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“Then who in such a world could fell the oppressor – You”

In Praise of Bertolt Brecht.

Art by Eleanor Curran.

Bertolt Brecht, the German modernist best known for his theatrical works, avant-garde dramatic theory and avowed Marxism, might not seem immediately relevant to an Australian audience in 2021. His poetry, difficult to translate and underappreciated in the English-speaking world, might seem even less topical, especially at a time when poetry as a medium appears to have fallen generally out of favour. 

Nonetheless, I would contend that Brecht’s poems, especially those composed in his exile during the 1930s and 40s, and published in the Svendborg Poems (1939), have a lot to say to us. For one, they are immensely enjoyable to read. Beyond this, they also encourage an estrangement from the familiar and seemingly inevitable social, economic and political institutions of our society, allowing us to historicise our own social role and act on the grim reality that confronts us without falling into despair. Brecht encourages us to reflect, even in times of crisis, on how people have created the circumstances in which we live and thus, how we as people can transform them. At a time of global pandemic, reactionary political trends and a global economy characterised by inequality and instability, Brecht’s poems suggest a valuable mode of thinking. 

I

Brecht’s language is sharp, condensed and uniquely his own. He avoids the formal register and lyrical artifice that one finds in many other German poets (think Rilke), instead imitating the rhythm and feeling of spoken German, but without writing as any German would actually communicate. Brecht mixes this everyday German with archaic terms, commonplace sayings and bureaucratic jargon to create a unique poetic idiom. Perhaps the closest comparison, and what Brecht himself considered his greatest literary inspiration, is the vigorous language of Luther’s bible.  

His language and the unsentimental sharpness of Brecht’s ideas makes him very enjoyable to read, even for those who are generally sceptical of poetry.  There is a reason why lines such as ‘Erst kommt das fressen, dann kommt die Moral’ [First comes eating, then comes morality] were so popular with audiences in 1930s Berlin. Brecht slices through the reader, presenting didactic political statements and unresolved contradictions in even measure, laying bare the contradictions at the heart of our social, political and economic institutions. In ‘Questions of a Worker who Reads’ he asks: 

‘Who built the seven gates of Thebes?

In books you will read the names of kings.

Was it the kings who dragged the stones into place?

And Babylon, so often destroyed

Who rebuilt it so many times?  In which of the houses

Of gold-gleaming Lima did the construction workers live?

Where, on that evening when the Chinese Wall was finished

Did the masons go?  The great city of rome

Is full of triumphal arches.  Who set them up?  Over whom

Did the Caesars triumph?  Did Byzantium, so much praised in song

Have only palaces for its inhabitants?  Even in fabled Atlantis

That night when the ocean engulfed it, the drowning

Roared out for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.

Was he alone?

Caesar defeated the Gauls.

Did he not have so much as a cook with him?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada

Went down.  Did no one else weep?

Frederick the Second was victorious in the Seven Years’ War.  Who else

Prevailed?

On every page a victory.

Who cooked the victory banquet?

Every ten years a great man.

Who paid the bills?

So many report

So many questions.

Antiquity and the middle ages, sitting at a comfortable distance from the present, throw into sharp relief the inequalities and oppression that Brecht sees all around him. The simple rhetorical questions force a reconsideration of historical narratives, but more importantly they suggest a reconsideration of contemporary narratives which are, Brecht suggests, themselves historical and hence changeable. ‘Who built the gates of Thebes?’ can quickly become ‘Who built the immense wealth enjoyed by our elites?’ The answer is much the same.

In this way, Brecht carries over into his poetry the famous Verfremdungseffekt that is so central to his plays. This is, as Fredric Jameson explores, the ‘estrangement’ or ‘distancing’ effect whereby the natural and habitual are shown to be historical, constructed by human beings, and hence able to be transformed by human beings. This process distances his audience, including a contemporary one, from their assumed social, political and economic relations, and allows them to reflect on how they could and should be changed. The purpose is to instil what Brecht calls the ‘most beautiful of all doubts’:

‘When the downtrodden and despondent raise their heads and

No longer believe

In the might of their oppressors!’

