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.
Were we to demand that the author of Versuche confess his beliefs as roughly as he demands this of his heroes, we should hear him speak as follows: ‘I refuse to exploit my talent in a supposedly uncommitted way. I use it as an educator, a politician, and organizer. There is no reproach made against my literary activity—that I am a plagiarist, agitator or saboteur—that I would not accept as something honourable for my non-literary, anonymous but deliberate actions.’ It is clear, then, that Brecht belongs to that small minority of those now writing in Germany who ask themselves to what end they should use their talent, and only do use it when they are convinced of the necessity to do so, calling a halt whenever this touchstone is not met. The ‘Experiments’ are points of application of Brecht’s talent. What is new here is that the full significance of these applications is unconcealed; for their sake the writer takes leave of his ‘work’, and, like an engineer drilling for oil in the desert, directs his attention to precisely calculated points in the desert of the present. Here these points of application include the theatre, anecdotes, and radio. ‘The publication of Versuche’, the author begins, ‘comes at a point in time when certain projects should no longer be confined to individual experience, but should rather be
In these few words you have all the important themes in Brecht’s work, if perhaps in over-condensed form, and we are now entitled to pause for breath and to take a look at Brecht’s crowd of characters, singling out the few who best express their author’s intentions. First among these I would select Herr Keuner, who only ventures forth in Brecht’s most recent work. We need not dwell on the origin of his name, but rather assume with Leon Feuchtwanger, who has worked together with Brecht in the past, that it contains the Greek root koino¢V: the general, that which affects everything and pertains to everything. Herr Keuner is indeed ‘all affecting’ and to ‘all-pertaining’, i.e. a leader. And yet he is quite different from how a leader is usually imagined to be; in no way an orator or demagogue, a he-man or a go-getter. His principle concern is very far from what today is generally taken as that of a leader. For Herr Keuner is a thinking man. I remember how Brecht on one occasion depicted Herr Keuner’s appearance if he should ever be portrayed on the stage. He would be brought on in a litter, for the thinker doesn’t put himself out; and he would follow the action on the stage silently, or perhaps not at all. For it is precisely the characteristic of so much of our condition today that the thinking man cannot follow the action at all. His whole deportment would be such that it would be impossible to confuse this thinker with the Greek sage, the strict Stoic or the Epicurean artist of life; he has a closer resemblance to Paul Valery’s character, Monsieur Teste, a man of pure thought devoid of emotional disturbance. Both have certain Chinese features. Both are infinitely cunning, infinitely courteous, infinitely old, and capable of infinite adaptation. But Herr Keuner differs from his French colleague in having a goal, which he does not forget for a single moment. His goal is the new state. A state with as deep a philosophical and literary basis as we find in that of Confucius. To depart from the Chinese analogy, however, we would say that Herr Keuner also exhibits certain Jesuitical features. This is in no way accidental. The more carefully one examines the characters that Brecht has created, the clearer it is how, for all their power and vivacity, they are political
Herr Keuner’s vice is that of cold and incorruptible rationality. What is this good for? It is good for bringing people to see what assumptions they are building on when they attach themselves to so-called leaders, thinkers or politicians, their books or their speeches. For a whole bundle of assumptions fall apart once the string that binds them together is untied. This string being the firm belief that someone, somewhere, is thinking securely, and we can rely on this. Those individuals who have jobs of this kind, and are even paid for them, think for everyone else; they are trusted to do their job well, and are always busy brushing away remaining doubts and confusions. If anyone should want to deny this, if he were actually able to demonstrate that this is not so, then the public would be quite disturbed. They would then have to start thinking for themselves. Now Herr Keuner’s concern is concentrated on showing that the realm of problems and theories, theses and world outlooks is a fictitious one. If they all cancel each other out, then this is neither accidental, nor the result of thought itself, but rather self-serving to those people who appointed the thinkers to their positions. ‘But does thinking correspond to certain interests?,’ the public will now ask. ‘Isn’t it then disinterested?’ Their own thinking is disturbed. ‘If thought is in the service of certain interests, who will guarantee that it is in our interest?’ And it is at this point that the string is untied, the bundle of assumptions falls apart and is transformed into open questions. Does it pay ‘to think?’ ‘Is it any use?’ ‘To whom?’ ‘Crude questions.’ But as Herr Keuner says, we have no reason to shy away from crude questions, and save our most refined answers precisely for them. This is how we differ from those others: they know how to ask questions in a refined and subtle way, but the channels of their questions carry them off with the muddy flow of answers toward that unfiltered realm that is profitable only for a few and damaging for almost everyone. We, on the other hand, ask our questions sturdily. But we only accept answers when they have been well sieved. They must be precise and clear, with not only their particular content visible, but also the attitude of the spokesman. This is what Herr Keuner says.
As we have already said, Herr Keuner is the most recent of Brecht’s characters. We shall turn quite deliberately now to speak of one of his oldest. You may perhaps remember that I spoke of certain dangers inherent in Brecht’s creativity. These dangers affect Herr Keuner, too. Even if he is already the writer’s daily guest, he has still to meet other visitors who are very dissimilar to him, and who banish the dangers that he brings the writer. He has to meet Baal, Mack the Knife,
As the third character, I shall take Galy Gay, the hero of the comedy A Man’s a Man. He leaves his house simply to buy a fish for his wife, but meets soldiers from the British Indian Army, who have lost the fourth man in their squad while plundering a pagoda. Their sole interest is in finding a substitute as soon as possible. Galy Gay is a man who can’t say no. He follows the three soldiers without knowing their plans for him. Bit by bit he picks up the ideas, attitude, customs, etc., that a man must have in war. He is completely rebuilt, no longer recognizes his wife when she discovers him, and finally becomes a feared warrior and conqueror of the mountain stronghold fortress of Sir el Jowr.
A man’s a man is Mister Brecht’s contention. But that is something anyone might mention. Mr. Brecht appends this item to the bill: You can do with a human being what you will. Take him apart like a car, rebuilt him bit by bit—As you will see, he has nothing to lose by it.