CENTENNIAL POLITICS: ON JAMESON ON BRECHT ON METHOD (6,990 WORDS)

O great academics! Still, let’s search more diligently and not despair.

          Augustine of Hippo

The highest thing would be to understand that all phenomena are already theory.

          Goethe

Brecht can be supremely useful to us–people engaged in thinking through and doing something about the present catastrophic state of the world; and what is useful is his method. This is Fredric Jameson’s thesis in his to my mind path-breaking book. It is, I think, the most lasting contribution to come out of the hullabaloo that was the 1998 Brecht centennial.  But what does he mean by method?1/

               One of Jameson’s formulations may provide a first springboard: “there existed a Brechtian ‘stance’ [Haltung] which was not only doctrine, narrative, or style, but all three simultaneously; and ought better to be called, with all due precautions, ‘method'” (132). This builds on but considerably expands Lukács’s famous assertion in History and Class Consciousness that “orthodox Marxism… refers exclusively to method”–precisely because it adds the crucial factors  of stance (involving the whole body) and narrative (involving a more than exclusively conceptual articulation of a possible world). But then I would like to ask why is it necessary to stress this is not simply doctrine. Clearly, doctrine as a set of tightly– as it were “horizontally”–linked political-cum-philosophical concepts, not falsifiable by strategically placed “vertical” references to embodied situations from which they once sprang and to which they should in any Brechtian (and Jamesonian) “meshing thinking” (eingreifendes denken) be applied, has failed us in this century. We are now yoked to the victorious doctrine of “free trade”, but this is both a lie in its premises and a horror in its results. The opposing doctrine of Leninism was probably in some important aspects flawed when extrapolated west of Russia and after 1900-1921, it was certainly misused within Russia itself, and it is at any rate inadequate to the physical and mental technologies of Post-Fordism. What, then, is to be inherited, what is transmissible from the socialist past, which includes many glories, and even whose bad errors carry indispensable lessons for the future? What may be “a place-keeper” for what Jameson in a somewhat different context calls the metaphysics, but we may call the doctrines, “that have become impossible” (12)?

Jameson’s answer in Brecht’s case–yet Brecht is taken by him as exemplary for the whole inheritance–is: method. But as usual for him, it is arrived at through a rich (and richly persuasive) intricacy that requires the discussion of at least a few of the key foci “to be read into, or read out of” a complex argument (as Brecht said about Coriolanus and Shakespeare in general). What I take to be its key links have to do with what Brecht may mean or convey to us and with why this is significant beyond literary or theatre philology. These two facets to my mind come together in: what was and is the social and indeed class locus from which and to which Brecht speaks? In whose name or names, and then to whom, could he–or did he–speak? After considering a few such foci (other important ones, for example Brecht and Subject, Brecht and modernism, sympathy vs empathy and other emotions, Brecht’s and Jameson’s “representability of capitalism”, must be slighted), I would return to see  what illumination we may derive from Brecht’s and Jameson’s “method.”

Poetry, Narrative, Embodying, Allegory

It is clear enough that not only is Brecht a poet, but that had Brecht not been a (major!) poet or wordsmith, he would not have been anything else of significance. Jameson distances himself from “Western critics from Adorno on” who have insinuated Brecht was “(just) a poet” (6), but his brief is not to go into detailed appreciations of any single work, genre or mode. His approach is perhaps what Benjamin would have called a commentary (that starts from the prejudgment that the commented text is a classical one): a close reading indeed but one that shifts from the closed single “work” of I.A. Richards and Company to the details characterizing a whole opus, when and where the poem–or prose, or play–passage speaks to Jameson’s purpose. A network of references athwart the hidden monadic theological assumptions of “organic” literary scholarship and based on the contradictory unity of Brecht’s stance is thus put in place. We still get splendid analyses by the way; for verse, perhaps the best example is Jameson’s pithy comment on “The Cranes” (142-3), the classical poem in two voices fitted into Mahagonny, whose bittersweet lyricism is by itself enough to dispel the cliché–anyway repudiated by the mature poet–that Brecht is emotionless. Equally revealing are throwaway asides, like “the two fundamental Brechtian works Saint Joan and the Three-penny Novel” (151), at which my response is “right on!” Jameson’s stream of associations proceeds through concepts, but their kinetoscopic lope becomes strangely similar to a Joycean poetic narrative.  Pages 81-85, for example, proceed from Opposition through Contradiction to the V-Effekt, move from Brecht through Hegel, Marx, Post-Modernism, Barthes, ethnomethodology, Sartre, Judith Butler (the weakest link), and Gramsci back to the “Street Scene”,  to end  Part 1 of the book with a culminating bang: “[all this] is the proof that reality is theoretical, but also that Brecht’s theory… is what is ‘really’ or ‘in reality’ Brechtian in Brecht”!

