The Movie that Haunted Coen Brothers

‘Big’ writers generally avoid writing about movies, or, at any rate, writing seriously about them. Part of the reason is that for a big writer (or a would be big writer), there is always the immortality thing to consider, which is as natural and understandable as any other quest by human beings. Immortality in some form has, of course, been one of the holy grails of human history and civilization. Writing about such things as movies might affect their chances. You just have read a little about a writer like Samuel Beckett and read some of his works to see what I mean. Movies, ‘the art form of the (twentieth) century’, even the best movies, are still not fully accepted as belonging to the the haloed territory of High Art. An unfortunate consequence of this is that it is hard to find what great writers have written about movies in general and about specific movies. Some might say that there haven’t been all that many really great writers in recent times, but that is a risky territory for me to go into.

Obviously the above consideration doesn’t apply to every great writer. George Orwell is one example: I am not sure whether he wrote about movies, but he did write about other unsafe things. But then the evidence seems to suggest that he wasn’t exactly planning on becoming a great writer, at least not in the way Beckett was. He had other things on his mind. This unexpectedly makes me add here that avoiding politics by ambitious writers is more often than not because of the immortality factor.

Mark Twain is another example (in the category of Orwell, not Beckett). Is it just a coincidence that both had politics in their writing? I mean explicitly: Everyone has politics at least implicitly, whether they like it or not.

Coming back on track, it was, therefore, a surprise when, after discovering (and recognizing as a masterpiece) ‘The Night of the Hunter’ (not having heard of it before that) some years ago, one of the very few reviews or any writing that I found about this (till recently) neglected exceptional work of art was by Margaret Atwood. It is called ‘Why I love Night Of The Hunter’. The movie made such an impression on her mind that she doesn’t now remember who she saw it with. Some of the images have haunted her ever since, she says, especially the famous ‘underwater Shelly Winters’ scene ‘in her aspect of wrecked mermaid’, which has made ‘several disguised appearances’ in her own writing.

Since then I have come across many others, writing that this particular scene haunted them and it’s easy to see why. In my opinion, though, this scene is just one of the minor things that make this movie great.

Among those haunted by images and scenes from this movie are the Coen Brothers, known for their ‘quirky’ ‘indie’ movies. To digress a little, I think it is quite wrong to see them as anything other than Hollywood. They represent the best of the mainstream Hollywood. None of their movies strays too far from the Hollywood style. But that is not necessarily a failing. As I said, they represent the best in this tradition. And they do push the boundaries.

I have been meaning to write about them and the Charles Laughton movie ever since I saw one of their movies after The Night of the Hunter (let’s make an acronym to save my labour: TNOTH), though I had seen two or three earlier. They are said to make numerous references to other movies (nods, as they are called, or tributes), which apparently they claim that they don’t do deliberately, but that doesn’t matter much.

I can’t really say that I am a fan of their movies, but I do like most of them, to varying degrees, like everyone else I guess. But here I am not going to review their movies or even TNOTH. It just gives me pleasure to point out some interesting facts which might be relevant for reviewers of their movies. I had once somewhere read about a few people having influenced them, as is usual in biographies, even very brief ones. And I have also read about specific influences on their movies. When I had checked last, I couldn’t find any mention of TNOTH, but it seems now it is mentioned in several places that this is one of the movies that influenced them and I feel vindicated.

So let me mention a few of the readily observable of such influences. I said the movie has haunted them and it is based on the way images and motifs from TNOTH repeatedly occur in their moves. Their first movie that I remember seeing was Miller’s Crossing. I have since seen it again and it is one of my least favourite of their movies. And it is the only one of their movies for which I can’t recall any example of image or motif from TNOTH. This might be partly because I haven’t thought much about Miller’s Crossing, as I have in the case of other movies by them.

Let me take each of those cases where I can recall, though I won’t cover all of them:

No County for Old Men

Apart from the fact that the movie is set in the West, it is about a serial killer who is almost supernaturally good at hunting people (down). He is a ruthless and cold blooded killer, but he has his own code of conduct, his ‘principles’. Somewhat like Harry Powell, the preacher in TNOTH, although there are differences. And both are hunting for money, which is easy to forget in all their killing. Still, in both the cases it is not very clear what is their primary consideration: money, the violence (which is often shown to be the primary and sole motive for psychopaths: by shallower story tellers) or their ‘principles’. Both are confronted by a woman (young in one case, old in another) towards the end. One meets his nemesis, while there is just a slight hint of redemption for the other, even though the young woman has to die for that. Both movies have a long segment involving the ‘hunt’.

Raising Arizona

What I wrote above for No Country for Old Men is also true of Raising Arizona, except that, since this was a comedy, all similarities are passed through a comic filter. Just like in the other two movies, here also the killer-hunter seems to be ‘more a force of nature’ (a comment the directors made about the actor who played the role in this movie) than a real human being. As one of the comments by a character in No Country for Old Men indicates, he sort of represents all the violence in this land that is ‘hard on people’. Now I might have something more to say about these things, but here I intend to perform duties nearer to accounting than to criticism.

You could say that I am doing this on behalf of Charles Laughton, the great actor, who only made one movie because this one movie, which he rightly believed to be very deserving, wasn’t received well at all at that time. May be I am doing it just to show off, but I like the first idea better.

