Today wood s lot features Bertolt Brecht’s “An die Nachgeborenen” (1939), which along with Auden’s “September 1, 1939” (“I sit in one of the dives/ On Fifty-second Street/ Uncertain and afraid…”) is one of the great poetic distillations of the mood just before World War II broke out. Unfortunately, the version given there is a bad translation that unforgivably omits the first section (“Wirklich, ich lebe in finsteren Zeiten!” [‘Truly, I live in dark times!’]) and goes so far as to renumber the remaining sections to cover up the fact; its English is dubious (“we, who wished to lay for the foundations for peace and friendliness…”) and it misunderstands the German (the translator has “without me those that ruled could not sleep so easily” for Brecht’s “Aber die Herrschenden/ Saßen ohne mich sicherer,” which says exactly the opposite). So I thought I’d link to Scott Horton’s considerably superior version, “To Those Who Follow in Our Wake,” which is preceded (admirably) by the original German and followed (helpfully) by a discussion that places it in its context.


  1. rootlesscosmo says

    This may be a case of “presentism,” but though I admired that poem in younger years, I’ve come to dislike it–not the poetry but some of the ideas. In particular the assertion that
    Die wir den Boden bereiten wollten für Freundlichkeit
    Konnten selber nicht freundlich sein.

    given by Scott Horton as
    Who wished to lay the foundation for gentleness
    Could not ourselves be gentle.

    though admirably dialectical amounts, I’m afraid, to a rationalization of Stalinist brutality and arbitrariness. Brecht”s earlier play “Die Massnahme” positively glorifies these characteristics–which among other things give off an unpleasant whiff of the tough-guy [male] proletarian poseur–while the later poem tries to excuse them; both represent intellectual defenses of what, even then, could have been recognized as an indefensible doctrine and an inhuman practice. Whatever lessons we who are Brecht’s Nachgeborenen may take from the interwar years, they won’t, I think, be the ones on offer in this poem.

  2. John Emerson says

    Cosmo, I feel the same way for about the same reasons. Another way to put it: there was less irony than Brecht thought.
    Katie, Linda, Alexa, we love you too.

  3. amounts, I’m afraid, to a rationalization of Stalinist brutality and arbitrariness
    Well, that’s what you get with Brecht, I’m afraid, just as with Pound you get Mussolini.

  4. (For the benefit of posterity: JE is sending his love to three lovely spammerettes who have since been returned to the Sultan of Spam.)

  5. the poem sounds more resentful than apologetic

  6. Horton has misunderstood the poem almost completely. His translation has a certain harmlessness at a few key places which I take to be sharply expressed in the German – though of course the other translation is terrible. I can’t imagine how Horton arrived at his reading, despite his gloss. The German straightforwardly says something else. But of course, by the same token, Horton could just as well accuse me of misreading.
    To be more charitable, perhaps I should say that only towards the end of his gloss does Horton appear to glimpse what Brecht is up to, but even then he gets the wrong take on it:

    The final stanzas are filled with anxiety and regret. What will posterity think of the fact of my flight, Brecht asks, of the fact that he “changed his country as often as his shoes.” But for all of this, Brecht is confident in a final victory over fascism and the dawn of a new era in which “men can help one another,” which for Brecht assuredly means the triumph of Marxism. His close is very troubling. He appeals to posterity to consider, before condemning his generation, the terrible circumstances in which they lived. Is he justifying the reach to brutal methods against the enemy? Is he saying that the “ends justify the means?” That is a persistent theme in Brecht’s writings at this time.

    No, Brecht is not “justifying the reach to brutal methods against the enemy”, but rather the opposite. The entire poem is a (slightly mawky) plea to be forgiven for the self-righteous single-mindedness of those, like communist activists, to whom Brecht liked to think he belonged – traipsing from one country to another, looking for trouble from which they could save other people:

    Gingen wir doch, öfter als die Schuhe die Länder wechselnd
    Durch die Kriege der Klassen, verzweifelt
    Wenn da nur Unrecht war und keine Empörung.

    The poem even starts with a reflection on the standard fanatical leftist reproach: “you’re not taking this seriously enough !”:

    Wirklich, ich lebe in finsteren Zeiten!
    Das arglose Wort ist töricht. Eine glatte Stirn
    Deutet auf Unempfindlichkeit hin. Der Lachende
    Hat die furchtbare Nachricht
    Nur noch nicht empfangen.

    Sloterdijk has, in several of his books and articles, discussed at some length the fanaticism of the “classical Left”. Slotderdijk is definitely not “conservative”, but neither is he a “leftie”. I know that he appreciates Brecht, but that didn’t stop him recently from dismissing an infamous remark of Brecht’s as a Sottise:

    Gleichwohl, die Unterstellung, „Kapital“ sei nur ein Pseudonym für eine unersättliche räuberische Energie, lebt weiter bis in Brechts Sottise, wonach der Überfall auf eine Bank nichts bedeute im Vergleich mit der Gründung einer Bank. Wohin man auch sieht: In den Analysen der klassischen Linken scheint der Diebstahl an der Macht, wie seriös er auch kaschiert sein mag und wie väterlich sich manche Unternehmer auch für ihre Mitarbeiter einsetzen. Was den „bürgerlichen Staat“ angeht, kann er diesen Annahmen gemäß nicht viel mehr sein als ein Syndikat zum Schutz der allzu bekannten „herrschenden Interessen“.

  7. No, Brecht is not “justifying the reach to brutal methods against the enemy”, but rather the opposite.
    That’s an odd thing to say, considering that Brecht appeared to have no problem with brutal methods at the time. He does not in general give the impression of being a shy, hesitant leftist.

  8. Indeed. That’s why I called his plea slightly mawkish. It would be more believable coming from anyone other than Brecht. The sentiment itself has been expressed by many writers looking back on their activities and attitudes before they abandoned Communism.
    Try going line by line through the poem in German, with my reading in mind. Horton’s reading provides no explanation even for the first stanza: Wirklich, ich lebe in finsteren Zeiten!
    If you’re not convinced by that, I may have to give my own translation. It would be different in very slight ways from Horton’s, but should make my point clearer. I would certainly use his translation as a starting point, since it is so good on the whole.

  9. I’d certainly be interested in seeing your version, since my German is not good enough to get a lot of subtleties unaided.

