Nor have I all that much with which to quarrel….
I only mean that unattached and free
One may avoid a lot of suffering.
Meanwhile we can’t command what is to be.
Als ich vor Jahr und Tag mich an dich hing
War ich darauf nicht allzu sehr er- picht:
Wenn man nicht wünscht, vemisst man vielleicht nicht.
Gab’s wenig Lust, ist auch der Gram gering.
Und besser ist: kein Gram, als: viele Lust
Und besser als verlieren: sich bescheiden.
Der Männer Wollust ist es: nicht zu leiden.
Gekonnt ist gut, doch allzu schlimm: gemusst.
Natürlich ist das eine schäbige Lehre.
Der war nie reich, der niemals was verlor!
Ich sag auch nicht, dass ich ver- driesslich wäre…
Ich meine nur: wenn einer an nichts hinge
Dem stünd auch keine schlimme Zeit bevor.
Indessen sind wir nicht die Herrn der Dinge.
* * *
Write me what you’re wearing. Are you warm?
Write me how you sleep. Is your bed soft?
Write me how you look. Are you the same?
Write me what you miss. Is it my arm?
Tell me: are they letting you alone?
Can you hold out? What will their next move be?
What are you doing? Is it what should be done?
What are you thinking of? Is it of me?
Questions are all that I can give you, and
I take what answers come, because I must.
If you are tired, I can’t give you a hand;
Or, hungry, feed you. Thus, it is as though
I were not in the world, did not exist.
It is as though I had forgotten you.
Schreib mir, was du anhast! Ist es warm?
Schreib mir, wie du liegst! Liegst du auch weich?
Schreib mir, wie du aussiehst! Ist’s noch gleich?
Schreib mir, was dir fehlt! Ist es mein Arm?
Schreib mir, wie’s dir geht! Verschont man dich?
Schreib mir, was sie treiben! Reicht dein Mut?
Schreib mir, was du tust! Ist es auch gut?
Schreib mir, woran denkst du? Bin es ich?
Freilich hab ich dir nur meine Fragen!
Und die Antwort hör ich, wie sie fällt!
Wenn du mud bist, kann ich dir nichts tragen.
Hungerst du, hab ich dir nichts zum Essen.
Und so bin ich grad wie aus der Welt
Nicht mehr da, als hätt ich dich vergessen.
A more familiar Brechtian note persists in lines like these: “Where there’s not enough of everything / Nothing is enough”; “What you don’t have, don’t ever abandon. / What they don’t give you, get yourself and keep.” But a haunting new strain creeps into these descriptions of Germany at war:
Full of anxiety, parents look at their children as at traitors.
Even the dying
Hush their failing voices as they
Take leave of their relatives….
* * *
The designers sit
Hunched in the drawing offices:
One wrong figure, and the enemy’s cities
Will remain undestroyed.
The wit and discretion of these lines are striking: the cities not destroyed, the focus on the parents’ suspicion rather than the children’s real or imaginary betrayal. Brecht has found a way of writing about pain without exaggerating or belittling it, and we find the same restraint and dignity in the poems he wrote on the deaths of Walter Benjamin and Margarete Steffin, a much-loved friend. Benjamin, committing suicide in 1940, destroyed “a torturable body,” and the following brief requiem for Margarete Steffin needs no comment:
My general has fallen
My soldier has fallen
My pupil has gone away
My teacher has gone away
My nurse has gone
My nursling has gone.
Toward the end of his life Brecht fully recovered a jaunty tone he had never, even at the darkest moments, entirely lost. “And then when it was the month of May / A Thousand-year Reich had passed away.”
And I was old, and I was young at moments
Was old at daybreak, young when darkness came
And was a child recalling disap- pointments
And an old man forgetting his own name.
Sad in my young days
Sad later on
When can I be happy?
Better be soon.
Und ich war alt, and ich war jung zu Zeiten
War alt am Morgen und am Abend jung
Und war ein Kind, erinnernd Traurigkeiten
Und war ein Greis ohne Erin- nerung.
