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New Left Review I/77, January-February 1973

Walter Benjamin

Conversations with Brecht

1934–27 September Dragør

In a conversation a few evenings ago Brecht spoke of the curious indecision which at the moment prevents him from making any definite plans. As he is the first to point out, the main reason for this indecision is that his situation is so much more privileged than that of most other refugees. Therefore, since in general he scarcely admits that emigration can be a proper basis for plans and projects, he refuses all the more radically to admit it as such in his own particular case. His plans reach out to the period beyond emigration. There, he is faced with two alternatives. On the one hand there are some prose projects waiting to be done: the shorter one of the Ui—a satire on Hitler in the style of the Renaissance biographers—and the long one of the Tui novel. This is to be an encyclopedic survey of the follies of the Tellectual-Ins (intellectuals); it seems that it will be set, in part at least, in China. A small model for this work is already completed. But besides these prose projects he is also preoccupied by others, dating back to very old studies and ideas. Whereas he was able, at a pinch, to set down in his notes and introductions to the Versuche the thoughts which occurred to him within the scope of epic theatre, other thoughts, although originating in the same interests, have become combined with his study of Leninism and also of the scientific tendencies of the empiricists, and have therefore outgrown that rather limited framework. For several years they have been subsumed, now under one key concept, now under another, so that non-Aristotelian logic, behaviourist theory, the new encyclopedia and the critique of ideas have, in turn, stood at the centre of his preoccupations. At present these various pursuits are converging upon the idea of a philosophical didactic poem. But he has doubts about the matter. He wonders, in the first instance, whether, in view of his output to date and especially of its satirical elements, particularly the Threepenny Novel, the public would accept such a work. This doubt is made up of two distinct strands of thought. Whilst becoming more closely concerned with the problems and methods of the proletarian class struggle, he has increasingly doubted the satirical and especially the ironic attitude as such. But to confuse these doubts, which are mostly of a practical nature, with other, more profound ones would be to misunderstand them. The doubts at a deeper level concern the artistic and playful element in art, and above all those elements which, partially and occasionally, make art refractory to reason. Brecht’s heroic efforts to legitimize art vis-`-vis reason have again and again referred him to the parable in which artistic mastery is proved by the fact that, in the end, all the artistic elements of a work cancel each other out. And it is precisely these efforts, connected with this parable, which are at present coming out in a more radical form in the idea of the didactic poem. In the course of the conversation I tried to explain to Brecht that such a poem would not have to seek approval from a bourgeois public but from a proletarian one, which, presumably, would find its criteria less in Brecht’s earlier, partly bourgeois-oriented work than in the dogmatic and theoretical content of the didactic poem itself. ‘If this didactic poem succeeds in enlisting the authority of marxism on its behalf,’ I told him, ‘then your earlier work is not likely to weaken that authority.’

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Walter Benjamin, ‘Conversations with Brecht’, NLR I/77: £3

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