  10. John Emerson says

    One thing I dislike about Brecht’s poem is the way he stances himself against those, in the same dark times and knowing it, chose not to be polticall active the way he was.
    A second is that he doesn’t seem to have allowed for the possibility that there was, as I said, no real irony, and that the harm done by the poem’s protagonist for the sake of the good ended up being actual harm but producing no good. His action commitment forbade that little hesitation where you ask yourself “Should I really do this?”
    This is based somewhat on what I know of Comintern (etc.) strategy and tactics between the two wars. People seemed to take satisfaction in their own ruthlessness, in confidence that in the end that they’d be proven right, without thinking of the possibility that in the end they wouldn’t be proven right, and only have the ruthlessness to show.
    I read the poem as a justification of that strategy and those tactics, which as far as I know Brecht ultimately had no problem with.
    40 years ago I would have been much more sympathetic. And the criticism isn’t limited to Communists and Nazis; any strategic planner for any nation plays the same kinds of games.

  11. rootlesscosmo says

    I agree about the fetishizing of ruthlessness, or “Bolshevik irreconcilability” as it was sometimes called. I grew up around people who took a positive pleasure in the cry “Shoot the mad dogs!” with which Vyshinsky, the prosecutor at one set of Moscow Trials, used to wind up his argument. And I think it’s important that the date of Brecht’s poem is 1939, not (say) 1933. I take wirklich, ich lebe in finsteren Zeiten!” to be a plea for absolution by some future reader who can’t appreciate the stern necessities of the Five-Year Plans, etc.
    I realize I’m getting vehement and I apologize to our host and to all. Hat is quite right to draw the analogy with Pound; the difference for me is that I was never taken in by Pound’s pernicious doctrine.

  12. rootlesscosmo says

    So vehement I neglected to close the italics. Gah.

  13. Here’s my take. I don’t believe that Brecht is defending Russian communismm here, but rather the German kind. I would imagine that like other German communists who had the good sense not to flee to Russia in the 1930s, he probably considered the Russian communists as primitives. I’m sure he did things to be ashamed of, but never had the opportunity to act like the Germans who gained power instead of them, or like the communists who gained power in Russia.
    I really am living in a dismal time,
    where an ill-considered word is foolishness. An unwrinkled forehead
    indicates insensitivity. The man who’s laughing
    just has not yet heard the terrifying news.
    What sort of time is this, when a
    conversation about trees is almost a criminal act
    because it contains silences about so many horrible actions!
    That guy there, placidly crossing the street,
    has probably cut off contact with his friends
    who need help.
    It’s the truth; I earn my keep, no more.
    But believe me that’s just an accident. Nothing
    that I do gives me the right to eat my fill.
    As it happens, I’ve been spared. (If my luck gives out, I’m lost).
    People tell me: eat and drink! be happy that you have it.
    But how can I eat and drink, if
    I’m stealing my food from someone who’s hungry, and
    my glass of water is needed by someone dying of thirst.
    I’m not eh only one who wishes he were wise.
    In old books, the definition of wisdom is:
    Withdrawing from the world’s strife and
    surviving the short time we have without fear,
    also managing to survive without force,
    repaying the evil with the good,
    not fulfilling our desires but forgetting them,
    That’s accounted as wise.
    I can’t do any of that:
    I really am living in a dismal time.
    I came to the cities in the time of disorder,
    when there was widespread famine.
    I came abroad among men in the time of upheaval,
    and I was outraged along with them.
    Thus passed the time
    that was given to me on earth.
    I ate my meals between the battles,
    I laid myself down to sleep among the murderers,
    I pursued love without thinking of the consequences,
    and I experienced nature impatiently.
    Thus passed the time
    that was given to me on earth.
    Roads lead into swamps in this my time.
    My language betrayed me to the butchers.
    I was not capable of much. But the powerful of the earth
    would sit a bit less securely in their seats if I were not there—that was my hope.
    Thus passed the time
    that was given to me on earth.
    I had little power. The goal
    lay at a great distance.
    I could see it clearly, even if there was
    just about just about no chance to reach it, for me.
    Thus passed the time
    that was given to me on earth.
    You, the ones who will pop up out of the flood
    in which we drowned,
    when you discuss our frailty,
    the dismal times
    you escaped.
    Remember that we passed through the wars of the classes,
    changing our country more frequently than our shoes, in despair
    that there was only injustice but no outrage.
    And yet we know full well:
    Hatred of baseness can also
    distort the visage.
    Just as the fury over injustice
    can make the voice sharper. Sadly, we
    who wanted to prepare the ground for human kindness
    were ourselves incapable of being kind.
    But you, when the time has come
    when man is helpful to man,
    remember us with forbearance.

  14. again he sounds not apologetic of communism, but resentful that he and his comrades couldn’t achieve the ideal of “The old books teach us what wisdom is:
    To retreat from the strife of the world
    To live out the brief time that is your lot
    Without fear
    To make your way without violence
    To repay evil with good –
    The wise do not seek to satisfy their desires,
    But to forget them.”
    and he’s ashamed and resentful that he had to live through all that and asking his future readers of understanding and, perhaps, forgiving
    i liked not the word of lenient judgement, but forbearance at the end, perhaps, means the same thing though
    great poem, and translations, thanks

  15. ”The more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot.”
    (Brecht on the victims of Stalin’s purges)
    I’m afraid I’m with the Brecht sceptics. I might have my doubts about some of the Cantos, but I’ve got to admit that Pound’s Cathay and Homage to Sextus Propertius are wonderful. Likewise, Pablo Neruda wrote an ode to Stalin and (allegedly) engaged in some dubious political activities but he also wrote some great poems. Brecht just isn’t worth the effort for me. His poetry mostly leaves me cold and his dramatic works contain some absolute stinkers. The Mother, for instance, comes over like a Bolshevik school assembly. Even some of his more famous stuff is often based on a superior original. Grimmelshausen’s Simplicius Simplicissmus is a far more shocking depiction of the Thirty Years’ War than Mother Courage. Brecht didn’t have much grasp of the concept of reverse psychology either. I remember reading Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise where he says that audiences in Weimar Germany were so disgusted by propaganda pieces like Die Massnahme (which Cosmo mentions above) that they turned to the political right, thinking that it couldn’t possibly be worse than the society Brecht was advertising. To be honest, if we’re talking about innovative German drama I prefer Georg Büchner and Christian Dietrich Grabbe who were writing a century before Bert turned up.