Yet as earlier critics have indicated, poetry supplied a further crucial form for Brecht’s stance, the ballad: as in his admired “Sir Patrick Spens” and, no doubt, as in the great German heritage both of the Romantics’ Kunstballade and of the penny-dreadful Moritats sung by itinerant balladeers which one finds imitated in “Mack the Knife” and so many other “songs” in the plays.2/ The ballad develops through episodes, it has an inbuilt plebeian estrangement technique easily switching from impersonation to third-person narration and generalizing comment, it is both lyrical and epical: one could do worse than choose it as another major template for Brecht’s literary stance. It goes alongside the parable, the casus–roughly, Jolles’s elementary verbal form where a judgment of conduct also questions the norm–and the proverb, on which Jameson focuses with much illumination (99-105, 118-22, 131-40).

Brecht’s poems tell stories as often as draw up catalogs or survey inner and outer landscapes: from the great Hauspostille (Devotions for the Home) ones–“Marie Farrar”, “Evelyn Roe”, “Ballad of the Pirates”, “Remembering Marie A.”–to such final poems in the Buckow Elegies as “The Solution”, “When in my White Room at the Charité.” Especially after his emigration, the most effective poems combine these approaches with historicizing and making memorable (in all the senses) exemplary personal moments, say his “priapic” or sex poems, such as the extraordinary sonnets he exchanged with Grete Steffin. Very many are verse narratives either of a “case” or of a major historical complex, as the much undervalued verse updating of The Communist Manifesto for an age of World Wars. And “epic theatre” (a term repudiated by Brecht) mainly meant that a play should, in its dramaturgic skeleton as well as in performance, tell a clear and rich story, specifying complex circumstances and their effect on human flesh and behaviour as clearly as, if more sparingly than, a realistic French novel might: in which sense Jameson’s parallel with Balzac (13, 154-55) is well taken. Brecht infuriated his “Socialist Realist” critics by disregarding Marx’s future-oriented dialectics where poverty is not only poverty but also revolt, for in his commitment to observation, Brecht could not–as a sincere realist,  yet whose “realism is achieved by means of Cubism” (46)–find a believable referent for successful revolt  west of Moscow.

The crux is here whether “storytelling–or, better still, embodied storytelling, the acting out–thereby becomes the realm of some deeper truth…” (27); whether Brechtian (and indeed any) storytelling is potentially a privileged method, “rigorously non-formalistic, and thereby evad[ing] the philosophical objections to sheer method…” (28). In the example of historicizing, say, is “retelling individual events as though they were historical ones… a new mode of self-knowledge?” (57) By the end of the book, this overriding question, in the early pages carefully hedged in by interrogatives, is to my mind triumphantly answered: yes, storytelling is what I would call a cognitive method–which no doubt means that our usual philosophical and scientistic prejudices about what may be cognition and method will require a thorough refurbishing. Centrally, as Jameson hints when discussing narratology, there is an “ultimate irreducibility of narrative as such”: in both narrative and its analysis, “it is impossible to complete the act of abstraction”, to reduce understanding to “pure” conceptuality (101). Figuration, topology, shapes must intertwine with the no doubt indispensable conceptual categories for real cognition of today’s complex human situations.

But how is this general narrative “method” to be reconciled with the political interests of Brecht’s class and generation? Jameson makes a convincing case that a privileged way to do so, and in fact employed by Brecht, is allegory. One should be careful to point out that this is a new type of “open” allegory. Indeed, it is paradoxical to talk of allegory in an age skeptical of if not flatly inimical to doctrines, since allegory has traditionally been a way of squaring fiction with, and often subordinating it to, a doctrine or mythical orthodoxy. This can be seen in Aristophanes, in Buddhism, and in medieval Christianity–which was in Germany never cleanly broken by an “anti-Gothic” Renaissance as in Italy, France or England, but rather transmogrified into that Catholic, Protestant as well as folk Baroque which is at the root of Brecht’s cultural tradition. Theoretically speaking, there can be no significant classical (doctrinal)  allegory in our age. But practice is slyer than theory, and an allegory despairing because of the absence of the proper, supremely significant Law (Kafka) or–theatrically speaking–a Mystery-play set in a Limbo that knows no Heavens (Beckett) is a most significant part of avant-garde horizons in our century. Brecht had considerable esteem for both Kafka and Beckett, but he wanted to offer more hopeful counter-projects to them. Faced with the realist (including “Socialist Realist”) thesis which short-circuited the tension between phenomena and doctrine, and the antithesis which allowed doctrine only as a kind of “negative way” revealing hell by its absence (the theoreticians of these two enemy brothers being Lukács and Adorno), Brecht chose a paradoxical third way for his balladic parables: to show doctrine–or, significantly, some experimentally verifiable elements thereof–as sensually present in the everyday actions of those committed to its horizon of liberation, rather than as a Platonic essence beckoning from the classless future. Brecht saw hell on earth just as clearly as those who despaired (it was for him encapsulated in Breughel’s vision of Mad Meg), but identified it, as of Mahagonny, with the “snare city” of consumer capitalism and war of all against all, out of which those who watch Mother Courage or Shen Te should find a way: Jameson calls it Brecht’s Tao, and it is also meth’hodos, pursuing the Way out of exploitation and war.

