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Brecht, last night: 'There can't be any doubt about it any longer: the struggle against ideology has become a new ideology.'
29 July
New Left Review I/77, January-February 1973
Walter Benjamin
Conversations with Brecht
1934–27 September Dragør

In a conversation a few evenings ago Brecht spoke of the curious indecision which at the moment prevents him from making any definite plans. As he is the first to point out, the main reason for this indecision is that his situation is so much more privileged than that of most other refugees. Therefore, since in general he scarcely admits that emigration can be a proper basis for plans and projects, he refuses all the more radically to admit it as such in his own particular case. His plans reach out to the period beyond emigration. There, he is faced with two alternatives. On the one hand there are some prose projects waiting to be done: the shorter one of the Ui—a satire on Hitler in the style of the Renaissance biographers—and the long one of the Tui novel. This is to be an encyclopedic survey of the follies of the Tellectual-Ins (intellectuals); it seems that it will be set, in part at least, in China. A small model for this work is already completed. But besides these prose projects he is also preoccupied by others, dating back to very old studies and ideas. Whereas he was able, at a pinch, to set down in his notes and introductions to the Versuche the thoughts which occurred to him within the scope of epic theatre, other thoughts, although originating in the same interests, have become combined with his study of Leninism and also of the scientific tendencies of the empiricists, and have therefore outgrown that rather limited framework. For several years they have been subsumed, now under one key concept, now under another, so that non-Aristotelian logic, behaviourist theory, the new encyclopedia and the critique of ideas have, in turn, stood at the centre of his preoccupations. At present these various pursuits are converging upon the idea of a philosophical didactic poem. But he has doubts about the matter. He wonders, in the first instance, whether, in view of his output to date and especially of its satirical elements, particularly the Threepenny Novel, the public would accept such a work. This doubt is made up of two distinct strands of thought. Whilst becoming more closely concerned with the problems and methods of the proletarian class struggle, he has increasingly doubted the satirical and especially the ironic attitude as such. But to confuse these doubts, which are mostly of a practical nature, with other, more profound ones would be to misunderstand them. The doubts at a deeper level concern the artistic and playful element in art, and above all those elements which, partially and occasionally, make art refractory to reason. Brecht's heroic efforts to legitimize art vis-`-vis reason have again and again referred him to the parable in which artistic mastery is proved by the fact that, in the end, all the artistic elements of a work cancel each other out. And it is precisely these efforts, connected with this parable, which are at present coming out in a more radical form in the idea of the didactic poem. In the course of the conversation I tried to explain to Brecht that such a poem would not have to seek approval from a bourgeois public but from a proletarian one, which, presumably, would find its criteria less in Brecht's earlier, partly bourgeois-oriented work than in the dogmatic and theoretical content of the didactic poem itself. 'If this didactic poem succeeds in enlisting the authority of marxism on its behalf,' I told him, 'then your earlier work is not likely to weaken that authority.'
4 October

Yesterday Brecht left for London. Whether it is that my presence offers peculiar temptations in this respect, or whether Brecht is now generally more this way inclined than before, at all events his aggressiveness (which he himself calls 'baiting') is now much more pronounced in conversation than it used to be. Indeed, I am struck by a special vocabulary engendered by this aggressiveness. In particular, he is fond of using the term W�en (little sausage). In Dragør I was reading Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. To start with he blamed this choice of reading for my being unwell. As confirmation he told how, in his youth, a prolonged illness (which had doubtless been latent for a long time) had begun when a schoolfellow had played Chopin to him on the piano and he had not had the strength to protest. Brecht thinks that Chopin and Dostoyevsky have a particularly adverse effect on people's health. In other ways, too, he missed no opportunity of needling me about my reading matter, and as he himself was reading Schweyk at the time he insisted on making comparative value judgements of the two authors.It became evident that Dostoyevsky simply could not measure up to Hašek, and Brecht included him without further ado among the W�en; only a little more and he would have extended to Dostoyevsky the description he keeps ready, these days,for any work which lacks an enlightening character, or is denied such character by him: he calls such a work a Klump (lump, or clot).
1938–28 June

I was in a labyrinth of stairs. This labyrinth was not entirely roofed over. I climbed; other stairways led downwards. On a landing I realized that I had arrived at a summit. A wide view of many lands opened up before me. I saw other men standing on other peaks. One of these men was suddenly seized by dizziness and fell. The dizziness spread; others were now falling from other peaks into the depths below. When I too became dizzy I woke up.