  16. I like Gary’s translation. I had been waxing and buffing versions of a few stanzas I liked, while he just whomped out the whole thing. It’s rough-and-ready, but more accurate than Horton’s.
    The main thing one needs to ask about this poem is: just what exactly is Brecht expecting future generations to be nachsichtig about ? What have he and his friends supposed to have done ? Is it ineffectualness, or ruthlessness that Brecht is on about ? I think both, and agree with Emerson here.
    It’s the people Brecht associates with, not “Nazis”, who create the atmosphere of the first stanza:

    where an ill-considered word is foolishness. An unwrinkled forehead
    indicates insensitivity. The man who’s laughing
    just has not yet heard the terrifying news.

    The National Socialists fostered positive thinking and what-me-care obedience. It was their opponents who insisted on brow-wrinkling, among them the communists. I agree with Gary that the poem is about German communists, not the Russian kind.
    Horton writes this about the first section of the poem:

    The poem uses a first person narration and is divided into three segments. The first points to his frustration over the evil descending upon his homeland. He is writing about the Nazi regime which has tightened its control over his homeland, ruling with acts of unprecedented thuggery and brutishness. Brecht realized that he had to flee because his life was at risk.

    I don’t see any “frustration at Nazis” in the first section, but instead mixed feelings about conscientiousness – among himself and his friends.
    In the second section, we have:

       I ate my meals between the battles,
       I laid myself down to sleep among the murderers,
       I pursued love without thinking of the consequences,
       and I experienced nature impatiently.

       Mein Essen aß ich zwischen den Schlachten
       Schlafen legte ich mich unter die Mörder
       Der Liebe pflegte ich achtlos
       Und die Natur sah ich ohne Geduld.

    Who are these murderers ? He lays down *among* them to sleep (spot on, Gary !). That couldn’t be his enemies, so it must be his friends.
    Yesterday the sentence “Brecht is a devious character” sprang to mind. Since I’m not an expert on Brecht, I thought I had better check up on that idea. I googled with “brecht” AND “devious”, and found in The Cambridge Companion to Brecht views similar to those I had adumbrated. When you turn a few pages, you find excerpts from a polished translation of An die Nachgeborenen.

       Truly, I live in dark times !
       The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead
       Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
       Has simply not yet had
       The terrible news

    I like “guileless”, but “a smooth forehead” sounds a bit unnatural and flat to me. Eine glatte Stirn is a natural expression in German, so “an unwrinkled brow” or (Gary) “an unwrinkled forehead” gets the same tone. When someone don’t know German well, but has a German-English dictionary to hand, he may whine that glatt means “smooth”, not “unwrinkled”. Sigh.

       For we went, changing countries oftener than our shoes,
       Through the wars of the classes, despairing
       When there was injustice only, and no rebellion

    Here are further comments on Gary’s accuracy in his translation:

       I ate my meals between the battles,
       I laid myself down to sleep among the murderers,
       I pursued love without thinking of the consequences,
       and I experienced nature impatiently.

       I ate my food between slaughters.
       I laid down to sleep among murderers.
       I tended to love with abandon.
       I looked upon nature with impatience.

       i>Mein Essen aß ich zwischen den Schlachten
       Schlafen legte ich mich unter die Mörder
       Der Liebe pflegte ich achtlos
       Und die Natur sah ich ohne Geduld.

    Der Liebe pflegte ich achtlos is exquisite, especially following on “murderers”. It’s a very high-tone expression redolent of the 19th century and backwards. The most recent times you may have encountered such an expression will have been in Thomas and Heinrich Mann. I might translate it as “I performed love’s duties with indifference”. Pflegen with the genitive means to cultivate some activity or subject attentively, conscientiously. There’s a sharp clash when achtlos follows immediately on.
    (Grammatical note: in der Liebe pflegen, der Liebe is in the genitive !). (Stylistic note: I prefer “high-tone” to “literary”, which is why I’ve used “high-tone” so often recently).
    Schlacht is “battle”, so Schlachten is not “slaughters”. Schlächter is plain old “butcher”, not “slaughterer”.
    Niedrigkeit is “baseness”, not “squalor” (“low” has all the senses of niedrig). Freundlichkeit is a steak-and-potatoes word: “friendliness”, “amiability”. Horton has “gentleness”, which is off base.

  17. No one named a cake after Brecht.

  18. …whereas Old Ez has a British chain store named in his honour.

  19. But there are many delicatessens near Brecht.

  20. Was the town named after him and not renamed back?
    if to judge, judge both right and left radicals the same, i don’t understand this trend to forgive nazi sympathizers, but be especially harsh to the communist mistakes
    and this distinction between Russian and German communists, the former being ‘primitives?’! it’s strangely ‘racist’, can’t you people not bring this ugly division of people even classifying communists?!

  21. i don’t understand this trend to forgive nazi sympathizers, but be especially harsh to the communist mistakes
    I don’t see any such trend. Quite the opposite in fact. Pound spent years in detention for supporting Mussolini.

  22. not in real life punishment, but in liberal judgement i meant
    communists won their countries so they died in their beds i hope if were not repressed, the best and conscientious
    but they were ultimately defeated, and it’s a pity that the grand ideals they had were not historically possible in their times and surely what is brought by force won’t do any good to anyone
    and what to forgive for the nazi ideology, and their sympathizers, artists, writers, i don’t see anything, theirs were all just ethnic cleansing and race supremacy things, what is there to be attracted to? for the poets! especially

  23. Not sure I really understand what you’re saying, Read. I don’t really see any moral difference between Stalinists and Nazis. I think Brecht has been overrated because of his politics, which is hardly the case with Pound. That was certainly my experience with the British education system in which Brecht and his message were deemed so important he was studied in English Literature courses, unlike any other German writer I can think of. As others have said above, the poem is mawkish. It’s Brecht feeling sorry for himself. When his attitude towards the victims of Stalinism (who included Osip Mandelstam, for instance) is “the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to die”, I’m afraid I don’t feel inclined to share in his self-pity. If Brecht were a better writer maybe I’d be more inclined to get over my distaste but I don’t think he’s worth the effort (compare and contrast Shakespeare’s original Coriolanus with Brecht’s “politically correct” bowdlerisation of it to see his skills at work).

