“Art is not a mirror held up to reality
but a hammer with which to shape it.”
― Bertolt Brecht
Let’s see… it started with me wanting to do some writing and not having any ideas… so I pulled a three card spread from my edition of Todd Alcott’s Pulp Tarot.
It came up King of Pentacles, The Hermit, and Justice.
Some research, some reading, and I ended up looking into Bertolt Brecht and, specifically, one poem.
I wish I spoke German – the various translations I looked at were very different – I think we are missing a lot in translation – but it is still something to read and think about.
Brecht ‘To Those Who Follow in Our Wake
Truly, I live in dark times! An artless word is foolish. A smooth forehead Points to insensitivity. He who laughs Has not yet received The terrible news.
What times are these, in which A conversation about trees is almost a crime For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing! And he who walks quietly across the street, Passes out of the reach of his friends Who are in danger?
It is true: I work for a living But, believe me, that is a coincidence. Nothing That I do gives me the right to eat my fill. By chance I have been spared. (If my luck does not hold, I am lost.)
They tell me: eat and drink. Be glad to be among the haves! But how can I eat and drink When I take what I eat from the starving And those who thirst do not have my glass of water? And yet I eat and drink.
I would happily be wise. The old books teach us what wisdom is: To retreat from the strife of the world To live out the brief time that is your lot Without fear To make your way without violence To repay evil with good – The wise do not seek to satisfy their desires, But to forget them. But I cannot heed this: Truly I live in dark times!
I came into the cities in a time of disorder As hunger reigned. I came among men in a time of turmoil And I rose up with them. And so passed The time given to me on earth.
I ate my food between slaughters. I laid down to sleep among murderers. I tended to love with abandon. I looked upon nature with impatience. And so passed The time given to me on earth.
In my time streets led into a swamp. My language betrayed me to the slaughterer. There was little I could do. But without me The rulers sat more securely, or so I hoped. And so passed The time given to me on earth.
The powers were so limited. The goal Lay far in the distance It could clearly be seen although even I Could hardly hope to reach it. And so passed The time given to me on earth.
You, who shall resurface following the flood In which we have perished, Contemplate – When you speak of our weaknesses, Also the dark time That you have escaped.
For we went forth, changing our country more frequently than our shoes Through the class warfare, despairing That there was only injustice and no outrage.
And yet we knew: Even the hatred of squalor Distorts one’s features. Even anger against injustice Makes the voice grow hoarse. We Who wished to lay the foundation for gentleness Could not ourselves be gentle.
But you, when at last the time comes That man can aid his fellow man, Should think upon us With leniency.
–Bertolt Brecht, An die Nachgeborenen first published in Svendborger Gedichte (1939) in: Gesammelte Werke, vol. 4, pp. 722-25 (1967)(S.H. transl.)