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Nonsite: Devoted to Bertolt Brecht
Don’t know if you’ve lately been to Emory University’s terrific nonsite.org, but their tenth issue is devoted to Bertolt Brecht! As writer Jennifer Ashton puts it in her piece for the journal, “Poetry and the Price of Milk”:
Devoting this nonsite issue to Brecht inevitably raises the question of why we should be reading Brecht now. But we might just as well ask, as Dana Ward does in his most recent book of poems, The Crisis of Infinite Worlds, why haven’t we been reading him all along.
Ashton also recovers Brecht through Hannah Arendt:
Arendt was writing about Brecht at the height of the Cold War, at a moment when communist states like the Soviet Union were under constant attack for, among other things, the enforcement of their citizens’ silence about themselves. And when Arendt imagines what she views as Brecht’s isolation as an artist during the 1920s, when “Der Herr der Fische” was written (“he cut a rather solitary figure among his contemporaries”), it’s his refusal of the personal, set against a contemporary cohort who “resented the fact that the world did not offer them shelter and the security to develop as individuals” that keeps him apart (loc. 3256). But in the half century since 1968 (the year Men in Dark Times was published), and particularly since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the systematic economic exploitation by capitalism that Brecht believed a communist state could overturn has instead overturned most communist states, and, if anything, intensified.5 At the same time, “talking about [one]self” and the freedom to “develop as individuals” have never been more valued. If there’s a “crisis of infinite worlds” for poets like Ward, writing at a moment when the commitment to human capital in the form of self-actualization seems to be at a world-historical peak, the “crisis” looks to them more like a cause for celebration than for revolution. As one reviewer of Ward’s collection puts it, “Dana Ward’s ‘The Crisis of Infinite Worlds’ is based on the idea that talking about someone and what they do makes them more familiar to you. Ward takes us to an alternate universe where to quote from movies, graffiti, and the experience of walking through commercial stores is a way to relate back to the origin of our feelings, and is a trajectory towards the infinitely possible worlds our expressions can create” (Gregorian).6
My contribution to this nonsite Brecht feature is certainly intended at least in part to suggest a very literal understanding of Brecht’s current relevance. If we think for two seconds about the moment in The Messingkauf Dialogues where the Actor recalls a role in which he “pointed out that all the wheels would stop turning if the strong arm of the proletariat so willed it,” the reasons might seem too obvious for comment: “It was at a moment,” the Actor goes on, “when several million workers were going about without work. The wheels had stopped turning whether their strong arm willed it or not” (Brecht Messingkauf 21). At a moment when closer to 200 million worldwide are “going about without work,” it’s hard to imagine a clearer reason to be reading Brecht. But there is another important reason, one that should be (but hasn’t been) so obvious. For if it’s true, as Ward suggests, that many of our contemporaries and immediate predecessors—and particularly poets—haven’t been interested in Brecht, it isn’t quite right to say that it must be because Brecht’s work is “too didactic or too plain in its political motivations” (or, we could say, too committed). Rather, I would argue, if Brecht has held little interest, with respect to aesthetics and politics alike, it’s because aesthetics and politics alike have been “strictly personal,” transformed into a matter of “talking about [one]self”—of expressing one’s attitudes and “special feelings”—instead of what they were for Brecht: impersonal, a matter of accuracy and normative judgment.
Brecht believed art, in the form of what he called “epic theater,” could “give an accurate representation of great financial operations on the stage.”
Also to look at: a dossier of new translations of Brecht on painting and art, a piece on Brecht’s moralism and affect, an essay on Kurt Weill, one on Brecht’s The Threepenny Novel (1934), and much more in the way of smart poems and writing. Also excited to dig into previous issues of nonsite. Here’s their poetry section.