  24. @Stu: thanks for your kind words. I banged out my rough translation without looking at Horton’s translation or commentary till after I had posted mine. It’s amusing to see that some clauses came out word-for-word exactly the same.
    There some places where I like his version better than mine: To make your way without violence is obviously better than “survive without force”. I used the spoken-language meaning of empören in my translation, not the correct high-tone one. I couldn’t come up with a good way of translating auftauchen–the survivors’ heads breaking water and bobbing on the waves.
    As you pointed out, I did punt the plunge from hypsos to bathos in “Der Liebe pflegte ich achtlos”.
    Also, I messed up the mighty on their thrones. They would sit more securely if I were not there—not,as I had it, less securely.

  25. I don’t really see any moral difference between Stalinists and Nazis.
    i agree, and i think there are very clear differences between communists and fascists, you can’t equate them that like sweepingly
    and the poem feels like resentful, yes, but not making excuses for the mistakes as people perceive it
    perhaps, his one line about innocent victims was a heavy mistake, but he realized his errors in the poem discussed, no?
    so why is so different attitudes towards Pound and Brecht, because of their talents are perceived not equal? If more talented a poet, shouldn’t one have even greater moral responsibility?

  26. I still don’t understand what you are saying. If you take the politics out of the poetry of Pound and Neruda (who flirted with Stalinism) there’s a lot left over. I don’t think that’s the case with Brecht.

  27. read, if I could go on a bit about political rhetoric:
    In America, right after the War, anti-Nazism was more widespread and deeper than opposition to ‘Uncle Joe’ and Bolshevism, and Pound was (I think: rationally) prosecuted for treason. (He was also, I think, ‘crazy’; the outcome of his trial – 13 years in an asylum, followed by official indifference to his flight to Italy – seem to me a pretty fair outcome to such a tormented case.)
    Even today, Pound (in the US), Hamsun, and Celine (as far as I know) are still protested when their achievements are lauded. The reputations of the latter two are, as I understand things, battlegrounds-in-small for how the War, and collaboration with the Nazis, are remembered in Norway and France.
    But I don’t see much “forgiveness” in the case, for example, of Pound – his Fascism seems always to be brought up when his poetry is discussed.
    The Soviet Union, and ‘Russians’ mis-generically, weren’t demonized as comic-book villains so quickly right after the War, though, of course, silly cartoonizations did suffice in popular culture for decades after the military-industrial complex swung its sights from the Axis to the Iron (and Bamboo) Curtain(s).
    Stalinist apologetics, in my view, today draw less hostility than Fascist sympathy does, especially among artists and intellectuals. Brecht has come in for ‘correction’ on this thread, but he’s widely acted in the Western theater; History and Class Consciousness (a great book) doesn’t have purges and famines blamed on it; Merleau-Ponty doesn’t have show-trials blamed on him (or does he?) – and so on. Western dupes have somewhat gotten way with having been dupefied.
    In America, in the late ’40s – ’50s, many (ironically) anti-Stalin leftists had great difficulties, when dingbats (like Reagan) thought their only choices for ‘most feared bully’ were Uncle Joe and Tailgunner Joe. But, for decades now, because of anti-“Commie” stupidity and cruelty, McCarthyism has been understood (by some, anyway) to have been a closer to American Stalinism than anything the American CP could produce – and, for many of us, so is Fox News a Stalinist political organization – surely in its gleefully counterfactual linguisticality.
    You could say that Stalinist apologizers in Europe were protected somewhat by pervasive anti-Americanism, and maybe are today in the former Soviet Union and its satellites and among the Euro-left, but, in the States, anti-“Communism” has a more fractious history than does anti-Nazism, which most Americans don’t see as capable of being hysterical or malevolent.

  28. David Marjanović says

    again he sounds not apologetic of communism, but resentful that he and his comrades couldn’t achieve the ideal of “The old books teach us what wisdom is: […]

    He gives a very clear reason for why they couldn’t achieve that goal: because there’s too much injustice in those “dark times”. It’s all about “where’s the outrage?” and “if you aren’t outraged, you haven’t been paying attention”. To be appropriately outraged, he explains, people have to act, act, act – and for him that apparently included erecting and supporting communist dictatures.

    I pursued love without thinking of the consequences

    Not so much “pursued” as “routinely performed and carefully fostered”.

    “a smooth forehead” sounds a bit unnatural and flat to me.

    To me it indicates a Klingon context =8-)

    I ate my food between slaughters.

    Oh man. That’s etymologically correct, but Schlacht means “battle” and nothing else.

    Schlächter is plain old “butcher”, not “slaughterer”.

    That depends on where Brecht was from. German has a long list of words for “butcher”, and all of them are specific to some region. I do think of “slaughterer” first*, because the “butcher” word I’m used to is Fleischhauer; others are Fleischhacker, Fleischer, Metzger
    * Though for that I’d actually use Schlachter rather than Schlächter.

    and this distinction between Russian and German communists, the former being ‘primitives?’! it’s strangely ‘racist’, can’t you people not bring this ugly division of people even classifying communists?!

    That was a distinction the German communists of the 1930s (apparently) made, not one we are making.

    I used the spoken-language meaning of empören in my translation, not the correct high-tone one.

    I can’t tell which one Brecht intended. Or perhaps he intended both, outrage being necessary for rebellion.

  29. rootlesscosmo says

    Gah again. (Excuse: I’m typing left-handed having broken my right arm last week.) after “Freundlicchkeit” above insert
    Western Leftists have found it easier to repudiate Pound’s ideas just because Fascism, unlike Communism, never portrayed itself as the heir to the “grand ideals” of social justice. But Brecht himself rejected “bourgeois humanism” along with “bourgeois theater” in favor of the view that politics and stagecraft alike, at least
    “in finsteren Zeiten,” etc. to the end of the graf.
    A nuisance that on a subject that prompts me to long-windedness I should be hindered by keyboard dyspnea. Or some kind of ironic justice, I dunno.

  30. rootlesscosmo says

    Confusion worse confounded. ‘Scuse me while I disappear, at least until I can use both hands and a vicodin-free brain.

