Theodor W. Adorno on Bertolt Brecht

Brecht too, who glorifies the party directly in many of his plays, like the dramatization of Gorki's The Mother or The Measures Taken, occasionally wanted, at least according to his theoretical writings, primarily to educate spectators to a detached, thoughtful, experimental attitude, the opposite of the illusionary stance of empathy and identification. Since St. Joan, his dramaturgy has surpassed Sartre's considerably in its tendency to abstractness. Except that Brecht, more consistent than Sartre and the greater artist, has raised abstraction itself to a formal principle, that of a didactic poésie that excludes the traditional concept of the dramatic character. Brecht understood that the surface of social life, the sphere of consumption, of which the psychologically motivated actions of individuals are also to be considered a part, conceals the essence of society. As the law of exchange, that essence is itself abstract. Brecht distrusts aesthetic individuation as an ideology. This is why he wants to turn the gruesomeness of society into a theatrical phenomenon by dragging it out into the open. The people on his stage visibly shrivel up into the agents of social processes and functions that they are, indirectly and without realizing it, in empirical reality. Unlike Sartre, Brecht no longer postulates an identity between living individuals and the social essence, nor the absolute sovereignty of the subject. But the process of aesthetic reduction he undertakes for the sake of political truth works against political truth. That truth requires countless mediations, which Brecht disdains. What has artistic legitimacy as an alienating infantilism—Brecht's first plays kept company with Dada—becomes infantility when it claims theoretical and social validity. Brecht wanted to capture the inherent nature of capitalism in an image, to this extent his intention was in fact what he disguised it from the Stalinist terror as being—realistic. He would have refused to cite that essence, imageless and blind, as it were, through its manifestations in the damaged life, removed from meaning. But this burdened him with an obligation to theoretical accuracy in what he unequivocally intended. His art disdains the quid pro quo in which what presents itself as doctrine is simultaneously exempted, by virtue of its aesthetic form, from the requirement that what it teaches be cogent. Critique of Brecht cannot gloss over the fact that—for objective reasons that go beyond the adequacy of his work—he did not satisfy the norm that he established for himself as though it were a means of salvation. St. Joan was the central work of his dialectical theater; even the Good Woman of Szechuan varied it through reversal: just as Joan aids the bad through spontaneous goodness, so the person who wills the good must make herself bad. St. Joan is set in a Chicago that is a middle ground between economic data and a Wild West fairy tale of capitalism from Mahagonny. The more intimately Brecht involves himself with the former and the less he aims at imagery, the more he misses the essence of capitalism the parable is about. Events in the sphere of circulation, where competitors are cutting one another's throats, take the place of appropriation of surplus value in the sphere of production, but in comparison with the latter, the cattle dealers' brawls over loot are epiphenomena that could not possibly bring about the great crisis on their own; and the economic events that appear as the machinations of the rapacious dealers are not only childish, as Brecht no doubt wanted them to be, but also unintelligible by any economic logic, no matter how primitive. The reverse side of this is a political naiveté that could only bring a grin to the faces of Brecht's opponents, a grin that says they have nothing to fear from such silly enemies; they can be as satisfied with Brecht as they are with the dying Joan in the very impressive final scene of his drama. The idea that the leadership of a strike backed by the party would entrust a crucial task to someone who did not belong to the organization is, with the most generous allowance for poetic credibility, just as unthinkable as the idea that the failure of that one individual could cause the strike to fall through.