               Such allegorizing shuttles back and forth between abstraction and concreteness, so that there is in it “both a little more and a little less than a concept… it keeps the procedure open” (100). This disposes of the usual complaint against concepts, from Nietzsche’s onslaughts on Socrates onwards,  that applying to all subsumed cases they don’t apply fully (sensually, experientially) to any case. Jameson’s dictum comes in a discussion of the somewhat murky Brechtian category of Gestus: since nobody knows how to translate it out of German (a sign just as bad as the untranslatability of the many coy French puns in Derrida), I would myself try to see Gestus as a feature of stance (Haltung), as its collective (theatrical) application. An excellent example of Brecht’s use of allegory, sensually concrete and yet clearly doctrinal, is Menenius’s patrician parable of the Belly and Members, gleefully refunctioned by the plebeian glance in Brecht’s rewrite of Coriolanus, and performatively revealed by the various stances developed toward it by the dramatis personae in that scene.

               Brecht’s central narrative tool, and I think central allegorical genre, of “open parable” must therefore recomplicate the classical–say Synoptic Bible–subservience of  story to intended meaning in allegory, and create a genuine feedback, where the story is a cognitive toolkit in its own right, testing the doctrine. From among the inexhaustible ramifications of parable, I shall here only remark that the feedback Brecht constantly struggled for can also be seen as one  between personal (but class-bound) interest and even the best imaginable doctrine. If we, further, remember his deep engagement with popular culture, his allegories could today be also taken as alternatives diametrically opposed to the hegemonic machines steeping us in fuzzy, rival but always  subaltern, allegories pretending to be none, from Mickey Mouse and the Lion King through allegories of the projective Nation (to which Jameson earlier devoted a seminal book) to Superman and the Invisible Hand of the Free Market.

 

History is Real: Allegories of Class Collectives, Self-government, “Autonomization”

Brecht’s life was shaped and “overdetermined” by the huge political  earthquakes of World War 1, the Leninist “storm and stress”, Fascism, Stalinism, World War 2, Cold War. Only semi-ironically, a well-known poem of his was directed to “Poor BB”, and it ends with “the earthquakes to come” amid which he hopes to keep his pleasures glowing–in the emblematic image of cigar, uniting oral metonymy and genital metaphor. Next to Russia (and the cordon sanitaire of east-central Europe, from Finland to the Balkans), Germany, that “middle kingdom” of Europe, felt the stress of the moving tectonic plates most strongly: Brecht saw the World War and attempted revolution as closely as one could without being engulfed by them. He landed in a Berlin hospital for undernourishment in his mid-twenties, he watched the social-democratic directed police shooting at workers on May First, and an anecdote has him even listening to Hitler in Munich beer-halls before the first attempted putsch in 1923. For sure, he concentrated grimly on “the housepainter” between 1931 and 1945: almost–or quite–directly in the magnificent failure of Roundheads and Peakheads (Jameson notes its magnificence), and then  in Ui, Schweyk, Terror and Misery of the Third Reich, and innumerable other poems and writings–not least one of the great pamphlet-essays of our age of obfuscations, Five Difficulties in Writing the Truth; but also in Mother Courage, that clear allegory of fake profit in warfare, and very possibly even in his exasperated response to the “blond beast” empathizing, the splendid and still fertile Lehrstücke.3/

The movement of tectonic plates provoking all such earthquakes, we ought to have learned, occurs in magmatic depths we do not understand well. We can only say that something like  Fordism and the Welfare-Warfare State was transforming with equal intimacy our categories of economy, technology, and belief (ideology, or brainwashing if you wish).  On the Left, Brecht was together with Gramsci (to whose stances toward culture-cum-politics he has astounding similarities)4/ the first lonely thinker to realize this meant an epoch-making break in history. And the kinship to Gramsci is also striking in a matter of overriding importance for both: the steadfast, life-long, and central orientation in all of Brecht’s life-worlds  towards not only collectives, but also self-governing collectives. This was the steady bark and compass amidst the hurricanes he met “who had hats on.”