On 22 June I arrived at Brecht's.

Brecht speaks of the elegance and nonchalance of Virgil's and Dante's basic attitude, which, he says, forms the backdrop to Virgil's majestic gestus. He calls both Virgil and Dante 'promeneurs'. Emphasizing the classic rank of the Inferno, he says: 'You can read it out of doors.'

He speaks of his deep-rooted hatred of priests, a hatred he inherited from his grandmother. He hints that those who have appropriated the theoretical doctrines of Marx and taken over their management will always form a clerical camarilla. Marxism lends itself all too easily to 'interpretation'. Today it is a hundred years old and what do we find? (At this point the conversation was interrupted.) ' " The State must wither away." Who says that? The State.' (Here he can only mean the Soviet Union.) He assumes a cunning, furtive expression, puts himself in front of the chair in which I am sitting—he is impersonating 'the State'—and says, with a sly, side-long glance at an imaginary interlocutor: 'I know I ought to wither away.'

A conversation about new Soviet novels. We no longer read them. The talk then turns to poetry and to the translations of poems from various languages in the ussr with which Das Wort is flooded. He says the poets over there are having a hard time. 'If Stalin's name doesn't crop up in a poem, that's interpretedas a sign of ill intent.'
29 June

Brecht talks about epic theatre, and mentions plays acted by children in which faults of performance, operating as alienation effects, impart epic characteristics to the production. Something similar may occur in third-rate provincial theatre. I mention the Geneva production of Le Cid where the sight of the king's crown worn crookedly on his head gave me the first inkling of the ideas I eventually developed in the Trauerspiel book nine years later. Brecht in turn quoted the moment at which the idea of epic theatre first came into his head. It happened at a rehearsal for the Munich production of Edward II. The battle in the play is supposed to occupy the stage for three-quarters of an hour. Brecht couldn't stage-manage the soldiers, and neither could Asya (Lacis), his production assistant. Finally he turned in despair to Karl Valentin, at that time one of his closest friends, who was attending the rehearsal, and asked him: 'Well, what is it? What's the truth about these soldiers? What about them?' Valentin: 'They're pale, they're scared, that's what!' The remark settled the issue, Brecht adding: 'They're tired.' Where upon the soldiers' faces were thickly made up with chalk, and that was the day the production's style was determined.

Later the old subject of 'logical positivism' came up. I adopted a somewhat intransigent attitude and the conversation threatened to take a disagreeable turn. This was avoided by Brecht admitting for the first time that his arguments were superficial. This he did with the delightful formula: 'A deep need makes for a superficial grasp.' Later, when we were walking to his house (the conversation had taken place in my room): 'It's a good thing when someone who has taken up an extreme position then goes into a period of reaction. That way he arrives at a half-way house.' That, he explained, was what had happened to him: he had become mellow.
1 July

Whenever I refer to conditions in Russia, Brecht's comments are highly sceptical. When I inquired the other day whether Ottwald was still in gaol (in colloquial German: whether he was 'still sitting'), the answer was: 'If he can still sit, he's sitting.' Yesterday Gretl Steffin expressed the opinion that Tretyakov was no longer alive.
4 July

Brecht in the course of a conversation on Baudelaire last night: 'I'm not against the asocial, you know; I'm against the non-social.'
21 July

