Sunday, August 14, 2016

The concept of decadence

‘[In] literary articles in journals edited by marxists the concept of decadence is appearing more and more frequently of late. i discover that decadence includes me. this is naturally of great interest to me. a marxist actually needs the concept of decline. it serves to identify the decline of the ruling class in the political and economic spheres.’ This is from the diary of Bertolt Brecht, one of Germany’s most important 20th century playwrights who died 60 years ago today.

Eugen Berthold Brecht was born in 1898 in Augsburg, Bavaria, into a mixed Catholic/Protestant family. He was educated at Königliches Realgymnasium, and then avoided the army by enrolling as a medical student at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, where he also studied theatre. He never finished training as a doctor but did do some military service as a medical orderly. During the war, though, he had begun to write newspaper articles, under the name Bert Brecht, and he wrote his first play, Baal, in 1918, but it was not produced until 1923. He became increasingly involved in the theatre and cabaret world, being much influenced by the Munich comedian Karl Valentin. Brecht’s first produced play - Drums in the Night - was premiered in 1922 to rave reviews.

In 1917, Brecht had begun an affair with Paula Banholzer, who had a child, Frank, by him, though she died soon after. In 1922, he married the actress Marianne Zoff, and they had a daughter, Hanne, though that relationship soon broke down, and, in 1924, he had a son, Stefan, with Helene Weigel. Five years later, he married Weigel, and they had a second child, Barbara, who would eventually inherit the copyright to all of Brecht’s literary works.

In 1919, Brecht had joined the Independent Social Democratic party and become friends with the writer Lion Feuchtwanger. By 1924, they had collaborated on an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II - the first of many classic texts Brecht would adapt. The same year, he went to work at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater in Berlin - then one of the world’s leading theatres. He produced many well-received plays, not least The Threepenny Opera, adapted from The Beggar’s Opera with the composer Kurt Weill. Around this time, Brecht also published his first book of poems. In the early 1920s, Brecht started using the first name Bertolt, to rhyme with that of his collaborator, the playwright Arnolt Bronnen.

Brecht had long been a student of Marxism, but, by the mid-1920s this interest was leading him to write political dramas such as Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny, also with Weill. In fear of Hitler, Brecht fled from Germany in 1933, first to Scandinavia, settling on the Danish island of Funen, then, in 1941, to California, writing poems and plays (such as Galileo and Mother Courage and Her Children) all the while. After the war, in 1947, he was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, but the day after left the US to return to Europe.

After staying in Switzerland to begin with, Brecht settled in East Berlin, where he launched the celebrated Berliner Ensemble, but he wrote few plays in his last years focusing more on directing and teaching young directors and playwrights. In 1955, he received the Stalin Peace Prize, and, the following year, he died on 14 August. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Encyclopædia Britannica, or Theatre Database.

Brecht seems to have kept a diary in childhood, although only one journal - the so-called Diary 10 written in 1913 (but which refers to earlier diaries) - appears to have survived (for more on this see Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life by Stephen Parker at Googlebooks). He kept a diary in his early 20s: Bertolt Brecht Diaries 1920-1922, edited by Herta Ramthun, translated and annotated by John Willett, published by Eyre Methuen, 1979. And again he kept a diary from 1938 until the end of his life (though he recorded little in his last years): Bertolt Brecht Journals 1934-1956, translated by Hugh Rorrison, edited by John Willett, and published by Methuen, in 1993. A review in New Statesman and Society of the latter, quoted by the publisher, described the book as ‘a marvellous, motley collage of political ideas, domestic detail, artistic debate, poems, photographs and cuttings from newspapers and magazines’. Here are several extracts.

24 July 1938
‘there are concepts which are difficult to defend because they spread such boredom whenever they arise, like DÉCADENCE. there is naturally such a thing as the literature of the decline of a class, in it the class loses its serene certainty, its calm self-confidence, it conceals its difficulties, it gets bogged down in detail, it becomes parasitically culinary, etc. but the very works which identify its decline as a decline can scarcely be classed as decadent. but that is how the declining class views them, on the other hand the FEAST OF TRIMALCHIO exhibits all sorts of signs of formal decadence. and if ELECTIVE AFFINITIES is not decadent, WERTHER is.’

