The Lehrstьcke take a dramatically different path in relation to this line. Their name – ‘the teaching pieces’ – invokes their pedagogical, instructive nature, but the point is not that the theatre should instruct the audience and preach, for ultimately only the participants, the actors, are the ones to be instructed. They should take turns at playing different parts, to assume all the attitudes, try all the angles and stage them. This is in the limit a theatre without an audience, restricted in its teaching aims, an elite theatre which instructs the instructed. But the instruction of participants should not be carried out in such a way that they would endeavour to play their roles in the most convincing manner (let alone, god forbid, to express themselves). Brecht’s directions for www suggest a firm discipline and deindividualization; instead of empathizing and identifying with the roles he recommends reciting, declamation, mechanical peroration as if without understanding, like saying the prayer. If ideology demands of individuals senseless repetition of ritualistic formulas, but in disguise, under the cover of ideas, then Brecht takes this as his own guideline, he stages it and surpasses it, without disguise. One has to take away the appearance of thought and stage the mechanical repetition, not only as the way to debunk ideological illusions and confront them with the ritual at their core, but to treat in the same way one’s own ideas, through the mechanical www rather than understanding. Here Brecht meets Althusser.

If ideology in one form or another demands consent, agreement, sacrifice, renouncing the part of subjectivity which is at odds with the imposed reality; if the ideological bottom-line is ultimately ‘do not try to change the world, but transform yourself so as to comply with the given, yield and submit’, then Brecht doesn’t oppose this guideline as the ideological maneuver par excellence, its flagrant deceit, but actually demands its radicalization: what is called for, as the antidote, is more renunciation. Agreement, Einverstдndnis, becomes the motto of the day:

It is important above all to learn agreement.

[Wichtig zu lernen vor allem ist Einverstдndnis]

Many say yes, but there is no agreement in it.

Many are not asked, and many

Agree with the false. Therefore:

It is important above all to learn agreement.

(These are the opening lines of Der Jasager and Der Neinsager, Brecht 1973, p. 19, 31, 41)[2]

If the paramount thing to learn from the Lehrstьcke is the agreement, then this is ultimately the agreement with giving up oneself. The red thread which runs through all the ‘teaching pieces’ is Brecht’s astounding fascination with the theme of sacrifice. The sublime moment they stage at their center is precisely the moment of consent of the victim to being sacrificed, the lesson of self-sacrifice. This is the core around which at least four teaching pieces are constructed: two versions of Der Jasager, Der Neinsager, and the most notorious of them, Die Massnahme, The Measure Taken (itself extant in five different versions), which is the last transformation from the same nucleus. The nucleus stems from a Japanese ‘no’ play, Taniko, The Valley-Hurling.[3]

The story is very simple: a boy joins his teacher and others who embark on an expedition across the hills to a town, in the hope to obtain from the scholars there a medicine for his sick mother. On the way, in the midst of the hills, the boy falls ill himself and this is when they tell him that there exists a Great Custom according to which everyone who falls ill on the way has to be thrown into the valley. He is also told that the Custom prescribes that the sick person has to be asked whether they should return for his sake, and the person is supposed to reply according to the Custom that they shouldn’t go back and that they should hurl him into the valley as the Custom prescribes. So this is the sublime moment of the victim’s consent to his own sacrifice. Meanwhile the choir states clearly that whether he should agree or not they would throw him off anyway. The boy’s consent has a purely formal status, that of freely submitting to his cruel fate; he has the formal freedom of saying yes, and so he does. So they hurl him off the cliff, lamenting the sad ways of the world, everybody being sincerely sorry.

The piece that Kurt Weill has set to music as a ‘school opera’, intended for school performances, produced scandal at its first production in a school in Neukцlln in June 1930. The pupils who participated were revolted. The least one can say is that this is a very peculiar sort of Marxism and a rather astonishing understanding of the left-wing politics. The stumbling-block was what appeared to be the oriental mentality which Brecht was supposed to take over from the Japanese piece: a nonsensical custom, a senseless sacrifice, the erasure of the individual and his freedom, the demand for submission, an unconditional compliance, the prescribed consent. As one critic put it: “The agreement of the boy with his fate may be compelling within the framework of oriental culture, but we [the westerners] do not agree, we cannot agree.” (P. 110) So did Brecht rely too much on the Japanese original and let himself be seduced by the oriental ways? A brief comparison with the Japanese piece (in its original form) holds a big surprise: the supposedly oriental element are not there at all, they are all Brecht’s own addition.

