Reading: Burning of books by Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)! When I was living in Berlin I intuitively liked the other of the Dreigroschenoper and Mutter Courage, even though I never sat through a live performance of his great plays for lack of money. He would understand. In his poetry, Brecht was a master of political verse, if I may lecture you on the obvious. I am reading a small poem about the burning of books, that horrendous, tasteless and cowardly feat of the nazis in 1933. I read a translation by Michael R. Burch:

The burning of the books
When the Regime
commanded the unlawful books to be burned,
teams of dull oxen hauled huge cartloads to the bonfires.

Then a banished writer, one of the best,
scanning the list of excommunicated texts,
became enraged: he’d been excluded!

He rushed to his desk, full of contemptuous wrath,
to write fierce letters to the morons in power —
Burn me! he wrote with his blazing pen —
Haven’t I always reported the truth?
Now here you are, treating me like a liar!
Burn me!

It feels a bit strange to read a poem in a language I have written poetry in myself. The first thing that struck me in comrade Bertolt’s description of the burning scene is that he sees the animals, the oxen pulling the cartloads. Love for the most refined and unworldly our minds produce coincides with love for the ‘dull’ animals (the word fails in German; the original mentions that the oxen are forced).

In the second stanza the translation makes the mistake of introducing a facile rhyme (best – texts) where in the original there are lines of prose, awkwardly cut off (a trademark of Brecht):

Ein verjagter Dichter, einer der besten, die Liste der
Verbrannten studierend, entsetzt, daß seine
Bücher vergessen waren. Er eilte zum Schreibtisch…

The ‘morons in power’ must have been fun for our translator, but the German just says Machthaber. Burn me, for I wrote the truth! Don’t treat me like a liar! We understand the joke Brecht tells us here and would smile if it weren’t so serious. This is what speaking ‘truth to power’ looks like in its ultimate consequence. When the un-truth of power is all-pervasive a Truth must command its self-destruction to remain truthful to itself. In that sense this poem is remarkably prescient of the horrors that were the result of 1933.

Observe that Brecht writes “burn me” (verbrennt mich) rather than “burn my books”. The famed bonmot by Heine, ‘Where they burn books, they will too in the end burn people’ has been fully internalized here.

Nazis burning books 1933

Reading: Burning of books by Bertolt Brecht was originally published on Meandering home

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August 21. Ode to Brecht..

Berlin and getting organized. A short reflection today, about things. I sing the material blues. How do you relate to the things you possess? I guess it is something positive, the fact that you are the owner? How can it not be positive, that is the question. And, as you can guess, I think I have an answer to that. You know I have this storage room in Berlin, cramped with things, absolutely totally full. I have to put something on the street in order to close the door. It can be such a burden to possess things. So why not throw them away? Because certain people might then think badly of you. Because you don’t want the things destroyed in a garbage oven. Because you could use them later. Ask some friends if they want to have or borrow them. Nobody home. It seems ridiculous in a time of crisis where everybody seems to be severely hit by downward trends and tumbling curves. But can you see what it is? I am sort of training not to attach too much to matter. There are other things much more relevant in life. The positive associations that I attach to material possession that I have as an average citizen can be annulled by the negative associations I am creating by dealing with the stuff in that damn storage room over and over again. I pay for them to be my possession but I am forgetting about them. So I’d like to compose some kind of Weild material blues that could go as an entremets to a Brecht play.
Things, things, things, what you’re gonna do
with all those things you’ve got?
what you’re gonna do with all those things of yours?
tell me honey, let me know, you know that only things can show
can show who we a-r-e, can show who we a-r-e.
Things, things, things, what you’re gonna do
with all those things you’ve got?
what you’re gonna do with all those things my dear?
– I’m thinking of giving them away.
Giving them to whom? To whom? Oh no my dear, you’ll give your soul away
And I can’t have it, a stranger with your things, I can’t have it, no, no
– Then I’ll burn them out at sea.
Burn them, why? But why? Oh no my dear, you’ll erase your soul forever
And I can’t have it, a stranger in your body, I can’t have it, no, no
– Then I’ll bury them in the garden.
Bury them, why? But why? Oh no my dear, you’ll erase your future thus
And I can’t have it, a stranger as my future, I can’t have it, no, no
– Then I’ll sell them and with the money do some good.
Sell them? O, I don’t care no-more.
Do what you want. Whatever you want. But your soul it will be blank
With all your things sold my dear, with everything gone
you’ll be just another white butt under the sun.

