Notes from the Underground

Home > Notes from the Underground

I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it.

All of the ephemera that is far too trivial to be bothered with elsewhere on this site or, depending on your point of view, a meta-commentary on it. This ephemera includes, but is not limited to art, music and literature. Most of the content here will be discussed in terms that are as abstract as possible, reality being a singularly overrated concept.

Monday, May 26, 2008

On the one hand:

"Brecht... was a communist writer, not a writer who happened to support communism. The normal injunction to never judge an artist by his or her politics is an insult to his ghost because politics dominated his work. The Good Soul of Szechuan ends with the narrator asking if it is possible to lead a good life in a rotten world. The expected, indeed demanded, answer is "no". Individual morality will only be possible when the collective morality of communism comes.

Nothing, not the mountains of corpses or the cults of the personality, could shake Brecht's confidence. He preferred silence about the vast crimes of the Bolsheviks, including the murders of his friends and translators, to admitting that his god had failed... The American socialist Sidney Hook put the case for indifference best after Brecht came to dinner in Manhattan in the mid-Thirties. Stalin was forcing thousands of Soviet communists to confess to fantastic crimes, and Hook asked Brecht what he thought of the show trials. It was at this point that he said in words I have never forgotten, 'As for them, the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot.' I was so taken aback that I thought I had misheard him."

And on the other:

"It's strange how forgiving we are of artists who were involved with Hitler's Third Reich. In 1933, Goebbels appointed the composer Richard Strauss - whose dreamily decadent operas Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier remain central to any contemporary opera house's repertoire - president of the Reichsmusikkammer, the state music bureau. In 1936, Strauss composed the Olympic Hymn for the infamous summer games and befriended some high-ranking Nazis.

He was probably politically naive. He may have been acting to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law; and he refused to have the name of his friend, the Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig, removed from the playbill of his opera Die Schweigsame Frau. This, it seems, is now enough to redeem Strauss the man... The early Brecht was a wild, anarchic poet. Productions of his 1928 Threepenny Opera often struggle to find in it a consistent political line... For a short time in the 1930s, as German society became more divided, Brecht's plays took a decidedly Leninist turn. His play The Mother shows a working-class woman struggling to reconcile individual needs with the demands of a political cause. It's a beautiful, moving piece, painfully ignorant of the horrors of Stalinism that were to follow. How strange that this play is considered beyond the pale in Britain and no longer performed - yet the Economist can declare, in 2003, that Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl's film of the 1934 Nuremberg rally, marks her out as "the greatest female film-maker of the 20th century".

Brecht was very clear about one thing: his resistance to fascism. Before the Nazis came to power, Hitler's brownshirts were disrupting performances of Brecht and Weill's 1930 opera Mahagonny, claiming that it brought the contamination of black and Jewish musical influences into the German opera house. Brecht dedicated the next 15 years of his writing - plays, film scripts, poetry - to the anti-fascist cause."

I'm not really sure why the second excerpt believes an analogy between Strauss and Brecht to be especially helpful. His complicity with Nazism is rather better documented and more frequently discussed than the above article might suggest, but it is nonetheless rather improbable to imply that Strauss was a fascist composer in the same way that Brecht was a communist writer. A better analogy might have been Hamsun, Celine or Pound, but then the issue of their engagement with Nazism is equally well known and all three faced legal reprisals for their views during their lifetime. The point about Riefenstahl also seems misplaced (although there is a good case to be made that her treatment after the second world war probably was too lenient), particularly given that an especially harsh biography of her involvement with the Nazis was only published a few years ago. Worst of all is the insinuation that Brecht's opposition to Nazism exculpates his support for the other great totalitarianism of the twentieth century. While there's certainly no reason to single Brecht out for more criticism of his art or politics than Pound or Hamsun, there is a good case to be made that communist writers have only comparatively had their political commitments subjected to the same scrutiny that writers associated with fascism did long ago.

Labels: , ,

posted by Richard 2:17 PM

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Terry Eagleton has been reviewing a history of fascism. Much of what he says sounds reasonable, though I'm a little inclined to think that if fascism is to be defined, historical and political definitions are somewhat limited; Umberto Eco's typology of an ur-fascism has always struck me as a more convincing concept. On the whole though, I'm more struck by the observation that ends the review:

"Liberal capitalist nations are becoming more authoritarian under the threat of terrorist attacks, while societies which were already authoritarian, such as China, are turning capitalist. The two systems are meeting each other, so to speak, coming the other way. Meanwhile, the globe is well furnished with capitalist set-ups that were never liberal in the first place, as well as with regimes whose former colonial proprietors exported market forces to their shores while forgetting to include democratic institutions in the cargo. The assumption that the free market and political democracy go naturally together was always pretty dubious, and fascism is one dramatic refutation of it."

I'm a little surprised that anyone should imagine free markets and liberal democracy to be necessarily contingent. Though the theory that argues for such a connection is far from being unreasonable (the notion being that only a framework of civil rights are capable of guaranteeing the conditions for capitalism, e.g. by safeguarding property rights), one need surely only consider the respective economic fates of Weimar Germany and Hitler's Germany to think twice about that. Alternatively, one might consider the economic fates of China and post-communist Russia (particularly now that economic confidence and an increasingly authoritarian regime in the Kremlin appear to be hand in glove with one another).

Labels: ,

posted by Richard 7:40 PM

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

An interesting piece on the collapse of European democracies in the nineteen thirties and Latin American democracies in the nineteen seventies, criticising the polarisation thesis;

"The theory of "polarization" described a vicious circle: An economic crisis drives voters toward parties of the extreme left or right, and low-level political violence breaks out. In the next election cycle, still more voters choose extremist parties, partly out of fear of the "other side's" extremists. As centrist parties weaken and the ground for political compromise vanishes, democracy collapses and the state is seized by one or another extremist faction... (However) In almost all instances, extremist parties did not actually capture the loyalty of very many voters. And in almost all cases, the great majority of the population remained committed to democracy even during times of severe recession and popular unrest. "

As an example, 81% of the vote in Uruguay's elections two years before a coup went to the two main political parties. At the same time, a poll found that 79% of the population supported democracy even with disorder to an ordered military society (though I might be inclined to suspect that the remaining twenty percent might qualify as a sufficient tipping point, rather than invalidating the thesis concerning polarisation). In particular, the note concerning networks of churches, unions, and fraternal organizations in Germany and Austria allowing Nazism to be quickly disseminated, in contrast to the view that "civil society" acts as a barrier against fascism, is well made. One might also note the collusion of the church with the Franco regime and the general role of the church in Latin caciquism.

Labels: ,

posted by Richard 8:44 PM