Breakfast with Benjamin and Brecht (From The Invalidity of All Guarantees,2009)
Bertolt Brecht: You look out of sorts.
Walter Benjamin: I’m not feeling myself today.
BB: The dark circles under your eyes are ominous.
WB: It’s only the imprint of my glasses.
BB: A pity you aren’t an actor.I could produce and direct you. But what have you been reading?
WB: Crime and Punishment.
BB: That explains it. Dostoyevsky is bad for the health. Once in my youth I got a serious rush of shit to the brain from reading The Possessed.
WB: I was woken early by someone practising a Chopin etude. I don’t like to be surprised by music…
BB: It wasn’t Helli. She never practises, only performs. Usually a transposition of Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude. Imagine a call to Revolution in a minor key, Walter? No wonder the Polish Rising got nowhere. But she rolls it out in C Major.Which etude was it?
WB: La Tristesse, I think. My little sister Dora used to play it when she was trying to annoy me.
BB: It definitely was Crime and Punishment that did the damage. Opus 10 is relatively harmless.
WB: Don’t make me laugh, Bertolt. Yesterday you said you knew nothing about music and now you’re spouting serial numbers like an authority.
BB: Hanns Eisler used to play Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude backwards, saying it marched better that way. Did you know Chopin composed it under the influence of The Brothers Karamazov?
WB: Which was not published till after Chopin’s death.
BB: Well, then it must have been The Poorly People.
WB: He must have read it when he was dying.
BB: George Sands read it to him.
WB: Are you being serious? The all-time lovers were no longer talking.
BB: Proving I’m right interests me less than finding out if I am. But I have to admit, I think too much on theatrical matters to be wholly serious. For instance, last week I taught Helli how to wash herself. She used to wash in order not to be dirty. Not anymore. But I’m a friend of the serious. Though not of the State Visionaries who like to think each epoch dreams the next.
WB: You mean nightmares.
BB: History, the Theatre of Memory, has taught me to be suspicious of the big Big Ideas. They start out small, like Christianity and Communism. Treat everybody as you would yourself. Share and share alike. Light as the fragrance of a snowdrop. Then they get a spring in their step and grow by leaps and bounds until they lose touch with the Theatre of Life by becoming myths. No worse fate. Give me ideas that you can pick up and feel and smell. The little white ones with eyes that bleed when pricked.
WB: I never know whether you’re joking or not.
BB: I don’t joke. People may find the way I say things funny. All to the good, if it pays for my cigars and the roof over my head. But the joke is on the plods and clods. I’m deadly serious. Joking permits me to jump two or three stages in making a point. And it distinguishes me from Thomas Mann. Now there’s a man who knew the big Big Ideas come with crushing responsibilities. And I wouldn’t disagree. If, say, Confucius was found to have written a play, or Lenin a novel, they would be demoted to the ranks of the Less Than Serious. The received view is that big Big Ideas are Pure Thought. But Pure Thought is a kite you fly in solitary confinement. And even if you could get it through the bars, it has no strings attached, so it just flies off. Ideas need a grounding in everyday life. Take Schopenhaur’s flute away from him, and he’d disappear up his own air.
WB: Thought without a context is an abyss most intellectuals fall into from time to time. Its echo is called babble.
BB: And babies are better at it.