- Brecht Our (Post-) Contemporary
Fredric Jameson’s oeuvre is daunting for almost every possible reason. Besides its sheer bulk, the difficulty of its themes, and its notoriously demanding prose style, there’s the vast scope of the cultural materials it takes on. Nothing cultural is alien to Jameson, as Colin McCabe once put it (in words quoted on the back cover of Brecht and Method). One of the strengths, indeed a condition, of Jameson’s encyclopedic achievement is a programmatic dispassion toward his subject matter, an eschewal or renunciation of polemic so unemphatic that many readers miss it. Jameson’s work is never uncommitted, but the sorts of inquiry he undertakes aim to open possibilities that polemical reflexes, for which the only question is for-or-against, generically foreclose.
Nevertheless, throughout what Terry Eagleton has called Jameson’s “curiously unimpassioned” corpus (74), there are seams of warmer feeling, when Jameson touches on figures he particularly admires—Hegel, Heidegger, Barthes, and Gissing, to name a few. He has often enough indulged this impulse at book-length; hence there’s a special category or genre of work within his oeuvre, which, without losing critical measure, nevertheless functions as a celebration of and hommage to writers who are especially important for him. His first book, Sartre, is an example; Marxism and Form likewise celebrates the canonical figures of Western Marxism (and insinuates Sartre into their company). A cooler, but unmistakably appreciative, survey occupies The Prison-House of Language (the pages on Barthes and Lacan are especially warm); Late Marxism renews and expands the Adorno chapter of Marxism and Form. The most conflicted, and therefore the most interesting case is the book on Wyndham Lewis, in which Jameson advocates for a literary achievement committed to a politics he abhors.
Brecht and Method belongs in this special category of Jameson’s “appreciations” or homages. And yet this new book also belongs in a category of its own—for I’m tempted to declare it the most unusual work within Jameson’s corpus. Jameson’s writing, for all its difficulty and despite the above-noted dispassion, has always been very dramatic: it generates a continuous anxiety about critique’s, revolution’s, or socialism’s ambitions and possibilities, their possible success or failure, enacted in his own “dialectical sentences” as a chronic self-consciousness about his own project’s success or failure. His topic, whether a problem or a figure, has invariably been a vehicle and a model of our (your, my, Jameson’s, everyone’s) entrapment in the prison-house of “ideological closure,” and of our efforts to break out. Throughout his career, Jameson stipulates this “mimetic” or performative ambition for “dialectical writing” as such, under whatever names (theory, critique, scriptible). In his homages, the celebrated figure (Adorno, Lewis) appears in unavoidably heroic colors, and the rhetoric takes on the “stoic” and “tragic” accents Jameson has praised in the prose of Lacan (Ideologies of Theory 98, 112). Such a rhetoric seems tailor-made for Brecht—politically partisan avant-gardist, cathexis-object for Cold War passions, refugee in America from Hitler during the war, state-sponsored dramaturge to the Stalinist GDR after it (this last, I expected, an especially potent theme, for few critics are as alive as Jameson to the ironies of “success” in the fields of cultural production).
So I’d assumed Jameson’s Brecht was foreordained to a certain angst-charged treatment. But Jameson surprises us again, with a book almost—what to call it? tranquil? serene?—in its assurance of and pleasure in Brecht’s interest and relevance, his “usefulness,” Jameson avers, for us, whether we ever realize it or not. The book’s ease and brevity—a mere 180 pages in 20 bite-sized chapters—present the reader with (by Jamesonian standards) an uncharacteristically low-pressure reading experience. As for tone, Jameson’s usual accents of the “stoic” and “tragic” are gone—so much so as to tempt recourse to the word “comic,” if we stipulate that comedy needn’t mean laughs. Brecht at least has laughs (Jameson, no), but if “comedy” seems an anomaly in this connection, that...