Here too, much more than doctrine is involved: Brecht’s just could not work at any major project without a group of friends for dialogue partners; even though he was then as a rule the first among equals (the only true equals he acknowledged were people whose special skills he did not share: Neher the painter, Eisler the musician, Weigel the actress). This began with his Augsburg high-school group, probably culminated in size and complexity in the Berlin days, and continued even in emigration where a couple of women collaborators fled from country to country together with Brecht, Weigel, and their children; and in East Berlin (GDR) he had his old friends, half a dozen of highly capable theatre assistants as well as official pupils from the Academy of Arts. Brecht’s works contain many lines, phrases or stage arrangements he had  accepted from suggestions or drafts by collaborators, but anything he incorporated was given the unmistakable imprint of his stance and rhetoric, which had by then permeated the group of collaborators anyway.5/

               The collective way of working, the “workshop” with partners and disciples, is comparable to any painter’s studio before romanticism or movie studio today; and if the publishers’ profit striving and the German editors’ doctrinaire individualism could ever be overcome, many Brecht works should be attributed to “Brecht and His Workshop”–as Giotto’s or Rembrandt’s works are without causing fuss. As usual, Brecht’s originality was to have returned, with suitably large changes, to pre-capitalist ways of behaving. This was above all a method which acknowledged that ours is a century torn between the manipulable “masses” of capitalist demagogy and its kindred entertainment industries (see Brecht’s essay “The Theatricality of Fascism”)–and the only efficient alternative, self-governing collectives as creative working groups. One can see how such a collective should work in the exemplary behaviour of the Boy in Brecht’s two playlets, He Who Says Yes and He Who Says No: in a situation of dire and demonstrated necessity, he consents to sacrifice his life in order to prevent the wipeout of the whole community. But dire necessity–say war or civil war–is, or ought to be, the exception and not the rule in human affairs (Stalin thought otherwise). As a rule, the group is here to protect its member–and especially a child, its future. After reasonable consultation where arguments are evaluated according to how they fit the concrete situation, and total necessity is not proven, the Boy withholds consent in the second playlet. The whole group follows his better argument. This double parable indicates Brecht’s halfway house between the special, limit-case of Lenin’s Party, whose Great Law  (doctrine) must be followed for dire survival, and Luxemburg’s Councils (Räte, soviets), which would be the norm for collective decisions of self-governing socialism.  In the “cold Chicago” of the lockouts and Depression, Brecht embraced the Leninist translation of Dantean hell into opposed frontlines of  class  struggle,   as the political embodiment of his permanent epistemological “actant” Contradiction (see Jameson 81ff.). But conversely, Galileo can only constitute a Science to Make the Life of People Easier (a friendly, in fact socialist science), when flanked by an allegorical mini-collective comprising a manual worker (the lensmaker Federzoni), an ethical peasants’ son (the Little Monk), and a curious youngster (Andrea), so that in the end his real treason is to have sundered curiosity from ethics and labour, to have taught Andrea “pure science” of the bourgeois, atom-bomb kind.  Brecht could only go about constituting the Berliner Ensemble by making it a Luxemburgian Council, abhorred and isolated by the Stalinists in power.

Jameson therefore rightly collocates a brief chapter on Brecht’s “autonomization” effects in narrative (43-51) into the part that deals with doctrine (Lehre, the Teaching). Semantic and syntactic form are consubstantial with the message here, the montage procedure (even thematically foregrounded in Man is Man) shows off different possibilities for choosing according to different interests and values. Jameson argues that Brecht’s formal categories “apply… to the collectivity itself” (71): the forms are allegorically linked to the postulated and induced audience; this justifies the central refusal of a catharsis assuming a “general human nature.”  What Sabine Kebir calls the “Courage effect”–not decreeing conversion to “rightness” on the stage but letting the contrary of it transmit an awful warning to the spectator–opens up a possibility not only of appealing to those not sharing the doctrine, but also (as in the Yeasayer /Naysayer) to question the doctrine as to its concrete rightness. Brecht’s maxim ran, “The learner is more important than the Teaching”; and real learning can only come about when the concrete particularity of the embodied situation counteracts the leveling force of conceptual reason, allowing actors and agents the choice of how best to fit the new situation, while the allegorical exemplarity escapes one-dimensional naturalism  and makes their choice exemplary for us. Thus, each autonomous–as it were self-governing–situation acquires equal rights before the judgments of embodied reason submitted to the audience as a “Control Chorus” (as in The Measure Taken).

Precapitalist Wisdom and Technology, Artisan Intellectuals, Luxemburgian Two-way Media

Jameson’s repeated references to peasantry in Brecht’s worlds are among the most stimulating and provocative ones of this book. His argument is subtle and worthwhile: on the one hand, “the immemorial peasantry… stands behind so much of [Brecht’s] work”; on the other, Brecht also participates in a technological modernism with his “delight in aeroplanes and in the radio, the dimension of ‘workers’ to be added to that of ‘peasants’ in any Gramscian aesthetic alliance” (3). Here fruitful discussions may begin, for in whose name or voice, and therefore to whom (to which classes or maybe congeries of class fractions) Brecht speaks is of a piece with how and to whom he might be useful. I doubt that Brecht’s world is a village one. Given that we have to characterize Brecht’s stories, perhaps his friend Benjamin’s  essay on “The Storyteller”,6/ which allots classical precapitalist storytelling to travelers, peasants, and most of all artisans, might be of help.

