Thursday, 20 November 2014

Bertolt Brecht’s Marie-Antoinettism

Biographies these days seem to resemble dumbbells, made as much for physical exercise as for spiritual or intellectual enlightenment; they could also serve as doorstops or defensive weapons against intruders as you try to read them in bed (this requires constant wrestling, even without the intruders). Modern biographers appear to think that facts are like men, created equal, and that none should be left out. I understand the temptation to leave no fact unprinted, for when one has found a fact in the archives it seems a waste of effort if it is not imparted to somebody else. We, however, should always remember what Voltaire said: that the best way to be a bore is to say everything.
There are a few individuals in history, of course, about whom we should like to know everything, down to their breakfasting habits. Chief among these, I suppose, is Adolf Hitler. We feel, unreasonably of course, that if only we knew about his breakfast oats we should be able to pluck out the heart of his evil. Otherwise, brevity is the soul of wit and perhaps even of merit.
Is Bertolt Brecht one of those few of whom we should wish to know everything? I confess that as I read this giant biography—600 pages, so closely printed that each of them is equal to one and a half normal pages—I thought of Macaulay’s review of Edward Nares’s Memoirs of the Life and Administration of the Right Honourable William Cecil Lord Burghley . . . [title truncated due to length]:
Unhappily the life of man is now threescore years and ten; and we cannot but think it somewhat unfair in Dr. Nares to demand from us so large a portion of so short an existence.
There is no objective answer to the question I have posed: for it depends on one’s assessment of Brecht’s literary or historical importance. A figure can be important for good or bad reasons, of course; the latter, alas, is perhaps the more frequent. It does not follow from the fact that one does not really like Brecht’s work that one does not want to read about his life. Still, 900 ordinary pages are an awful lot, and, I suspect, beyond the need or desire of most literate people to know about their subject.1
The writer of a very long book should at least be a good prose stylist, but unfortunately Professor Parker is not such a stylist. As Sartre said of Malraux, he has a style, but it is not a good one. Professor Parker is inclined from time to time to use ugly modern British demotic locutions, whether from natural inclination or from a need to demonstrate that, despite his university chair, he is a man of the people, I do not know, but his words rarely flow and quite often stick. For example he writes:
Brecht bolstered his morale by noting several rather self-important statements about literature and drama.
The verb noting suggests that the remarks were made by someone other than Brecht, but the adjective self-important suggests that they were written by him, and one is puzzled. (The latter, one soon learns, is the correct interpretation.) Fortunately, the professor’s style improves considerably in the second half of the book—if the reader perseveres.
But he is inclined also to resort to that modern cant known as psychobabble, which is intended to give the impression of understanding in the way that political correctness is intended to give the impression of sympathy for the downtrodden. On page 102, for example, Brecht “struggled to reconcile himself to the brute fact of Wedekind’s death” and by page 105 he “would struggle in his quarrel with himself with that very egotism which was so much part of him.” There are no prizes for guessing in which struggle Brecht emerged triumphant and in which he was utterly defeated; but I suppose that, in the age of the dsm, such loose psychologizing is inevitable.
It may seem paradoxical to complain of omission in a book already so long, but it seems to me a shame that the publisher did not see fit to provide the German originals alongside the author’s translations of Brecht’s poems. The lines of those poems are generally very short, and so could have been printed side-by-side with the English without adding unduly, if at all, to the number of pages; it is striking that, where something in French is cited, it isgiven in the original. Perhaps this is an unintended testimony to the thoroughness with which the Nazis destroyed German as an international language.
Professor Parker is an unequivocal admirer of Brecht, whom he considers a transcendent genius, both as a playwright and as a poet. We can safely assume, then, that his biography is not written with any destructive intent or in any hypercritical spirit intended to diminish his hero’s reputation, which means that the portrait he gives of Brecht’s character is all the more devastating: for in all the hundreds of thousands of words, there is no account of Brecht ever having done a good, kind, generous, or unselfish, let alone a self-sacrificing, thing. The author’s research has been exhaustive as well as exhausting, and will stand for a long time as definitive. If Brecht had been a kindly man, Professor Parker surely would have uncovered the fact and emphasized it. None of us would claim to be perfect, but I doubt that there are many of us about whom so much could be written without the description of a single indisputably praiseworthy deed. Throughout his life, Brecht absorbed generosity like a sponge, but he dispensed it like a stone.
Still, he obviously had a tremendous personal charm, when he wanted or needed it. But charm detached (or alienated, to use a word he so much liked) from real feeling or concern for others is a sinister rather than an attractive quality, a mere instrument in achieving ends, whatever they might be. Mephistopheles had—or has, in his modern incarnations—charm. That is why so many charming people without such feeling or concern are also capable of the most terrifying ruthlessness. Whether they are charming or ruthless depends upon their estimate of which attitude will better get them what they want. If one can imagine a reptile with a high intelligence and a smooth tongue, that is what Brecht was: fundamentally cold-hearted.
Brecht needed his great charm to achieve his ends because, in other respects, he was physically repellent. He seldom washed and he smelled. He didn’t brush his teeth, and, consequently, many of his teeth decayed and fell out. (The author is strong on Brecht’s medical history of rheumatic fever that caused Sydenham’s chorea and heart-valve damage leading eventually to heart failure, but does not mention that in people with rheumatic heart disease, now happily almost a thing of the past, dental hygiene is essential, because poor hygiene can lead to subacute bacterial endocarditis, a debilitating and eventually fatal disease.) Not surprisingly, he suffered halitosis—or rather, others suffered it.
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