The publications of Lukács, Kurella et al are giving Brecht a good deal of trouble. He thinks, however, that one ought not to oppose them at the theoretical level. I then put the question on the political level. Here he does not hold his punches. 'Socialist economy doesn't need war, and that is why it is opposed to war. The "peace-loving nature of the Russian people" is an expression of this and nothing else. There can't be a socialist economy in one country. Rearmament has inevitably set the Russian proletariat a long way back in history, back to stages of historical development which have long since been overtaken—among others, the monarchic stage. Russia is now under personal rule. Only blockheads can deny this, of course.' This was a short conversation which was soon interrupted—I should add that in this context Brecht emphasized that as a result of the dissolution of the First International, Marx and Engels lost active contact with the working-class movement and thereafter gave only advice—of a private nature, not intended for publication—to individual leaders. Nor was it an accident—although regrettable—that Engels at the end of his life turned to the natural sciences.

Béla Kun, he said, was his greatest admirer in Russia. Brecht and Heine were the only German poets Kun studied [sic]. (Occasionally Brecht hints at the existence of a certain person on the Central Committee who supports him.)
25 July

Yesterday morning Brecht came over to my place to read me his Stalin poem, which is entitled 'The peasant to his Ox'. At first I did not get its meaning completely,, and when a moment later the thought of Stalin passed through my head, I did not dare entertainit. This was more or less the effect Brecht intended, and he explained what he meant in the conversation which followed. In this conversation he emphasized, among other things, the positive aspects of the poem. It was in fact a poem in honour of Stalin, who in his opinion has immense merit. But Stalin is not yet dead. Besides, a different, more enthusiastic manner of honouring Stalin is not incumbent upon Brecht, who is sitting in exile and waiting for the Red Army to march in. He is following the developments in Russia and also the writings of Trotsky. These prove that there exists a suspicion—a justifiable one—demanding a sceptical appraisal of Russian affairs. Such scepticism is in the spirit of the Marxist classics. Should the suspicion prove correct one day, then it will become necessary to fight the regime, and publicly. But, 'unfortunately or God be praised, whichever you prefer', the suspicion is at present not yet a certainty. There is no justification for constructing upon it a policy such as Trotsky's. 'And then there's no doubt that certain criminal cliques really are at work on Russia itself. One can see it, from time to time, by the harm they do.' Finally Brecht pointed out that we Germans have been especially affected by the setbacks we have suffered in our own country. 'We have had to pay for the stand we took, we're covered with scars. It's only natural that we should be especially sensitive.'

Towards evening Brecht found me in the garden reading Capital. Brecht: 'I think it's very good that you're studying Marx just now, at a time when one comes across him less and less, especially among our people.' I replied that I prefer studying the most talked-about authors when they are out of fashion. We went on to discuss Russian literary policy. I said, referring to Lukács, Gábor and Kurella: 'These people just aren't anything to write home about' (literally: with these people you can't make state). Brecht: 'Or rather, a State is all you can make with them, but not a community. They are, to put it bluntly, enemies of production. Production makes them uncomfortable. You never know where you are with production; production is the unforseeable. You never know what's going to come out. And they themselves don't want to produce. They want to play the apparatchik and exercise control over other people. Every one of their criticisms contains a threat.' We then got on to Goethe's novels, I don't remember how; Brecht knows only the Elective Affinities. He said that what he admired about it was the author's youthful elegance. When I told him Goethe wrote this novel at the age of sixty, he was very much surprised. The book, he said, had nothing philistine about it. That was a tremendous achievement. He knew a thing or two about philistinism; all German drama, including the most significant works, was stamped with it. I remarked that Elective Affinities had been very badly received when it came out. Brecht: 'I'm pleased to hear it—The Germans are a lousy nation (ein Scheissvolk). It isn't true that one must not draw conclusions from Hitler about Germans in general. In me, too, everything that is German is bad. The intolerable thing about us Germans is our narrow-minded independence. Nowhere was there such a thing as the free cities of the German Reich, like that lousy Augsburg. Lyons was never a free city; the independent cities of the Renaissance were city states—Lukács is a German by choice. He's got no stuffing left in him, none whatsoever.'