Brecht's comedy about the resistible rise of the great dictator Arturo Ui throws a harsh and accurate light on what is subjectively empty and illusory in the fascistic leader. The dismantling of leaders, however, like that of the individual generally in Brecht, is extended into the construction of the social and economic contexts in which the dictator acts. In place of a conspiracy of the highly placed and powerful we have a silly gangster organization, the cauliflower trust. The true horror of fascism is conjured away; fascism is no longer the product of the concentration of social power but rather an accident, like misfortunes and crimes. The goals of political agitation decree this; the opponent must be scaled down, and that promotes false politics, in literature as in the political praxis of the period before 1933. Contrary to all dialectics, the ridiculousness to which Ui is consigned takes the teeth out of fascism, a fascism Jack London had accurately prophesied decades earlier. The anti-ideological writer paves the way for the degradation of his own doctrine to ideology. The tacitly accepted affirmation that one part of the world is no longer antagonistic is complemented by jokes about everything that belles the theodicy of the current situation. Not that respect for world-historical greatness would prohibit laughter about housepainters, although the use of the word "housepainter" against Hitler speculates awkwardly on bourgeois class consciousness. And the group that staged the seizure of power was most certainly a gang. This kind of elective affinity, however, is not extraterritorial but rooted in society itself. This is why the comic quality in fascism, which Chaplin's film [The Great Dictator] also captured, is also its most extreme horror. If that is suppressed, if paltry exploiters of greengrocers are made fun of when it is really a question of key economic positions, then the attack fails. The Great Dictator also loses its satirical force and becomes offensive in the scene in which a Jewish girl hits one storm trooper after another on the head with a pan without being torn to pieces. Political reality is sold short for the sake of political commitment, that decreases the political impact as well. Sartre's candid doubt about whether Guernica had "won a single person to the Spanish cause" certainly holds true for Brecht's didactic drama as well. Hardly anyone needs to be taught the fabula docet that can be derived from it: that the world does not operate justly. The dialectical theory to which Brecht summarily declared allegiance has left few traces there. The demeanor of the didactic drama recalls the American expression "preaching to the saved." In actuality the primacy of doctrine over pure form that Brecht intended becomes a moment of form itself. When suspended, form turns against its own illusory character. Its self‑criticism is akin to functionalism in the sphere of the applied visual arts. The heteronomously determined correction of form, the eradication of the ornamental for the sake of function, increases the autonomy of form. That is the substance of Brecht's literary work: the didactic drama as an artistic principle. Brecht's medium, the alienation of immediately occurring events, is more a medium of the constitution of form than a contribution to the work's practical efficacy. To be sure, Brecht did not talk as skeptically about effect as Sartre did, but the shrewd and sophisticated Brecht was hardly fully convinced about it; he once wrote sovereignly that if he were fully honest with himself the theater was ultimately more important to him than the alteration of the world it was supposed to serve. The artistic principle of simplification not only purifies the real political dynamics of the illusory differentiations they take on in the subjective reflection of social objectivity; at the same time, the very objectivity whose distillation the didactic play strives for is falsified. If one takes Brecht at his word and makes politics the criterion of his committed theater, then his theater proves false by that criterion. Hegel's Logic taught that essence must appear. But in that case a representation of essence that fails to take into account its relationship to appearance is inherently as false as the substitution of the lumpenproletariat for those behind fascism. Brecht's technique of reduction would be legitimate only in the domain of Part pour I'art, which his version of commitment condemns as he condemns Lucullus.

Contemporary literary Germany likes to distinguish between Brecht the writer and Brecht the politician. People want to rescue this important figure for the West and if possible set him on a pedestal as a pan‑German writer and thereby neutralize him, put him au‑dessus de la méleé. It is certainly true that Brecht's literary power, like his cunning and indomitable intelligence, shot out beyond the official credo and the prescribed aesthetics of the People's Democracies. For all that, Brecht should be defended against this kind of defense. His work, with its obvious weaknesses, would not have such power if it were not thoroughly permeated with politics; even in its most questionable products, like The Measures Taken, this produces an awareness that something extremely serious is at stake. To this extent Brecht has fulfilled his claim to provoke thought through the theater. It is useless to distinguish the existing or fictitious beauties of his works from their political intention. Immanent criticism, which is the only dialectical criticism, should, however, synthesize the question of the validity of his work with that of his politics. In Sartre's chapter "Why Write?" he says, quite correctly, "Nobody can suppose for a moment that it is possible to write a good novel in praise of anti‑Semitism." Nor in praise of the Moscow Trials, even if the praise was bestowed before Stalin had Zinoviev and Bukharin murdered. The political untruth defiles the aesthetic form. Where the social problematic is artificially straightened out for the sake of the thema probandum that Brecht discusses in the epic theater, the drama crumbles within its own framework. Mother Courage is an illustrated primer that tries to reduce to absurdity Montecuccoli's dictum that war feeds war. The camp follower who uses war to pull her children through is supposed to become responsible for their downfall by doing so. But in the play this guilt does riot follow logically either from the war or from the behavior of the little canteen operator, if she had not been absent at precisely the critical moment, the disaster would not have occurred, and the fact that she has to be absent to earn something has no specific relationship to what happens. The pictorial technique that Brecht has to use to make his thesis graphic interferes with its proof. A political‑social analysis such as Marx and Engels outlined for Lassalle's drama about Franz von Sickingen would show that the simplistic equation of the Thirty Years War with a modern war omits precisely what decides Mother Courage's actions and fate in the Grimmelshausen prototype. Because the society of the Thirty Years War is not the functional society of modern war, no closed functional totality in which the life and death of a private individual could be directly linked with economic laws can be stipulated, even poetically, for the former. Brecht needed those wild old‑fashioned times nonetheless, as an image of the present day, for he himself well knew that the society of his own time could no longer be grasped directly in terms of human beings and things. Thus the construction of society leads him astray, first to a false construction of society and then to events that are not dramatically motivated. Political flaws become artistic flaws, and vice versa. But the less works have to proclaim something they cannot fully believe themselves, the more internally consistent they become, and the less they need a surplus of what they say over what they are. Furthermore, the truly interested parties in all camps still no doubt survive war quite well, even today.