  31. John Emerson says

    I agree with Read that the goals of Communism were more admirable than those of fascism or Nazism. The Nazi goal seems to have been not much more than “get rid of as many non-Germans as possible, or at least put them under the German heel”, plus a lot of internal transformation os Germany and the elimination of non-Nazi Germans. In general fascism’s goal seems always to have been some form of domination of the many inferiors by the few superiors, in the context of militarism, a police state, pervasive propaganda.
    Many of the unfavorable traits of fascism were present in communism, but they weren’t actually stated as the long-term goal.
    In practice, the results were about equally bad, though.

  32. i don’t think i said that complicated things for people to not understand what i said and i won’t repeat
    i am not a stalinist apologetic, that i say very clearly if people think that defending Brecht makes me that like automatically
    just i don’t get this trend to be more excusing towards the other end, i remember the other thread where people were much sympathetic to a nazi collaborator? i forgot who, but he was in a such impossible situation, so one can’t judge him harshly really
    and were very harsh to his opponent, the author of the Winnie-the-pooh book
    i know people always ask more strictly from who is closer, friends, family, for example, maybe that plays a role here
    thanks, D, your comment was interesting, but again i can’t equate anti-communism and anti-fascism and how they can be compared in rabidness, i agree with Americans there

  33. I ate my meals between battles,
    I lay down to sleep among murderers,
    I cultivated love with abandon,
    And I had no patience with nature.

  34. Fascism, unlike Communism, never portrayed itself as the heir to the “grand ideals” of social justice
    Sure it did.
    As read has implied, the crux isn’t “social justice” as a general goal – which every political perspective claims for itself somehow, but rather, what is specifically ‘just’ about the vision of righteousness that’s (at least rhetorically) being aimed at.
    Everyone influenced by Marx, even if some asserted ‘influence’ is contradicted by the actions some particular “Marxist” supports or takes, has a class-based vision of the exploitation of labor – people who do the work are a) not enjoying the wealth created by their own work, and b) not making decisions connected to that work, the consequences of which pertain to their own lives.
    Whatever the German Fascists’ claims about being “National Socialists“, it was always the nation that was the motive, lever, and purpose of Fascism, right? – as read says: “just ethnic cleansing and race supremacy things”.
    That’s why leftists – like me – can see some small thing ‘living’, something worth saving, in the demented violence of all-or-nothing Leninism and its heirs (Stalin, Mao, etc.) – something like Marx’s analysis of political economy -, but nothing valuable in Fascism.

  35. I once read that some mid-nineteenth French literary worthy, when asked to name the greatest living French poet, said: Victor Hugo, hélas.
    I think something similar can be said about Brecht.

  36. John Emerson says

    People in theater still admire Brecht, regardless of politics.
    With the exception of Beckett, I dislike most 20th century theater. Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams are the classic Americans, and they all seem terribly flawed. Ibsen too. Shaw too.
    Maye I just don’t like theater much, except Buechner and some Greek tragedy. I tend to read Shakespeare as poetry without much attention to plot.

  37. read, that was P.G. Wodehouse we were defending, not because he was a Nazi collaborator but because he wasn’t. A.A. Milne, who wrote Winnie The Pooh, wasn’t a Communist /Marxist /Stalinist, just a Liberal (in the British sense) who persecuted Wodehouse, so Wodehouse thought.
    I like this discussion, though. I agree with everything.

  38. Victor Hugo, hélas.
    That was the young André Gide when asked who his favourite poet was. It’s more like a punk admitting his favourite group is The Beatles.
    I think Brecht is closer in quality to Eugène Scribe than to Hugo.

  39. I cultivated love with abandon
    No, no, nØ ! Achtlos does not mean “with abandon”, but rather “paying no attention [to what one is doing]”, “negligently”, “without much caring [what one is doing]”. Der Liebe pflegen is tricky to convey the sense of, because it belongs to other times and mentalities. It’s a rather distant-sounding expression, a conscience oblige kind of thing.
    Those are the reasons why I suggested “I performed love’s duties with indifference”. “Cultivate” doesn’t sound right, because you can’t “cultivate” something negligently (Man kann nicht achtlos kultivieren).
    I have an idea why der Liebe pflegen has been giving people trouble. First, they simply have not previously encountered the locution “pflegen with the genitive” (to put it parts-of-speechly). Then they think: “pflegen, I know that ! It even has several meanings !”:
    Sie pflegt ihre kranke Mutter (she is tending[/caring for] her sick mother)
    Sie pflegt ganz früh aufzustehen (she tends to get up [/is in the habit of getting up] very early)
    pflegeleicht (wash-and-wear)
    (pflegeleicht is an advertising word, describing fabrics for instance. Some people use it in a zippy way that I don’t care for: Ich bin pflegeleicht means “I don’t expect any special treatment”. It’s the kind of thing a man might say to a woman whom he wants to move in with … ).
    Anyway, to continue my speculation about people having trouble with der Liebe pflegen: armed with a dictionary, but not in command of German, they think they have identified the meaning of pflegen. Remains only to figure out what der Liebe means, right ? Horton seems to think that it’s in the dative, the case in which things can be when you pursue them (einer Frau nachstellen, to chase after a woman). That may be why he comes out with “tends to love with abandon”, as it were “tends towards love”. “Tend [to]”, “attend” and “be in the habit of” are all jumbled together.

  40. marie-lucie says

    Victor Hugo, hélas
    I remember this phrase as an answer to “Who is the greatest French poet?*, not “your favourite French poet”, which is not the same. (Google citations agree, and also in attributing the phrase to André Gide, who was well-known by that time, not just a young unknown).

  41. As I recall, in Either/Or Kierkegaard analyses a play by Scribe at great length. It sounded like a farcical piece of Boulevarddramatik. That’s all I know about Scribe. As far as that goes, I can’t imagine much resemblance to Brecht’s high-brow, symbolic pieces.

  42. marie-lucie says

    Der Liebe pflegte ich achtlos
    I pursued love without thinking of the consequences
    – Not so much “pursued” as “routinely performed and carefully fostered”.

    “I performed love’s duties with indifference”
    – No, no, nØ ! Achtlos does not mean “with abandon”, but rather “paying no attention [to what one is doing]”, “negligently”, “without much caring [what one is doing]”.

    Would achtlos mean perfunctorily?
    “In love I did my duty perfunctorily”? (something like that).