15 August 1938
‘FEAR AND MISERY OF THE THIRD REICH has NOW gone to press. lukács has already welcomed the spy as if i were a sinner returned to the bosom of the salvation army. here at last is something taken straight from life! he overlooks the montage of 27 scenes, and the fact that it is actually only a table of gests, the gest of keeping your mouth shut, the gest of looking about you, the gest of sudden fear etc. the pattern of gests in a dictatorship. now epic theatre can show that both ‘intérieurs’ and almost naturalistic elements are within its range, that they do not make the crucial difference. the actor will be well advised to study the STREET SCENE before playing one of the short scenes. the aforesaid gests are not to be performed in such a way that the audience wants to stop the scene, empathy is to be sedulously controlled, otherwise the whole thing is a dead loss. the montage, a process that has been so thoroughly condemned, arose here out of letters from dudow who needed something for his little proletarian theatre-group in paris. so the proletarian theatre in exile is keeping the theatre alive. while in moscow maxim vallentin, the one-time director of a berlin agitprop group, has gone over to bourgeois theatre and announced that in art an appeal has to be made to the emotions, which can only mean reason has to be switched off.’

18 August 1938
‘by offering only formal criteria for realism LUKÁCS, whose significance is that he writes from moscow, is in the final estimate handing readers who are avid to learn on a plate to those famous contemporary bourgeois novelists on whom he has bestowed great, if slightly embarrassed compliments, because they display the said formal features (even if they are not so ‘happy’, ‘pure’ and ‘creative’ as the old masters of the great early period). they become his realists (he allays any suspicion by contrasting them with a form of ‘decadence’, to which DOS passos and presumably i too belong), whose descriptions exclude the class struggle (‘do not not take sufficiently into account’, ‘do not yet fully encompass’), so that the reader himself then has to unravel the complicated reflections which the ‘decadents’ incorporate in their books, the very reflections which establish that the events depicted derive from the class struggle. they all display LUKÁCS’S hallmarks, HEINRICH MANN presents such a ‘tangle’ of different human fates in his HENRI QUATRE that nobody can find his way around in it, and doesn’t his brother THOMAS unfold the ‘whole life of the biblical joseph’ in all its ultimate fullness! in HAMSUN we have ‘very involved, very indirect relationships’ by the dozen, the class struggle is less in evidence in all three, but naturally we can add that for ourselves, for ‘in the last resort’ everything is class struggle, such obtuseness is monumental.’

10 September 1938
‘in literary articles in journals edited by marxists the concept of decadence is appearing more and more frequently of late. i discover that decadence includes me. this is naturally of great interest to me. a marxist actually needs the concept of decline. it serves to identify the decline of the ruling class in the political and economic spheres. it would be stupid for him to refuse to recognise decline in the artistic sphere. eg literature cannot exclude the great shackling of productive capacity by the capitalist means of production. i am restricting myself in the first instance to my own production. my first book of poems, the DEVOTIONS FOR THE HOME, is undoubtedly branded with the decadence of the bourgeois class. under its wealth of feeling lies a confusion of feeling. under its originality of expression lie aspects of collapse. under the richness of its subject matter there is an element of aimlessness,. the powerful language is slack. etc etc. seen in this light the subsequent SVENDBORG POEMS represent both a withdrawal and an advance. from the bourgeois point of view there has been a staggering impoverishment. isn’t it all a great deal more one-sided, less ‘organic’, cooler, ‘more self-conscious’ (in a bad sense)? let’s hope my comrades-in-arms will not let that go by default, they will say the SVENDBORG POEMS are less decadent than DEVOTIONS FOR THE HOME. however i think it is important that they should realise what the advance, such as it is, has cost. capitalism has forced us to take up arms. it has laid waste our surroundings. i no longer go off ‘to commune with nature in the woods’, but accompanied by two policemen. there is still richness, a rich choice of battlefields. there is originality, originality of problems. no question about it: literature is not blooming. but we have to beware of thinking in terms of outdated images. this notion of bloom is too one-sided. you can’t harness ideas of value, definitions of power and greatness, to an idyllic conception of organic flowering; it would be ridiculous. withdrawal and advance are not separated according to dates in the calendar. they are threads which run through individuals and works.’

7 October 1938
‘the fall of Czechoslovakia is remarkable for the way it happened. eg people continue to speak about that country as if it were still the same, and for that reason some of its actions are surprising. people have understood that it has to hand over something to germany, but now it is handing over more, in fact everything as far as everybody is concerned. including the jews and refugees. people forget that this defeat has brought different class forces to the helm, so the state has become a different person in law, one can no longer speak of czechoslovakia. and how did this come about? ‘england’ could not enter into a war which its russian ally would have won. the russian ally could not enter into a war which the russian generals would have won. france could not enter into a war which the popular front would have won. and none of them, naturally, could lose a war.’

23 November 1938
‘finished LIFE OF GALILEO. it took three weeks. the only difficulties arose with the last scene. just as in the case of ST JOAN, i needed a neat stroke at the end to ensure that the audience had the necessary detachment. even somebody empathising without thinking must now feel the a-effect when he empathises with galileo. with rigidly epic presentation an acceptable empathy occurs.’

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