First the senselessness of the Great Custom: in the Japanese piece the expedition is a pilgrimage inspired by religious motives. The sickness which ‘marks’ the boy on this journey is, according to the doctrine of reincarnation, a deserved consequence of a previous sinful life and therefore a mark of his impurity, endangering the religious enterprise. The Custom is not simply absurd but makes sense within certain religious beliefs. It may seem baffling to us “because the secularized revision has deprived it of its religious context, so that it sticks out as a mythical relict in the enlightened world of the piece.” (Szondi, p. 107) Second, the ritual consent of the victim was simply invented by Brecht, the boy is not asked anything in the Japanese play. And third, the sacrifice is not an irrational loss: the Japanese play doesn’t end with the valley-hurling, but with the boy’s resurrection. After the boy’s death the teacher’s pain is so great and his prayers so ardent that the deity takes pity, grants his wishes and restores the boy to life. The bottom-line of the play is thus that the human suffering and the devoted prayer can bend the divine will and attain mercy.

So the result is this: if the Japanese play seems rather close to Christianity, then Brecht himself is our own Japanese. He invented the Orient himself. – One can find in the bibliography a Japanese translation of Lehrstьcke in 1967. One may well wonder what the Japanese made of them – one can imagine that they took them as another proof of the weird western mentality, just as the Chinese would be no doubt astounded by Brecht’s Chinese wisdom in Me-ti (written on the model of I Jing).

The three subsequent versions of this play represent a certain departure from the crude radicalism of the first one. In the second version of The Yes-sayer the sacrifice is made plausible and justified. The reason for the expedition over the hills is now the plague for which one should acquire a medicine from the doctors in town. Once the boy has fallen ill they cannot get him over a narrow passage, so they see themselves forced to abandon him. They ask him whether they should return, but he doesn’t want them to and asks himself to be thrown into the valley so that he wouldn’t wait for his death all alone. What is at stake now is to prevent the spread of the epidemic, so his sacrifice is for the common good.

The No-sayer repeats the situation from the first version, with the senselessness of the Great Custom, but now, when the boy is asked to consent according to the Custom he doesn’t give his agreement. The victim says no, he opposes the Great Custom:

“The answer I gave was wrong, but your question was more wrong. Who said ‘a’ doesn’t need to say ‘b’. He can realize that ‘a’ was wrong. … As to the Great Custom, I can see no reason in it. I need a new Great Custom that we must immediately introduce, namely the Custom to deliberate anew in each new situation.” (P. 49)

With a single stroke we are transposed from the supposed oriental landscape into the context of Enlightenment. The no-sayer is the autonomous subject who can change the Great Custom whenever necessary, he is placed above it and can question its reasons, he can lay down laws and shape his own fate. He can take the formal freedom as a real freedom, he can transform the forced choice into a real choice, or so it seems. Is this sufficient? Is ‘no’ the answer? The answer of the subject? The kernel of subjectivity shaping the world, refusing to be constrained? What about the agreement, das Einverstдndnis, the most important lesson to be learned from Lehrstьcke, the lesson announced in the first line?

The Measure Taken, Die Massnahme, is the last, the best known and the most complex version of this scenario (its five versions testify to Brecht’s persistent obsession).[4] It may be seen in a way as an impossible synthesis of the two, the Enlightenment discourse brought to its revolutionary pinnacle, and subscribing to the radical sacrifice. The expedition over the hills has now turned into a mission of four agitators sent by Moscow to promote the cause of revolution in China (the play thus returns in a curious way back to the supposed Orient). The boy is now a young comrade who joins the mission, full of idealism and love for humanity. The agitators wear masks so as not to be tracked down as foreign spies, but at a certain point the young comrade is so overwhelmed by compassion and humanism that he tears off his mask, reveals his face and true identity, crying out:

“I believe in humanity! I am for freedom! …

Now, now, now I tread before them

As the one who I am and tell them the truth …

[He takes off his mask.]

