MARCH 26, 2019
IT’S HARD IMAGINING Bertolt Brecht on the Santa Monica Pier.
What must it have been like for him to look around at the endless summer of the Santa Monica Beach and the relentless optimism of American culture? The two-piece bathing suit skyrocketed to popularity in the same decade that Brecht lived in California, with patriotic colors and prints being the most popular — did Brecht lay on the beach, stubbornly wearing a dark suit and smoking his trademark cigar?
When the deeply analytic, hyper-critical Teutonic writer spent six years in Los Angeles fleeing Nazi Germany, he had already been on the run for eight years. Brecht the Writer prized distance as a tool that gave the spectator of his plays space to observe and analyze an event; he favored the detached view of the scientist. But when Brecht the Human Being watched his country falling into ruin and friends perish far from his help, it was distance — his real, geographic distance and the remove from events that called for his active participation — that plagued him with an overwhelming sense of guilt.
To understand how Brecht struggled with making a living as a screenwriter in sunny California while an abyss surrounded his home country, we can either read his journals — where he venomously curses the Americans who fail to recognize his world talent — or we can experience his perspective through the aesthetic lens of verse:
Every morning, to earn my bread
I go to the market where lies are traded
I take my place amongst the sellers.
(Hollywood Elegies, 1942)
The clarity of these lines tells us so much about his relationship to Hollywood in exile. His poems are no less pathos-laden than his emotional journal entries, but the poetic form raises the expression into literature, presented in images that unexpectedly accompany us on our drive past a film studio. Nowhere near as distant as his mask-like plays, his poems nevertheless make use of aesthetic transformation to turn his personal experience into universal expression. In his best poems, that universality makes his poetry as essential a voice of his time as Yeats, Maya Angelou, or Muriel Rukeyser.
This look into Brecht’s Los Angeles state of mind is among the many haunting insights offered by the newly released collection of Brecht’s poems edited and translated by Tom Kuhn and David Constantine. Brecht’s poetry is so little known in the United States that the mere existence of a body of work that fills over 1,300 pages may come as a shock. With many poems appearing in English for the first time, translators Kuhn and Constantine offer English speakers an indispensable resource into the intellect and soul of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers.
Brecht wished that “volumes of poetry would be printed smaller, so you can keep them in your pocket.” But the new collection is so large that it will have a hard time fitting into most backpacks, much less a pocket. If the current volume sacrifices a feeling of clandestine, dangerous contraband compact enough to smuggle over the border, the extraordinary depth and comprehensiveness make the trade-off worth it. The collection can almost serve double duty as a poetry collection and a biography of the writer. The chronological ordering of the poems and the succinct and superb introductions by the editors take us on the journey of Brecht’s life.
Not that the poems are purely private affairs. The partisan tone of so many of his poems should come as no surprise to readers familiar with Brecht’s staunch communism, with rhymes that make memorization and chanting easier. And leave it to Brecht to put theater criticism into verse, like “Purging the theatre of illusions,” a lyrical expansion of his profound theoretical writing into imagistic form. But the great bulk of this volume are uncollected poems, where we can see how poetry offered Brecht a kind of lyric laboratory. Throughout this volume, the personal (Bertolt Brechts Hauspostille) alternates with the political (Svendborg Poems) and the philosophical (“Legend of the origin of the book Tao Te Ching on Lao-tze’s road into exile”) as Brecht’s identity emerges in images, reflections, and fragments.
Although Brecht is better known to English speakers as a playwright, his Apollonian plays reveal nothing of who he was, presenting parables and self-conscious artifice instead of veiled autobiography. His theater is not a space of confessionals and psychological naturalism: it is an epic realm of archetypes and essentialized truths. This makes his writing cold for some who merely read the texts or who see misguidedly emotion-less productions of his plays — but even his staunchest fans would be hard-pressed to call any of his plays “personal.”
Brecht understood the representative act of theater to be the best vehicle for questioning our sociopolitical circumstance. If the theater is a microcosm of our social environment, then the audience/artist relationship is where the revolution will take place. He advocated for a mask-like approach to drama, one that eschewed the easy identification of actor with their role, and therefore the spectator with the actor. A mask opens up a space for observation. In the naturalistic trend that dominated theater at his time (and, sadly, our own), the actor’s convincing identification with their role was a pernicious hypnosis that led to citizens identifying with their own roles. Accepting the illusion of a stage play leads the audience into subconsciously but inexorably accepting the state of the world. Breaking that chain of identification would lead to a great awakening, which Brecht captured succinctly in his play Galileo: “Just because things are the way they are, doesn’t mean they stay that way.”