By the way, a week or two ago I saw the list of top ten all time favourite movies of Fassbinder (excluding his own) and what do I find? TNOTH is in that list! I had a vague feeling that Fassbinder too (in some indirect way) was influenced by this movie, but I actually thought that I was going too far and probably finding imaginary influences. On second thoughts, it’s not so surprising, because the Brechtian thread connects them, if nothing else.

Getting back to the movie under consideration, here also the killer-bounty-hunter has his own icons. In TNOTH he had the LOVE and HATE tattoos on the fingers (another favourite and frequently copied image from the movie) and his trademark knife (recall Brecht’s Mack the Knife, Brecht being associated closely at one time with Charles Laughton). In No Country for Old Men, he has his special weapon that was originally meant to kill cattle. And he has his coin that has been travelling for a long time. In Raising Arizona, he has several such icons strapped on to him and his bike, including one that says (if I remember correctly) ‘Mama didn’t love me’. Even this comic character has supernatural tracking skills.

There can be another take on the supernatural tracking-hunting skills. No real individual can plausibly have such skills. But a large organisation or institution or syndicate (I just saw Love is Colder than Death) or ‘agency’ can. A system can. Or, to put it better, The System can.

As in, for example, Burn After Reading. It would be a piece of cake, even with more than one to be tracked. And even with clueless individuals involved in the tracking. There is always an army of bishops, knights, rooks – and pawns – acting like remote controlled drones with wills of their own, which have nevertheless been trained to do the bidding of their handlers. Not to mention the latest technology of the day and the latest Mythology of Fear and the old old Ideology of Domination.

One of my favourite bits in TNOTH is when the preacher finally arrives at Rachel Cooper’s place to take away the children and the doll. The young orphan girl, Ruby (who is older than the other children living at the place, being cared for by the woman who earlier turns to the camera and says proudly, ‘I know I am good for something in this world and I know it too.’), this young girl who has become infatuated with the preacher, drops what she was doing and cries out excitedly to Rachel Cooper, ‘The Man!, The Man!’.

The Man is the other take.

O Brother Where Art Thou

The underwater scene makes an appearance here too, though there is no corpse as far as we can see. But there must be a few in the background, given the previous scene. Talking of the previous scene, there is, yet again, the motif of the tracker-hunter with almost supernatural capabilities. This time he is a man of the law, not a man of the Lord, or a man outside the law, but he is a psycho and a sadist alright. He is supposed to be from Cool Hand Luke, but that one wasn’t shown to be an uncannily good tracker. He only looked similar and supervised a chain gang.

Fargo

I had to think a little for this one. It might not be so obvious, but it’s there. The pregnant policewoman who tracks down the killers (yes, the tracking thing is present here too), one already fed to a grinder by the other, can be seen as reference to Rachel Cooper. The latter was old, the former is pregnant. Neither seems or acts very heroic, unlike many other Hollywood heroines. Both, in fact, seem vulnerable, but they manage to do what they should. They are no Lara Croft.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

The underwater corpse is present here. With the car. Inside the car. Drowned with the car after being murdered. But the murderer in this case is not a psycho serial killer, but a very plausible real person, who cons everyone and is well liked and admired. The protagonist’s wife is having an affair with him. And he is not even a habitual murderer. So the motif of a well liked and admired person, built up by the society, who is actually a murderer is also present, apart from the underwater scene.

Three extra points from me to Coen Brothers.

The Hudsucker Proxy

Margaret Atwood mentioned Harry Powell as a man ’embraced by society, then torn apart by it’. This applies to the protagonist of The Hudsucker Proxy too. There is even the more specific motif of this sacrificial character being chased by a lynch mob, just as the mob goes after Harry Powell at the end of the TNOTH. And the mob consists of the same people who had earlier built him up, directly or indirectly.

The Big Lebowski

The motif from TNOTH in this film is the one that makes me laugh the most. People reviewing this movie always mention the mysterious cowboy (‘The Stranger’) at the end who has a brief chat with Lebowski. Who is he? This is what I think: He is the grown up John Harper from TNOTH. Of course, there is some artistic license here regarding the age etc., but he can’t be anyone else. And here is my evidence: After his chat with Lebowski, he turns to the camera (he has been the narrator earlier: the Brechtian thread is very much visible even in Coen Brothers’ movies) and gives a little speech in which he also says ‘the Dude abides’. And Rachel Cooper at the end of TNOTH said about children, ‘They abide. They abide and they endure.’, also to the camera. The tone used is the same in both the cases. The Stranger (according to Coen Brothers and as interpreted by me) seems to be carrying on the tradition of the old (‘gun toting’, which is not relevant here) cowboy woman played by Lillian Gish. He seems to have learnt well from her and was really saved after all. He even seems to like adopting orphans, in a manner of speaking. It’s almost as if the Coen Brothers are finally trying to exorcise the TNOTH ghost, which has been haunting them for such a long time.

Margaret Atwood, in her article, also wondered what would John become when he grew up:

Perhaps he will grow up to become a robber. Or perhaps, as his name suggests, a singer of bloodspattered sagas and the author of apocalyptic revelations?

If I am to believe Coen Brothers and you are to believe me, then he seems to have turned out quite alright.