It must be acknowledged that his particular use of language also makes Brecht difficult to translate. Idiosyncratic simplicity and clarity of form at times comes off as banality. His setting of idioms and archaisms in unfamiliar settings can appear cliched. Meaning is often lost when the form is necessarily changed. The result is that, as Martin Esslin says, ‘the champions of Brecht in the English-speaking world often appear to be overstating their case.’

Brecht himself used this to his benefit when, in 1947, he was hauled before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, accused of being a Hollywood communist. Having fled Hitler in the 1930s and moved to Los Angeles, Brecht insisted that he had written literature on the side of the workers and in the fight against fascism but had never been a member of the Communist Party.  Brecht was telling the truth about his non-membership of the Communist Party.  However, his ideological sympathies were clear, and his defence seemed to be faltering, when HUAC began to cite translations of his more revolutionary works.  Brecht, however, simply objected to the translation, to the consternation of the Committee members and the amusement of the crowd. 

‘Mr Stripling: Did you write that Mr Brecht?

Mr Brecht: No. I wrote a German poem, but that is very different from this [Laughter].’

Despite these difficulties, there is still much to be gained from reading Brecht in English. For the purposes of this article, I have relied largely on the translation of Brecht’s complete poetic works by David Constantine and Thomas Kuhn, published in 2018. These faithful renderings of the poems allow the Svendborg Poems to maintain a lot of their original power. 

II

‘From under my Danish thatch, my friends

I follow your struggle.  In these pages I send you

As I have before, a few words …’

The Svendborg Poems begin with a prefatory address from Brecht to his friends and comrades from his exile in Denmark. This sets the tone of the collection: reports from a time of struggle and despair from a man who has fled his homeland, addressed to his friends and comrades, as well as the next generations. 

This launches into the ‘German War-Primer’.  These short poems address the people of Germany on the eve of the Second World War and are written in Brecht’s version of the classical ‘lapidary’ style —  poems made to be inscribed into stone.  Like a latter-day Horace, Brecht is minimalistic and punchy.  These poems seem almost inevitable. 

‘The war that is coming

Is not the first.  Before it

There were other wars.

When the last one was over

There were victors and vanquished.

Amongst the vanquished the lowly folk

Went hungry.  Among the victors

The lowly folk went hungry also.’

As Brecht’s friend, the critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin noted, these are slogans to be scrawled in chalk on concrete by a partisan who, by the time we are reading their lines ‘has already fallen.’ The language is simple, the satire sharp.  The elites are ‘Die Oberen’ (The High-Ups) who live decadently while the vast majority starve.  The war that the fascists are planning appears, for Brecht, to be eerily related to their peace—it will kill those who their peace has left over.

Brecht soon moves from pithy slogans into slightly more ambiguous territory:

‘In the dark times

Will there be singing?

There will be singing

Of the dark times.’

Brecht’s question seems poignant, his answer is jarring. At a time of deep human suffering, we tend to wonder whether there is still a place for singing, for beauty, for human creativity. This is an understandable sentiment. Yet in posing the question and then immediately answering that there will be singing of the dark times, Brecht estranges us from the tendency to lament the loss of beauty and instead encourages us towards action. Not only should we, the reader, be singing of the dark times as they occur, but we should act on the knowledge that, once the dark times have passed, others will sing of them. This view to the future turns the present into a historical moment, it leads us to historicise ourselves. In knowing that the eyes of those who come after will be trained upon us, we (hopefully) cannot help but see ourselves as active participants in a world that is being created as we speak. In two brief sentences we see the Verfremdungseffekt at work.  

Brecht’s emphasis on the future, and on seeing ourselves as historical actors, is emphasised further in a series of Children’s Songs with titles such as ‘The child that wouldn’t wash’ and ‘Little begging song’.  Brecht, in response to Walter Benjamin questioning the inclusion of these juvenile songs in the supposedly serious collection of poems about the coming war, insisted that they remain. His reason was that ‘In the fight against them [the fascists], we must leave nothing out.  They don’t have anything small in mind. They are planning three-thousand years of horror … For that reason we cannot forget anybody.’ Grandiose as it may seem, Brecht was writing for the children to be born after the dark times in which he was living, for the possibility of new life itself

Moving from the war primer through a series of ballads and songs, Brecht comes to the third section of the Svendborg Poems, titled ‘Chronicles’. Brecht’s subject here shifts. It is no longer the coming war, at least not directly. Instead, he presents a series of slightly longer poems, dealing with historical and philosophical themes. The aforementioned ‘Questions of a worker who reads’ establishes the tone, and Brecht continues in like fashion, contradicting expectations and unsettling the reader. 

