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 is given 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.
Brecht probably thought that, since imitation is the highest form of flattery, he was expressing his solidarity with the proletariat by being dirty. This, however, is insult rather than flattery, and, in any case, he forgot entirely what, for other, lesser beings would be perfectly obvious, that it is one thing to be dirty for lack of means to keep clean, and another to be dirty because one refuses to use the means at one’s disposal. If no one were to be clean until everyone could be clean, the world would have remained a pigsty. Fundamentally, then, Brecht’s dirtiness was a form of condescension, the product of a lack of real interest in what poor people actually wanted. Not coincidentally, when, after the second war, the Swiss writer and architect Max Frisch showed him the decent and comfortable housing that he was building for Swiss workers, complete with modern bathrooms, Brecht was not impressed but horrified—not by the aesthetic quality of the buildings, but by the corrupting effect that such bathrooms and comforts would have on the proletariat. Their historic mission, in Brecht’s opinion, was to live wretchedly until rescued by Marxist-Leninists such as he.
The author does not make much of Brecht’s dirtiness, but it is surely very revealing of Brecht’s true indifference to the interests and welfare of others. To keep clean is not a purely egotistical, bourgeois virtue, as he would no doubt have protested, nor even a matter just of the public health, though it is that also; it is a social virtue. It is a daily tribute to the obvious fact that we are social beings and live with other such beings, and it demands that we submit to a discipline. From his earliest age, as again this biography makes clear, Brecht, almost as a congenital neurological condition, did not believe in, or would not tolerate, such disciplines, at least not for himself (as we shall see, it was quite different for others). It is at first sight astonishing, though perhaps on reflection logical, how many intellectual proponents of the need to replace bourgeois individualism by proletarian solidarity were themselves egotists of the first water.
The author does not make much, either, of Brecht’s peculiar mode of dress, passing over it as if it told us little or nothing. But this is a mistake, for it is very significant. Even when he was in funds, Brecht insisted on trying to look like a worker, either in a boiler suit (there is an unintentionally comic photo of him thus attired, looking distinctly awkward, like a lapdog in a tuxedo), or in a kind of railwayman’s jacket circa 1910. It must have taken him, or someone else more probably, greater effort to find his clothes than if he had wanted to wear mauve spats and lavender gloves. In effect, his mode of dress was a visual and symbolic lie, for not only did he never in his life, even when impecunious, resort to manual labor, but the sole proletarians whom he ever knew personally were intellectuals who had escaped the proletariat. He wasn’t even particularly practical; do-it-yourself was not his motto; the nearest he ever came to tilling the soil was looking at his garden in exile in Los Angeles.
This visual lie is significant because it means that he was almost always playing a part; only in very rare moments of honesty (recorded in the biography) did he admit that he was, in truth, a bourgeois himself. In other words, his real ideology was not so much Marxism-Leninism as Marie-Antoinettism. She, you remember, played at being shepherdess while remaining Queen of France, and after a hard day’s play-acting went back to the palace. This is not an altogether trivial phenomenon: Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Ceau?escu, Pol Pot, Kim I, Kim II, and Kim III, all played at proletarian shepherdess, and Brecht, if he did not exactly lead the fashion, was a very swift follower of it.
As this book makes absolutely clear, Brecht’s treatment of women was appalling. One would not have to be a feminist to be revolted by his lack of scruple and his hypocrisy. His treatment of women did not consist merely of promiscuity, a harmless enjoyment of many sexual partners who happily took part in the game, as it were. It consisted of repeated and serial betrayal of women, exploitation of them, and unconcern as to whether or not they became pregnant by him (he couldn’t be bothered with contraception). The story of his first child, Frank, who never took the name Brecht, was tragic in the extreme:
Brecht would officially recognize Frank [as his child] the next year, but he would never have regular contact with his first child, let alone have a close relationship with him. Nothing could stand in the way of Brecht’s struggle for success. It emerged that Frank had been born with a very nasty physical defect, a malformed anus, which meant that he could not retain his faeces. The problem dogged him all his life, impairing his psychological as well as physical development.
His psychological development was no doubt not assisted by the way in which he was subsequently passed around as undesired:
Frank was taken into the care of the roadman Xaver Stark. . . . Brecht paid a monthly sum for this service. After three years, Frank was passed on to a peasant farmer in Friedberg. . . . Frank [then] spent time in Vienna with carers and with the families of Brecht’s wives Marianne Zoff and Helen Weigel. Throughout all these years the sickly Frank needed medical attention. . . . Frank had dreams of becoming a doctor or an actor but he had neither the intelligence nor the talent. He became a salesman, then a soldier and was killed on the Russian Front in 1943.