So this story seems to have a happy ending. But it could have ended differently. What if John Harper had been taken away by Harry Powell and been made his apprentice or if Rachel Cooper had not found him at all? Well, then, he could have become what we get in Raising Arizona.

 

 

The choice of Coen Brothers has a significance also because, as I mentioned earlier, they are quintessential Hollywood directors, no avant garde or nouvelle vague etc.

[I might add more later.]

Drones, Aerial and Otherwise

[This was meant to be a comment in reply to an article on the ZNet by Pervez Hoodbhoy about aerial drones and what he calls ‘human drones’.]

I feel very strange, in fact disturbed, to have to make this comment, as this comment is critical of the ideas of someone with whom I have a lot in common, whereas I have almost nothing in common with those he proposes should be killed by any means possible. The strangeness also comes from the fact that the author not only recognizes but has actually been writing about the grounds on which I will put forward my criticism.

I am not sure whether Pervez Hoodbhoy is one or not, but I am an unapologetic atheist and have almost the worst possible opinion about religious fundamentalism of any kind, especially when it is of the organised kind or has organisational support. I also have no hesitation in stating that there IS something that can be called Islamic Fascism and it should be called by its proper name. But I also recognize that often things get mixed up and we can have a resistance movement that is also a Fascist movement. That makes it difficult to analyze them, let alone judge them. We can, however, still analyze and judge specific facts and events and be mostly right about them if we have sufficient evidence and we make sure that we keep our intellectual integrity intact.

Thus, for example, the people who are being targeted by the American drones (excluding those caught in the ‘collateral damage’) have been doing things which no sensible human being can support. These include the horrible terrorist acts, but more importantly (as the author rightly points out) they include their atrocities on their own people: women, protesters of any kind, ‘blasphemers’ etc. I can very well see what would happen to me if I were living in that kind of society.

I also share most of what the author has been saying. The trouble is that, he also makes some leaps of logic or conclusions which seem patently wrong to me and I think I have to register my disagreement with them, because they are far too important to be ignored.

I could, perhaps, write a longer article about it, but for now I will try to say a few things which matter more to me.

The first problem is that the author mixes up the literal and the metaphorical and this logical error leads him to atrocious conclusions. We can surely talk about ‘human drones’ where we are using the word drone metaphorically and the usage is justified as he has eloquently explained by comparing them with the non-human aerial drones. But the comparison itself is metaphorical. And the justification does not remain valid when he goes on to establish a straightforward literal equivalence. The ‘human drones’ might be brutal, unthinking, destructive, (metaphorical) killing machines and so on. They might be, in a sense, inhuman or anti-human, but they still are not non-human. They do have bodies, minds and thoughts. To say otherwise is to abandon one’s thinking in a fit of rage. What they deserve or not may be a matter of debate, but it has to be based on a vision that does not ignore the fact that they still are human beings, however detestable and dangerous they may be.

I am sure the author is aware of some of the history of the world which seems to indicate that there were a lot other people – and still are – who might also be justifiably called ‘human drones’ and who might be considered as bad as the ones he is talking about. That definitely can’t justify their actions, but it has a bearing on what those taking up the task of judging them should think and do.

If you agree with my contention here, then the analysis will lead to different directions. What those directions exactly should be, I won’t go into, because I don’t claim to have the answers, but they would lead to conclusions different from those of the author.

Even the metaphorical comparison here has some problems, which can, as I said, be guessed from what the author himself has been writing. There are some similarities, but there are also many differences. The ‘human drones’ still come from a certain society and they are part of it. The aerial drones are just machines, they don’t come from any society. The ‘human drones’ come from societies which have seen destruction of the worst kind for ages, whereas the aerial drones are (literally) remote controlled by those who played the primary role in bringing about this destruction, as the author himself has written and said elsewhere. If you ignore these facts, you will again be lead to very risky (and I would say immoral and unfair) conclusions.

With just a little dilution of the metaphor, haven’t most of the weapon laden humans (soldiers, commandos etc.) been kinds of ‘human drones’? The ones author talks about may be deadlier, but the situation is more drastic too. On the one hand you have an empire that is more powerful than any in history and on the other you have an almost primitive society that thinks it is defending itself, just as the empire says it is defending itself. Will it be improper to ask who has got more people killed? What about the ‘human drones’ of the empire: thinking of, say Iraq?

As far as I can see, the use of aerial drones to kill people, whoever they may be, is simply indefensible. Because if their use is justified on the grounds of the monstrosities of the Taliban ideologues and operators, what about chemicals? If some people were to form an anti-Taliban group and they were to infiltrate the ‘affected’ villages and towns and if they were to use poisoning of the water supply or something similar to kill people in the areas where these monsters are suspected to be, would that be justifiable? The aerial drones are, after all, just a technological device. There can be other such technologies and devices.

There must have been some very solid reasons why the whole world agreed to ban the use of chemical and biological weapons after the first world war and stuck to that ban (with a few universally condemned exceptions), though they were very effective and the Nazis were very evil.

The other big problem I have with the author’s opinions on this matter is that he suggests that the American aerial drones are one of the unsavoury weapons we should use against the fundamentalist Islamic militants. This is a logical error as well as a moral one. The logical error is that ‘we’ are not using the weapons at all, the empire is using them. And it is the same empire that created the problem in the first place, once again as the author himself has said. We have no control over how these drones are or will be used and who they will be used against in the future. Can’t they, some day in the future, be used against ‘us’? Why not? Perhaps the empire won’t use them directly, but it can always outsource their use: think again of Iraq. Iraq of the past and Iraq of the present. The author, in fact, knows very well the other examples that I could give.