In a dream he visits the ‘exiled poets’, and in the middle of an amusing conversation with Dante, Ovid, Tu Fu, and Heine, among others, a question comes from the darkest corner of the room:

‘“Hey you, do they know

Your verses by heart?  And those who know them

Will they prevail and escape persecution?”—“Those

Are the forgotten ones”, Dante said quietly

“In their case, not only their bodies, their works too were destroyed.”

The laughter broke off.  No one dared look over.  The newcomer

Had turned pale.’

In this matter, likely closer to Brecht’s heart than most of his readers, he still produces a valuable tension.  An idea is presented or a question is asked. It is then contradicted or answered so as to cast it in a strange light. The poem ends without a satisfactory conclusion, and the reader is left discomfited. 

At times this constant tension and sharpness can make Brecht feel unrelenting, cold and even dehumanising to read. Brecht doesn’t just deflate his reader, he punctures them. Addressing those who waver in the face of fascism, asking ‘On whom can we rely? … Is it luck that we need?’ Brecht answers contemptuously ‘So you ask. Await/No other answer than your own!’. But this is, to borrow from Benjamin again, part of Brecht’s satirical brilliance as he ‘strips the conditions in which we live…Naked as it will be when it reaches posterity, their human content emerges. Unfortunately it looks dehumanised, but that is not the satirist’s fault.’ Brecht makes the reader tense, but it is a productive tension. 

The Svendborg Poems end with ‘To Those Born After’, one of Brecht’s best-known works. It is both a condensed recapitulation on the primary themes of the collection, and uncharacteristically personal. ‘Really, I live in dark times!’ it begins, and Brecht proceeds to lament his own hypocrisy:

‘They say to me: eat and drink!  Be glad that you have the means!

But how can I eat and drink when

It is from the starving that I wrest my food and

My glass of water is snatched from the thirsty?

Yet I do eat and I drink.’

Proceeding through an almost biblical description of how he passed the days ‘Granted to me on this earth’ in doomed struggle against the oppressors, Brecht veers towards a confessional style. He even comes dangerously close to the cathartic purging of emotions through art that, in his polemics against Aristotelian poetics, Brecht argued vociferously against. But catharsis never arrives, as the poem ends with an ambiguous appeal to those who will ‘emerge again from the flood/In which we have gone under’. Brecht asks merely that:

‘You, however, when the time comes

When mankind is a helper unto mankind

Think on us

With forbearance.’

Again, Brecht’s audience in 1939 is encouraged to historicise, to see themselves in the eyes of posterity, and to try and transform their world. But we, those who live in the world following the Second World War, one where humanity is not a helper to humanity, sit in an even more interesting position. We are those born after.  We live in the world after the flood, a world that we have and continue to create. What have we made of it?  The call to understanding from Brecht, is a call also to learn from the mistakes of his time. We should read Brecht, understand him, and begin to see ourselves as agents of historical change.

III

‘Poetry makes nothing happen’ in the words of Auden, ‘however, it survives/A way of happening, a mouth.’ This is the value of Brecht’s Svendborg Poems which, as Brecht intended are poems ‘expressing the disharmonies of society.’ They set up a series of questions with unsatisfactory answers, prompting a tension which leaves us unsettled but encourages us to look at our circumstances from the estranged perspective of history. 

This allows us to conceive of a response to times of crisis that goes beyond both despair and naivete, a clear-eyed questioning of social conditions and an unwavering commitment to our political principles, even as the world seems to descend ever further into darkness. As Brecht himself puts it in a poem titled simply ‘Questions and Answers’:

“Can truth be mortal, lies eternal?”—“Without a doubt.”

“Where on earth does injustice go unrecognised?”—“Here.”

“Who knows anybody who has ever achieved fortune through violence.”—“Who doesn’t?”

“Then who in such a world could fell the oppressor?—“You.”

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