Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Bertolt Brecht and the Trust Fund Kids

I’ve heard you don’t want to learn anything,
So therefore I assume that you’re all millionaires.
Your future is secure—it stands like a beacon
Before you. Your parents have taken precautions
So that your feet won’t trip on any rocks.
Thus you don’t have to learn anything.
You can stay just the way you are.

But in case of any difficulties—
I've heard somewhere that the times are uncertain—
You have your mentors who will tell you
Exactly what you need to do to stay well.
They’ve studied with people
Who know about the truth,
And how that truth will always be valid,
And who have prescriptions to help you.

Because so many people are working for you,
You won’t need to lift a finger.
Of course, if things were different,
You would have to learn about things.

I’ve heard you don’t want to learn anything was written in 1930, when Bert Brecht was more or less on the top of things. Three-Penny Opera had been a huge success, and Rise and Fall of Mahagonny was about ready to premiere in Berlin. In 1930 Brecht married Helene Weigel, who gave birth to a daughter the same year. He was working on new ideas for a new “epic theater,”and on the script for the movie Kuhle Wampe, released in 1932. And yet Brecht the poet had “heard somewhere that the times are uncertain”—possibly the understatement of the year in view of mass unemployment and the approaching Nazi take-over in 1933.

Brecht’s plays were seldom performed in this country in the 40’s and 50’s, no surprise considering the fear of Communism at the time. In the 60’s and 70’s, the plays started to attract audiences here, until lapsing once more into their present obscurity, along with a concern for social justice and the fading promise of revolution. What I think that theater-goers missed during this brief period of florescence was that Brecht was also a great German lyric poet.

His verse often drips irony, perhaps nowhere more than here. One wonders what inspired the poem. Perhaps he was sitting in an outside Berlin café, watching the jeunesse dorée pass by who were having too good a time to bother with university studies? Maybe not, times were hard in the Weimar Republic, and Bohemian lifestyles were popular also with the less than well-to-do, as portrayed in Isherwood’s I Am a Camera.

But of course the poem really isn’t about rich kids at all. It’s about their parents, whose wealth helps their offspring to remain stupid in a world filled with fake realities. It’s even more about poor students, who must learn to live by their wits if they’re going to survive—Brecht’s dramatic heroes are for the most part uncannily clever social underdogs.

And by requiring readers to define their social identity just by reading the poem, it’s about you too, and the need for poetry and art to foster political action.

Ich habe gehört, ihr wollt nichts lernen

Ich habe gehört, ihr wollt nichts lernen
Daraus entnehme ich: ihr seid Millionäre.
Eure Zukunft ist gesichert—sie liegt
Vor euch im Licht. Eure Eltern
Haben dafür gesorgt, daß eure Füße
An keinen Stein stoßen.
Da mußt du Nichts lernen. So wie du bist
Kannst du bleiben.

Sollte es dann noch Schwierigkeiten geben,
Da doch die Zeiten
Wie ich gehört habe, unsicher sind
Hast du deine Führer, die dir genau sagen
Was du zu machen hast, damit es euch gut geht.
Sie haben nachgelesen bei denen
Welche die Wahrheiten wissen
Die für alle Zeiten Gültigkeit haben
Und die Rezepte, die immer helfen .

Wo so viele für dich sind
Brauchst du keinen Finger zu rühren .
Freilich, wenn es anders wäre
Müßtest du lernen.


"It is easier to steal by setting up a bank than by holding up
a bank clerk."                    — Bertolt Brecht

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