To put it in Orwell’s words, make a habit of imprisoning Fascists without trial, and perhaps the process won’t stop at Fascists.

The use of aerial drones, they being just a technological device, might perhaps be justifiable for certain purposes, for example in managing relief work during large scale natural disasters, e.g. the wild fires in Russia or the frequent floods in India and China (but not as just a cover for their more sinister use). Their use for killing humans is, however, of a completely different nature.

The moral error is that the author’s conclusions unambiguously imply that ends justify the means. As long as these monsters producing (or becoming) ‘human drones’ are killed, it doesn’t matter whether the weapons are, to use the author’s word, unsavory. It also doesn’t matter that they are being used by an empire ‘we’ are opposed to and which started the mess. (Actually, the mess was started long ago by another empire, but then we could say there were even older empires who played a role in creating this mess, so let’s not go into that).

I even sort of agree with the author’s idea that recommending the standard left meta-technique of “mobilizing” people (actually, it is not just leftists who use such techniques) may not be very practical under the conditions prevalent in this case. But, as I said, though I understand the severity of the problems, I don’t have the solutions. I only want to say that the kind of errors that the author makes can lead us to a worse situation. We should not forget (I am sure the author knows this too) that it is not just a case of some bad apples. Even if these were to be removed by using ‘unsavory’ forces and weapons, the problems are not going to be solved so easily. Because there is not just one clearcut problem but many problems which are all meshed together and the meshing is too complex and barely visible.

At the risk of making an unpalatable statement, I would say that if any party in conflicts like this has to be excused for using unsavory weapons or tactics, it will have to be the much weaker party, not the strongest party in history. But I don’t think I would include suicide bombing among those weapons or tactics. And I also realize the limits to which I can be entitled to sit in judgement over people living under such conditions.

The author need not offer me (business class or mere economy) tickets to Waziristan. I am scared to even go to places in India.

One more problem that I have with the author’s writings is that he seems to have assigned blame to most parties involved in the conflict: the Army, the militants, the Taliban, the Americans etc., but has he (I haven’t read everything written by him) considered, equally critically, the role of the Pakistani elite (not just the leftists) and the somewhat ‘secular’ middle class? He seems to have hinted at their role, but it seems to me that their role was, is and will be far more critical in determining what is happening and what will happen. After all, the rise (if we can call it that) of the Taliban closely parallels the Islamisation of the Pakistani society in general. How did the Pakistani elite (intellectual, feudal and official) help in this and what can they do to solve this problem?

That, it seems to me, is the crucial question to ask (though it won’t lead to a quick fix), apart from what people around the world can do about those controlling the aerial drones, towards whom, as the author earlier wrote, “we still dare not point a finger at”. After going on to point a finger at them, the author seems to have now moved to the position of accepting their support in terms of killings by the aerial drones in order to contain the ‘human drones’, which (to be a bit harsh) doesn’t make sense to me.

Related to this is another question: does the natural antipathy of the Pakistani elite towards these ‘primitive’ tribal communities has something to do with the position that the author has taken and which he says many others (‘educated people’) share?

There are, of course, other actors. The author has mentioned Saudi Arab, but Iran has a role. Even India has (or at least wants to have) a role.

But I want to end on a positive note. It’s heartening to see that the ZNet allows this kind of a dissenting view to be presented on its platform. That should be a good sign for the discussion.

[Unfortunately, I have to end on a slightly negative note. As I was going to add the comment to the article, I realized that I have to be a ‘sustainer’ even to post a comment. And I have not been able to become a sustainer for reasons I won’t go into here. Hence I post it here.]

So Dissent is Just a Disease After All

If you are even a little bit well read, you might have come across the name of Bertolt Brecht, even if you don’t recall it now. He is well known as one of the most important figures of twentieth century theatre (theater for the more dominant party). But his influence goes far beyond theatre. It extends to movies, literature, poetry (he was also a poet), political thought and so on (not excluding the Monty Pythons). It even goes beyond the boundaries of the East-West or the North-South divides. I wasn’t surprised at all when I read yesterday that there are ’30 something’ MA theses in South Korea alone (written in Korean) on Brecht. In India, he has been widely written about and heavily quoted by intellectuals, especially those writing in Indian languages. One of the most respected Hindi poets, Nagarjun, even wrote a poem about Brecht. I would have loved to provide a translation of that poem here, but I don’t feel equal to the task as the poem uses words whose equivalents in English I am unable to think of. Some poems are translatable, some are not.

Brecht has been on my mind these days as I have translated some of his poems (from English) into Hindi in the last few days. This excercise included a bit of surfing the Net for his name too and as a result, I came across something that made me write this. Or, at least, acted as a catalyst or the precipitating agent for writing this.