War traurig, wann ich jung war
Bin traurig, nun ich alt
So, wann kann ich mal lustig sein?
Es wäre besser bald.
And the final poem in this book offers a last word that cannot be bettered:
And I always thought: the very simplest words
Must be enough. When I say what things are like
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself
Surely you see that.
Und ich dachte immer: die allerein- fachsten Worte
Müssen genügen. Wenn ich sage, was ist
Muss jedem das Herz zerfleischt sein.
Dass du untergehst, wenn du dich nicht wehrst
Das wirst du doch einsehn.
But Brecht, that uncomfortable person, did not believe in last words, and it is important to understand why he did not think of either suicide or the dark times of fascism as tragic. Tragedy suggests the unavoidable, a form of fate, however internalized. And Brecht, from his earliest years, was interested in fate only as an “opportunity.” The drama of Hebbel seemed to him “more and more like a blind alley.”
What grips us is not the magnificent gesture with which Fate crushes the great man; but just the man himself, whose fate merely displays him. His fate is his opportunity…. For instance: it’s not the play’s job to show that fellows of some particular unusual make-up get it in the neck. But—how they behave when this happens, what they say and what sort of a face they make.
Brecht’s later plays also insisted that nobody had to get it in the neck, and this is why he saw himself as “almost, but only almost” entirely a writer of comedies. The principle of the epic theater is that actors should not immerse themselves in their roles because that way they can only mime the imprisonment of the public in its multiple social parts. An actor who “shows that he is showing” is an image of freedom, a person working in a play rather than pretending to be lost in life, and a play performed in this manner will point its viewers, Brecht hopes, toward the “Unsolved but not insoluble / Questions of humanity.”
It is remarkable how much of this was already clear to Brecht by the time he was twenty-two. “She doesn’t imitate nature, she acts,” he said of a girl-friend, and he planned, if he got his hands on a theater, to hire two clowns to wander about and talk irreverently about the plays during scene changes and intervals. “He’s about to go under, see. Dim the lights. That staircase gives off an aura of tragedy…. There’s going to be some real crying. The heroine’s got her hanky ready….” “The idea,” Brecht said, “would be to bring reality back to the things on the stage. For God’s sake, it’s the things that need to be criticized—the action, words, gestures—not their execution.” He wanted “no imitation of reality” but “rather, a precedent,” and he thought he had already learned how to avoid the “common artistic error” of “trying to carry people away.”
All these remarks come from the Diaries 1920-1922. At the time Brecht had written Baal, was writing Drums in the Night, In the Jungle of Cities, and an early version of Man Is Man. He was pouring out poems, most of them ballads. He zigzagged from Augsburg to Munich and back, visited Berlin, already had a child by one girlfriend, and was enraged when another girl had a miscarriage, “because her heart was not pure,” he says, in a particularly sickening assumption of moral superiority. The young Brecht has all the blindnesses of the period, despises blacks, and scorns women. “Women never reach further than their bed, they are not well directed, can’t be sharply enough distinguished from one another, nor is their story carefully enough composed …”—Molly Bloom confined to a colossal prejudice. I suppose Brecht’s anti-Semitism—“Why can’t the Jews be got out of the way? Because they’ve been quartered, broken on the wheel, tortured and spat at for the last thousand years. But the spittle gives out before the Jew does”—might be construed as testimony to the tenacity of the Jews, but I’m not anxious to try the interpretation myself.
However, there are more surprising things here. This Brecht is not keen on Russia: “What alarms me about that place is not the disorder actually achieved there but the order actually aimed for.” We may wonder, in the light of Brecht’s fidelity to his youthful opinions in other matters, how keen he was on Russia later—keen, that is, as distinct from politically, pragmatically aligned. He told Walter Benjamin that he thought Russia had established a dictatorship over the proletariat, to be supported only for as long as the proletariat benefited by it. Russia was “only a state, not a commonwealth,” and Brecht put on for Benjamin what sounds like a very funny impersonation of the state, clearly not about to wither away at all. He squinted, looked crafty, and said, “I know I’m supposed to disappear.”
