Motifs

A Radio Talk on Brecht
Walter Benjamin
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
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directed to the transformation of particular institutes and institutions.’ This is not a proclamation of renovation, but a manifesto for rebellion. Here writing no longer depends on the sentiment of an author who has no intention of changing the world and has taken the side of caution. This writing is self-conscious that its only chance is to become a by-product in a very intricate process of change, and this indeed it is. The principal product, however, is a new attitude. Lichtenberg says, ‘It is not the content of a person’s convictions that is important. What matters is what his convictions make of him.’ This is what Brecht calls attitude. It is new, and the newest thing about it is that it can be learned. ‘The second experiment, “Herr Keuner’s Stories”’, says Brecht, ‘represents an attempt to make gestures quotable.’ But it is not only Herr Keuner’s attitude that is quotable. So too, with practice, is the attitude of the school students in The Ocean Flight, or that of the egoist Fatzer. And conversely, what is quotable here is not just the attitude, but equally the words that accompany it. The words, too, need to be practised, and therefore noted, if they are later to be understood. They have their educational effect first, then their political effect, and their poetic effect last of all. 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 ′ ς: the with Brecht in the past, that it contains the Greek root κοινο 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
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models, almost dummies like those used for studying anatomy. Common to all of them are rational political actions that proceed not from human kindness, love of neighbour, idealism, nobility or similar motives, but simply from their ‘attitude’. This attitude may originally be dubious, self-seeking and unsympathetic, but as long as the person affected by it is not taken in, as long as he sticks close to reality, then the corrective is automatic. Not an ethical corrective, for he does not become a better person; but a social corrective, in that his behaviour makes him more useful, or as Brecht puts it on another occasion: ‘All vices are good for something,/But not the man who has them.’ 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 socalled 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,
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Fatzer, and the whole horde of hooligans and criminals who populate Brecht’s plays and are the true singers of his songs, as collected in the astonishing Hauspostille (Domestic Breviary). This lyrical rowdyism goes back to Brecht’s Augsburg period, when he traced out the themes of his later plays in strange melodies and brutal, haunting refrains in the company of his friend and collaborator, Caspar Neher. This is the world of the drunken poet-murderer Baal, and ultimately also of the egoist Fatzer. It would be very wrong, however, to assume that these characters concern the author only as horrifying examples. Brecht’s real interest in Baal and Fatzer goes deeper than this. True, he does see them as egoistic and asocial. But it is precisely Brecht’s constant endeavour to show the asocial element, the criminal, as a potential revolutionary. It is not just a question of his personal sympathy for this type of person, but also involves a theoretical point. If Marx raised the problem, as it were, of how the revolution is to arise out of something quite alien to it, capitalism, without requiring any ethical dimension; Brecht now translates this problem into the human sphere: he intends the revolutionary to emerge spontaneously from the bad and selfish character, again quite without any special ethical transformation. Just as Wagner hoped to create a homunculus in a test-tube from a magical mixture, so Brecht wants to create a test-tube revolutionary out of baseness and vileness. 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.

The rebuilding spoken of here is explicitly proclaimed by Brecht as a literary form. But what he writes is not a literary work, but a machine, an instrument. It is to be judged by its capacity to transform, dismantle and refashion. Brecht’s reading of the great canonical literatures, and Chinese literature above all, has taught him that the highest demand that can be made of a written text is its quotability. This actually lays the ground for a theory of plagiarism, as it simultaneously takes the wind out of the sails of this particular allegation. Anyone who wanted to define the decisive aim in Brecht in a single phrase, would do well simply to note that his object is poverty.
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Poverty, Herr Keuner believes, is a feint that enables us to get closer to reality than any rich man ever can. This is in no way a mystique of poverty, as found in Maeterlinck, neither is it the Franciscan poverty that Rilke had in mind when he wrote that, ‘Poverty is a great brilliance from within’. This poverty of Brecht’s is rather a kind of uniform, and well suited to give anyone who consciously wears it a high rank. To put it as briefly as possible, it is the physiological and economic poverty of man in the machine age. The state should be rich, but many should be poor; the state should be able to do much, but man should be permitted to do only a little: this is the general human right to poverty as formulated by Brecht and brought to light in its delicate and disconnected appearance. We shall not draw a conclusion, but simply stop. You can continue these considerations, ladies and gentlemen, with the aid of any good book-store, and even more profoundly without. Translated by David Fernbach

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