I don’t mean to present a brief bio of the man here. You can easily find plenty of material about him on the Internet and in any good library. I am not even a minor expert (in the technical sense) on him or his works. But I might mention here that some of the things he is known specifically for, include these:

  • His plays and his active theatre work (in particular the ‘epic theatre’ works like The Life of Galileo, The Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage and Her Children)
  • His theory about theatre, which is centred around the idea of the ‘alienation effect’
  • His poetry
  • His affiliation to Marxism (though of the dissident kind)

It should not be hard to guess now (if you were unfamiliar with him earlier) that it is the fourth point that would get most people interested, either approvingly or otherwise. You write plays, you do theatre, you pen poems, that’s all quite alright. No problem. Have your fun. Let us have some too. We can spend time discussing and arguing about it too. But being a Marxist is taking this business to a different territory. That’s politics. That might lead to talk of revolution. Or, at least, to that of radical change.

And so it does. Intellectuals, artists and activists around the world who are not satisfied of being a real or potential (‘wannabe’) Salman Rushdie or V. S. Naipaul and who want to do or say something more about the injustices in the world, in the society, in the institutions, have almost all paid at least some attention to this guy. Some disagreed and turned away, some agreed wholeheartedly and became loyal followers and some agreed partly and adapted his ideas and techniques according to their own taste and their own views about things. One from the last kind is also someone with whom I have happened to be concerned recently. That one was Fassbinder, a prolific filmmaker from the same part of the world as Brecht. Another filmmaker (from India) of this kind was Ritwik Ghatak. But about them, later.

Brecht’s ideas about ‘epic theatre’ (the quotes are there because it is a specific theory or a specific kind of theatre, not necessarily what you would guess from the words: it is a technical term) were a result of synthesizing and extending the ideas of Erwin Piscator and Vsevolod Meyerhold.

About the alienation effect, this excerpt from the Wikipedia article on Brecht gives a fairly good introduction:

One of Brecht’s most important principles was what he called the Verfremdungseffekt (translated as “defamiliarization effect”, “distancing effect”, or “estrangement effect”, and often mistranslated as “alienation effect”). This involved, Brecht wrote, “stripping the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them”. To this end, Brecht employed techniques such as the actor’s direct address to the audience, harsh and bright stage lighting, the use of songs to interrupt the action, explanatory placards, and, in rehearsals, the transposition of text to the third person or past tense, and speaking the stage directions out loud.

But more than this somewhat technical aspect, what attracts me to the ‘Brechtian’ art, was expressed extremely well by Erwin Piscator in 1929:

For us, man portrayed on the stage is significant as a social function. It is not his relationship to himself, nor his relationship to God, but his relationship to society which is central. Whenever he appears, his class or social stratum appears with him. His moral, spiritual or sexual conflicts are conflicts with society.

I read this only today, but as my (few) readers might have noticed (which I explicitly expressed once), almost all of what I write here is about ‘Individual and Society’ (which is also one of the most common tags that I use). For me, the above is the crux of the Brechtian enterprise. But I should add that in my opinion the Brechtian technique, along with its variants, is not the only technique for achieving the goal (for expression in art as well as for scholarly investigation) outlined in the above quotation. Still, I can’t resist saying here that it is the key to understanding Fassbinder. Many a reviewer of Fassbinder movies has made a fool of himself by ignoring this.

Having provided this little context, I will move now to the thing that precipitated this article. Yesterday, after posting one more of the translations of his poems on a blog, I came across a post that pointed me to a news story from Reuters. Since it is from Reuters, it has been carried by many other news outlets.

The story reports that a researcher from the University of Manchester “has uncovered the truth behind the death of German playwright Bertolt Brecht”. It goes on to say:

Professor Stephen Parker … said the playwright died from an undiagnosed rheumatic fever which attacked his heart and motorneural system, eventually leading to a fatal heart failure in 1956.

Previously it was thought his death in 1956 aged 58 had been caused by a heart attack.

So far, so good. But here is the precious bit:

Parker said the playwright’s symptoms such as increased heart size, erratic movements of the limbs and facial grimace and chronic sore throats followed by cardiac and motorneural problems, were consistent with a modern diagnosis of the condition.

“When he was young no one could get near the diagnosis,” Parker, 55, told Reuters. “Brecht was labeled as a nervous child with a ‘dicky’ heart, and doctors thought he was a hypochondriac.”

Brecht’s childhood condition continued to affect him as an adult, making him more susceptible to bacterial infections such as endocarditis which affected his already weakened heart, and kidney infections which plagued him until the end of his life.

Parker believed that his underlying health altered the way the playwright felt and acted.

“It affected his behavior, making him more exaggerated in his actions, and prone to over-reaction,” he said. “He carried the problem all his life and compensated for this underlying weakness by projecting a macho image to show himself as strong.”

I have quoted at this length because I didn’t want to lose anything in the paraphrase. So this researcher is a medical doctor? Wrong. He is an expert in German Literature. And he derived all these conclusions from Brecht’s medical records. The report ends with this gem:

“Going into this project I felt I didn’t really fully understand Brecht,” he said. “This knowledge about his death opens a lot of new cracks about the playwright, and gives us a new angle on the man.”

As the Americans (and now even the Indians) say, Wow!

