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6—History Lessons and Brecht's The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar
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The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar

The "demythologization of Caesar" should not be seen as the primary goal of Brecht's novel but as a means to an end.[10] The overturning of the popular


image of the "great personality" as the moving force of history was a radical undertaking in the years 1938–1939. Adolf Hitler was being taken more and more seriously as a world leader. The Caesar fragment attacks the Fascist strategy in two ways: first, by erasing the grandeur of the great personality as the form-giving element in history, and second, by formally subverting the narrative form given to history that supports such a view. The importance of the cult of a fatherlike leader to Fascist movements is quite clear. But it must also be understood that the creation of such an image for consumption by large numbers of people is an aesthetic undertaking. There is a great deal of accuracy in Syberberg's metaphor of Hitler, Goebbels et al. as artists—filmmakers "staging" World War II as a background for the role they continue to play as cultural commodities.[11] Brecht sought to undermine this strategy of transmitting the great personality through the form of his novel. He did not seek merely to tarnish Caesar's image but to expose the process of creating such an image.

Brecht's approach to Caesar was for this very reason as political in form as in content. Pessimism and isolation made the work more difficult and ultimately led to its abandonment. Harro Müller sees the pessimism as the logical consequence of Brecht's rigorous Marxist analysis, while Herbert Claas sees a contemporary connection to Brecht's dilemma in the persisting depoliticization of the working class.[12] Here, too, we see the dilemma of post-1968 Europe resonate with Brecht's situation. Clearly, the novel was written for an audience—German workers conscious of their own interests—that did not exist or could not be reached. Only after Books I through III of the novel had been shown to some German workers was Brecht encouraged enough to go on. "They understood everything, even the details."[13] The audience easiest to reach was not sympathetic. Ten months earlier Brecht had noted, "Benjamin and Sternberg, very highly qualified intellectuals, didn't understand it and urgently suggested including more human interest, more of the old novel!"[14] To follow this advice would have meant a return to psychology and a single narrative line, which gives the impression of inevitability. For Brecht, the opposite was most important, as he noted: "Writing 'Caesar,' I have just now discovered that I must not believe for a moment that it had to turn out as it did."[15]

To "portray" Caesar without making history seem to follow an inevitable course is thus as much a formal problem as a question of content. "More of the old novel" would mean a return to mimesis, which implies just such an inevitability. In Müller's words, "Mimetic theory therefore means an end to the dialectical relationship of consciousness and its object, thus negating consciousness as a determining factor in reality."[16] Brecht's formal experiment in the novel is aimed at maintaining the dialectical interplay of consciousness and its object. To this end, he splits the points of view of the narrative, giving none of them a privileged position where the "truth of Caesar" as a personality is concerned.

Klaus-Detlef Müller places the structure of the Caesar fragment in the context of a general strategy of historicization and historical critique. In this


view, the novel passes through three stages of consciousness. First is the assumption of the narrator at the outset that history is the work of individuals and that a biography of Caesar is thus an adequate approach. The second step is for this assumption to be placed in doubt by the facts. The information and opinions obtained by the narrator from people he interviews or from the diary of Caesar's secretary, Rarus, do not add up to a unified, heroic view of Caesar's personality. Even the "progress" Caesar represents is invisible in much of this testimony. The third step, then, is the application of a materialist critique to this confusing information, suggesting that economic processes, not personalities, determine the laws of history.[17] Müller is certainly right in asserting that these steps are present in the novel, but he assumes too great a degree of homogenization in their formal presentation. Part of the problem is also the fact that Brecht's experiment was never completed, and one must at least speculate on the internal and external reasons for this.

The central experiment in the Caesar novel, and perhaps also a barrier to its completion, is that the most naïve and conventional narrative is that of the framing story. This narrative, along with the narrator's assumptions, cannot remain a "framing" structure, because the novel's strategy as a whole destroys it. To phrase it in accordance with Müller's scheme, the narrator embodies the first and second steps of consciousness, but he is not capable of moving on to the third. To have him "see the light" after his assumptions have been disputed by fact would be to return to a conventional mimetic narrative. His enlightenment would have to be somehow present in potential from the beginning, perhaps by virtue of his inquisitive nature. Brecht's narrator, however, does not wish to have his assumptions challenged, and throughout the novel these challenges remain external to him and external to his narrative as well. Here lies both the genius and the failure of Brecht's experiment.

The novel is divided into four books, with the following titles: I. Career of a refined young man; II. Our Mr. C.; III. Classical administration of a province; IV. The three-headed monster. All the framing narrative in the novel is contained in Books I and III. Books II and IV consist entirely of Rarus's diaries. The purchase of the diaries from the banker is the impetus for the framing story. They of course also contain various narratives from Rarus's point of view, describing the poverty in Rome, Caesar's daily financial troubles, Rarus's troubles with his lover, and the latter's unemployment due to the influx of skilled slaves.