August 21. Ode to Brecht.. was originally published on Meandering home

August 21. Ode to Brecht..

Berlin and getting organized. A short reflection today, about things. I sing the material blues. How do you relate to the things you possess? I guess it is something positive, the fact that you are the owner? How can it not be positive, that is the question. And, as you can guess, I think I have an answer to that. You know I have this storage room in Berlin, cramped with things, absolutely totally full. I have to put something on the street in order to close the door. It can be such a burden to possess things. So why not throw them away? Because certain people might then think badly of you. Because you don’t want the things destroyed in a garbage oven. Because you could use them later. Ask some friends if they want to have or borrow them. Nobody home. It seems ridiculous in a time of crisis where everybody seems to be severely hit by downward trends and tumbling curves. But can you see what it is? I am sort of training not to attach too much to matter. There are other things much more relevant in life. The positive associations that I attach to material possession that I have as an average citizen can be annulled by the negative associations I am creating by dealing with the stuff in that damn storage room over and over again. I pay for them to be my possession but I am forgetting about them. So I’d like to compose some kind of Weild material blues that could go as an entremets to a Brecht play.
Things, things, things, what you’re gonna do
with all those things you’ve got?
what you’re gonna do with all those things of yours?
tell me honey, let me know, you know that only things can show
can show who we a-r-e, can show who we a-r-e.
Things, things, things, what you’re gonna do
with all those things you’ve got?
what you’re gonna do with all those things my dear?
– I’m thinking of giving them away.
Giving them to whom? To whom? Oh no my dear, you’ll give your soul away
And I can’t have it, a stranger with your things, I can’t have it, no, no
– Then I’ll burn them out at sea.
Burn them, why? But why? Oh no my dear, you’ll erase your soul forever
And I can’t have it, a stranger in your body, I can’t have it, no, no
– Then I’ll bury them in the garden.
Bury them, why? But why? Oh no my dear, you’ll erase your future thus
And I can’t have it, a stranger as my future, I can’t have it, no, no
– Then I’ll sell them and with the money do some good.
Sell them? O, I don’t care no-more.
Do what you want. Whatever you want. But your soul it will be blank
With all your things sold my dear, with everything gone
you’ll be just another white butt under the sun.

August 21. Ode to Brecht..

Berlin and getting organized. A short reflection today, about things. I sing the material blues. How do you relate to the things you possess? I guess it is something positive, the fact that you are the owner? How can it not be positive, that is the question. And, as you can guess, I think I have an answer to that. You know I have this storage room in Berlin, cramped with things, absolutely totally full. I have to put something on the street in order to close the door. It can be such a burden to possess things. So why not throw them away? Because certain people might then think badly of you. Because you don’t want the things destroyed in a garbage oven. Because you could use them later. Ask some friends if they want to have or borrow them. Nobody home. It seems ridiculous in a time of crisis where everybody seems to be severely hit by downward trends and tumbling curves. But can you see what it is? I am sort of training not to attach too much to matter. There are other things much more relevant in life. The positive associations that I attach to material possession that I have as an average citizen can be annulled by the negative associations I am creating by dealing with the stuff in that damn storage room over and over again. I pay for them to be my possession but I am forgetting about them. So I’d like to compose some kind of Weild material blues that could go as an entremets to a Brecht play.
Things, things, things, what you’re gonna do
with all those things you’ve got?
what you’re gonna do with all those things of yours?
tell me honey, let me know, you know that only things can show
can show who we a-r-e, can show who we a-r-e.
Things, things, things, what you’re gonna do
with all those things you’ve got?
what you’re gonna do with all those things my dear?
– I’m thinking of giving them away.
Giving them to whom? To whom? Oh no my dear, you’ll give your soul away
And I can’t have it, a stranger with your things, I can’t have it, no, no
– Then I’ll burn them out at sea.
Burn them, why? But why? Oh no my dear, you’ll erase your soul forever
And I can’t have it, a stranger in your body, I can’t have it, no, no
– Then I’ll bury them in the garden.
Bury them, why? But why? Oh no my dear, you’ll erase your future thus
And I can’t have it, a stranger as my future, I can’t have it, no, no
– Then I’ll sell them and with the money do some good.
Sell them? O, I don’t care no-more.
Do what you want. Whatever you want. But your soul it will be blank
With all your things sold my dear, with everything gone
you’ll be just another white butt under the sun.