The Superman might have been fictional, but we now have a Super Researcher. Nothing short of real superpowers could have made him achieve this amazing feat: “his underlying health altered the way the playwright felt and acted”. Felt and acted! That is a nice summing up of the whole business of existence. The key to all this was rheumatic fever! This would make a nice present to an absurdist poet looking for ideas. An expert in German Literature goes through the medical records of a man who was born in 1898 and died in 1956, having lived in various countries during one of the most tumultuous periods in history (when there were no computers: well, hardly). He (the Expert) felt “he didn’t really fully understand” Brecht and by going through these medical records (one of the key exhibits being an X-ray) and found out that all this ‘epic theatre’ and the ‘alienation effect’ and affiliation to Marxism and his poetry and his immeasurable influence on a large fraction of the best minds of the world for the last three quarters of a century was just the result of his rheumatic fever. All his politics was just a simple disease.

As if this wasn’t enough, there is something else that would have caused cries of “Conspiracy theory!” if a different party was involved in the affair. His research shows that the 1951 X-ray report, which showed an enlargement to the left side of Brecht’s heart, was never shown to the playwright or known about by his doctors and it may have been (emphasis mine) held back by the German security services, the Stasi, who had a grudge against the playwright.

So all of you loony lefties, you commie fairies, this idol of yours was just a sick man. And if he was not, well, then he was at least (indirectly) killed by a communist government. So wake up, man! Give up all this talk about the individual and the society and injustice and imperialism etc. Get back on track and let’s live up the market dream together. We can change things. Yes, we can.

To be fair to Professor Parker, he has written a ‘literary biography’ of Brecht and it might be that he is not really claiming all of the above. However, what matters in the world outside the closed academic circle of experts on German Literature, is the effect of the reports of this study on the common readers. And what appears in these reports is, to use a word from the report itself, quite a sinister subtext. The Indian media right now is full of such reports (often of a much cruder, laughably cruder, moronically cruder variety) with similar, barely concealed subtexts, with obvious relevance to the current political situation in the country.

The ‘study’ apparently says nothing about the effect that his blacklisting in Hollywood might have had on him. Did the FBI (or any of the other agencies) had a grudge against him? Here was one of the most admired and influential playwright who had sketched notes for numerous films, but he got to write the script of only one movie that was directed by Fritz Lang. He was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and decided to leave the US after that. He lived during the period when his country went mad and so did the world, with millions upon millions dying. He saw Germany descend from relative decency into barbarism. He later also saw the degeneration of the revolution in the Eastern Block. Did all that have anything to do with what he was and may be even with why he died relatively young? Parker doesn’t seem interested in such trivialities and externalities. At least Reuters doesn’t, because I don’t have access to the complete and original ‘study’ as written by Parker.

Very long ago, I had read one of the novels by that great favourite of those looking for gentlemanly humour, P. G. Wodehouse. In that novel (whose name I don’t remember), one of the main characters (Jeeves, perhaps) decides to go, for some reason, on a kind of fast. And from the time of the very next meal, his whole personality starts changing. He becomes dissatisfied with lot of things. He starts finding faults in everything. His good nature is all gone. In short, he becomes the caricature of a dissenter.

Finally, when things go beyond a point, the plot has him give up the fast, may be with some persuasion from others. As soon as he has had a good meal again, he reverts to his usual self. The dissenter is gone. Then comes an editorial comment from the narrator which goes something like this: If only Gandhi (no ‘Red Top’, as you probably know) were to give up his fasting antics, he won’t be creating so many unnecessary problems. As far as Wodehouse is concerned, he has won the argument against the whole idea of Indian independence and whatever else Gandhi said he was fighting for.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on poor Wodehouse, as cautioned by Orwell in his defense, because, for one thing, the humourist was just too innocent of political awareness.

A scholar of Brecht and one of the biggest news agencies in the world, however, belong to a different category.

But this is not such a unique event. Parker has just given a new meaning to the idea of pathologizing troublesome people. To the idea of ‘finding dirt’ on people who don’t follow the rules of the game. It is just a sophisticated version of the understated witch hunt against Julian Asange. A small attempt at rewriting History in somewhat Orwellian sense. The motivation is all there, as more and more people start talking about the ‘churning’ and ‘renewed stirrings’ for a more fair world. Yet another facet of the psychological operations (psyops) in these times of the gold rush.

(Using Bob Dylan’s words, we could say that Professor Parker is perhaps just a pawn in their game, but of a different kind than Wodehouse was for the Nazis.)

 

One of the significant influences on Brecht was Chaplin’s movie The Gold Rush.

Life is full of poetry and drama.

And melodrama.

नर्क का ध्यान

(कविता: बर्तोल ब्रेख़्त)

नर्क का ध्यान करते हुए, जैसा कि एक बार मैंने सुना था,
मेरे भाई शेली ने उसे एक ऐसी जगह पाया था
जो काफ़ी कुछ लंदन जैसी ही है। मैं,
जो लंदन में नहीं रहता, बल्कि लॉस एंजेलेस में रहता हूँ,
पाता हूँ, नर्क का ध्यान करने पर, कि यह
और भी अधिक लॉस एंजेलेस जैसी ही होनी चाहिए।

और नर्क में ही,
मुझे कोई शक नहीं है, ऐसे शानदार बाग हैं
जहाँ फूल इतने बड़े होते हैं जितने पेड़, मुरझाते हुए,जाहिर है,
बहुत जल्दी, अगर उन्हें अत्यंत मँहगे पानी से न सींचा जाए। और फलों के बाज़ार
फलों के भारी ढेरों के साथ, जिनमें कि इस सबके बावजूद

