The Truth in Art (from The Invalidity of all guarantees. Conversations with Brecht and Benjamin)
Bertolt Brecht: The more the truth content disappears into its subject matter the greater the artistic value’, hmm? I’m not going to contradict your idea. But for me implications are the mother of invention, strategic camouflage of my left-handed form of crime. I closet the truth content so it can resurface when its time comes to be put to the test. Artistic value is subsumed by the subject matter, and not the other way around. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
Although your hypothesis has a certain literary logic, the tip of the iceberg in a work of art always shows. Granted it will be almost nothing with the immortals. The truth content can be taken for granted. It is part of the culture in which they represent a renaissance. But with the mass of literature the iceberg is upside down. And disappearing its truth content would leave nothing except a bubble or babble. Or the wreckage of the lie content, the concealed revealed. For instance, Pirandello. His writing is a living lie. The characters write his plays, and now Luigi is up for the Nobel Prize. Good money but it’s a swindle. However, your idea is an elegant formulation, and true up to a point, though it excludes most writers. I can admire its clear expression. Writing is my job, and craft I appreciate.
Walter Benjamin: You’re crafty too with your oxymorons. You don’t always mean what you say.
BB: As a good Marxist I don’t adhere to the principle of non-contradiction. I always say what suits my purposes. I’ve my principles, like Groucho Marx. ‘If you don’t like them I have more’, and I don’t think that he was quoting his illustrious namesake. Although Karl made a principle of accepting contradictions.
WB: I can’t be much of a Marxist then? Karl or Groucho. I try not to contradict myself, and my principles aren’t anybody’s.
BB: That’s where you differ from your Kafka. ‘In the battle between the self and the world, support the world.’ You support yourself.
WB: I thought you were supporting me? You said so earlier.
BB: Now there, Walter, you’re lowering the tone. I’m joking with Groucho to jump a few stages to get to the point, which is your admirably expressed idea, and its implications. The art of disappearing the truth. Let me test-fly it.
Everybody finds their own truth in Shakespeare because he has been assimilated into their lives, through language. The words speak differently to each of us. It’s like the Bible. And, indeed, Marx Senior, to a lesser extent. Shakespeare sticks more to the facts, and includes the odd comic relief. As the Bible does, in its fashion. The Greeks had a word for it…
BB: A light remark that conceals its deep import until its Moment comes. What Boethius called nunc stans, now forever, and actors timing. You stop time. A risky thing with an audience, but you know when, like any good gambler. Seize it and bring the house down. It’s beautiful. You live in an Eternal Now for three curtain calls.
Still, the more I contemplate the truth content in a work of art the less interested I become. It depends on its implications for the subject matter. My enjoyment loses out to doubts, and, what’s worse, I fall back on other people’s opinions. It’s not merely that I find the facts are inconvenient. It is that they are not final. More research needed or documentation to be found by accident in someone’s attic. I abhor the patient scholarship you abide by religiously, bless you. And then there are those great minds with their Bigger and Better Ideas like cathedrals and I can’t help teasing them with Little White ones with eyes that bleed when pricked.
Yes, maybe I overlooked some essential fact or other. So much the worse for my future in academic life.
WB: I thought you said that working in a university is the lowest form of snobbery.
BB: I wouldn’t mind a sinecure. With you as my research assistant. Over your desk I can see Agassiz’s ‘Trust no evidence, not even your own’, and can hear you remind me when I get carried away, ‘a thing is itself in so far as it’s not something else’.
It doesn’t help. I’d loosen the bits and pieces and they’d begin to clog up the works. The great Benjamin-Brecht machine puffs smoke from warring factions in their grey matter, fogging up the larger lines. The horizon is retreating. I can’t see beyond my nose. And so, I say like Hegel, and you like Kafka, Sod-It, correcting the errors of the other’s ways is a dead-end. You’ll recommence your experiments with hashish and I’ll revert to Rough Thinking. That’s leaping to conclusions, and if they bounce, well and good. If not, I can try again.
While you are smoking out a context for your idea - disappearing the truth to benefit the art - patiently puffing in your library, day and night, and when you can’t get the writing on the wall to meet with your theory, you get frustrated, tantalised by the receding smoke-rings of ‘the truth of things’, and you have to backtrack on your principles and call it ‘a clear expression of ambiguity’. You are in effect out-Groucho-ing me. Congratulations.
WB: Maybe I have not yet made myself clear.
BB: You make other people clear, not yourself.
A thing is NOT itself because its not something else. Reality changes, even as you register it. If you don’t like your reality it can be changed. The truth be told, I can change mine with a word...
WB: I never trust anyone who says ‘The truth be told’, without the ‘if’. But I suppose it’s better than ‘In all honesty’… Really Bertolt, I’m beginning to think you’re no better than a Logical Positivist. Suiting yourself to make the words do your dirty business.
BB: Not dirty always. But a Logical Positivist? The last person that called me that is dead or at death’s door. I’m off before I add you to the pile.
WB: Now, you’re suddenly farting on all cylinders….
BB: But of course. Firing ideas into our fellow man must be by the back passage. But, granted, Walter, ‘Evil communication corrupteth good manners’. Mention of the Logical Positivists always pisses me off, and philosophy makes me impatient. Hahn and Schlick are dead-weight, and Heidegger has confused his ideas with self-interest. And that’s too close to the bone. You are too honest, or something, to be a fellow to my fed-up-ness with the received paths, particularly the ones that bear my footprints. I’m wasting my time. I must get back to my Adolf Stalin sketch. It won’t be a literary paradox, unless something else means something better to do. I’m off.