Brecht: How fortunate the man with none

There is something to be said for iterations on themes. It makes it hard to miss the point, and even those who do not pay close attention get a chance to catch up. Those who heard it the first time now know it even more, and those who now hear it for the first time are now up to speed. As a method of getting everyone on the same page, iteration is hard to surpass.

If it were sufficient to say something once, a whole host of problems would have been solved right after the Sermon on the Mount. Clearly, there is still work to be done.

Brecht iterates on the same theme four times, using four examples to drive home his point. Three of these are of historical character, and anyone familiar with the Ancients will know both their virtues and their fate. The last example is you as a reader, supposing that you are a virtuous person and see yourself as such. The implication being that you share the same situation as these great persons of the past.

In each case, he ends with the titular phrase “how fortunate the man with none”, emphasizing the distance between then and now. It is a striking phrase, at once both acknowledging and rejecting virtue as a thing to strive for; virtue is what brings ruin to the invoked Ancients, even in their own times. Solomon’s wisdom didn’t help much in the end; Caesar’s courage brought him to an abrupt end; and Socrates’ honesty didn’t match his fate. How much better would it have been had they been just a tad less of themselves, and thus able to save themselves from themselves?

A direct reader might leap to the interpretation that this is the right and proper thing to do – renounce outdated virtues and morals in favor of pragmatic efficiency. To be sure, modern society confronts its citizens with many situations where the “right” thing to do is to not care too much or apply too much empathy. Whether it be the beggar in the street, the loud noises and screams from the couple living upstairs or the ever present temptation to be less than honest in an attempt to get a bureaucratic edge – the act of doing the right thing will more often than not turn out to be counterproductive to whatever it is you are doing, or get you into trouble you could have easily avoided. There is the right and moral thing to do, and there is the right and efficient thing to do, and every time you hastily pass by a beggar or ignore yet another upstairs ruckus, you have made a choice between the two.

Brecht is not in the business of making you feel bad about this choice. Feeling bad is not the proper revolutionary spirit. Rather, the proper stance towards this dilemma is to acknowledge it as the endemic and eternal moral condition of modernity: you will always face this choice, even if you do the right thing. Even if you work yourself to exhaustion to make the (or your) world a better place, the same standoff between virtue and pragmatism will inevitably play itself out. The only difference being that you are now tired and in a position to think: how fortunate are those who do not have to do what you do. How fortunate are those who can not care.

This brings into play the distinction between alienation and unease. Being made uneasy when confronted with these choices is only natural – seeing others suffer should never not make one uneasy. Alienation, on the other hand, means that you do not recognize yourself in the situation that you are actually in. Neither is a particularly comfortable state of mind, but the difference lies in the directness with which one confronts matters. Unease is here and now; alienation is not.

A person has to be alienated in order to function in a modern society. Confronting the reality of the situation without filters lead to madness. Do not investigate too closely where your food, clothes or wealth come from, and always be prepared to build thick walls against the suffering at the source of these should you ever find out. The unease will eat you alive otherwise, and possibly others with you.

The proper stance towards this is to acknowledge that the world came into being before we did, and that we are not responsible for putting it in place. But we are also not helpless automatons bound by the forces of determinism, unable to make moral choices for ourselves. We have to alienate ourselves from our alienation, as it were, and reaffirm some semblance of right and virtue in the midst of all this modern pragmatic efficiency. We cannot save the world all by ourselves, but this is not a reason to not do anything at all. We are still human.

When Brecht says “how fortunate the man with none”, he says it to invoke a subject who has given up on their humanity, who just plays along in order to get by. He says it four times, three times to invoke history, one time to invoke you. The hope being that you haven’t given up your humanity just yet, and that you choose to not turn into an efficient clerk organizing train timetables without thinking too much about either cargo or destinations. That you can resist the path of least resistance, the one which simply follows orders.

It is a hope that bears further iterations. Despite the unease.