न तो कोई महक होती है न ही स्वाद। और मोटरों की अंतहीन कड़ियाँ,
अपनी छायाओं से भी हल्की, और दौड़ते हुए
मूढ़ विचारों से भी अधिक तेज़, झिलमिलाते वाहन, जिनमें
गुलाबी लोग, न कहीं से आते हुए, न कहीं जाते हुए।
और मकान, खुशी के लिए प्रारूपित, खाली पड़े हुए,
तब भी जब बसे हुए।

नर्क के भी घर सब इतने तो बदसूरत नहीं होते।
पर सड़क पर फेंक दिए जाने की चिंता
आलीशान मकानों के निवासियों को भी
उतना ही सताती है जितना कि बैरकों के बाशिंदों को।

(अंग्रेज़ी से अनुवाद: अनिल एकलव्य)

एक जर्मन युद्ध पुस्तिका से

(कविता: बर्तोल ब्रेख़्त)

ऊँची जगहों पर आसीन लोगों में
भोजन के बारे में बात करना अभद्र समझा जाता है।
सच तो यह है: वो पहले ही
खा चुके हैं।

जो नीचे पड़े हैं, उन्हें इस धरती को छोड़ना होगा
बिना स्वाद चखे
किसी अच्छे माँस का।

यह सोचने-समझने के लिए कि वो कहाँ से आए हैं
और कहाँ जा रहे हैं
सुंदर शामें उन्हें पाती हैं
बहुत थका हुआ।

उन्होंने अब तक नहीं देखा
पर्वतों को और विशाल समुद्र को
और उनका समय अभी से पूरा भी हो चला।

अगर नीचे पड़े लोग नहीं सोचेंगे
कि नीचा क्या है
तो वे कभी उठ नहीं पाएंगे।

भूखे की रोटी तो सारी
पहले ही खाई जा चुकी है

माँस का अता-पता नहीं है। बेकार है
जनता का बहता पसीना।
कल्पवृक्ष का बाग भी
छाँट डाला गया है।
हथियारों के कारखानों की चिमनियों से
धुआँ उठता है।

घर को रंगने वाला बात करता है
आने वाले महान समय की

जंगल अब भी पनप रहे हैं।
खेत अब भी उपजा रहे हैं
शहर खड़े हैं अब भी।
लोग अब भी साँस ले रहे हैं।

पंचांग में अभी वो दिन नहीं
दिखाया गया है

हर महीना, हर दिन
अभी खुला पड़ा है। इन्हीं में से किसी दिन
पर एक निशान लग जाने वाला है।

मज़दूर रोटी के लिए पुकार लगा रहे हैं
व्यापारी बाज़ार के लिए पुकार लगा रहे हैं।
बेरोजगार भूखे थे। रोजगार वाले
अब भूखे हैं।
जो हाथ एक-दूसरे पर धरे थे अब फिर व्यस्त हैं।
वो तोप के गोले बना रहे हैं।

जो दस्तरख्वान से माँस ले सकते हैं
संतोष का पाठ पढ़ा रहे हैं।
जिनके भाग्य में अंशदान का लाभ लिखा है
वो बलिदान माँग रहे हैं।
जो भरपेट खा रहे हैं वही भूखों को बता रहे हैं
आने वाले अद्भुत समय की बात।
जो अपनी अगवानी में देश को खाई में ले जा रहे हैं
राज करने को बहुत मुश्किल बता रहे हैं
सामान्य लोगों के लिए।

जब नेता शान्ति की बात करते हैं
तो जनता समझ जाती है
कि युद्ध आ रहा है।
जब नेता युद्ध को कोसते हैं
लामबंदी का आदेश पहले ही लिखा जा चुका होता है।

जो शीर्ष पर बैठे हैं कहते हैं: शान्ति
और युद्ध
अलग पदार्थों से बने हैं।
पर उनकी शान्ति और उनके युद्ध
वैसे ही हैं जैसे आँधी और तूफ़ान।

युद्ध उनकी शान्ति से ही उपजता है
जैसे बेटा अपनी माँ से
उसकी शक्ल
अपनी माँ की डरावनी शक्ल से मिलती है।

उनका युद्ध मार देता है
हर उस चीज़ को जिसे उनकी शान्ति ने
छोड़ दिया था।

दीवार पर लिख दिया गया:
वो युद्ध चाहते हैं।
जिस आदमी ने यह लिखा
वो पहले ही गिर चुका है।

जो शीर्ष पर हैं कहते हैं:
वैभव और कीर्ति का रास्ता इधर है।
जो नीचे हैं कहते है:
कब्र का रास्ता इधर है।

जो युद्ध आ रहा है
वो पहला नहीं होगा। और भी थे
जो इसके पहले आए थे।
जब पिछला वाला खत्म हुआ
तब विजेता थे और विजित थे।
विजितों में आम लोग भी थे
भुखमरे। विजेताओं में भी
आम लोग भुखमरी का शिकार हुए।

जो शीर्ष पर हैं कहते हैं साहचर्य
व्याप्त है सेना में।
इस बात का सच देखा जा सकता है
रसोई के भीतर।
उनके दिलों में होना चाहिए
वही एक शौर्य। लेकिन
उनकी थालियों में
दो तरह के राशन हैं।