Above all, we see in the Diaries something of the man who eluded Völker and who lies so low in the poems and plays, and we grasp something of his charm, his indefatigable intelligence, and the attraction of the atmosphere he created around him. We see, that is, or almost see, how it was that he never lacked lovers or disciples or wives or faithful friends. These pages can only be a feeble residue of the life, but the talent glitters in them, there can be no doubt of the extraordinary things this man will do. There are acute paradoxes—“where there are no secrets there’s no truth either,” “even bribed judges can sometimes give correct verdicts”—which look forward to the balance and complication of the later work; and there is a clear articulation of what seems to me the basis of Brecht’s odd but persuasive ethic, which in turn gives him what Eric Bentley calls his “peculiar signature.”
Brecht’s ethic is one of never casting the first stone, or any other stones if we can help it. He is unapologetic about his own weaknesses, and has no intention of mending them. He buried what aspirations to goodness he had in the determined pursuit of his writer’s calling, but his very weaknesses gave him a profound understanding of shabbiness and failure, and his very lack of goodness made him an expert in what he lacked. “In the evening,” he writes in the Diaries, “one lies across the benches in the attitude of those who at one time used to pray. But there is no more grace, and the only answer is the hard silence of justice.” There is no more grace, or rather there is only human grace, and that is why we must forgive everyone we can bring ourselves to forgive. To forgive, of course, is quite different from failing to see faults, in the manner of Klaus Völker. “Is there no grace, no credit, is there no one who does not believe in our sins, who thinks better of us than we ourselves do…?” Brecht thought better of us collectively than we ourselves do, his doubt itself was a doubt in our favor, and that is why his optimism is a moral position, not a fantasy. It is also why his Marxism needs careful examination. “In the end,” Roland Barthes said, “the greatness of Brecht, the source of his isolation too, is that he keeps inventing Marxism.”
The compliment, as Barthes indicates, cuts two ways. Brecht renewed Marxism, but to many orthodox communists his Marxism was merely invented, a perilous and unsatisfactory deviation. This does not mean he can be reclaimed for a comfortable liberal view of the world. He was too austere and too subversive for that. But his politics were elusive, a curious blend of pragmatism and abstraction.
Brecht wrote an eloquent poem on the rival claims of tolerant and militant approaches to history and writing. “Solely because of the increasing disorder,” it begins, “some of us have now decided / To speak no more of cities by the sea, snow on roofs, women / The smell of ripe apples in cellars, the senses of the flesh, all / That makes a man round and human.” These things are all too likely to “engender / Approval of a world so many-sided; delight in / The contradictions of so bloodstained a life.” The thought is intricate but clear. Our joy in the many-sided world must not serve as an alibi for inaction; but action will deprive us of a real joy. It is because the poem evokes the “round and human” so beautifully that we understand what it will cost to renounce it. The regret we sense in the poem does not cancel the political commitment, it enhances it.
In Brecht’s worst work, on the other hand, a regret of this kind is exchanged for a positive eagerness to get rid of the human. This eagerness no doubt helped him when he was tempted to think ill of Stalin. In Brecht’s writing of the 1930s there is an infatuation with harshness which recalls Ezra Pound’s appreciation of the fascists’ brutal methods of simplifying society. Brecht, like Pound, rails against pity. “Don’t give way to pity,” a young communist is told in a play called The Measures Taken. The classic Marxist writers “speak, not of pity, but of the deed which does away with pity.” Now pity always means inequality, as anyone knows who has been pitied when he wanted to be loved, and pity, like charity, often props up ugly old orders. A deed to do away with it would be welcome. But the deed has yet to be found, and the opposite of pity, meanwhile, is hardness of heart, which cannot be desirable, and which Brecht, in imitation of Villon, cries out against in poem after poem, and play after play. “All that lives, lives frailly,” he says, and it is for this reason that “all that lives needs help from all the rest.”
