Monday, 28 September 2015
What kind of morality does Die Maßnahme (1930-1) teach us?
As indicated by its designation as a ‘Lehrstück’, Die Maßnahme is a play intimately concerned with ‘teaching’ on various levels, and its structure reflects Brecht’s preoccupation with imparting a message. On one layer of the play the Agitatoren and the Junge Genosse discuss the importance of what one can learn from the classic tenets of Marxism and how they are applicable to the present situation in which they find themselves. This narrative is being ‘represented’ in theatrical form, however, to the Kontrollchor as a means of justifying a decision which the Agitatoren took in their past but in a past we are not shown until the end of the play; here, too, morality and one’s ability to learn from a situation are foremost in the discussion. The third layer is permeated with a similar didacticism and that of course is Brecht’s didacticism as author, in that he wishes to propagandise a certain kind of morality within his play and convince the audience of its necessity. The same ‘morality’ or code is strongly present in all three, and arguably has three discernible traits: a religiously fanatic devotion to the cause and to the message of the Party; the necessity of individual subjugation and the coterminous distrust of bourgeois morals; and a rational practicality that does not allow emotions or orthodox Christian morals to obstruct a vision of ‘what is to be done’ – in Lenin’s own words.
The first of these tenets is devotion. The play is soaked in moral absolutism, much as kings were believed to have divine rights or popes seen as infallible, but it is an absolutism for the 20th century – an absolute faith in the needs of the proletariat as represented by the disciplined, ordered ranks of party revolutionaries. As Lenin says, ‘unsere Sittlichkeit leiten wir aus den Interessen des proletarischen Klassenkampfes ab’ – morality must arise from the true ‘Communist ideal’. A communist must be dedicated: ‘wer für den Kommunismus kämpft, hat von allen Tugenden nur eine: daß er für den Kommunismus kämpft’. The zeal with which this is pursued, in reality and in Brecht’s play, warrants comparisons with religious fanaticism. The individual cannot make their choices based on their own whims, but on the choices of the party – as is expressed in the tight dichotomies of the passage ‘wer für den Kommunismus kämpft, der muß kämpfen können und nicht kämpfen; die Wahrheit sagen und die Wahrheit nicht sagen; Dienste erweisen und Deinste verweigen… usw’. Brecht uses the language of opposites to convey that a true servant of the party must be able to hold conflicting opinions or carry out conflicting actions at the same time – because if the party wills it, then they cannot be conflicting. The morality of the all-pervasive party machine is all: ‘gehe nicht ohne uns den richtigen Weg; ohne uns ist er der falscheste’. As before this language seems paradoxical, but expresses a belief that even when an action appears wrong, it can only ever be right if the party has expressed it.
Much of the language throughout illustrates the religious aspect of Brecht’s morality. When asked what the greatest influence on his writing was, he replied: ‘sie werden lachen: die Bibel’, and the cadences of the Protestantism with which he became familiar in his youth echo throughout Die Maßnahme. Many terms are emotively charged with the concepts of right and wrong, much as in Christianity: ‘das Richtige’, ‘das Falsche’. Various phrases are repeated throughout the play with the weighty significance of a decades-old religious ritual – particularly the three-part ‘Abc des Kommunismus’ which occurs again and again but most especially in scene 6. The idea that moral ‘redemption’ of a kind is possible from learning through one’s mistakes is also one borrowed from Christianity (‘klug ist nicht, der keine Fehler macht, sondern klug ist, der sie schnell zu verbessern versteht’; the ‘clever is he’ construction is distinctly biblical). ‘Im Namen der Partei’ replaces ‘in Gottes Namen’ but is an equally sacred, or here still more sacred, invocation. The final scene sees not a ‘Vergrabung’, perhaps the more obvious word choice, but a ‘Grablegung’, with its overtones of ‘Die Grablegung Christi’. Whether or not it was intentional on Brecht’s part, the (in our minds uncomfortable) omniscience and omnipresence of the party also calls to mind certain phrases of the Qur’an – ‘in deinem Anzug steckt sie, Genosse, und denkt in deinem Kopf’ has echoes with the famous sutra ‘Allah is closer to him [man] than his jugular vein’. Through this web of associations Brecht ensures we see the devotion which is required to this moral code, a blind faith in the assertions of the party machine, never challenging and never questioning.
This links well to the second tenet, which is the necessary subjugation of the individual. If the party is all, it follows that an individual must become nothing (indeed, literally nothing: in one of the play’s most poetic phrases, we hear that revolutionaries must be ‘leere Blätter, auf welche die Revolution ihre Anweisung schreibt’). There can be no factionalism – indeed, ‘Einverständnis’ is crucial. What is required is in Knopf’s words the ‘Einverständnis des Einzelnen mit den Ansprüchen der Gemeinschaft bis zur Selbstaufgabe’. Any deviation will risk the mission and ‘gefährdet die Existenz des Kollektivs’. The individual must sacrifice their very identity to a suprapersonal cause, such that their identity is permanently obliterated. This self-negation comes up in the play in a very theatrical sense, in that the ‘vier Agitatoren’ and the Junge Genosse are required to undertake an ‘Auslöschung’ by putting on masks and pretending to be Chinese. It may be an entirely theatrical artifice, but it does illustrate the seriousness with which one has to give up one’s own convictions, even in this instance one’s own appearance, for the sake of the struggle against injustice. They must become who the party wants them to be.