जहाँ तक कूच करने की बात है उनमें से कई
नहींं जानते

कि उनका शत्रु तो उनके सिर पर ही चल रहा है।
जो आवाज़ उनको आदेश दे रही है
उनके शत्रु की आवाज़ है और
जो आदमी शत्रु की बात कर रहा है
वो खुद ही शत्रु है।

यह रात का वक़्त है
विवाहित जोड़े
अपने बिस्तरों में हैं। जवान औरतें
अनाथों को जन्म देंगी।

सेनाधीश, तुम्हारा टैंक एक शक्तिशाली वाहन है
यह जंगलों को कुचल देता है और सैकड़ों लोगों को भी।
पर उसमें एक खोट है:
उसे एक चालक की ज़रूरत होती है।

सेनाधीश, तुम्हारा बमवर्षी बहुत ताकतवर है,
यह तूफ़ान से भी तेज़ उड़ता है और एक हाथी से ज़्यादा वज़न ले जा सकता है।
पर उसमें एक खोट है:
उसे एक मेकैनिक की ज़रूरत होती है।

सेनाधीश, आदमी बड़े काम की चीज़ है।
वो उड़ सकता है और मार सकता है।
पर उसमें एक खोट है:
वो सोच सकता है।

अंग्रेज़ी से अनुवाद: अनिल एकलव्य

ओ जर्मनी, म्लान माँ!

(कविता: बर्तोल ब्रेख़्त)

औरों को बोलने दो उसकी शर्म के बारे में,
मैं तो अपनी शर्म के बारे में बोलता हूँ।

ओ जर्मनी, म्लान माँ!
तुम कितनी मैली हो
अब जबकि तुम बैठी हो
और इतरा रही हो
कीचड़ सनी भीड़ में।

तुम्हारा सबसे गरीब पुत्र
बेजान होकर गिर पड़ा।
जब भूख उसकी बर्दाश्त से बाहर हो गई।
तुम्हारे अन्य पुत्रों ने
अपने हाथ उसके खिलाफ़ उठा दिए।
यह तो कुख्यात है।

अपने हाथ इस तरह उठा कर,
अपने ही भाई के विरुद्ध,
वो तुम्हारे चारों तरफ़ घूमते हैं
और तुम्हारे मुँह पर हँसते हैं।
यह भी सर्वज्ञात है।

तुम्हारे घर में
दहाड़ कर झूठ बोले जाते हैं
लेकिन सच को
चुप रहना होगा
क्या ऐसा ही है?

क्यों उत्पीड़क तुम्हारी प्रशंसा करते हैं दुनिया भर में,
क्यों उत्पीड़ित निंदा करते हैं?
जिन्हें लूटा गया
तुम्हारी तरफ़ उंगली उठाते हैं, लेकिन
लुटेरा उस व्यवस्था की तारीफ़ करता है
जिसका अविष्कार हुआ तुम्हारे घर में!

जिसके चलते हर कोई तुम्हें देखता है
अपनी ओढ़नी का किनारा छुपाते हुए, जो कि खून से सना है
उसी खून से जो
तुम्हारे ही पुत्रों का है।

तुम्हारे घर से उग्र भाषणों की प्रतिध्वनि को सुन कर,
लोग हँसते हैं।
पर जो भी तुम्हें देखता, अपनी छुरी पर हाथ बढ़ाता है
जैसे कोई डाकू देख लिया हो।

ओ जर्मनी, म्लान माँ!
क्या तुम्हारे पुत्रों ने तुम्हें मजबूर कर दिया है
कि तुम लोगों के बीच बैठो
तिरस्कार और भय की वस्तु बन कर!

अंग्रेज़ी से अनुवाद: अनिल एकलव्य

मैक चाकू

(गीत: बर्तोल ब्रेख़्त)

(कुर्त वाइल के साथ ‘थ्री पेनी ओपेरा’ के लिए)

अरे, शार्क के दाँत बड़े सलोने हैं, प्यारे
और वो उन्हें दिखाती है मोती सी चमक से।
मकीथ के पास बस एक चाकू है, प्यारे
और वो उसे रखता है दूर सबकी नज़र से।

जब शार्क काटती है अपने दाँतों से, प्यारे
तो लाली लहरा के शुरू होती है फैलना।
मँहंगे दस्ताने, मगर, मकीथ पहने है, प्यारे
ताकि लाली का नामो-निशान मिले ना।

फुटपाथ पर इतवार की सुबह
एक शरीर से ज़िंदगी रिसती है;
नुक्कड़ पर कोई मंडरा रहा है
क्या ये वही मैक शैली चाकू है?

नदी तट पर एक कर्षण नौका से
एक सीमेंट की बोरी गिरी जा रही है;
सीमेंट तो बस वज़न के लिए है, प्यारे।
हो न हो मैकीं शहर में लौट आया है।

और लुई मिलर गायब हो गया है, प्यारे
अपनी सारी नकदी-वकदी निकाल कर;
और मकीथ नाविक के जैसे पैसा उड़ाए है।
क्या भाई ने कुछ कर दिया है जोश में आकर?

सूकी टॉड्री, जेनी डाइवर इधर,
पॉली पीचम, लूसी ब्राउन उधर,
अरे, लाइन तो दाएँ से बनती है, प्यारे
क्योंकि मैकी जो वापिस है इसी शहर।

अंग्रेज़ी से अनुवाद: अनिल एकलव्य