And yet, his theatrical imagination affected all of his writing, including the declamatory grandeur of his theoretical writing. In one of his essays translated by John Willett entitled “On Rhymeless Verse with Irregular Rhythms,” Brecht admits, “It must be remembered that the bulk of my work was designed for the theater; I was always thinking of actual delivery.” His poetry is full of dialogues and debates, with a tone predominantly characterized by the spirit and crackle of everyday speech turned surprising and memorable. As the essay continues, Brecht offers an example of how he struggles to find “elevated language” even with the problem of
the oily smoothness of the usual five-foot iambic metre. I needed rhythm, but not the usual jingle. I went about it like this. Instead of:
I heard the drumbeats ring across the swamp
Horses and weapons sank before my eyes
And now my head is turning. Are they all
Now drowned and dead? Does only noise still hang
Hollow and idle on the air? But I
Should not be running. …
After those drumbeats, the swamp gulping
Weapons and horses, all turns
In my mother’s son’s head. Stop panting! Are all
Downed and dead, leaving just noise
Hanging on the air? I will not
This gave the jerky breath of a man running, and such syncopation did more to show the speaker’s conflicting feelings.
There is a key insight here that holds the key to the major drawback of Kuhn and Constantine’s translations: if we try reading these translations aloud we will stumble over the language, something that rarely happens in Brecht’s original. In the impossible struggle translators of poetry face between content and style, Kuhn and Constantine always favor the former — which necessarily means at the expense of the latter. This choice may perhaps be a necessary evil of this collection’s role as a crucial corrective, but for me, I missed the sense of character — “the jerky breath of a man running,” or the oratorical wit of Brecht’s great poem “Praise of Doubt,” where the revolutionary, sly voice feels replaced with a proper proselytizer. The translations fare the worst when they tackle the poems found in theater pieces: their version of the Balladeer’s Song from Galileo would never roll off the actor’s tongue with the carnival-barker quality that would be required in a stage production.
But this shortcoming should not take too much away from the tremendous value of this collection — instead, this collection is a necessary starting place for what will hopefully be a long history of translations of Brecht’s poems into English (Kuhn and Constantine even admit to this aspiration in their introduction).
The arrival of Brecht’s poems at this moment in American history could hardly be better timed — although by better I most certainly mean worse, since it offers no relief to say that the most political of Brecht’s poems could have been written this morning. In exile, the author yearns to defend the truth he finds under attack; the contemporary reader cannot help but be reminded that our current president’s War on Truth has pernicious predecessors:
He who speaks untruths is borne in triumph through the crowds
Whereas he who speaks the truth
Needs a company of bodyguards
But will find none.
(“And in your country?,” 1935)
Can we learn something about how to grapple with our political reality from reading Brecht now? I believe the power of reading these poems today is gaining an eyewitness view of a great writer struggling with the burden of survival. The poems from Brecht’s exile through the end of his life do not offer a blueprint for action: they offer a record of his tortured conscience. The most unforgettable expression given voice in this collection is the disgust Brecht felt for his uncanny knack at saving his own skin. Like the flicker across his face so painfully visible in his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947: the cause Brecht so passionately defends in poems like “In Praise of Communism” is quickly and simply denied before Chief Investigator Robert Stripling. It must have felt like the fulfilment of a cruel prophecy: earlier that year, Brecht premiered his play Galileo, in which the central character is mercilessly chastised for renouncing his teachings before the Inquisition. A recording of the HUAC hearing shows Brecht’s thinly veiled expression of pain on his face when he lies to save himself, and that image is all we need to understand the tragic theme of Brecht’s life: even “great” people can lack integrity when it is most desperately needed. To live one’s life with integrity and infused with the courage of one’s convictions is easier said (or, in Brecht’s case, written) than done.
Brecht’s relevance for today comes from the deeply personal warning it offers: just as the plays are meant to cultivate a sense of activity in their spectators, Brecht’s cries of despair over how little he did to fight Nazi Germany are reminders to all of us who enjoy a certain amount of comfort and contentment as the world around us burns. Will we look back at our lives, like Brecht, and ask ourselves why we didn’t do more? Will we plead for leniency when the next generation judges us for our inactivity? Anyone living in our current social climate with the restless feeling that they are not doing enough can’t help but feel a chill run down their spine reading Brecht today:
I know of course; it’s simply luck
That I’ve survived so many friends. But last night in a dream
I heard those friends say of me: “Survival of the fittest”
And I hated myself.