We have come to help you

We come from Moscow. (P. 28-9)

By this gesture everything was put into jeopardy, the mission was endangered, the army was after them and the young comrade, whose identity was disclosed, had to be sacrificed. Again, in the sublime moment, he realized his error, he demanded himself to be erased, and they threw him into quicklime. His attempt to speak as a man, sincerely from heart to heart, threatened the whole revolutionary enterprise. The revolutionary needs to be a man without a face, but the young comrade couldn’t renounce his individuality, his sentiments, he couldn’t turn into a faceless subject, so he had to be erased, fully, without traces. And he learned, on the verge of death, the lesson of consent and sacrifice.

The bulk of Brecht’s Lehrstьcke was written in 1929-32, that is, precisely during the time of the ascent of fascism. One has to read them against the backdrop of the massive fact that sacrifice was one of the great slogans of the day, one of the central topics of fascist ideology. Obsession with sacrifice (for the fatherland, for the leader, out of duty, out of honour, ultimately sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice as the attitude of valor) was one of the red threads of all fascist discourse (and indeed one of the pillars of the right wing discourse in general). At the same time there was the enormous ascent of promoting the rationalized version of sacrifice demanded by Stalinism: in the name of the future generations, in the name of progress, of the future which is relegated to more remote future, therefore demanding even more sacrifice. The spectral future justified present need for constant sacrifice into infinity. So with the fascination with the sacrifice and renunciation massively in the air, Brecht focused on something which was greatly and dramatically put into focus by those turbulent times, he took up the general slogan and pushed it to the extreme. Brecht’s gesture, in face of the topos of sacrifice, was not that this was merely a deceitful maneuver, a fateful ideological ruse, a ploy of the ruling classes that one would have to expose, not let oneself be duped into believing that sacrifice is a value (thus falling into the trap of the little fish-believers).[5] Brecht’s way to oppose this is to espouse sacrifice, renunciation and consent in a form far more radical than any ideology would adopt. If on the one hand he proposed to endorse interest and desire against any sacrifice, then on the other hand his proposal is to search for a lever of desire in sacrifice itself, to see renunciation as a construction of a desire, if only pushed far enough.

There is a radical question implied in this: is there a left discourse on sacrifice? Are not all the slogans of ‘teaching pieces’ – sacrifice, consent, renunciation – the paramount ideological mechanisms? Wouldn’t one have to oppose them in the name of autonomy, integrity, the critique of ideology? Is Brecht’s demand for sacrifice in contradiction with debunking all renunciation as ideological? This is where Brecht’s gesture appears at the clearest: at the time of the fateful rise of the ideology of sacrifice, with its fatal fascination, the rise that the left was unable to confront and prevent, he didn’t fight the central slogans of that ideology, but espoused them as his own. He doesn’t take the line of a critical distance or of rational argument against it, but proceeds so to speak in a way more ideological than the ideology. The bottom-line is rather: ideology demands too little sacrifice, it doesn’t impose enough renunciation. It demands to give up the part which is at odds with the existing order, in order to keep it going, but one should push this further by the demand to give up also the part which supports it and is in congruence with it, in order to dismantle it and transform it.

“Consent that everything changes

The world and the humanity

… By transforming the world transform yourself!

Give yourself up!”

These are the end lines of the choir in The Baden teaching piece on consent (p. 31-2)[6] Only by going far enough in consent can there be transformation. The extreme consent is the dissent, and one can only achieve this by learning to consent to giving oneself up. Consent demands extreme activity, not adapting to the ways of the world. ‘Give up more!’ is Brecht’s slogan in face of the demand for sacrifice: give up individuality, the concerns of the ego, all the imaginary underpinnings of the existing world – in order to become a subject? The product of sacrifice and consent is a subject without a support, an ‘empty subject’, a subject dispossessed of his ego, and only such a subject can bring about the transformation. By renouncing himself he takes away the imaginary support of reality that he himself has been providing and thus dismantles its illusive consistency.