Therefore now I beg you, have compassion
On such swine, and on their pigswill even!
Pray with me that God grants them admission
To the treasures of His heaven!
Compassion is less condescending than pity, of course, but it is hardly less troublesome politically if you are trying to take a hard line, and what’s wrong with Brecht’s hard line is that it goes against everything he knows about himself and the world. “We’d all be human if we could,” Mr. Peachum sings in The Threepenny Opera, and that is the burden of Brecht’s optimism. The proposition is not entirely true, of course, least of all of Mr. Peachum, and plenty of monsters really want to be monsters. But it does make a home for all kinds of part-time wrongdoers, and it suggests, not that society creates criminals, but that most societies place goodness just out of the reach of most people. The contemporary evidence for this is not in our prisons and reform schools but in the small daily betrayals of our professional and private lives.
The closing chorus of The Threepenny Opera, to the tune and harmony of a wonderful Kurt Weill parody of a Bach chorale, insists: Don’t overdo the prosecution even of the unjust. It is worth noting that when Brecht later altered the line to take in, implicitly, the crimes of Nazism and the sins of big capital, he weakened it considerably. We were then exhorted to leave the small fry alone, Verfolgt das kleine Unrecht nicht (as distinct from Verfolgt das Unrecht nicht zu sehr). The first recommendation is broad and generous, although one can see that difficulties might arise now and again in its application. The second version offers nothing but problems of application. Who is to decide who are the small and the great fry?
And yet an indeterminacy of this kind, in its more disciplined forms, is essential to Brecht’s best writing. Like Kafka he thought mainly in parables, and parables convey only suspended meanings, they await contexts in the world which will give them their full sense. Brecht had an extraordinary feel for the movability even of simple meanings. Love either lasts or it doesn’t, Polly Peachum and MacHeath sing to each other in The Threepenny Opera, meaning that when you’re in love you don’t think about tomorrow. When MacHeath leaves her a few scenes later, he sings the same line nonchalantly, walking off the stage, and it means now, in the words of another famous lyric, it was just one of those things. When Teresa Stratas, in the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of Brecht and Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, sang the famous, lilting song about self-preservation (“And if anyone kicks, it will be me, boy / And if anyone gets kicked, it will be you”), she was almost tender in the first chorus, hinting sadly at the lamentable hardness of the world. The second time around she was almost shouting, and the message was quite different: every woman for herself, how could anyone think otherwise?
There are two pieces in Poems 1913-1956 which perfectly embody this principle, since they multiply their meanings simply by turning clauses around. A man finds a bed for a few of the homeless in New York—Brecht takes the incident from Dreiser’s Sister Carrie—and the poem comments:
It won’t change the world
It won’t improve the relations among men
It will not shorten the age of ex- ploitation
But a few men have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway.
A few people have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway
But it won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of ex- ploitation.
A very late, more personal poem uses the same device:
Everything changes. You can make
A fresh start with your final breath.
But what has happened has hap- pened. And the water
You once poured into the wine can- not be
Drained off again.
What has happened has happened. The water
You once poured into the wine can- not be
Drained off again, but
Everything changes. You can make
A fresh start with your final breath.
Alles wandelt sich. Neu beginnen
Kannst du mit dem letzten Atem- zug.
Aber was geschehen, ist geschehen. Und das Wasser
Das du in den Wein gossest, kannst du
Nicht mehr herausschütten.
Was geschehen, ist geschehen. Das Wasser
Das du in den Wein gossest, kannst du
Nicht mehr herausschütten, aber
Alles wandelt sich. Neu beginnen
Kannst du mit dem letzten Atemzug.
To be sure, Brecht could also fail to see the havoc a change of context or emphasis could wreak on his meaning. The worthy moral of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, for example—that things should belong to the people who will best look after them—is also one of imperialism’s most cherished arguments. The Measures Taken is peculiarly vulnerable to any interpretation which is at all serious. The young communist in the play refuses to dine with an evil capitalist, and is sternly taken to task by his mentors. He certainly does seem to have been overly fastidious.
