Wednesday, January 26, 2011

1. Morality in Augsburg

“I, he said to us
Am the doubter. I am doubtful whether
The work was well done that devoured your days.”

This is a blog on the late, great Bertolt Brecht. As a monumental thinker whose influence can still be felt today, his contributions to literature and the theater will henceforth be discussed in a critical manner. This week, the topic I have chosen to explore is that of the moral paradoxes set forth in his short story “The Augsburg Chalk Circle”--the lesser known predecessor of the classic “Caucasian Chalk Circle.”

This story, which centers around a servant woman's struggle to raise her master's bastard protestant child, and the resulting efforts of the child's mother to regain custody, is set behind the backdrop of the thirty-years war. Currently, to this author, it is unclear as to why Brecht picked this time period specifically, aside from the fact that it was a conflict which permanently altered the course of German history. This being said, is perhaps meant to offer readers an enticing historic pretext for the moral conflict in question. In the case of “The Augsburg Chalk Circle” the conflicts are many. This is something that I found incredibly enticing upon looking for a question to pose about the story.

When reviewing the text, I was initially hung on the apparent lack of judgment of the characters. The narrative itself reads straightforward. Brecht does not judge his characters, but instead leaves the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about their actions. My concern, at first, was that Brecht had chosen to ignore the striking immorality of the conflict ( I.E.- Catholics and Protestants abandoning pacifism in favor of violence) and the characters' treatment of one another. For example: there is a large portion of the story in which the servant girl must pass herself off as a married Catholic woman in order to safely preserve the life of the child she has saved. And while this situation does lend itself to some comedy—as she is prompted to marry a wretched, and supposedly dying man, who later recovers and attempts to reclaim his “new family”--the abhorrent attitude with regard to her situation, and the perception of Protestants, offers serious insight into the prevailing zeitgeist of intolerance. In short, these were people of the faith pitted against one another for social and political reasons. This casual characterization provides us with the first instance of a moral question.

Upon finishing the story, [SPOILER] when the child's birth mother displays her ugliness by ripping the child from the circle by his little arm, we see more of what Brecht was trying to say. Through the actions of the characters in this story, the basic human principle of passive perseverance is reinforced. We, as people, need not scrap, murder, and kidnap in order to preserve our legacies and fortunes. Instead, one can hope, we can benefit from sacrificing our urge to run to those we love, and trust that justice will be objective enough to protect the interests of the just.
Brecht told this story for a reason. He wrote for the the humanities, and just as his short story suggests, the author's responsibility is not to tell the reader what to think, but to offer them the details necessary for making a sound judgment. To the reader of modern crime fiction—no offense to casual readers!--this story may be a simple tale of good over evil. But the implications and moral juxtapositions presented by Brecht are fit for a full dissertation.

While we now know that Brecht knew what he was doing, this interesting story further displays his competence in the fields of literature and drama. In one section of his “On Theatre” he describes an actress who is acting her part, as opposed to becoming the character. This is offered as an explanation of when theater falls flat. Those in charge of becoming the character can be tempted into trying to fool the audience. This, Brecht contends, is wrong. The actors should focus on the praxis at hand, and trust that through this focus the well-wrought story will tell itself. Once more, this principle is exemplified through “The Augsburg Chalk Circle”'s matter-of-fact delivery of details and simple story telling. Brecht is one who knows that a good story will leave readers and audiences with everything they need to start a conversation, a debate, or a philosophical inquiry that could change the world.

“But above all / Always above all else: how does one act / If one believes what you say? / Above all: how does one act?”

...Till next week!

-Quotations from Brecht's “The Doubter”


  1. Dylan, very interesting blog. I am glad you enjoyed the story so much and I cannot wait to hear more. What do you think of the end? Why does the judge wink?

    Brecht's message seems to be: no matter if you are the original rightful owner, you might not be the best owner possible owner and therefore have to let go: just like the mother will not be able to receive the boy back and the Genossen lost the land.

  2. I think the judge winks because he already knew what the outcome of his experiment would be. He is likewise very quick to insult the mother; once again, further showing his erudition. These are interesting little details to think about though.