Such aporias are reproduced even in the literary fiber, the Brechtian tone. However little doubt there is about the tone and its unmistakable quality—things on which the mature Brecht may have have placed little value—the tone is poisoned by the falseness of its politics. Because the cause he championed is not, as he long believed, merely an imperfect socialism but a tyranny in which the blind irrationality of social forces returns, with Brecht's assistance as a eulogist of complicity, his lyrical voice has to make itself gravelly to do the job better, and it grates. The rough‑and‑tumble adolescent masculinity of the young Brecht already betrays the false courage of the intellectual who, out of despair about violence, shortsightedly goes over to a violent praxis of which he has every reason to be afraid. The wild roaring of The Measures Taken outshouts the disaster that occurred, a disaster it feverishly tries to depict as salvation. Even the best part of Brecht is infected by the deceptive aspect of his commitment. The language bears witness to the extent of the divergence between the poetic subject and what it proclaims. In order to bridge the gap, Brecht's language affects the speech of the oppressed. But the doctrine it champions requires the language of the intellectual. Its unpretentiousness and simplicity are a fiction. The fiction is revealed as much by the marks of exaggeration as by the stylized recourse to outmoded or provincial forms of expression. Not infrequently it is overly familiar; ears that have preserved their sensitivity cannot help hearing that someone is trying to talk them into something. It is arrogant and almost contemptuous toward the victims to talk like them, as though one were one of them. One may play at anything, but not at being a member of the proletariat. What weighs heaviest against commitment in art is that even good intentions sound a false note when they are noticeable; they do so all the more when they disguise themselves because of that. There is some of this even in the later Brecht, in the linguistic gesture of wisdom, the fiction of the old peasant saturated with epic experience as the poetic subject. No one in any country of the world has this kind of down‑to‑earth, south German "muzhik" experience any more. The ponderous tone becomes a propaganda technique that is designed to make it seem that life is lived properly once the Red Army takes over. Because there is truly nothing in which that humanity, which is palmed off as having already been realized, can be demonstrated, Brecht's tone makes itself an echo of archaic social relationships that are irrevocably in the past. The late Brecht was not all so far from the officially approved version of humanness. A Western journalist might well praise the Caucasian Chalk Circle as a Song of Songs about motherliness, and who is not moved when the splendid young woman is held up as an example to the lady who is plagued by migraines. Baudelaire, who dedicated his work to the person who formulated the phrase l'art pour I'art, was less suited for such a catharsis. Even ambitious and virtuoso poems like "The Legend of the Origin of the Book Tao Te Ching" are marred by the theatrics of utter simplicity. Those whom Brecht considers classics denounced the idiocy of rural life, the stunted consciousness of those who are oppressed and in poverty. For him, as for the existential ontologist, this idiocy becomes ancient truth. His whole oeuvre is a Sisyphean endeavor to somehow reconcile his highly cultivated and differentiated taste with the boorish heteronomous demands he took on in desperation.

SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. "Commitment," in: Notes to Literature, Volume II; edited by Rolf Tiedemann; translated from the German by Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992) (pp. 76-94), excerpt, pp. 82-87.

Bertolt Brecht's Dialectical Aesthetics

Brecht on Theatre: Entertainment, Instruction, Science, Dialectics

On Hegelian Dialectics by Bertolt Brecht

Walter Benjamin on Bertolt Brecht's Lao Tzu

“Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties” by Bertolt Brecht

Bernard Shaw and the New Spirit by Arnold Kettle

Theodor W. Adorno on modernism, Georg Lukács, James Joyce (1)

Theodor W. Adorno on modernism, Georg Lukács, James Joyce (2)

Theodor W. Adorno & Critical Theory Study Guide

Ideology Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide


Legend of the Origin of the Book Tao-Te-Ching on Lao-Tsu's Road into Exile (1938)

Peasant Dialectics: Reflections on Brecht's Sketch of a Dilemma by Antony Tatlow

Brecht's Way (Brecht between Taoism and Marxism)

Lao Tzu and the Apaches by Ioan Davies

International Brecht Society

Brecht's Works in English: A Bibliography

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 23 December 2006

Site ©1999-2018 Ralph Dumain