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New Left Review I/123, September-October 1980

Walter Benjamin

A Radio Talk on Brecht

There is always something deceitful in trying to talk about living writers impartially and objectively. Nor is this only a personal problem—though no one can help being affected in a thousand and one ways by the aura that surrounds a contemporary. The deception I have in mind is above all a scientific one. This certainly does not mean that one should simply drift along in a lecture such as this and trust one’s luck to a vague series of associations, anecdotes and analogies. On the contrary, if literary history is inappropriate here, what is appropriate is criticism. And this is a form that grows stronger by rejecting cheap pretentiousness of any kind, and holding resolutely to precisely those aspects of someone’s work that are of contemporary relevance. It would be foolish in Brecht’s case, for example, to pass over in silence the inherent dangers in his creativity, the question of his political attitude, or even the business of plagiarism. That would make any real access to his work impossible. On the contrary, it is more important to tackle these question, which, in turn, require a conception of his theoretical convictions, his manner of speech, and even his external appearance; than to reel off his works in chronological sequence. And for this same reason we make no bones about beginning with his most recent book, something that would certainly be a mistake for the literary historian, but which is all the more justified for the critic because this work, entitled Versuche [Experiments], is one of Brecht’s most difficult, and requires us to grasp the whole phenomenon at once, fully and frontally.

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Walter Benjamin, ‘A Radio Talk on Brecht’, NLR I/123: £3

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