Book I relates the first visits of the would-be biographer to Caesar's banker, Mummlius Spicer, to negotiate for a look at the diaries. What the narrator must unwillingly accept in the bargain is the commentary of Spicer. The first section, Caesar's "career," contains the most directly personal of Spicer's comments, which the narrator already finds heretical. He concludes at the end of Book I,

What little he had to say about the founder of the empire, one of the greatest men in the history of the world, was quite obviously meant to portray him as an


especially depraved offspring of an old family. . . . I was out of patience. Had I not been determined to obtain the priceless papers, I would have stood up to go long before. I wanted to wait only long enough to get the papers, then leave with them to finally learn something about the real Caesar.[18]

The narration is marked by a similar tone throughout the first book: the biographer expresses his disinterest in both the economic and cynical personal reports of Spicer and the political generalizations of Spicer's visitor, the jurist Afranius Carbo. Carbo sees democracy and trade as intertwined principles, and after his assertion that Caesar's founding of the empire was only a continuation of the ideas of the Gracci, the narrator complains, "As far as these two gentlemen were concerned, my book was already written,"[19] and Brecht uses the opportunity to provide more ironic details regarding Spicer's estate.

Aside from the diaries of Rarus, there is only one witness from whom the narrator hopes to learn something of the "real" Caesar: the old legionnaire. But his account of the peasants' personal suffering as a result of economic change also fails to recognize Caesar's greatness, and the narrator leaves the interview disgusted and perplexed.

The novel reveals no similar reaction against the diaries of Rarus. However, the narrator is somewhat depressed by the violence and confusion of the Rome described in the diaries and is relieved to be on Spicer's peaceful estate, three decades after the events. He no longer complains bitterly about Spicer's long lectures but merely reiterates his skepticism about their relevance.[20] At the end, he reports only being lost in thought as he leaves with the last of the diaries. Brecht concludes the narrative by returning to the ambience of Spicer's estate: a runaway slave, sought earlier in the day, has not been found. The singing of the slaves, which had begun the book, has also ceased. The slave quarters are silent.[21]

The narrator thus never reaches the third step in Müller's scheme; he never becomes critical of his own undertaking. At most, the reader can deduce that he is no longer so self-assured. He indeed notes in his narrative how times have and have not changed between Caesar's day and his own. The confusion that conflicting representations of the past has created has not led him to a new analysis but rather to silence. As a more neutral narrator, he becomes merely Brecht's tool of montage, devoid of identity. He records the political exploitation of the threat of uprisings, described by Spicer's last guest, the poet Vastius Alder. The corruption of democracy within Rome is placed beside the "peaceful" subjugation and administration of the provinces of the empire, described by Spicer. The narrator reaches no synthesis; he even ceases to think about Caesar.

What synthesis is possible in the novel is therefore independent of the narrative. The narrator, by virtue of his misguided quest, is incapable of changing enough to incorporate a synthesis. Ironically, the characters who do not undergo a process of narrative evolution are those who do have a critical


view of both Caesar and the investigation at hand. Spicer, for instance, makes numerous ironic comments critical of the motives and practice of historiography.[22] He also has no use for building a legend around Caesar, since the facts alone, impersonal as they are, are the material basis for his wealth and status. He has merely recognized and pursued his interest, and Caesar is simply an aspect of this beneficial development.

The poet Vastius Alder has a similar point of view regarding Caesar and even expresses it in terms that apply to the novel itself as well as to the listeners in the narrative. As Spicer is able to separate historical legend from his own interests, so the poet separates political instrumentality from the stuff of art. His attitude places any "representation" of Caesar in doubt, because to him the "great man" had no character at all, was pure instrumentality. Caesar was but a great man of the generic type.

This kind of people is copied from one book to another, down through the centuries. A few strokes of water color are enough. I doubt whether a poet—you will excuse me, Spicer—inclined to write about him could come up with more than two lines. Not everything which has a surface develops patina, and art is patina, is it not? . . . For poetry, the man of whom we speak is something into which Brutus stuck his sword. You can repeat a thousand times, "The founder of the Empire, a formula of world scale!" It doesn't develop patina, this formula. Of course, why worry about art? I'm afraid I'm partisan.[23]

Both the language and the intention of the poet virtually banish from the novel Caesar as a personality. He is no longer even named but referred to only as "the man we are speaking of," "something into which Brutus stuck his sword," "our formula," and "your employee." Significantly, the narrator neither protests, as he would have done earlier, nor reflects or comments, as he might if he had understood and undergone a change in his character. But the remark he does make, having forgotten Caesar, almost hints at a link between the economic and political context into which the various speakers have placed Caesar by this point and the mundane details that are all the narrator is capable of perceiving.

The difference between the banker and his guest was extraordinary, almost indescribable. Both were of humble origins: Spicer was the son of a freedman; Vastius was even a freedman himself. Both had played as children in the alleys of the capital; as men both sat in Caesar's Senate. But the banker still smacked his lips at meals, and the poet and soldier was almost at the point of going back to smacking his.[24]

The narrator has succeeded in making a connection between Caesar and the interests of class, but it is merely incidental and not part of any new perspective he has achieved. Since narrative is ineffective, the hand of the author becomes visible.