Travelers, mostly involuntary, are everywhere in Brecht, from Baal, Kragler, and the early pirates through the caravan and mercenaries (see Jameson 165) of The Exception and the Rule and Mother Courage, almost an “eternal Wandering Jewess” damned by capitalist war, to Galileo himself, moving–not too unlike Brecht–from the cozy but philistine Venice to the big, excitingly dangerous but also rewarding Florence and finally hauled before the inquisition at the centre of power, Rome. (Can one avoid thinking of a conflation of Los Angeles and New York here, if only in the sense that Brecht was playing through the political possibilities for an intellectual, as a general staff plays through possible campaigns?) The big town or mass city–Berlin, whose shock reverberates through the icy Primer for City-Dwellers–is impersonal and depersonalizing, strange and most dangerous, but not unmanageable: at worst a cold jungle, swept by the winds from Lake Michigan. After Hitler, the antifascist victory is in the Chalk Circle‘s counter-project to class power tied to Grushe’s march –Titoist or Maoist avant la letter–through villages and icy mountains, a plebeian hegira looping back to victory in the city. As Jameson notes, in Brecht “it is nature which is minimal, and the city, with its jungle and grim profusion, which [is rich]” (134).

Thus Brecht’s world is not a village one but the road or forest of Baal or the estate of the Chalk Circle or Puntila.  The semblance of peasant wisdom is deceiving–when peasants are found in the plays they are grasping and scared. Nor is there much industrial  working class  around: what one might call the totem-field of Fordism is represented, as Jameson notes  (cf. 139 and 165-67),  by machines and by the  “poverty of the poor” (in Saint Joan of the Slaughterhouses, a title allegorically preferable to Stockyards, for the slaughter concerns proletarians as well as oxen and swine, as foregrounded in the emblematic case of the worker who falls into the bacon vats). The  unemployed are a Hellenic chorus of millennial plebeian suffering, oppressed more than exploited: they do not strike, they are locked out. But Benjamin’s artisans do fit the early industrial small town (like Augsburg, traditionally “merchant urban”–just as Sechuan before Shui Ta, see Jameson 139), open to the countryside river for swimming and the disreputable plebeian suburbs of Baal’s taverns and sexual freedom. For all the workshop stress on productivity, which was–together with teaching–Brecht’s central stance (Jameson concludes his book on this note, 174-78), his storytelling fits Benjamin’s worry how to repristinate values based on communal experience and tradition (in the active sense) in an increasingly reified world of mass production of commodities and people to consume them. As Brecht most revealingly observed in The Three-penny Lawsuit,  a snapshot of the  Krupp factory (that is, immediate or surface experience) doesn’t advance knowledge any more: a blueprint and organigram is needed. Brecht’s simplified world of small town and wayfaring is an attempt at such a blueprint, and his hero is the small-town artisan-flyer, like the Tailor of Ulm in the splendid eponymous poem, while Yang Sun from the Good Person is a dire villain because he wants to fly by grinding the face of the small town, embodied in his bride-to-be Shen Te. Similarly, the bearer of his “heroic cowardice” (124) is the intellectual, an artisan commanding the technology of thinking–Me-ti, Keuner, Azdak, and the failed social experimenter Galileo. Jameson rightly observes that Brecht’s fascination with China, which he discusses at illuminating length, and with East Asian esthetics in general, relates to precapitalist culture (62) adopted as counter-world to the Chicago of slaughterhouses and fierce class struggles while Americanization was still being emulated by Stalin’s industrializing Russia.

Jameson splendidly argues that Brecht’s  objective correlative to the machines, or even more to technology, lies in the “starkness, which emerges from the radio play” (165-66 and elsewhere). I would point out that this was precisely the one aspect in which, as both Brecht and Benjamin noted, intellectuals were, in their class essence of artisanal creativity, “objectively” allies of proletariat: they share the delight of the master of the machine or tool or style when it works. This formal spareness reinforced tendencies in Brecht already there from his beginnings, but in the Hauspostille finding outlet in heretic reversals of the severe clerical forms (the psalm, the Loyolan “exercise”, the canticles accompanying the liturgic year). Similarly, Brecht translated the esoteric Buddhist–not simply Zen–world-reduction of medieval Noh into the starkness of both Taylorism (the minimal psychic movements indispensable for efficiency) and early Leninism. Jameson devotes pioneering and revealing pages to this epoch (say 1916-31) of radio and Lindberghian monoplane. I would call these, just as  the ubiquitous automobiles, space-binding machines of collective communication, and only add that it is also the time of silent film–whose importance for Brecht is underscored by the recent discovery that he was the director of the remarkable short 1923 movie “Mysteries of a Barber-Shop.”  Lindbergh, Taylor, Chaplin: the “Americanization” that swept post-1918 Europe also brought the records of vaguely  New Orleans “pop jazz” records–whose improvisational techniques Brecht thought of as exemplary–and the micidial “Spanish flu.”

