In the realm of aesthetics, the way a thing is expressed is of a qualitatively different order from what it would be in science. No one will deny that even in science a statement can be made in a clear or confused, an elegant or a laboured manner, etc., and that depending on this the method of presentation can accelerate, impede or retard the acceptance of novel ideas. But it would be misguided to see in this any justification for the sort of analogy between science and aesthetics often put forward nowadays, as a reaction to works of art lacking in content and appealing solely to the feelings. The aestheticization of science and philosophy in the Romantic movement, and again at the end of the nineteenth century, sprang from diametrically opposed motives, but begs the actual question in similar manner. The view dominant today is expressed as follows by Bertolt Brecht in his Short Organon for the Theatre: ‘Today it would even be possible to compile an aesthetics of the exact sciences. Galileo himself already spoke of the elegance of certain formulae, and of experiments as having a witty point. Einstein suggests that the sense of beauty has a function in scientific discovery. And the nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer praises the scientific attitude because “it has its own kind of beauty and appears highly appropriate to man’s position on earth”.’footnote11
Such analogies create confusion, because they distort the relationship between form and content in aesthetics. For if they are taken to their logical conclusion—something which Brecht fortunately avoids, for the most part, in his mature works—they result in a conception of content in art as something essentially distinct from form. As a result, form would be degraded to the level of something with a genuine use, but ultimately of secondary importance. However, it is evident—and this is confirmed in its essentials by Brecht’s own practice—that artistic expression and aesthetic content are inseparable. Even where the content is profoundly intellectual, as in the philosophical poems of Goethe or Schiller or in the late painting of Rembrandt, etc., we find ourselves unable to make a meaningful aesthetic distinction between the two. The intellectual profundity of such works is actually constituted by those particular words or that particular arrangement of light and dark. Even to change the sequence of words or tonal nuances of the colours would transform depth into triviality.
In contrast to this, the content of the theories of Einstein or Galileo can only gain or lose in value if their grasp of the facts of the matter, as these exist independently of consciousness, is affected by the simplicity or complexity of their arguments, or by the greater or lesser incisiveness with which they are expressed. The content of a work of art—however intellectual—does not just consist in such a relationship to things in themselves, even though this may form an essential aspect of the work as a totality. It entails also a personal response to the factual complex it reflects and from which it is inseparable. Whether that response be one of tragic shock, optimistic acceptance or ironical criticism, etc., carries as much weight as the thought content itself. Nor does such a response abolish the work’s objectivity; it merely gives it new emphasis. What counts is the importance of both the content and the response it elicits for the development of mankind and the way in which both can become the property of humanity.
We are concerned here with the much-debated ‘alienation effect’ of Bertolt Brecht. He defines this effect as follows: ‘A representation that alienates is one which allows us to recognize its subject but at the same time makes it appear strange.’footnote12 This is enough to make it clear that Brecht ultimately has the same thing in mind as is referred to in our own concept of generalization [Verallgemeinerung]. There is, however, one important, or at least would-be important difference. Brecht is out to discover a revolutionary theatre, that is to say, one in which an actual performance will inspire the audience to revolutionary activity. From this standpoint he criticizes not only the existing theatre, but the entire dramatic tradition. ‘The theatre as we know it shows the structure of society (portrayed on the stage) as incapable of being influenced by society (in the auditorium).’footnote13
This argument does not seem too convincing. Many of the greatest plays in world literature do, in fact, depict essential social changes. Examples are the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy in Aeschylus, the breakdown of mediaeval feudalism in Shakespeare, the collapse of bourgeois society in Chekhov and Gorki, and in the case of the latter we even see the emerging new social forces coming on to the stage. And even when Brecht argues that ‘Things that have long remained unchanged, appear unchangeable’,footnote14 this may seem very cogent at first sight, but it is not in fact confirmed by the history of drama. Ostrovsky’s Storm or Hebbel’s Maria Magdalena depict worlds which have long remained unchanged. But Dobrolyubov’s outstanding analysis demonstrates that it is this very fact that is responsible for the revolutionary impact of Ostrovsky’s tragedy.footnote15
Brecht goes on to use the sentence we have just quoted as a weapon against theatre and drama as it has existed hitherto, and calls for a theatre which ‘must amaze its public, and this can be achieved by making the familiar appear alien’.footnote16 But this is mere shadow-boxing. Even without alienation effects, writers have succeeded not just in surprising the audience, but in moving them profoundly by dramatizing the contradictions of a given social order. Chekhov, a major dramatist of a past epoch which extended right into the present, shows that it is perfectly possible to realize what is poetically rational in Brecht’s programme without recourse to alienation effects. His plays are built on the conflict between the subjective intentions of his characters and their objective tendencies and significance. This constantly creates a divided impression in the minds of the audience. On the one hand, they understand the characters’ feelings and can even sympathize with them. At the same time, they are forced into an intense experience of the tragic, tragi-comic or comic conflict between these subjective feelings and the objective social reality. It could be said that the whole of his drama is one single alienation effect; but, by that very token, its form makes it drama and not alienation effect.
We may add that Brecht’s later, major dramas themselves—in conflict with his own programme—trigger off ‘traditional’ emotional reactions; and that they achieve their revolutionary impact despite the alienation effect, which acts as a disruptive and inhibiting factor, rather than a beneficial one. To realize this is to come close to the roots of the theoretical error committed by this important poet and playwright, and enables us to throw light on the general problem at issue. The source of the alienation effect is to be found in the embittered and one-sided polemics which Brecht conducts against ‘empathy theory’, even at the cost of obscuring historical facts and interconnections. In our earlier discussion of ornamental art, we have already encountered a similar antipathy on the part of Worringer. Of course, it would be wrong to equate his polemic with Brecht’s. Worringer launched an attack on empathy theory from the right, in the name of a reactionary irrationalism; whereas Brecht does so from the left, in the name of socialist revolution.