The conflict of the play, and the way in which Brecht illustrates how significant this subjugation has to be, arises from the slow movement of the Junge Genosse towards a rejection of this ‘Einverständnis’, this acquiescence. Solidarity and collectivism is all (‘unser Mitgefühl ist euch sicher’, the Kontrollchor assures the Agitatoren) which grants the maverick no concessions. The spontaneity of the individual’s wants, of his individual eagerness, must be put aside in favour of the party line. In placing his own bourgeois code of honour above the party line, by saying to the merchant ‘ich kann nicht mit Ihnen essen’, the Junge Genosse risks the success of the mission – and that is of course unforgivable. This is perhaps set out most clearly in scene 6, in which we read in a set of couplets that ‘denn der einzelne hat zwei Augen/die Partei hat tausend Augen/die Partei sieht sieben Staaten/der einzelne sieht eine Stadt… usw’. The weaknesses of individuals are to be utterly consumed within the strong party machine of which they form a part. (Although the play is also aimed at bourgeois and capitalist morals, such as in the decadent jazz of the Handler’s ‘Song von der Ware’ and his unbridled exploitation of the Kulis, it is the danger of individualism from within with which Brecht seems most concerned – just as in the political context of his own day the split between the Communist Party and the SDP was arguably more bitter than between the Communists and the far right.)
The demotion of the individual from the key player in the drama is achieved most interestingly through the play’s structure. Despite his ubiquitous, all-important role, the Junge Genosse never appears in the play but is only mediated through the party cell’s representation of events. In other words, he has completely lost his agency, and this is further indication that morality must never centre around the individual. The structural precedence is granted to the many rather than the one: in the moment Brecht returns to the traditional chorus of Greek tragedy, the subsequent notion of the protagonist is dead.
The third lesson of this ‘Lehrstück’ is that one must place rationality above emotion. Brecht’s faith in a scientific view of the world colours the play significantly. This is drama for our age and society, for the technological world, and as such it propagandizes a morality that suits the world as we know it. All moral questions need to be approached logically and pragmatically. The Agitatoren evaluate every situation calmly (‘wir sahen klar seine Schwäche, aber wir brauchten ihm noch’), much as the Kontrollchor in turn evaluates their decision. The title of Scene 7 contains the scientific word ‘Analyse’, in which the Agitatoren calmly debate the relative merits of shooting their comrade. Such vocabulary occurs throughout the work in varying forms – the discipline of the party movement (‘geordnet sind die Reihen der Kämpfer auch dort’), the classics ‘sprechen von Methoden’; and humans are often seen as an animal species rather than as mankind (‘die Mäuler warten auf das Essen’; the Kulis are cheaper even than an ox; the animalistic ‘Fressen’ is used rather than ‘Essen’ on one occasion; and in scene 8 humans are urged to be considerate to their neighbour because it’s what animals do, rather than the other way around).
From the opening the Junge Genosse has been given to emotive language based on bourgeois humanism and ethics that obstruct the march of revolution, and of course eventually feelings and reason must come into conflict. Brecht comes down strongly in favour of the latter – ‘nicht das Gefühl, sondern mehr an die Ratio des Zuschauers appelliert’, he said of his own style of theatre. The received wisdom of Christian morality is to be rejected in favour of stark pragmatism (‘das Bruch mit allem, was gestern noch galt’ – Knopf). The Junge Genosse’s emotive terms ‘Mitleid’, ‘Gerechtigkeit’, ‘Ehre’, ‘denn der Mensch, der lebendige, brüllt’, and ‘Menschliche’, are only obstructive and hindering. Morals must of course be tested against practice, against ‘Wirklichkeit’. Whatever the classics say, what is the best moral course of action for the many in the heat of the moment? This utilitarian pragmatism resonates most strongly in the conclusion of the play, particularly in the chilling line ‘nicht ihr spracht ihm das Urteil, sondern die Wirklichkeit’. Reality gave him his sentence; it was what had to be done.
Though the play may be an unequivocal rallying cry for rationality, collectivism and devotion, it is possible that there are some subtle hints of sympathy for the Junge Genosse in this play; and these may complicate the moral compass somewhat. The passion with which he observes the whipping scene or states ‘denn der Mensch, der lebendige, brüllt’ is surely needed for a revolutionary attitude to form in the first place: ‘Brecht could see clearly enough at the time that without passionate concern for the victims of injustice there will be no revolution’ (Knopf). Furthermore, the 1931 Verfassung of the text adds the words ‘Zorn’ and ‘Empörung’ into an additional final speech of the Kontrollchor’s, as though there was something righteous and correct about the Junge Genosse’s outrage. And yet, as is stated in the first scene, ‘er wollte das Richtige und tat das Falsche’. The dichotomy between thought and action, and the necessity of scientific precision in all that one does, is here starkly expressed. However laudable the young man’s convictions may have been, Brecht seems to be saying, he ought to have stuck to what he was told to do.
Ultimately whether the play teaches ‘us’ as a 21st century audience is debatable; with our hindsight of the horrors of the 20th century we may find the play’s core message oppressive and abhorrent. But the morality it wishes to impart, and which could have had more of an effect in the landscape of the 1930s, is nonetheless clear to any audience. Brecht leaves little room for manoeuvre in this play: the devotion, the self-subjugation, and the scientific rationalism are all vital if the change he deems necessary is to come about, and that is, in his view, the only moral path worth following any more.