Checkmate for a broken republic: on Benjamin and Brecht

Gavin Jacobson in New Statesman:

BejaminThe first meeting between Walter Ben­jamin and Bertolt Brecht did not go well. It took place in Berlin in November 1924 at the home of Asja Lacis, a Latvian actress and theatre director. She recalled in her memoirs, “The conversation never got going, and the acquaintanceship petered out. I was confused. Was it possible that Brecht, such an intelligent person, could find nothing in common with Walter, a person of such intellectual curiosity and wide interests?” Benjamin, then 32 years old and unable to secure a university lectureship, was emerging as one of Germany’s pre-eminent cultural critics. His writings covered subjects as varied as art, children’s literature, food, film, gambling, graphology, Marxism, photography and toys. He wrote essays on the concept of history, the social impact of mass media, and 19th-century Paris. He produced radio programmes and translated texts by Baudelaire and Proust. There was no guiding philosophy. Yet the influence of certain traditions (such as German idealism, Rom­anticism and Jewish mysticism) was clear.

Brecht was six years younger than Benjamin. By the time they met, he had established himself as a gifted poet and playwright whose first works, such as Baal (premiered in 1923), combined lyrical force and moral dissent, especially on the theme of sexuality. Brecht’s plays departed from the aesthetic conventions of melodrama and developed a style called “epic theatre”; he argued that spectators should not be able to identify emotionally with the characters before them but should take a critical view of the action on stage instead. This was not just a visual strategy. It was driven by Brecht’s commitment to Marxism. If audiences identified with the emotional agonies of heroes such as Hamlet or Lear, then the Marxist notion that human nature is not fixed but a product of shifting historical conditions would be undermined.

More here.

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