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Understanding Brecht Paperback – 1 Apr 1977

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Paperback, 1 Apr 1977
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--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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"A small bomb of ideas and vital argument." -- Guardian "If the killing of Lorca was Fascism's first crime against literature, Benjamin's death was undoubtedly the second." - The Listener "Reading Walter Benjamin's Understanding Brecht is like stumbling on a heap of gold that has been buried in a coal cellar for more than 30 years." - New Society "He does not abolish the distance between us and Leskov, or Brecht, or Kafka; he brings it to life." -- Times Higher Education Supplement "Walter Benjamin is the most important German aesthetician and literary critic of this century." - George Steiner --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

About the Author

Walter Benjamin was born in Germany in 1892 and died in Spain in 1940. he studied philosophy and literature in Berlin, Freiberg, Munich and Bern. After the First World War he worked as a freelance critic and translator, notably of Baudelaire and Proust. He moved to Paris to escape the Nazi take-over and committed suicide in September 1940 whilst attempting to escape from Occupied France to Spain. He was a friend of figures such as Theodor Adorno, Bertolt Brecht, Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem. His other books include Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (1968), Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (1978), Moscow Diary (1986) and, published by Verso, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism (1973), The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1977) and One-Way Street (1979). For biographical details, see Walter Benjamin. A Biography by Momme Broderson (Verso 1996). --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Important Benjamin 7 April 2006
By Douglas Robinson - Published on
Format: Paperback
This is an invaluable collection of essays and diary entries that sheds as much light on Benjamin himself as it does on his truculent and difficult friend Brecht. Another way of putting that is that the Brecht this book sheds light on is Benjamin's Brecht, who is also, due to the high esteem we hold Benjamin in, a Brecht with a good deal of currency in the field today. Brigid Doherty, for example, in "Test and Gestus in Brecht and Benjamin" (MLN 115.3 (2000): 442-81), explores the Benjaminian Brecht (and perhaps the Brechtian Benjamin) in persuasive and useful ways:

"Interruption, as we have seen, is also the epic theater's technique for representing Gesten and making them quotable. 'The more frequently we interrupt someone engaged in an action, the more gestures we obtain. Hence the interrupting of action is one of the principal concerns of epic theater' [a quotation from this edition of Benjamin on Brecht, p. 3]. In epic theater, that mode of interruption resembles techniques of photographic representation employed in psychotechnical testing. Interruption fixes, as if cinematographically, the 'strict, frame-like enclosure of each element of a Haltung (i.e., each gesture)' (UB 3; GS II.2, 521). The frames of the gesture are like the frames of a strip of film, and hence they are also like the projections that hovered behind the action in the 1931 production of Mann ist Mann, which was designed by Caspar Neher. Those projections recapitulated elements of the action in telegraphic prose and, you will recall, in arithmetic. In epic theater, projections are gestic; they function as interruptions, and their own form is punctuated either paratactically or mathematically. Seen that way, the projections call to mind Benjamin's likening of the epic actor's presentation of quotable gestures to the setting of type for emphasis: 'he must be able to space [sperren] his gestures as the compositor spaces words' (UB 11; GS II.2, 529). That metaphor in turn recalls Brecht's assertion of the need for 'footnotes' in dramatic writing, as well as his emphasis on the writer's desire to emulate the apparatus, a point I have said we should understand in relation to Benjamin's claims about the 'training regimen' of Hemingway's prose, and hence in relation to his thoughts on Haltung as the interrupted action of a body in motion. All of which underscore the mechanical aspects of writing, understood in terms of a text's capacity to represent Gesten" (Doherty 474-75).

Doherty has here selected from the first version of "What Is Epic Theatre?"--the first essay in Benjamin's book--some of the most strongly structuralizing of Benjamin's interpretations of Brecht, making it seem as if for Benjamin epic theater was largely an abstract matter of forms or frames or spacings, rather than, say, a series of complex interactions. This is not entirely accurate: Benjamin does in passing recognize the importance to epic theater of the various relationships "between stage and public, text and performance, producer and actors"--"For the stage, the public is no longer a collection of hypnotized test subjects, but an assembly of interested persons whose demands it must satisfy" (2)--and indeed Doherty's first quotation, from page 3 of that essay, seems to take us to a rehearsal, where Brecht is pushing his actors to complicate their gestic movements: "The more frequently we interrupt someone engaged in an action, the more gestures we obtain. Hence the interrupting of action is one of the principal concerns of epic theater." But that "we" is not Brecht running a rehearsal but people in general, indeed a kind of generalized or universalized principle of human behavior disguised rhetorically as an interactive intervention. And in any case Benjamin's emphasis on the quantification of interruptions and gestures ("The more frequently we interrupt someone engaged in an action, the more gestures we obtain") comes out of his remarks just previous on the framing of the gesture ("it has a definable beginning and a definable end ... this strict, frame-like, enclosed nature of each moment of an attitude ...," 3), which in turn set up his discussion of the serial spatialization of gesticity, the likening of interruptions or "haltings" to cinematic frames on a strip of celluloid, "punctuated either paratactically or mathematically," or to typesetting, and thus to "the mechanical aspects of writing." Hence also, presumably, the temptation to use the literary text of Mann ist Mann to represent the estranging effect of the Brechtian Gestus (Benjamin 2-3, 8-9, 12-13): for a depersonalizing or desomatizing critique, the truest form of any theatrical or literary effect is one that has been abstracted out of the realm of human interaction.

And this is largely what Benjamin gives us of Brecht: a Brecht removed from the context he most insistently inhabited, the theater, the interaction between actors and audience, the impact of actor bodies on audience bodies and minds. Benjamin is brilliant, of course, but his is the brilliance of the study, the text, the abstract structure, and that is largely what he finds in Brecht as well. If you're a depersonalizing poststructuralist or a structuralist Marxist like Fredric Jameson (see his Brecht and Method), you'll find this book indispensable. If you're doing performance studies or working in the theater and are mostly interested in Brecht's thoughts on estranging gestic acting styles, you may want to give this book a pass, and read John Willett's superb collection from 1964, Brecht on Theatre.
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