But then Fordism issues in mass unemployment, Hitlerism, and war, the conveyor-belt leads to accelerated destruction of oxen and people (to the tune of “Work faster” from the Good Person), Lindbergh turns out to be vitiated by his very individualistic heroism opposed to the working collective that produced his plane, and in Brecht’s mid-30s’ “Street Scene”, judging the responsibility for the  car accident may be read as a parable of Fordism derailed. The enthusiasm for Lindbergh’s flying car, the airplane, left Brecht even before the arrival of the Luftwaffe dive-bombers and of the USAF bombing Dresden and Hiroshima; the enthusiasm for cars never did. New technology did not necessarily link self-governing collectives into a plebeian democracy from below, as was assumed by avant-garde enthusiasts, say Mayakovsky in The Bedbug for two-way radio (independently picked up by Brecht’s radio-theory that explicitly invokes utopia) or Tretyakov for two-way Soviet newspapers; it could equally be, and was, used by the Warfare and Police State. As of the coming of Hitler, the new technology is seen from the skeptical point of view of the servants,  like Matti, the car driver of the rich Puntila, diametrically opposed to the engineer as technocrat of “scientific management.” Brecht’s probably most important stage (co-)direction was, as an improvised movie shot at the time by a very young Syberberg confirms, his 1950 adaptation of The Private Tutor, the bitter story of the intellectual as lackey of a boorish upper class.

Twists and Turns, Today

Brecht is then not to be understood simply as gristle for academic sausage mills, not even similar to his closest English parallel combining drama and politics (but not poetry!), G.B. Shaw. Jameson’s parallels to  Pound and Eliot bring about useful estrangements of the Left through the Right: but their plays are too slight, even Murder in the Cathedral. Nor can Brecht be dealt with as Eliot superciliously proposed we deal with Blake (quoted in Jameson 23): a great poet landed with an aberrant mythology, which we should endure by suspending our disbelief just so long as it takes to get at his poetry. (This was Martin Esslin’s position, except that he was writing, as it were, under Pitt, and had to disjoin the poetry and the thought horizons more sharply.) True, Brecht is taught in literature or theatre classes and there is a “Brecht industry” (in which I have toiled); theatre makes everything theatrical, Brecht complained, and academic studies make everything academic. To this Jameson opposes with full right a central distinction  between Brecht and “any number of other ‘great writers'”: “some more general lesson” of joyous enablement, the lesson of his “method” (29). Beyond philology, this is his “portable” (105) use.

One of Jameson’s felicitous choices is to dwell at length on Brecht’s Me-ti collection of aphorisms and anecdotes, accurately subtitled The Book of Twists and Turns. One very instructive anecdote, “Tu Wishes to Learn Class Struggle and Learns Sitting”, recounts how the impatient neophyte revolutionary Tu (read Ruth Berlau) came to Master Me-ti and got instructed in proper sitting instead:

 …for we are just now sitting and we want to learn while sitting. Tu said, If one always strives to take up the most comfortable posture and get the best out of what there is, in brief  if one strives after enjoyment (Genuss), how can one then fight? Me-ti said, If one does not strive after enjoyment, does not want to get the best out of what there is nor take up the best posture, why then should one fight?7/

While accepting the doctrinal goal, “struggle of classes”, Me-ti (guess who) insists its raison d’être must durably inform the behaviour of those learning how to go after the goal: “progressing is more important than being progressive” was one of Brecht’s aphorisms. Progressing or sitting engages the whole body,  a sensorium not reduced solely to cerebral ideas but rather using these as points of orientation. The judgment to be passed on this might be the one passed on the engaging Boy in He Who Says No, whose refusal to die when not absolutely necessary is called “not heroic but reasonable.”

How, then, to summarize at least central elements of Brecht’s method? I would point out three that the method comprises or entails. First, as Jameson strongly argues (70, 90), a number of his categories–often marked by neologisms (stance, Grundgestus, estrangement…)–have cognitive significance on a par with, but usually much richer than, a specialized, “only conceptual” philosophy. They are transportable but not a “system”, since they follow the rule that can be educed from the Yeasayer /Naysayer analysis, and which, as I have argued elsewhere,8/ requires our stance to correspond to our situation, and to reach the stance by a careful observation of the state of affairs, taking into account the embodied nature and the interests of the actors that constitute it. This rule of Brecht’s coincides with positions developed in the same period by Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, or by Bakhtin: “there is no essence outside of a concrete situation” and “any empirical situation partakes of imagination or ideology” (cf. Jameson 168-70).

