by Steven Craig Hickman
In one of Benjamin’s journal entries we hear him describe Brecht, saying,
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. (Here “they” is: “the thoughts which occurred to him within the scope of epic theatre”)
Benjamin: 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.
Badiou: For Brecht, art produces no truth, but is instead an elucidation – based on the supposition that the true exists – of the conditions for a courage of truth (p. 6, Inaestheticism)
This sense of having the courage of truth, of elucidating the conditions and milieu within which a truth arises in time in dramatic tension is at the heart of his play on Galileo. Truths are not situated in some Platonic mirror land beyond, but arise immanently in time through appearance as appearance (i.e., they are dialectic and have a history, temporal and formidable, concrete universal truth rather than some absolute situated beyond time or timeless). Between an epic and didactic drama and poetry Brecht tried to resolve tensions within his vision. Whether he succeeded or not is worthy of study, for it is this combination of the materialist dialectic applied to artistic creation and splendor that allowed him to educe and educate a generation into a vision at once egalitarian and bent on building a life worth living on our planet.
As Benjamin would note:
Brecht’s heroic efforts to legitimize art vis-à-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.’ (1934—27 September Dragør)
I believe that it is just here in this return to the epic form, at once parable and didactic, that a new art needs to emerge in our own time. For too long we’ve been under the tutelage of those like Harold Bloom who enforce a ever deepening turn inward in a now defunct romanticism that seems to have ended in such poets as John Ashbery under the auspices of twilight and evening land belatedness. Instead of this nihilism we need a return to other modes of being and artistic excellence. Brecht is one of those lights, one that stood for the proletariat against the elite purveyors of an art of sycophancy. An alliance of poetry, drama, and philosophy once again might emerge in dialogue and partnership in our age.
We’ve known for years that the playful ironizing of postmodern thought led into a quagmire of an ultra-nihilism from which there was to be no return, but rather the duplicitous involutions of a play-of-(intra)textuallity without end; a no man’s land of blindness and insight; a world where the knots of mind and text collaborated to turn humans away from reality into the cesspool of the imaginary. Now its time to resolve this chimera into the fantastic beast it always was: a philosophy of zero, of apathy and depressive realism; a world of democratic liberal materialism that has failed us utterly.
What Badiou, Zizek, and other materialist dialectics offer is the truth between bodies and languages, an epic vision that can educate us once again into the environs of our own truths. We’re all in this together, but time to put off the blindfolds, take off the gloves and fight for something worthy of what remains human and alive.