Brecht: How fortunate the man with none

Green: All Dressed Up

What does it mean to remember a time period? Which parts are deemed worthy of remembering, empathizing and explicating? Which parts, reversely, are deemed appropriate to leave implicit, gloss over, not quite mention in the official annals? Who gets to make the choices as to which are which?

More specifically, what does it mean to remember a decade? What goes in to a phrase like “the sixties”, and other phrases associated with it? What happens when a whole period of time is suddenly defined as something, and remembered as thus?

The sixties has a certain image to it. Flower power, the hippie trail, swinging London – without going into specifics, these words alone are enough to conjure a specific set of images into your head. You can visualize the fashion, muse the music and ponder the politics, by feat of association alone. The remembrance is at once both instant and distant. You “remember” the sixties, but odds are what you remember is as generic as the presentation in this paragraph. Especially – crucially – if you were not born then.

This image lingers in the public consciousness, and in some ways inform our present. The phrase “sex, drugs and rock & roll” condenses many of the notions and conceptions inherited from the sixties into a snappy shorthand, and it is not hard to see why. Sex was very much a topic of discussion, then as now. Drugs (and the war on them) are ever present. And while disco might have had a good run, rock is still around and rolling. If you wanted to conduct an analysis of the present cultural setting, using these three things as starting points would not be the worst way to go about it.

Jonathon Green uses three related notions as an organizing principle in All Dressed Up. While the words “dope”, “revolution” and “fucking in the streets” are not strictly identical to those in the iconic phrase, they do serve the same general purpose of shorthanding the same tendencies. Each word connotes a different aspect of the decade, and he uses them to present and make comprehensible the somewhat less glamorous intricacies of the actually existing sixties. Intricacies that are easily forgotten when the myth of the sixties is so readily available and – more to the point – commercially viable.

Green does not give a historical account of the sixties in the sense that every part is related to every other part in a synthetic whole. Rather, he presents each part as an entity unto itself. Not because it is not possible to connect the dots, as it were, but because of his more overall aim: to convey that the sixties was not one singular thing (or three), but many things that took place at the same time, and that any proper understanding of the decade needs to take this into account. There is no great chain of historical being – this one thing necessitated another thing which in turn necessitated another and so forth. Rather, there are many things at the same time, sometimes working together, sometimes clashing, most of the time having rather indirect effects on each other.

The sum of such a presentation is greater than the sum of its parts. It presents the sixties as a complex, complicated, many-faceted jumble of actors working more on momentum than a sense of manifesting destiny. History had not yet congealed into what it turned out to be. Things were very much like they are now: we don’t know what is going to happen, but there are cool people doing cool things near us, and we can join them in their doings. Not because we will inevitably contribute to what is to come, but because we are genuinely interested in the present.

Green manages to combine a sense of being present with the power of hindsight. Writing about the sixties in the nineties inevitably means knowing how things turned out. This inevitable knowledge always tempts to transform into a knowledge that the march from then to now was equally inevitable. Green, however, aims to show that nothing followed inevitably from the sixties, and that all changes the decade brought with it – social, political, cultural – were as much due to uncertainty as anything else. There certainly were sex, drugs and rock & roll, but these in no way necessarily correspond to what you think of when the shorthand is invoked.

To say that Green writes in reaction to Thatcher’s catchphrase “there is no alternative” would not be wrong. But he also writes to set the decade straight, as it were – to dispel the notion that the sixties were some mythical age where the normal trends and forces of history were somehow put aside, and that the proper order was only restored with great efforts afterwards (as Thatcher, among others, would have it). Paradoxically, his presentation of each individual entity in its singularity serves to reinforce just how historically situated they were, and how these same trends and forces are acting upon us even now.

All Dressed Up serves both as a primer on the sixties, and as a reminder that history is not just something that happened to other people. History is also something you are a part of making, and something that is used to persuade you that some things are more inevitable than others.

Nothing is inevitable until you make it so. Not even history.

Green: All Dressed Up