  43. “I remember this phrase as an answer to “Who is the greatest French poet?*, not “your favourite French poet”, which is not the same
    According to Jacques Barzun, that’s a myth. Barzun, talking about anti-Hugo feeling, says, “The put-down is expressed in capsule form in André Gide’s supposed reply to someone who inquired who was the greatest French poet: ‘Victor Hugo, alas!’ It is a clever repartee except that it never happened and that it’s point is missed. Had it been said, it would assert, with no matter what cause of regret, that Hugo is the greatest French poet. Actually, the words were never spoken. When a young and fervent Symbolist, Gide filled out a questionnaire in a literary review that asked, “Who is your poet?” (meaning favorite). Gide wrote “Hugo, hélas,” enjoying no doubt the brevity and the alliteration.” (Barzun, An Essay on French Verse p.75)

  44. “Perfunctorily” indeed conveys achtlos more precisely than “with indifference”. Une fois de plus je m’incline devant vous, marie-lucie !

  45. I perfunctored with love.

  46. JCas, that’s the reason I suppressed the name. This is one of those mots that could have been said by anybody eminent enough at the time. It’s irrelevant if Gide actually said any such thing or not. Only the mot “an Sich” is important.
    And thanks, marie-lucie, for returning the quote to the form in which I gave it.

  47. Le Mot an Sich
    The unascribable in pursuit of the incomparable.

  48. marie-lucie says

    Glad to be of service, gentlemen. (Grumbly, straighten up).
    Gary, I agree with you about the mot.

  49. Stu: check out sense 4a of pursue here:
    I think you’ll find that it corresponds to the meaning of der Liebe pflegen.

  50. marie-lucie says

    Gary, you are right in a strict sense, but in the context of the poem meaning 4a would be at best ambiguous with meaning 1 (the most common one), since the verb “to pursue” would probably bring to mind “to chase (women)” before “to engage in (a hobby)”.

  51. It seems that “pflegen” (with genitive) implies attention while “achtlos” implies inattention, whence what Stu calls the exquisite “sharp clash when achtlos follows immediately on”.
    “Perfunctory” succinctly handles both sides of this, conveying that the attention is there while somehow not being all there. But it cannot achieve the clash all by itself.

  52. Scribe was a competent if uninspired, highly fashionable 19th-century playwright whose star waned when those fashions changed and who only survives today as an opera librettist. Brecht was a competent if uninspired, highly fashionable 20th-century playwright whose immortality may well rely on the music of Kurt Weill. That Scribe analogy might not fly and you could try the more experimental Maurice Maeterlinck instead, who survives courtesy of Debussy, although I quite like some Maeterlinck. Brecht is/was fashionable in education because he’s very didactic, produced theoretical writings and is therefore highly teachable and his politics are supposed to be exemplary in some way. My brother was taught Die Massnahme at university in the 1990s as if the ideas in it were a good thing, which I find somewhat creepy.

  53. pursue 4a
    Gary, I’d forgotten that sense ! But the “pursued” in “pursued love” doesn’t immediately sound to me like the “pursued” in “pursued his hobby”. “Pursued love” sounds more like “chased after love”.
    There is no similar ambiguity in German about pflegen in der Liebe pflegen – provided you know this locution with the genitive. An unlettered German would be slightly baffled by it, I bet – but not confused by ambiguity.
    Der Außenminister pflegte der Beziehungen zu Polen mit üngewöhnlichem, persönlichem Einsatz

  54. Brecht is/was fashionable in education because he’s very didactic, produced theoretical writings and is therefore highly teachable and his politics are supposed to be exemplary in some way
    Are you talking about the USA ? How strange ! But why should theoretical writings per se be highly teachable ? Is it because they are harder to understand, so need explaining ? “Theory” as an insurance policy against losing one’s teaching position ?
    There is nothing of that with Brecht in Germany, as far as I have picked up. He is merely one of the dead white Teutons with whom highschool students are force-fed, as with Goethe. You can read Brecht in contemporary German studies at university. And of course one has to have read some Brecht überhaupt, like me. Otherwise, there are occasional articles, in spiteful Spiegel style, about his weaknesses – his womanizing, his deviousness. He was a cultural must-do-must-see in the DDR while it existed, but all that has vanished.

  55. No, I was talking about the UK, per my comments earlier.

  56. It’s irrelevant if Gide actually said any such thing or not.
    Yeah, but I found it far more interesting to discover what Gide actually said and that the other version was just a myth.

  57. rootlesscosmo says

    whose immortality may well rely on the music of Kurt Weill.
    Amen to that.

  58. “But why should theoretical writings per se be highly teachable ?”
    In my experience academics like theoretical stuff.

  59. Right, I missed that. The UK in the 1990s, for pete’s sake. But Scargill and the strikes of the 80s were not that far away in time. And, after all, that is the land of Thompson, Hobsbawm, Michael Foot et al.

  60. In my experience academics like theoretical stuff.
    Yes, but that doesn’t make their stuff teachable. Nor does it make them capable of teaching it. I’ll stick with “highly teachable” in the sense of “heavily insured against job loss”.

  61. marie-lucie says

    In theoretical writing of any kind, there is usually an explicit organization and logic, something that academics are trained both to look for and to emulate in their own writing. In plays, organization and logic are implicit, and must be deduced from the characters’ utterances and actions on stage (which can be quite different from one director or cast to another), as well as from the chronology of the events that take place there. So it is much harder for academics to find “hooks” to anchor their thoughts about a play and its possible hidden meanings.

  62. So academics in drama studies are hooked on theory ? Time for a detox program.

  63. The place Brecht (now part of Bitburg-Land) was first mentioned in 1266 as Brachiet and in 1341 as Villa Brecht, so no connection to old Bert.

  64. “No one named a cake after Brecht.”
    There is a cookery book though:

  65. My, you people have been busy while I was off entertaining in-laws. Congratulations on the various explications and explanations!
    I don’t believe that Brecht is defending Russian communismm here, but rather the German kind.
    An excellent point which I had not thought of.

  66. Marx meant his theories for an industrialized nation like Germany, not Russia.

  67. In response to a survey in L’Ermitage in 1902 – Quel est votre poete? -, Gide responded, Hugo – helas. This from Graham Robb’s biography Victor Hugo; A Biography, n. 17 on p. 538, written out on p. 619. (These pages are viewable on googlebooks.) (Apologies for my incomputence with diacritical marks.)

