When something seems ‘the most obvious thing in the world’ it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up. (1)
Read through the lens of fatigue, the question “Why Brecht?” seems to preface an apology of the obvious. Though the Brechtian aesthetic is an inalienable part of modernity’s cultural legacy, its political significance has yet to be recaptured. So much is clear. The Brechtian aureole – women in kerchiefs, men in worker’s caps, hurdgy-gurdy organ music, stark lighting, sparse props, proximal action played out in the ramp lights – has become a stylistic resource for contemporary culture. The Brechtian method has been disassembled into an array of generic components for the toolkit of knowledge production. Brecht is both everywhere and nowhere, leading to a strange mixture of nostalgia and “Brecht fatigue.” Brecht may be inalienable but where is Brecht the political artist, the practical philosopher, the Marxist? Not why Brecht, but which Brecht, wither Brecht?
MR. STRIPLING: Mr. Brecht, could you tell the Committee how many times you have been to Moscow?
MR. BRECHT: Yes. I was invited to Moscow two times.
MR. STRIPLING: Who invited you?
MR. BRECHT: The first time I was invited to show a picture, a documentary picture I had helped to make in Berlin.
MR. STRIPLING: What was the name of that picture?
MR. BRECHT: The name-it is the name of a suburb of Berlin, Kuhle Wampe.
MR. STRIPLING: While you were in Moscow, did you meet Sergei Tretyakov?
MR. BRECHT: Tretyakov, yes. That is a Russian playwright.
MR. STRIPLING: A writer?
MR. BRECHT: Yes. He translated some of my poems and, I think, one play.
MR. STRIPLING: Mr. Chairman, International Literature No.5, 1937, published by the State Literary Art Publishing House in Moscow had an article by Sergei Tretyakov, leading Soviet writer, on an interview he had with Mr. Brecht. On page 60, it states: “[…] Brecht studies and quotes Lenin as a great thinker and as a great master of prose. The traditional drama portrays the struggle of class instincts. Brecht demands that the struggle of class instincts be replaced by the struggle of social consciousness, of social convictions. He maintains that the situation must not only be felt, but explained-crystallized into the idea which will overturn the world.”
Do you recall that interview, Mr. Brecht?
MR. BRECHT: No. (Laughter.) It must have been written twenty years ago or so. (2)
The problem is that the line of interrogation of “Why Brecht?” is as inseparable from the totality of contemporary cultural production as Brecht himself. By now, the recapture and politico-aesthetic actualization of neutralized Marxist thinkers constantly runs danger of becoming a means of reconstructing an identity (brand): once the left has reestablished hegemony over its neutralized past, setting its devices to work in a new historical situation, it (i.e. the left) can be identified and thus brought to market, wearing nothing but its reconstructed identity. This marks the proverbial beginning of the end, before the beginning has begun to become.
von Trier: The story is based on a text by Bertolt Brecht. It’s a song [the “Pirate Jenny” song from The Threepenny Opera] that I’m sure you know, about a ship that comes to a harbor. It has 50 cannons and many masts. [von Trier’s cell phone rings, playing a familiar tune. He answers, but there is no response].
Kapla: What a good tune!
von Trier: Yes, it’s the Internationale!
Kapla: Tell us more about the Brecht song. (3)
Installed as “on the left” of the biopolitical cultural field, all of the invaluable work undertaken in painstakingly reconstructing and actualizing methods becomes abstract, productive labor. In this sense, the answer to the question “Why Brecht?” faces an overwhelming negativity: like anything else, it runs danger of being included as an empty figure, a commodity ultimately alienated from itself. Or to put in the plainest terms possible, the answer to the question “Why Brecht?” just seems too obvious to supply a point of departure for any meaningful dialectic.
Master Hegel taught: all that is only becomes by that it also is not, i.e. in that it becomes or passes. Being and non-being is in becoming as in passing. Becoming merges into passing and passing into becoming. The passing thing becomes another; in the becoming thing another passes. Thus, there is no rest in things, nor is there in its observers. Only by speaking, you, the speaker, change yourself, and that what you are speaking about changes. But if every new thing already contains something old, one can still speak of new and old things quite well. The way of speaking of those who use the Great Method properly does not become less definite but more defined.
Master Hegel said: things are occurences. States are processes. Processes are transitions. (4)
So what if the affirmative reconstruction of Brecht were understood as a diversion, a “subversive affirmation”, as something that seems obvious and therefore acceptable to the hegemonial (liberal) image-commodity of the left, but actually breaks with the dominant stereotypes of leftist cultural identity? Plumpes Denken (Brecht’s term for blunt materialistic thinking) is not always as obvious as it seems. Sometimes you have to be subtle. Sometimes you have to admit that your enemies are wrong.
As Mr. Keuner, the thinking man, was speaking out against Force* in front of a large audience in a hall, he noticed the people in front of him shrinking back and leaving. He looked round and saw standing behind him – Force. “What were you saying?” Force asked him. “I was speaking out in favor of Force,” replied Mr. Keuner.
After Mr. Keuner had left the hall, his students inquired about his backbone. Mr. Keuner replied: “I don’t have a backbone to be broken. I’m the one who has to live longer than Power.”
And Mr. Keuner told the following story:
One day, during the period of illegality**, an agent entered the apartment of Mr. Eggers, a man who had learned to say no. The agent showed a document, which was made out in the name of those who ruled the city, and which stated that any apartment in which he set foot belonged to him; likewise, any food that he demanded belonged to him; likewise, any man whom he saw, had to serve him.
The agent sat down in a chair, demanded food, washed, lay down in bed, and, before he fell asleep, asked, with his face to the wall: “Will you be my servant?”
Mr. Eggers covered the agent with a blanket, drove away the flies, watched over his sleep, as he had done on this day, obeyed him for seven years. But what he did for him, one thing Mr. Eggers was very careful not to do: that was, to say a single word. Now, when the seven had passed and the agent had grown fat from all the eating, sleeping, and giving orders, he died. Then Mr. Eggers wrapped him in the ruined blanket, dragged him out of the house, washed the bed, whitewashed the walls, drew a deep breath and replied: “No.” (5)
(1) Bertold Brecht, interview with Luth Otto, in Brecht on Theatre: the Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and tr. by John Willett, Hill and Wang, New York, 1964, p. 70-71.
(2) Bertold Brecht interrogated by the House Unamerican Activities Committee, October 30th 1947, https://eee.uci.edu/programs/humcore/archives/HUACBrecht.htm
(3) Marit Kapla, Lars von Trier, Our Town, Filmmaker Magazine, 6/11/02, https://www.filmmakermagazine.com/archives/online_features/our_town.php
(4) Bertold Brecht, Me-ti: The Book of Changes, https://www.dada-hoelz.de/meti/b_meti3.html. Translation: DR
(5) Bertold Brecht, Stories of Mr. Keuner (translated by Martin Chalmers), San Francisco: City Lights 2001, p. 3-4
*The German “Gewalt” (force) can be understood as both “power” (i.e. Rechtsgewalt=force of law) and “violence” (Gewalttätigkeit).
**The German “Illegalität” (illegality) denotes the state under which parties or people are declared illegal and forced into hiding. Brecht is obviously referring to the prohibition of the political opposition under National Socialism.
David Riff (born 1974) art critique, translator, lives in Petersburg, member of the workgroup “Chto Delat?”