To learn consent and sacrifice is to learn how to give up one’s own face. The young comrade endangered the Cause by taking off the mask in the name of the real face, his true individuality, and the moment is emblematic for Brecht’s anti-humanism: the truth is not in the real face, but in being able to erase it. Thus he gave advice to Carola Neher on how to wash: “She has not only learned how to act, but, for example, she learned how to wash herself. Up to then, she had washed so as not to be dirty. That was completely beside the point. I taught her how to wash her face.”[7] One has to learn how to wash off one’s face, this is the point of washing: not to be rid of dirt, but to become faceless.

There are two strategies in Brecht, two red threads, which seem irreconcilable. On the one hand there is the guideline to disrupt appearance, the masquerade, the subterfuge, the deceit in order to bring to light the true interest which lies behind and masks itself. “Not to appear what one is causes unhappiness for oneself. Appearing what one is not causes unhappiness for others,” says Me-ti (GW 12, p. 474) So the advice seems to be: be what you are, without pretense – but what are you? “’Is it right that one is concerned with oneself?’ [Keuner:] ‘He who is concerned with himself is concerned with nothing. He is the servant of nothing and the master over nothing.’” (Ibid., p. 413) There is a double movement: on the one hand to bring forth the interest and the desire which reside behind thought and action – so be what you are; on the other hand, to learn to be what one is is to learn to be nothing, to give up any interest in oneself. On the one hand, to push the interest to the point of sheer egoism which precisely through its unadulterated form works toward reversal, toward the point where, through a kind of Hegelian ‘cunning of reason’, it becomes the lever of change. On the other hand, to come to the point of giving up precisely on that hard kernel which was unearthed underneath the ideological operation, to erase all interest, the ego, the self, to renounce, to consent – consent must be pushed far enough to produce the moment of reversal. There are two steps in counterpoint to each other, elucidated by each other, but which form a sort of (again Hegelian) negation of negation: first, to assume one’s own interest, give up on all moral illusions and evasions, on embellishment and rhetorical prevarications, any diverting maneuvers and masks, for there is more to be gained from assuming the selfish interest than from preaching any love for humanity. Second, to give up the selfish interest as the ultimate and the most inveterate illusion and prevarication, the illusive anchorage of all other delusions; to realize that the biggest illusion of all is that one is supposedly free of illusion behind the mask. The selfish interest itself needs delusions, not only to deceive the others, but through deceiving the others it deceives itself. Brecht’s negation of negation: the negation of morals and ideology in the name of interest, then the negation of interest itself, its annihilation as the way of transformation and Bildung/ascesis – only this double twist can produce change. First the salutary cynicism, then debunking the illusory nature of cynicism itself. Morals deceive by being the mask of interest, but the crude interest itself is based on a deception of oneself and others. – Brecht used the term desire, der Wunsch, as the clue to what breeds thought, the hidden spring which propels it, and perhaps desire may be seen as the link between the two. One hang of desire, in its usual acceptance, points to self-interest as its dirty secret which has to be spelled out, while its other hang points to negativity, which, when pushed to the extreme in its logic, is brought to the point of turning against the very self as its anchorage – its spring is not a self but a subject. It is the pivotal point between espousing the self without delusion, and negating and transforming the self itself. To learn to assume desire is to learn how to become a subject.

[1] I quote from Gesammelte Werke, 20 vols, Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp.

[2] I am referring to the excellent edition provided by Peter Szondi, Der Jasager und Der Neinsager. Vorlagen, Fassungen und Materialien, Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp 1973.

[3] Brecht only knew the very free English rendition (if it can be counted as one at all) by Arthur Waley, which was in turn translated into German by Elisabeth Hauptmann for his use. The accurate translation (provided by Johannes Sembritski) holds many surprises.

[4] I refer to the meticulous and rather over-blown edition provided by Reiner Steinweg (Die Massnahme, Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp 1972).

[5] It would be misguided to see Die Massnahme as Brecht’s way of adopting the Stalinist version of sacrifice, a criticism which has haunted this piece throughout its history and because of which Brecht actually had to defend himself in front of the Committee for Anti-American Activities. The piece produced a lot of malaise particularly in socialist countries, it carries its logic too far and its anti-humanist assumptions are incompatible with Stalinism.

[6] I quote from Das Badener Lehrstьck vom Einverstдndnis …, Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp 1977.

[7] Quoted from Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, 4 vols, Cambridge (Mass.) & London: Harvard UP, 1998-2005, vol. 2/2, p. 783.