    It’s true that the sneer doesn’t require so precise a context: ‘Who’s “your” filmmaker?’ ‘Spielberg – sadly for us all’ —
    But what’s the point of the put-down?? ‘I rate Hugo higher than Racine, than Baudelaire, than Mallarme – woe is me! woe is us all!’ ?? Yes, and no; “woe” is you.
    Maybe Gide was mocking his generation, but was he so sly as to make his ridicule so self-incriminating? Was he was teasing the survey, for asking such an impossible question? (It’s just a parlor game; if you don’t want to play, then don’t play. If you don’t want anyone else to play, then invade Poland.)
    Hugo – helas sounds like a jape gone astray . . .

  68. you can’t “cultivate” something negligently
    But, Grumbly Stu, ø, quoting your “sharp clash”, emphasizes the ‘attention/inattention’ contrariety of the pflegen achtlos phrasing – surely a deliberate self-contradiction, if not a paradox.
    I cultivated love perfunctorily captures the paradox of ‘taking care of‘ something one is not ‘caring for‘ – ‘tending inattentively’. “Cultivation” I like because the metaphor (in English) – connecting ‘horticulture’ and ‘sustaining a social whole by playing a role in it’ – seems apt in Brecht’s poem – I think a failure of tendance is what Brecht is after in the poem generally. About die Liebe, Brecht is saying, ‘I got laid a lot, which was a priority, but I never cared or even thought about love except in that way.’

    I disagree with those who see the poem as “mawkishly” exculpatory.
    Saying ‘Remember us with kindness’ is weak – be as “kind” as you think individual people deserve; meet your own standards – but Brecht’s narrator clearly says that “I” ‘passed the time given me’ in a confused, somewhat bovine way – albeit well-intentioned – that “I” regret. He has “I” understanding him/herself in pretty ‘bourgeois radical’ terms – surviving both guiltily and comfortably, without sacrificing either for the other.
    To me, only a pretty good poem could bring such complexity to life, and being angry at a poet because the narrator of his poem is a bit of a whiner doesn’t make sense to me – especially in the case of the writer who most thematized Entfremdungeffekt as being not only aesthetically normal, but inescapable.

  69. Yes, I think this is a very good poem expressing a sentiment that happens to be attached to a political outlook most of us find repugnant.

  70. Entfremdungseffekt

    language hat, for an interbellum poem greater than those of Auden and Brecht at ‘getting it and disclosing it to you’, let me recommend the 24 ‘hours’ of Muthistorhma, by Seferis. (A pretty right-wing guy, though the {Greek) Fascists hated him for being intractably civilized.)

  71. Oh, I love Mithistorima, though I wouldn’t call him especially right-wing. A Greek leftist, of course, would.

  72. I think you mean Verfremdungseffekt? At least while we’re talking about Brecht? Entfremdung means something a bit different.

  73. Bruessel–have I mentioned that your name means Bridge-Donkey, in Norwegian? Well almost, (only one S in esel)–that looks like an interesting book, but I think it’s probably of recipes by his second wife, Helene Weigel. My guess is Brecht never went near a kitchen, though I have no evidence for that; however, he was well-known for never washing, so it might not be a bad thing.

  74. Yes, AJP, you’ve mentioned the donkey connection before, on your blog, I think. You are absolutely right about the book: Helene Weigel was from Vienna and apparently a wonderful cook of Austrian specialities. And if you visit the Brecht-Haus in Berlin, they have a restaurant where they claim to follow her recipes:
    As to whether Brecht himself could cook, while he was in New York in 1946 without Helene Weigel, he wrote her a letter telling her he was learning to make soup and wash the dishes.

  75. John Emerson says

    OK, on one side of a bridge is a stack of hay. On the other side of the bridge is a different stack of hay exactly equal to the first one in every way. In the middle is a donkey skeleton.

  76. John Emerson says

    Far, far off topic: score one for The Google and The Wiki. In the Tang dynasty of China there was a mysterious product called “miel de pierre” which sounds simple enough, stone honey, but what is it? There’s nothing in my dictionaries, and why should there be? It’s a rare Chinese product from 1300 years ago.
    But The Google came through: honey produced by the world’s largest honey bee, the cliff-dwelling Apis dorsata of the Himalayas (per wiki, probably the Apis dorsata laboriosa), collected by the Gurung people at the risk of their lives (it’s a killer bee, and then there’s that cliff) and shipped 1000 miles or more to sell to Chinese gourmets.
    I’m posting this because people sometimes forget or minimize the extraordinary usefulness of these tools. I got the answer in about five minutes. If I’d had access to a university library, which I don’t, I might have gotten that answer in half an hour.

  77. John Emerson says

    Here’s a detailed step by step description of the way the honey is gathered.

  78. OK, on one side of a bridge is a stack of hay …
    Buridan’s bridge, I presume !

  79. Yes, brenda, that was careless of me.
    Verfremdungseffekt was the word Brecht himself coined for the distancing he planned his drama to make into a conscious, political aspect of “the theater”. The already-at-philosophical-hand Entfremdungseffekt was what Brecht wanted aesthetically to take up and transform.

  80. Fascinating reading! Another example of why I want reading languagehat to count towards an advanced degree. Thanks!

  81. I’ve really got to raise my tuition rates.

  82. Buridan’s bridge
    Of course: the beast of Buridan. Nothing to do with a troll or Crown’s three goats!

  83. John Emerson says

    The jawbone of the donkey is still sitting there on the bridge.

  84. ‘e came, Esau, ‘e conkered out.
    That’s what comes from too much jawing.

  85. And too much ahemming and hee-hawing.

  86. Psalm 151
    A Psalm of the Lyceum
    THE jawbone of a donkey clattered, yea, Life is a bridge between hay and crap;
    2 And lo, a conclave of trolls crowned that donkey.
    3 For the bridge was as of a man of straw, and suspended from hay to crap, and above waters burbling among rubble.
    4 And yea, the bridge the donkey masticated, and ruminated, and the bridge was passed atmospherically,
    5 And lo, the donkey was hanging as a blister of air, and the trolls’ hearts gladdened.

  87. John Emerson says

    That version of scripture has already separated the goats from the ass.
    “And they said to Crown’s goats: ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’.”

  88. A well-discarded apocryphality – nothing could separate the goats from their ass – not the trolls’ crowns of straw nor the pshaw jones of an ass.

  89. John Emerson says

    Covetous neighbors are to be feared by those with asses.