I think I felt more sorrow for Frank than did Brecht, to judge by this biography, and, again, I think the writer would have mentioned Brecht’s emotion on learning of his son’s death if he had felt any.
To read the extracts from Brecht’s letters to different women, simultaneously assuring each that she was the most important in his life, his lies when found out provoking some of them to suicide attempts, is horrible: one feels (unlike Brecht) that one wants to wash afterwards. Nor was this all; to cap it, Brecht was himself extremely jealous, reacting furiously and sometimes abusively when one of his lovers was unfaithful to him, even after he had ditched—or semi-ditched—her (for example not hesitating to accuse her virtually of prostitution). This suggests that he loved himself more than he ever loved the supposed object of his affections, and felt infidelity to his own unfaithful self as a wound to a permanently inflamed ego. And this, I think, applied equally to his supposed love of humanity.
In his business dealings, Brecht could be sharp to the point of dishonor, if not of outright dishonesty; in the matter of plagiarism, he was like the Peronist who, when asked about his attitude to torture, replied that it depended on who was being tortured and who was doing the torturing. For Brecht, it was a question of who was being plagiarized and who was plagiarizing. And, while railing about the system of “organized shortage” that he claimed capitalism to be, he did not hesitate to buy expensive cars or move into better accommodation when he earned some money. The latter was not in itself distasteful except in the context of the former. As is so often the way with a man who sets himself up as an instructor of humanity, Brecht was not only far from admirable, but actively despicable. He was definitely a man of precept rather than of example.
By the token that a man may smile and smile and be a villain, he may, however, sin and sin and still be a very good writer. Literary value is not determined by the moral rectitude of the writer. But how good was Brecht, principally as a dramatist (for that is how he is principally known, other than as a communist, outside Germany)? Was he as good and important as a dramatic innovator as he took himself to be, and as this biographer takes him to have been?
No one can deny his influence, for good or evil. Kurt Weill and he (who later fell out) are often said to have created the modern musical theatre de novo. Some of Brecht’s plays are undoubtedly effective on the stage, though decidedly less so on the page. No one can write a good play by accident, that is to say without talent. For myself, I find those of his plays that most approach the conventional —The Life of Galileo, for example—the most compelling, but his theoretical writings about drama are distinctly turgid, musings that read like Pravda. Here, for example, is an extract from A Short Organum for the Theatre, his most complete reflection on what he thought he was doing, written in 1947 in Zurich, shortly before he returned to East Germany:
[The theater] constructs its workable representations of society, which are then in a position to influence society, wholly and entirely as a game: for those who are constructing society it sets out society’s experiences, past and present alike, in such a manner that the audience can “appreciate” the feelings, insights and impulses which are distilled by the wisest, most active and most passionate among us from the events of the century. They must be entertained with the wisdom that comes from the solution of problems, with the anger that is a practical expression of sympathy with the underdog, with the respect due to those who respect humanity, or rather whatever is kind to humanity; in short, with whatever delights those who are producing something.
From this Brecht rises—or sinks—to an exhortation:
So let us march ahead! Away with all obstacles! Since we seem to have landed in a battle, let us fight! Have we not seen how disbelief can move mountains? Is it not enough that we should have found that something is being kept from us? Before one thing and another there hangs a curtain: let us draw it up!
What will reveal reality to the producers of the world? None other than our old friend, “the new social scientific method known as dialectical materialism.” Brecht continues:
In order to unearth society’s law of motion this method treats social situations as processes, and traces out all their inconsistencies [ie internal contradictions]. It regards nothing as existing except in so far as it changes, in other words with disharmony with itself. This also goes for those human feelings, opinions and attitudes through which at any time the form of men’s life together finds its expression.
Here it is worth asking the attraction of dialectical materialism to a man like Brecht, and this full biography permits an answer, not necessarily an answer that is beyond all possible doubt, but at least is consistent with the evidence.
Brecht was consumed by two desires: the achievement of fame at all costs, including to other people, and for freedom to behave exactly as he wished without any limits not imposed or accepted by himself. In these two desires he was a very modern figure. He quickly understood that in the modern world outrage of the bourgeoisie was the way to public notice and ultimately to fame; there was no mileage in moderation, extremism of all kinds was the way to get ahead. And no age could have been more propitious for, or superficially justificatory of, extremism than his, of course. As for his freedom from restraint, no method was better suited than the dialectic to justify any conduct whatsoever, for nothing was logically incompatible with it. Practically his entire oeuvre could be construed as an attempt transcendentally to exculpate his own vile conduct and character.
