Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 38 (Bertolt Brecht)

Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Brecht, Bertolt

I purchased this book for an undergraduate course called "The Individual vs. The Institution," which was essentially a course in existential literature of the 20th century. It was one of those trite classes in which the professor sets up a simple dichotomy (individual/institution), assumes that both terms in the equation are stable and that their opposition is completely natural and that one term is "good" and the other "bad," and then reads through one text after another to prove the point. In this case, the Individual is good and the Institution was bad. Galileo = Individual. Church = Institution. Oddly, the course was not taught in the English department, but by an Italian professor in the Modern Languages department.

There used to be a theater on the Lower East Side of Manhattan called, The House of Candles. I am not sure if it still exists -- I doubt it, given how much that neighborhood has changed since then (1992). The name derived from the former tenant of the building, who apparently sold candles for Santeria ceremonies. It was a great little off off off Broadway theater that staged, almost exclusively, avant-garde plays from the modernist playbook. I saw plays there by Camus, Brecht, Ionesco, Pinter, et al. The productions were always stripped down affairs, but they were always worth seeing, if for no other reason than at the time there were few places staging these kinds of plays, and even fewer that could do them well.

I never saw Galileo there, but I did see Man Equals Man and, I think, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. (I am sure I saw a bloated overproduced version of St. Joan of the Stockyards somewhere else in NY, but not there). What was nice about House Of Candles as a theater (aside from the 10 dollar admission, which was about all I could afford -- I think movies were still 7 dollars in NY then), was its intimate size. It probably only sat 50 people, maybe even fewer, so the productions tended to fill the entire space.

My favorite was Man Equals Man. I remember there were several musical flourishes added to it that I liked a lot. After seeing it, my friend remarked to me that he thought what made Brecht great was that his plays almost universally fail to prove their arguments because the characters that are set up to represent the thing he is arguing against always exhibit the most sympathetic human characteristics. I think this is especially true of Galileo, in which the hero is portrayed as a kind of proto-revolutionary whose search for scientific truth is analogous to the revolutionary's desire to enact social change.

But the character of Galileo, at least to these ears, comes off as shrill, self-important, and inhuman. Conversely, the character of the little monk, who exists as the representation of the individual whose courage fails at the moment of truth, who is not heroic, carries more emotional heft than Galileo himself and is as such a much more memorable character.

To illumine my friends, point, here's the little monk explaining to Galileo why he has chosen to recant his cosmology in the face of opposition from the church. (Not only does he carry all the motion, but all the poetry as well!):

Little Monk: I do not come from the great city. my parents are peasants in the Campagne, who know about the cultivation of the olive tree, and not much about anything else. Too often these days when I am trying to concentrate on tracking down the moons of Jupiter, I see my parents. I see them sitting by the fire with my sister, eating their curded cheese. I see the beams of the ceiling above them, which the smoke of centuries has blackened, and I can see the veins stand out on their toil-worn hands, and the little spoons in their hands. They scrape a living, and underlying their poverty there is a sort of order. There are routines. The routine of scrubbing floors, the routine of the seasons in the olive orchard, the routine of paying taxes. The troubles that come to them are recurrent troubles. My father did not get his poor bent back all at once, but little by little, year by year, in the olive orchard; just as year after year, with unfailing regularity, childbirth has made my mother more and more sexless. They draw the strength they need to sweat with loaded baskets up the stony paths, to bear children, even to eat, from the sight of the trees greening each year anew, from the reproachful face of the soil, which is never satisfied, and from the little church and Bible texts they hear on Sunday. They have been told God relies upon them and that the pageant of the world has been written around them that they be tested in the important or unimportant parts handed out to them. How could they take it, were I to tell them that they are on a lump of stone ceaselessly spinning in empty space, circling around a second-rate star?


Chris said...

It was one of those trite classes in which the professor sets up a simple dichotomy (individual/institution), assumes that both terms in the equation are stable and that their opposition is completely natural and that one term is "good" and the other "bad," and then reads through one text after another to prove the point.

That is very odd. The current expectation I'd have from such a class is that it would be one of those trite classes where a classic binary is set up and then both categories are shown to be unstable and/or used to construct each other -- that you can't have identity without some sort of institutional context, say, or how the institution behaves like the individual, vs how the individual can be understood as the institutionalization of experience. All of which you'd glean from the name of the course, sigh, and check to see if the reading list looked interesting.

Michael Kelleher, Buffalo, NY said...

Chris, did you hear that echo, echo, echo?