Singers and Experts

A good example of the future that poetry once imagined for itself can be found in the first act (sometimes prologue) of Brecht’s great play, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Brecht is an outstanding lyric poet, but his most poignant reflections on poetry and poetics might be found within the plays, which famously employ lyric elements to disrupt the mimetic anesthesia of conventional theater. In the framing prologue to TCCC , a government official, an “expert” (or in some translations, “delegate”), possessor of a certain technical and scientific knowledge, mediates a dispute between two Soviet agricultural collectives who want to use the same valley. But in contrast to the justice on display in the rest of the play – even the justice of the holy-fool Azdak — the “expert” does not autocratically decide the fate of two collectives, but rather facilitates their reconciliation.Through reasonable deliberation and debate, the goat-herding “Galinsk” commune decides, despite its misgivinsg, to renounce the valley from which it was displaced during WWII and to let the “Rosa Luxemburg” fruit-growing commune use the landfor its irrigation project. The needs of the whole society are put first, we are shown, and the result will be that, in addition to the Galinsk goat cheese both communes will benefit from Rosa Luxemburg’s wine.

This is not simply a celebration of a free people freely planning its future. It is also a celebration of the role that art, and particularly poetry, plays in that freedom. Alongside the figure of the expert who helps facilitate the decision, there is the essentially homologous “Singer,” Arkadi Cheize, who “knows 21,000 verses by heart.” The main action of The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a play within the play, adaptated from the ancient Chinese and rehearsed by the Luxemburg commune under the supervision of the Singer. The commune performs the adapted play as an allegorical reflection upon the wisdom of leaving the valley to its irrigated orchards. Though the finished play can’t itself be a vehicle for the working-out of the disagreement, already concluded, one is lead to believe that it could have been, had no agreement been reached. The Singer and Expert therefore play structurally similar roles as facilitators. The technical knowledge of the Expert is matched by the vast mnemonic recall of the Singer. Brecht’s play contains a typically lucid affirmation of the fundamentally necessary role that art – here metonymized by poetry and “song” – must play in the planning of the new society:

 The Old Man left: We rehearsed the play under his direction. It is very difficult  to get him, by the way. You and the Planning Commission should see to it  that he comes north more often, comrade.

The Expert: We are more concerned with economy.

The Old Man left, smiling: You arrange the new distribution of grapevines  and tractors. Why not of songs, too?

Tout se résume dans l'esthétique et l'économie politique! Indeed, there is a hint, in the structure of the play, that “song” is fundamentally a mechanism for the redistribution of material necessities. When we spoke in a preceding post, about modernism as a project for the “realization of poetry,” this is what we meant. Poetry in Brecht’s play has become a resource of the collective, an entirely functional mechanism by which a community comes to understand itself and its place in the world. Of course, Brecht’s vision is not entirely distinguishable from what we have described as the alternative project for poetry, the“abolition” of all the specific instances of poet and poem and dissolution of poetry into the field of everyday life. We note a return to the oral tradition, here, in the figure of the Singer, who, although he has a name, and a renown commensurate with his virtuosity, seems famous not for the originality of his creations but the extent and versatility of his repertoire. His “play with songs, in which the whole kolkhoz takes part” blends together the lyric and the dramatic in ways that break sharply with the type of author-reader relations of current poetic practice. It is a production both individual and collective, traditional and modern, in which “wearing the old masks,” the new, modernizing collective and its audience find that “the voice of the old poet. . . sounds well in the shadow of Soviet tractors.”

Needless to say, nothing like this ever existed in the Soviet Union of the 1940s. Disputes of the sort treated in the prologue would have certainly been decided through the autocratic decision of experts and party cadre. Haunting the prologue is the fact that these communes were created through a process of forced collectivization – socialist “primitive accumulation” – in which millions died from famine or direct state violence. Brecht’s prologue is, in this regard, Stalinist smokescreen. While there might have been some excuse for this kind of rosy view of the Soviet Union in the 20s or 30s, by this point, there really wasn’t. If you didn’t already know better, you likely never would.

Looked at separately from the cognitive dissonance introduced by actually existing socialism, however, the image that Brecht presents of a harmonized art and society is, well, sort of appealing. With its emphasis on free association and autonomy, it is consonant with the ultraleft and anarchist perspectives we consider to be the best of historical communism. The play is a left variant of what we have described elsewhere as the essence of Modernism: “a vision of modern society fundamentally improved and transformed by its submission to a modernizing set of aesthetic values and techniques.” But for all its appeal, Brecht’s future can’t be ours. Modernism was premised upon the possibility of an alternate course of modernization, a development of the technical capacities of society with the help of singers and experts that would redound to the common good. But today, few think that the problems we face can be solved through some new round of modernizing planification. Modernization has happened, and the result has been a world that seems, now, more resistant to humanization, more opposed to the common good. Those of us who can imagine a future of freedom and the full expression of human potential do so, it seems, not as the continuous extension of present developments, but as a break with them. Though technical expertise and irrigation projects and poetry and girls on tractors will no doubt play a part in such futures, as people try to find their way out of the mess capitalism has left us, the unity of poem and plan belongs to another age.