Let us take his Lehrstücke, the little one act “learning” plays that Brecht wrote as agitprop for children in 1929 and 1930. In The Measures Taken, Brecht justifies the killing of a Party comrade who, while not having opposed the Party, indeed having supported it consistently and been devoted to it, accidentally harms it because he feels human sympathy for others. He is therefore condemned to death by Party comrades—thrown into a lime pit after being shot, so that nothing should remain of him—with his own moral agreement to his own death. The play is in the form of a trial of those who killed the party member who, be it remembered, never deliberately opposed the Party. The dialectic shows that the killing was justified, and the killers are acquitted of wrongdoing. This is several years before the Moscow Show Trials. One of the choruses in the play goes:
The individual has only two eyes
The Party has a thousand eyes.
The Party can see seven lands
The individual a single city.
The individual has only his hour
The party has many hours.
The individual can be annihilated
But the Party cannot be annihilated
For it is the vanguard of the masses
And it lays out its battles
According to the methods of our classics,
which are derived from
The recognition of reality.
(Incidentally, the “classic” mentioned in The Measures Taken is The ABC of Communism by Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, and we all know what happened to them.)
Even worse, if—contra Dr. Johnson—there is a settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea, are the two playlets, He Who Says Yes and He Who Says No. In the first of these, a little boy accompanies a teacher and his students in a journey over the mountains to visit a famous doctor who has medicine that might cure the little boy’s sick and dying mother. During the journey, the boy himself grows tired and cannot go on. The teacher says to the boy:
As you are ill and cannot go on, we must leave
But it is right to ask a person who has fallen ill
expedition should turn back on his account.
And Custom also
ordains that he who has fallen ill should answer:
not turn back.
The boy answers appropriately, and because he will die anyway the teacher and students fling him over the side of the mountain to his death. The last chorus of the play goes:
. . . sighing for the sad ways of the world
And its bitter law
Hurled the boy down
Foot to foot they stood together
At the edge of the abyss
And blindly hurled him down
None guiltier than his neighbour . . .
Within a few years, a regime—the Nazi—was disposing of Lebensunwertes Leben, Life Unworthy of Life, on precisely these utilitarian grounds, that the unworthy life was holding up progress. Incidentally, Brecht was fully aware of the close parallels between the Nazi and the Soviet regimes, and indeed the list of those parallels he drew up has never been bettered. The only difference that he could see was that the Soviet regime acted in the name and interests of the proletariat: an intellectually abstract difference, one might have supposed, to justify the deaths of untold millions. But what were such millions of deaths to set against Brecht’s feeling that he always sympathized with the platonic form of the underdog? There is no record of him, at least in this book, ever having sympathized in any practical way with any particular underdog.
In He Who Says No, the situation is exactly the same as in He Who Says Yes, but, in this instance, the boy does not agree that he should be killed merely because it is the custom that he should be killed in these circumstances. He says‚ “What I need is a new Great Custom to be introduced at once, to wit, the Custom of rethinking every new situation.” In other words, I obey no law or custom unless it is ratified by the parliament in my head.
If we put these two great lessons together, that the end justifies the means (however horrible they may be) and that I can decide everything for myself, including the ends to be pursued, it is clear that there is not much restraint left on behavior. Everywhere you look in Brecht’s plays, even in Galileo’s moral equivocations (and Brecht, never much one for modesty, compared himself to Galileo, when it was not Shakespeare that he compared himself with), there is self-justification. And, indeed, Brecht’s most famous moral pronouncements in his plays—first that grub comes before morals, and second that the robbing of a bank is as nothing compared to the founding of a bank—are intended to turn his betrayals and hypocrisies, the result of his ineradicable egotism, into mere peccadilloes at the very worst.
Much greater as a meditation on the rise of Nazism than Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (among his best efforts) is that of Max Frisch’s The Fire-Raisers, one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century known to me. Frisch manages to do what Brecht never did, because he did not care enough about actual human beings other than himself to do it, namely, make the moral problem of evil one that normal human beings have to face daily in their lives.
I cannot say that reading this biography was a pleasure; rather it was a duty fulfilled. If I have been hard on it, I can also say that few biographies are as instructive.
1 Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life, by Stephen Parker; Bloomsbury Methuen, 704 pages, $39.99.