Second, this orientation to practice (Jameson stresses it time and again) is to be taught by teachers-learners, Brechtian Sages very similar to Chaucer’s Clerk of Oxenforde: “gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.” It resembles a Nietzschean joyous knowledge,9/ yet one informed by a militant Marxist socialism acutely aware of the necessities to adapt any -ism, especially one’s own, to new types of experience in the mass capitalism of world wars, as humanity enters upon the Novums of “a whole new world of relationships, like the new world of Galileo’s physics or the new world of socialist construction, into which writer and reader alike must penetrate by means of daring exploration, and appropriation” (168). Brecht’s personae or “faces” combine the Teacher-cum-Chinese Sage  with the Trickster (indeed sometimes the sly Rogue); as Bakhtin noted, each of them carries around itself its own world of relationships.

Third, as one would expect from Jameson’s life-long engagement with utopia, he does not fail to point out the “utopian and salvational” aspect of Brecht, in which pragmatics and pedagogy converge: not nearly so tinged with Gnostic religiosity as either in Benjamin or in Bloch, but running just as deep–as befits the salvational nature of socialism. It is a utopia of communal creativity or productivity (people can produces shoes or love, Brecht held), of constructing the Novum through Marx’s “living labour”, diametrically opposed to the capitalist definition of productivity as what yields profit (see Jameson 174-77). Brecht operates in a tension between a warm and a cold pole,  each of which elicits a major tour de force from Jameson. He comes at an almost Kropotkinian sense of co-operative instinct through the “sublime” line in the Chalk Circle “Terrible is the temptation to goodness” (173-74); and at a hard-boiled plumpes denken (crude thinking) through the great Brecht-Weill finales to Acts 1 and 2 of The Threepenny Opera (144-48 and 133), which demand that the little people get a cut from the big loaf here and now–and envisages the horrors which in fact consumed our century in pursuit of this absolutely overriding demand, equally Leninist and Fordist. The astoundingly many deaths in Brecht indicate how strongly subjectivity is for him intertwined with death: we have a large lesson to learn from him there too.

What Way of thinking or method is, then, the key to successful acting (in all its senses)? Toward the end, Jameson rightly considers that Brecht’s insistence on change has been co-opted by the whirligig of capitalism (168-70). In these times, Brecht’s slogan, “Change the world–it needs it!” should be emended into something like, “Change the world away from the profit-motive warfare–or we shall all perish!”. But: the emendation would itself be based on Brecht, on his admirable hardboiled optimism. This too Jameson clearly transmits. The author of Brecht and Method takes, I believe, his place alongside the great and most fruitful ancestors of Brechtian commentary, Benjamin from the “German takeoff” seminal phase of Brechtian criticism (in all senses) 1929-39, and Barthes  from the “world takeoff” phase after 1954. The field of forces within which Brecht is triangulated speaks for itself: the most frequent names in the Index are, beside these two, André Jolles and his “short forms” as “radicals” for Brecht’s forms, and the political epistemologists, so to speak: Hegel, Lenin, Lukács, Marx, Sartre (less frequent but by no means absent: Adorno, Lacan, Deleuze).10/

At the end, however, perhaps the reader should compare this whole Brechtian and Jamesonian focus on method or Way with the robuster attitude of Marx: “Truth includes not only the result but also the way…. [T]he true inquiry is the unfolded truth, whose scattered members are gathered up in the result.”11/ In this Post-Fordist epoch (but not necessarily beyond it!), we may well be condemned to investigation only, to the membra disjecta with no concrete political results. So be it, then we must have the method. But Marx’s observation may remind us that, if we apply Brecht’s imperative to historicize, method without concrete results is worth just as little as results arrived at with wrong methods. Brecht’s very particular joy of and in fruition, which he pursued as single-mindedly as orthodox Christianity rejects it, encompasses also the–always provisional–fruits. He left us both.

Notes

1/ Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method, Verso, London & New York 1998, ISBN 1-85984-809-5, hardbound B£ 19. Jameson’s writing exemplifies what it wishes to convey in how he conveys it, so that quotes from his particularly rich texture will be used here by page number in parenthesis.

I have to mention, so as to  get it out of the way, that D. Suvin is briefly accorded generous praise in two  or three  places. I trust it is not necessary to rehearse again how pernicious it would be to accept the academic critics’ aping of bourgeois scientificity and its strict sundering of Subject and Object. As Jameson notes (27-28), Brechtian storytelling denies the conventional split between historic objectivity and private subjectivity: and so does Jameson’s own work. Instead, the Subject-Object dialectics–as in Brecht’s praise of “the third matter”  uniting Pavel Vlassov and his Mother in the eponymous play–means that not only may a Subject treat itself as Object but that  allegorical Objects are the most important Subjects. My judgments follow my view of Jameson’s judgments and not his views on secondary matters such as this or that critic–unless these become politically strategic,  in which cases I tend to agree with him: for example about the philologically shoddy and militantly capitalist work of John Fuegi (with the proviso that Fuegi is clever and very efficient in driving a wedge between women and the rest of the Left, and should not be dismissed so blithely as Jameson does).