June 25. Pleasures.


Seoul is a city of pleasures. I mean, it’s a brilliantly composed ouverture to heaven with all its incredible restaurants, comfortable private cinemas (DVD-bang), relaxing saunas, karaokebars, 24-hour-nightlife, well-kept parks, shining glass facades facing every street – and quiet Buddhist temple retreats.

I start resuscitating my hibernating writer side today, so blog entries will be less about what I did, and more what I did.

I am reading Plays because my friend Jean-Marie adviced me to do so. Today I am enthousiastic about Brecht’s “The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny” which has a very acceptable English translation made in 1960 for a planned staging by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman. Now enjoy a few quotes from that play.

You’ve learned to mix your cocktails every way
You’ve seen the moonlight shining on the wall:
The bar is shut, the bar of Mandalay:
And why does nothing make sense at all?
You tell me, please, why nothing makes sense at all.

Clap your hands when a hurricane strikes:
Who cares for being immortal?
When a man can do just what he likes
Who’s afraid of the storm at his portal?

One means to eat all you are able;
Two, to change your loves about;
Three means the ring and gaming table;
Four, to drink until you pass out.
Moreover, better get this clear
That Don’ts are not permitted here.
Morover, better get it clear
That Don’ts are not permitted here!

June 25. Pleasures. was originally published on Meandering home

June 25. Pleasures.


Seoul is a city of pleasures. I mean, it’s a brilliantly composed ouverture to heaven with all its incredible restaurants, comfortable private cinemas (DVD-bang), relaxing saunas, karaokebars, 24-hour-nightlife, well-kept parks, shining glass facades facing every street – and quiet Buddhist temple retreats.

I start resuscitating my hibernating writer side today, so blog entries will be less about what I did, and more what I did.

I am reading Plays because my friend Jean-Marie adviced me to do so. Today I am enthousiastic about Brecht’s “The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny” which has a very acceptable English translation made in 1960 for a planned staging by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman. Now enjoy a few quotes from that play.

You’ve learned to mix your cocktails every way
You’ve seen the moonlight shining on the wall:
The bar is shut, the bar of Mandalay:
And why does nothing make sense at all?
You tell me, please, why nothing makes sense at all.

Clap your hands when a hurricane strikes:
Who cares for being immortal?
When a man can do just what he likes
Who’s afraid of the storm at his portal?

One means to eat all you are able;
Two, to change your loves about;
Three means the ring and gaming table;
Four, to drink until you pass out.
Moreover, better get this clear
That Don’ts are not permitted here.
Morover, better get it clear
That Don’ts are not permitted here!

June 25. Pleasures.


Seoul is a city of pleasures. I mean, it’s a brilliantly composed ouverture to heaven with all its incredible restaurants, comfortable private cinemas (DVD-bang), relaxing saunas, karaokebars, 24-hour-nightlife, well-kept parks, shining glass facades facing every street – and quiet Buddhist temple retreats.

I start resuscitating my hibernating writer side today, so blog entries will be less about what I did, and more what I did.

I am reading Plays because my friend Jean-Marie adviced me to do so. Today I am enthousiastic about Brecht’s “The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny” which has a very acceptable English translation made in 1960 for a planned staging by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman. Now enjoy a few quotes from that play.

You’ve learned to mix your cocktails every way
You’ve seen the moonlight shining on the wall:
The bar is shut, the bar of Mandalay:
And why does nothing make sense at all?
You tell me, please, why nothing makes sense at all.

Clap your hands when a hurricane strikes:
Who cares for being immortal?
When a man can do just what he likes
Who’s afraid of the storm at his portal?

One means to eat all you are able;
Two, to change your loves about;
Three means the ring and gaming table;
Four, to drink until you pass out.
Moreover, better get this clear
That Don’ts are not permitted here.
Morover, better get it clear
That Don’ts are not permitted here!