  90. It is lykos that separates the donkey from the jawbone. When the goats depart, the sheep get eaten, yea verily, it is those very sheep that go into the charcoal fire for which they have been prepared, like unto Kofta and Kabob.

  91. 6 But there was one among them whose heart gladdened not. And he spake thus unto his fellows:
    7 Our bridge, which was ours, was a crossing place where goats did try to go across, and we did eat of them. Verily, now this ass has made of it an airy thing; even his digestion has made of our straw bridge an airy thing, which no goats can try to go across. And the crown of straw which we did crown that ass with, was that not the last straw?
    8 Then the trolls rose up against the hanging donkey, and strove to pull him down from that place where he did hang,
    9 Saying, we do repent of that crown of straw with which we did crown thee. For thou hast eaten the straw bridge and made of it an airy thing.

  92. By those with asses, covetous neighbors are to be coveted for their asses.
    Economic and Philosophical Wedgescripts of 1844 BC

  93. 10 And lo, the troll whose heart gladdened not was revealed to be an ass in troll’s clothing;
    11 And like lightning in a golf club factory, the trolls knew themselves to be asses.
    12 For a troll’s heart of straw burns, yea verily, in groups of trolls, with the heat of the sun:
    13 And the trolls’ jaws clatter mightily for the ass that hangs above them and the ass that would cast him into the burbling echoes.
    14 Hearken, children, to the Voice of the donkey’s rumination: Cast the goat from thine own jaw.

  94. Good googling, Nijma. For Aristotle’s take on Buridan’s Ass’s Dilemma, go to de Caelo (On the Heavens), bk. II, ch. xiii, towards the end of the chapter – the long paragraph wondering about the inertia of earth (“the earth”??) and comparing the inertias of earth and fire.
    Is there a psalm about ‘shitting or getting off the pot’? (Monty Python had a memorable image of a third alternative . . .)

  95. Googling, schmoogling, is it so hard to believe I might have dipped into the lycanthropic streams wherein I speak? And where I come from, we say “defecate or discommode”.

  96. Funnily enough I found a jawbone in the woods, just before the snow covered everything.

  97. … it may have been a donkey’s, but I think it was a horse or, most likely, a cow.

  98. More noncanonical wedged matter:
    An eye for an eye, an ass for an ass.
    Lord, before before commenting on the mote in my neighbor’s, may I attend to the beam wedged in my own.

  99. Thou hypocrite, first cast out the Jim Beam out of thine own rye.

  100. Wrong thread, but the only known advantage of Jim Beam over Jack Daniel’s is no apostrophe to worry about.

  101. John Emerson says

    When I was in Taiwan, duty-free Johnny Walker was the common currency repaying social favors. If the recipient didn’t drink, he knew someone who did.

  102. Jim be am, and Jack be pm.

  103. John, when exactly were you in Taiwan? The same situation existed when I went to Japan in the mid 70s, but some years later, I think because of the removal of tariffs, Johnny Walker came down drastically in price. Needless to say, it was a devastating blow. Johnny Walker completely lost its original prestige and snob appeal. Its fall from grace was so complete that I don’t think it ever recovered, even after they introduced high-priced labels (green and gold, I think they were), above the original red and black labels.

  104. John Emerson says


  105. Johnnie Walker Blue Label is their premium bottle – “aged no less than 20 years”. It’s prestigiously priced, which appellants to the ‘authority’ of credentials rather than that of idears will value – but it’s still a blended whisky, and still not a potato vodka, like Luksusowa.

  106. Is potatoness a plus?

  107. I don’t know why, but that Polish potato vodka, which is the only “potato” vodka I’ve knowingly tried, is unbelievably smooth – it doesn’t have any nasty grain-alcohol retch-generator effect. Maybe if you try it, you’ll disagree . . .
    (I’m talking about ‘drinking because you like gradually getting to where you feel like you’re walking around in an aquarium’. If you just ‘wanna git drunk quicklike’ – well, whatever works.)

  108. There once was a lass from Madras
    Who had a remarkable ass;
         Not rounded and pink,
         As Americans think —
    It was grey, had long ears, and ate grass.

  109. While a visiting Yankee, a stranger
    Stood admiring the beast at its manger,
    “Kiss my ass” the girl said,
    And the fellow turned red.
    She had not comprehended the danger.

  110. Of his exploits a linguist once sung
    With a girl strangely speaking, but young.
    He accessed each
    Of her parts of speech
    And savoured it long with his tongue.

  111. And when he was done she said “Sir,
    May I ask what this probing was fer?”
    He replied with a stammer,
    “I was struck by your grammar”,
    “Then shouldn’t you go and lick her?”

  112. scurrilous poet says

    there once was a queer from Khartoum
    took a prostitute up to his room
    they argued all night
    over who had the right
    to do what and with which and to whom

  113. Ogden Nash writes liquor is quicker,
    Though candy is dandy is also as true.
    Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,
    Oggie. You’ll end up face-down in the poo.

  114. to do what and with which and to whom
    ‘Twas only their words that they waggled:
    They haggled and haggled and haggled.
    So no-one got laid,
    And no-one got paid,
    And by dawn they were fully bedraggled.

  115. Don’t worry, when I publish The Languagehat Limericks, everybody gets a cut.

  116. A limerick fan from Australia
    Regarded his work as a failure:
        His verses were fine
        Until the fourth line.
    There was a old man of Peru
    Whose limericks stopped at line two.
    There was a young man of Verdun,
    [The last limerick in this series is about the Emperor Nero, but of course I can’t possibly quote it here.]
    Funny limericks
    Amuse me with clever puns
    And old dirty jokes.
    Haiku are poems which strive
    To speak about nature and lives
    But the difficult trick
    Is to make the thing stick
    To syllables five-seven-five.

  117. John Cowan says

    fetishization of brutality

    One hears this more from the right than from the left nowadays, I think: it’s all right if our soldiers are thugs, because they have to be hard men in order to protect the soft men and women and children behind them.

  118. There was a young man of Verdun,
    [The last limerick in this series is about the Emperor Nero, but of course I can’t possibly quote it here.

    I don’t get this one.

  119. “Verdun” is to rhyme with “one”, which doesn’t appear because there’s only one line. The subsequent limerick rhymes “Nero” with “zero”, and has no lines at all.

  120. Thanks!

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