In some passages, then, the novel succeeds brilliantly in demythologizing Caesar by subjecting the "personality" to multiple perspectives.[25] The problem remains, however, who is able to take advantage of these multiple perspectives. The banker and his guests are given magnificent texts to speak which "possess for long stretches the analytical sharpness of Marx and the satirical linguistic wit of Karl Kraus."[26] Although their perspective is the broadest, they have nothing to gain by exchanging their views on Caesar. As we have seen, however, the narrator is even less able to take advantage of the multiple perspective offered him, and the structure of the novel makes it clear that he has no self-interest that compels him to do so.

All that remains is the effort of the reader to apply the multiple perspective to matters of his or her own historical interest, but this is a synthesis that the novel cannot concretely bring about. To the extent that it does so, it calls itself into question as a novel. Part of its story, its usefulness as a whole to someone, simply cannot be told. The independence of the diary segments is an example. There is no narration of the act of reading them. The reader's confrontation with them is not mediated by that of the narrator. Instead, the two "readings" become one. The result is simply not there in the novel; the reader must process this raw material alone.

Ironically, the same principle applies to the speeches of Spicer and his guests. Since they, too, occur in long blocks of prose, they take on a certain independence. To the extent that they do speak directly to the reader, as someone who can make use of the analysis and information, they render the narrator superfluous. Indeed, many of his comments that punctuate the long passages appear to be simply novelistically inept. The narrative is a nuisance.

These contradictions go to the center of Brecht's creative activity at the time. The lack of a "protagonist" or a synthesis is more than merely a formal dead end; it reflects Brecht's isolation and his lack of an audience. The "difficulty of finding heroes" reflects some historical pessimism as well.[27] The refusal to offer a synthesized, homogenized retrospective view of Caesar in the novel is based on the impossibility of such a view of Hitler. The formal principle was a result of Brecht's refusal to delude himself in questions of political reality.[28] Therefore, Werner Mittenzwei tends to oversimplify Brecht's relationship to tradition as a unified aesthetic strategy. He shows little concern for Brecht's confusion and despair when he could not hope to have a German audience and could not be sure that he ever would again. Mittenzwei misses the point when he concludes, "Yet he was not able to achieve the new type of novel he sought. The link to the novelistic tradition of the eighteenth century had long been broken. Brecht's attempt must be regarded as a failure."[29] Yet the tradition referred to was indeed broken off, by concrete historical processes, both in the years of exile and after Brecht's return to Berlin. Brecht is no more (or less) responsible for the failure of his experiment in the novel than he is for the failure of German culture in the face of fascism. Klaus Völker seems insensitive to


the situation faced by artists in this historical position. The irony seems a bit cruel in his comment, "A not insignificant source of Brecht's incredible productivity in the years 1938–1941 is the realization that his opinions on art and politics were hardly in demand anymore."[30] Brecht recognized that his aesthetic limitations were reflections of the political defeats of his time and that he could not write for a liberated Germany when the agents of that liberation were nowhere to be seen. Although his journal entries seldom contain a plaintive tone, the effect of this situation on the Caesar novel is movingly expressed in the following entry, of 25 July 1938:

the whole c-concept is inhumane. on the other hand, inhumanity can't be represented without the presence of an image of humanity. the social system cannot be represented unless one sees an alternative. and i can't just write from the point of view of the present, i must be able to see the alternative path as a possible one for that time as well. a cold world, a cold work. and still i see, between the writing and during the writing, how degraded we have been in our humanity.[31]

To see the other path as possible was a profound challenge in the years of the rise of fascism in Germany, one it was probably impossible to confront fully. Völker reports, regarding the work on Puntila in 1940, "The practice of literature proved to be far removed 'from the centers of all-governing events.' The playwright had to admit to himself: 'Puntila has almost nothing to do with me; the war, everything. I can write almost everything about Puntila; about the war, nothing.'"[32]

This is the modern artist's intolerable situation, which became most extreme under fascism but which persists as long as consciousness is under occupation by the culture industry. The artist must be hopeful that society will survive and that social change will restore a sense of the values preserved in art. And this hope must also compel the artist to push artistic tradition forward, even though its social basis is in question. This is why Brecht's dilemma resonates with that of the political avant-garde in film and film theory after 1968. In an essay published in the British journal Screen , Franco Fortini describes Brecht in these roles during the period under discussion.

The fact is that in reality Brecht lived both functions: on the one hand the passer-on of a message that had to go "under the sweat-stained shirt . . . through the police cordons," the role, that is, of the scribe to whom tumultuous artisans assign the task of putting down their truth on paper; and on the other the mission of the man whose words to himself are: "Know that you do it for yourself, so do it properly." In the poem of 1939 from which I have quoted above, the situation of the "outlaw," with all its problems of double citizenship and double identity, is expressed as literally intolerable.[33]

Fortini continues that many writers had felt integrated into the Communist party as a "society within a society" and as a "concrete anticipation of socialist


society." But after the victory of Nazism and the Hitler-Stalin Pact, even this identity was no longer possible. Fortini concludes, "On the eve of the Second World War a number of writers finally discovered what the working class should have known for at least a hundred years: that they had no home-land."[34]

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6—History Lessons and Brecht's The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar
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