With whom would the right-minded man not sit
To help the right?
What medicine would taste too bad
To a dying man?
So far so good. But then the chorus continues, raising the stakes:
What baseness would you not com- mit
To root out baseness?
If, finally, you could change the world
What task would you be too good for?
Sink down in the filth
Embrace the butcher
But change the world: it needs it!
At the end of the play the young man consents to be killed because the Revolution requires his death, but this is not, as is often thought, a premature defense of the Moscow Trials, and there are undercurrents of complication in the play which Roman Jakobson has analyzed with his customary care and acuteness. Even so, the chorus I’ve quoted does represent a highly literary view of practical politics, a sort of romance of Leninism—why exactly would one have to embrace the butcher?—and it is irresponsible. Brecht, playing the pragmatist, specifies almost nothing. We would all, I take it, have dinner with the devil himself if it would help a good cause, but what happens after dinner? Are there not, precisely, basenesses we would not commit to root out baseness? When Ivan Karamazov asks his brother if he would purchase the happiness of mankind with the torture of one small child, Alyosha doesn’t hesitate, and Brecht wouldn’t have hesitated either. That is what makes his hard line so abstract, so frivolous; like Pound’s fascism.
The perfect answer to this question is provided, in fact, by Brecht himself, in Galileo. Galileo’s disciple, who was at first heartbroken at his master’s recantation, now begins to see a tactic in the cowardice. It was a way for Galileo to carry on with his work, which was more important than his honor. Better dirty hands than empty hands, the disciple says—a milder version of “Embrace the butcher if it will change the world.” Galileo wryly remarks, “Better dirty than empty. Sounds realistic. Sounds like me. A new science calls for a new ethics.” He then makes the self-accusing speech I quoted earlier about his failure to offer the necessary resistance. Through Galileo, and through the production of the atom bomb, Brecht understood the horror of all science, social or physical, which cuts itself off from the torturable human creature.
Rehearsing Galileo in the last months of his life, Martin Esslin reports, Brecht would pause at the place where Galileo says that his task is not to prove that he has been right up to now, but to find out whether he has been right, and would insist that this was the most important sentence in the play. The scene recalls a line in Brecht’s diary for September, 1920: “A man with one theory is lost.” Brecht certainly didn’t think that all theories are equally good, and he wasn’t lapsing into simple relativism. But he was plainly trying to restore doubt to something of its old authority.
In his great works—Galileo, Mother Courage, many of the poems—Brecht arrived, like Kafka, at parables so deep and delicate and astute that no alteration of context can damage them. They foresee their applications, so that Mother Courage, for example, who thought she could exploit the Thirty Years’ War, and only lost her children to it, becomes a figure not for the indomitable human spirit or the errors of the lumpen-bourgeoisie, but for everyone who has gambled too heavily on his own shrewdness and paid the price. The play remains historical and political because some cultures offer more temptations to shrewdness than others. When Mother Courage bargains for her son’s life—“Thanks be to God they’re corruptible,” she says of his judges. “They’re not wolves, they’re human and after money”—we witness a triumph both for the epic theater and for something less schematic, since we see the miserable logic of the woman’s situation and we see her trapped in it. She offers the judges less than they have asked for, because she needs a bit of capital to set herself up again. It’s not that she’s not ready to pay all the money for her son if she has to, it’s that she doesn’t really think it is necessary. When she learns she was wrong, it is too late. She says, “I believe—I’ve haggled too long.” The drums roll, signaling the son’s execution. Mother Courage does not move. The stage goes dark. Lights come up again. Mother Courage has not moved.
As in the great recantation scene in Galileo, there is human weakness here which must be intimately familiar to everyone who is not a hero, a perfect dramatization of the forgivable poverty of our spirit. We haggle too long, we capitulate when they show us the instruments, but in Brecht’s world our chances of grace are undiminished. He thinks better of us than we do ourselves.
May 15, 1980