O great academics! Still, let’s search more diligently and not despair.

Augustine of Hippo

The highest thing would be to understand that all phenomena are already theory.


Brecht can be supremely useful to us—if we wish to think through and do something about the present catastrophic state of the world; and what is useful is his method. This is Fredric Jameson’s thesis in his pathbreaking book.footnote It is, I think, the most significant contribution to come out of the hullabaloo that was the 1998 Brecht centennial. But what does he mean by method?

One of Jameson’s formulations may provide a first springboard: ‘there existed a Brechtian “stance” [Haltung] which was not only doctrine, narrative, or style, but all three simultaneously; and ought better to be called, with all due precautions, “method”’.footnote1 This builds on, but considerably expands Lukács’s famous assertion in History and Class Consciousness that ‘orthodox Marxism . . . refers exclusively to method’—precisely because it adds the crucial factors of stance (involving the whole body) and narrative (involving a more than exclusively conceptual articulation of a possible world). But then I would like to ask: why is it necessary to stress that this is not simply doctrine? Clearly, doctrine as a set of tightly—as it were, ‘horizontally’—linked political-cum-philosophical concepts, unfalsifiable by any ‘vertical’ reference to the embodied situations from which they once sprang and to which—in any Brechtian (or Jamesonian) ‘meshing thought’ (eingreifendes denken)—they should be applied, has failed us in this century. We are now yoked to a victorious doctrine of ‘free trade’, that is a lie in its premises and a horror in its results. Its opposite, Leninism, was in some important aspects flawed when extrapolated west of Russia, was certainly abused within Russia itself, and is, in any case, inadequate to the physical and mental technologies of post-Fordism. What, then, is inheritable or transmissable from a socialist past, that includes not only many glories, but even whose worst errors contain indispensable lessons for the future? Where can we find ‘a place-keeper’ for what Jameson in a somewhat different context calls the ‘metaphysics’, but we may term the doctrines, ‘that have become impossible’?footnote2

In the case of Brecht, Jameson’s answer—taken by him as exemplary of the whole inheritance—is: method. But this is a conclusion arrived at with a rich intricacy that requires us to discuss at least a few of the key foci ‘to be read into, or read out of’ a complex argument (as Brecht said about Coriolanus). Its crucial links have to do with what Brecht may mean to us today, and why the answer is significant beyond literary or theatre discussions. These two issues come together in the question: what is the social and indeed class locus from which, and to which, Brecht speaks? In whose name or names, and then to whom, could he—or did he—speak? After considering these matters (other important ones—Brecht and the subject, Brecht and modernism, sympathy vs. empathy, the ‘representability of capitalism’—must be slighted), I will return to see what illumination we may derive from Brecht’s and Jameson’s ‘method’.

It is clear enough not only that Brecht is a poet, but that, had Brecht not been a (major) poet or wordsmith, he would not have been anything else of significance. Jameson distances himself from ‘Western critics from Adorno on’ who have insinuated that Brecht was ‘(just) a poet’,footnote3 but his brief is not detailed appreciations of any single work, genre or mode. His approach is more like what Benjamin would have called a commentary (that starts from the prejudgement that the text under scrutiny is a classic): a close reading certainly, but one that shifts from the single ‘work’ to the details characteristic for a whole opus, wherever the lines speak to the purpose. A network of references lying athwart the monadic theological assumptions of ‘organic’ literary scholarship and probing the contradictory unity of Brecht’s stance, is thus put in place. We still get splendid analyses by the way. For verse, perhaps the best example is Jameson’s pithy comment on ‘The Cranes’,footnote4 the classical sonnet in two voices fitted into Mahagonny, whose bitter-sweet lyricism is itself enough to dispel the cliché—anyway repudiated by the mature poet—that Brecht is emotionless. Throwaway asides, like ‘the two fundamental Brechtian works Saint Joan and the Three-Penny Novel ’,footnote5 are equally salutary and revealing. Jameson’s stream of associations proceeds through concepts, but their kinetoscopic lope becomes strangely similar to a Joycean poetic narrative. Pages 81–85, for example, move from Opposition through Contradiction to the V-Effekt, from Brecht via Hegel, Marx, postmodernism, Barthes, ethnomethodology, Sartre, Judith Butler (the weakest link) and Gramsci back to the ‘Street Scene’, to end Part i of the book with a culminating bang: ‘[all this] is the proof that reality is theoretical, but also that Brecht’s theory . . . is what is “really” or “in reality” Brechtian in Brecht’!

Still, as earlier critics have indicated, poetry supplied a further form that was to be crucial for Brecht’s stance, the ballad. He admired ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ and drew on the great German heritage of the Romantic Kunstballade and of the penny-dreadful Moritats sung by itinerant balladeers, imitated in ‘Mack the Knife’ and so many other ‘songs’ in the plays.footnote6 The ballad develops through episodes; it has an in-built plebeian estrangement technique, readily switching from impersonation to third-person narrative and generalizing comment; it is both lyrical and epic. So it is another major template for Brecht’s literary practice, alongside the parable, André Jolles’s casus —where a judgement of conduct questions a norm—and the proverb, on all of which Jameson writes with great insight.footnote7