A RESPONSE TO ONE OF BERTOLT BRECHT’S FIVE DIFFICULTIES TO WRITING THE TRUTH
from Bertolt Brecht’s Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties
2. The Keenness to Recognize the Truth
First of all we strike trouble in determining what truth is worth telling. For example, before the eyes of the whole world one great civilized nation after the other falls into barbarism. Moreover, everyone knows that the domestic war which is being waged by the most ghastly methods can at any moment be converted into a foreign war which may well leave our continent a heap of ruins. This, undoubtedly, is one truth, but there are others. Thus, for example, it is not untrue that chairs have seats and that rain falls downward. Many poets write truths of this sort. They are like a painter adorning the walls of a sinking ship with a still life. Our first difficulty does not trouble them and their consciences are clear. Those in power cannot corrupt them, but neither are they disturbed by the cries of the oppressed; they go on painting. The senselessness of their behavior engenders in them a “profound” pessimism which they sell at good prices; yet such pessimism would be more fitting in one who observes these masters and their sales. At the same time it is not easy to realize that their truths are truths about chairs or rain; they usually sound like truths about important things. But on closer examination it is possible to see that they say merely: a chair is a chair; and: no one can prevent the rain from falling down.
First it should be noted that this piece by Brecht was written in 1935, four years before the begin of World War II. But the generalizations made, and the clarifications later in the essay, suggest that although this essay is a response to the climate of a particular country at a particular time, are universal. Truth is after all, non-specific.
It is Brecht’s diatribe against the poet, the ones who, “are like a painter adorning the walls of a sinking ship with a still life” I find most difficult to digest. It is my belief that those who seek do not find only hope, and often when they do find hope, they find despair. Both hope and despair. or what is good and what is bad, are in complex relation to one another. For example the recent story of the homeless man given boots in New York City. As readers and therefore participants of that story, we want that story to exist as clarity for or the delineation of what is good and what is bad. And so we say that the police officer who gave the homeless man the boots is good and the good helped one in need. And being in need and neglected is bad. And we say the homeless man is neglected and oppressed, pure and innocent, and a personification of what we hope for: that we are worthy of someone’s graciousness because we are also pure and innocent. But then we find, because we cannot leave well enough alone and our appetites are insatiable, that he isn’t homeless and he didn’t exactly love the attention the media bestowed. We consider him dishonest. We consider him less than innocent. We consider him bad. This is confusing and stands in contention to what we wanted to believe about good and bad and charity. He is no longer innocent or wholly good, he is in complex relation internally just like us all to what is good and what is bad. He is hopeful and disparaging at the same time. And if he isn’t one or the other, good or bad, but both (and if those most in need are seemingly in a concise conflict as well) then we certainly aren’t wholly good either. It is then easy to loathe the homeless man.
If this quest for truth and consilience leaves us only confused, because we sought out black and white and instead found gray, and if we set out to find hope and we look to ourselves for that hope and we find it then we can celebrate. We can paint a beautiful picture on the walls of a sinking ship. We can celebrate mystery. Because although we might not have steered the ship into the rocks, we are a passenger. And when the ship sinks, we sink with it. And in the face of hopelessness sometimes the best thing to do is hope, and remind ourselves that the ugly truth is not in fact the only truth and it does not deter our pursuit of what is true. Because what is beautiful is not contingent upon us finding it. Truth left alone, even at the bottom of the sea amidst the wreckage, is still beautiful.