               2/ Brecht’s musicality, beginning with his youthful guitar-picking, is thoroughly followed in the admirable Albrecht Dümling, Lasst euch nicht verführen, München 1985.

               3/ In relation to the Lehrstücke, Jameson is one of the few English-language critics to have recognized the path-breaking theses of Reiner Steinweg. He gives also some hints for the proper approach to the great oratorio of Die Massnahme (The Measures Taken is, in spite of the wrong plural–there is only one measure that counts, the wiping out of the Young Comrade–the best shot at this untranslatable title) which is, together with The Horatians and the Curiatians, one of the two culminations of these  “learning plays.” In it Eisler played Bach to a certain Leninism and Brecht figured the “militant Church” severity of it. Nobody has yet managed to find a proper use for it: neither the Left critics, who attempted to wash their hands of it, not seeing that clean hands often get cut off, nor the “centrist formalist” ones, who saw the affinity to Jesuit militancy but not the thisworldly tensions around mortality, born of a different doctrine.

               4/ See W.F. Haug, Philosophieren mit Brecht und Gramsci, Hamburg 1996, which one hopes to see translated into English.

               5/ Much ink has lately been spilled in vain trying to prove that the collaboration in texts Brecht wrote or staged came mainly from women (this is quantitatively inexact), and at that from women of whom he had carnal knowledge (and it is exact that Hauptmann, Steffin, and Berlau were among his most assiduous collaborators). However, when he and his collaborators remembered, they were generously acknowledged (often they did not bother), even if one clearly could, especially after Brecht’s 1954 breakthrough to world fame, fault the money distribution. Most important, the group–Brecht’s “workshop”–was not only united in the belief they were working for the common (vague) goal of a world revolution, but it is also clear that Brecht gave the collaborators, both in their work and in their lives, as much as he got. To tell women who stuck with him, not without tensions, through thick and thin that this or that critic today knows better how their lives should have been conducted seems arrogant. See for the most balanced account, which does not divorce feminism from class politics, Sabine Kebir’s Ein akzeptabler Mann?, Berlin rev. edn. 1998, and Ich fragte nicht nach meinem Anteil, Berlin 1997 (on Elisabeth Hauptmann); cf. my review article of the latter, “Sabine Kebir, Ich fragte nicht nach meinem Anteil,” Brecht Yearbook 24 (1999): 386-96 (German as “Über Frauen und Brecht,” Weimarer Beiträge no. 3 [1999]: 449-58).

               6/ Walter Benjamin, “Der Erzähler”, Gesammelte Schriften II/2, Frankfurt 1980 (English as “The Storyteller”, in his Illuminations, New York, 1969).

               7/  Bertolt Brecht, Werke, Grosse kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe, Berlin & Frankfurt 1998, Vol. 18: 176-77.

               8/ Darko Suvin, Lessons of Japan, Montreal 1996 (essay 5: “The Use-value of Dying: Magical  vs. Cognitive Utopian Desire in the ‘Learning Plays’  of Pseudo-Zenchiku, Waley,  and Brecht”).

            9/ Parallels have been convincingly presented by Reinhold Grimm, Brecht und Nietzsche, Frankfurt, 1979, and Christof Šubik, Einverständnis, Verfremdung und Produktivität, Wien, 1982; further work is to be expected on how they were modified and subsumed in Brecht’s life and work.

               10/ I must complain at the incomplete and strangely organized Index. Incomplete: it does not mention stance, Noh play or the poem “The Cranes”, it does not excerpt the very rich footnote pages; strangely organized, for it puts categories under individuals (!), so that “Weimar” comes subordinated to “Weill”, “modernism” is divided between Adorno and Brecht, “capital/ism” between Brecht and Mother Courage (but absent from Marx and his Capital), peasants between Brecht (where they come under the misleading “working class and peasants”) and Mao. “Allegory” is only found under Brecht though it is obviously one of Jameson’s master tropes for culture in general, here much advanced by confrontation with Brecht. It would be much preferable to itemize both names and key notions or in a redone index, with outright errors also corrected.

               11/ “Zur Wahrheit gehört nicht nur das Resultat, sondern auch der Weg…. die wahre Untersuchung ist die entfaltete Wahrheit, deren auseinandergestreute Glieder sich im Resultat zusammenfassen.” (“Bemerkungen über die neueste preussische Zensurinstruktion”), English in Karl Marx, “Comments on the Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction”, Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, ed. and trans. L.D. Easton and K.H. Guddat, Garden City NY 1967; my quote  somewhat modifies the text from their p. 72.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in 2. BRECHT-DRAMA-THEATRE. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s