Speaking of The Most Beautiful Legends of Woynok the Brigand by Anna Seghers, Brecht praised the book because it shows that Seghers is no longer writing to order. 'Seghers can't produce to order, just as, without an order, I wouldn't even know how to start writing.' He also praised the stories for having a rebellious, solitary figure as their central character.
26 July

Brecht, last night: 'There can't be any doubt about it any longer: the struggle against ideology has become a new ideology.'
29 July

Brecht read to me some polemical texts he has written as part of his controversy with Lukács, studies for an essay which is to be published in Das Wort. He asked my advice whether to publish them. As, at the same time, he told me that Lukács's position 'over there' is at the moment very strong, I told him I could offer no advice. 'There are questions of power involved. You ought to get the opinion of somebody from over there. You've got friends there, haven't you?'—Brecht: 'Actually, no, I haven't. Neither have the Muscovites themselves—like the dead.'
3 August

On 29 July in the evening, while we were in the garden, the conversation came round to the question whether a part of the Children's Songs cycle should be included in the new volume of poems. I was not in favour because I thought that the contrast between the political and the private poems made the experience of exile particularly explicit, and this contrast would be diminished by the inclusion of a disparate sequence. In saying this I probably implied that the suggestion once again reflected the destructive aspect of Brecht's character, which puts everything in danger almost before it has been achieved. Brecht: 'I know; they'll say of me that I was manic. If the history of our timeis handed down to the future, the capacity to understand my mania will be handed down with it. The times we live in will make a backdrop to my mania. But what I should really like would be for people to say about me: he was a moderate manic.'—His discovery of moderation, Brecht said, should find expression in the poetry volume: the recognition that life goes on despite Hitler, that there will always be children. He was thinking of the 'epoch without history' of which he speaks in his poem addressed to artists. Afew days later he told me he thought the coming of such an epoch more likely than victoryover fascism. But then he added, with a vehemence he rarely shows, yet another argument in favour of including the Children's Songs in the Poems from Exile: 'We must neglect nothing in our struggle against that lot. What they're planning is nothing small, make no mistake about it. They're planning for thirty thousand years ahead.Colossal things. Colossal crimes. They stop at nothing. They're out to destroy everything. Every living cell contracts under their blows. That is why we too must think of everything. They cripple the baby in the mother's womb. We must on no account leave out the children.' While he was speaking like this I felt a power being exercised over me which was equal in strength to the power of fascism—I mean a power that sprang from the depths of history no less deep than the power of the fascists. It was a very curious feeling,and new to me. Then Brecht's thoughts took another turn, which further intensified this feeling I had. 'They're planning devastations on an icy scale. That's why they can't reach agreement with the Church, which is also geared to thousands of years. And they've proletarianized me too. It isn't just that they've taken my house,my fish-pond and my car from me; they've also robbed me of my stage and my audience. From where I stand today I can't, as a matter of principle, admit that Shakespeare's talent was greater than mine. But Shakespeare couldn't have written just for his desk drawer, any more than I can. Besides, he had his characters in front of him. The people he depicted were running around in the streets. He just observed their behaviour and picked out a few traits; there were many others, just as important, that he left out.'
Early August

'In Russia there is dictatorship over the proletariat. We should avoid dissociating ourselves from this dictatorship for as long as it still does useful work for the proletariat—i.e. so long as it contributes towards an agreement between the proletariat and the peasantry, with predominant recognition of proletarian interests.' A few days later Brecht spoke of a 'workers' monarchy', and I compared this organism with certain grotesque sports of nature dredged up from the depths of the sea in the form of horned fish or other monsters.
25 August

A Brechtian maxim: 'Don't start from the good old things but the bad new ones.'

Translated by Anna Bostock

Stanley Mitchell's 'Introduction' and these excerpts from Benjamin's 'Conversations with Brecht' have been taken from nlb's forthcoming volume of all Benjamin's published writings on Brecht Understanding Brecbt, nlb,£2.25.

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