Read with KO: “Life of Galileo” by Bertolt Brecht

By Tooba Towfiq 

THE Russia-Ukraine war and the process of eulogising one side and demonising the other is all out in the open. The racist tirades that have followed have also thrown into question how the labels of “heroic” and “villainous” have all been manufactured and are accorded to certain people on account of their identity. The white west and its allies are always invariably seen in the positive light and all others are seen as vile and degraded.

Additionally, in times where populist right wing leaders rule the roost, one wonders whether the possibility of “hero” exists.

This reminds us of political theatre that questioned the very idea of the possibility of heroes. In this context, Brechtian theatre was strongly political. It was a creative praxis of Brecht’s politics which was typically anti-capitalistic. Brecht was against Romantic, Naturalist and Expressionist theatre which were largely bourgeois. The thrust of each of these lay in the subjectivity and individuality of their protagonist. Brecht disapproved of the idea of this “free” individual, which appeared at the centre of most bourgeois literature.

Galileo from “The Life of Galileo” exemplifies his Marxist belief of a socially and economically constructed individual as opposed to an infallible and heroic protagonist of the bourgeois novels. He explores the impossibility of a “hero” in an authoritarian system which incapacitates individuals to maintain the status quo. Additionally, the play also stands in stark opposition to the popular culture of the Third Reich with the hero and the heroic corresponding to either Hitler’s persona or a Hitler like persona. It is also pertinent to mention that the absence of a conventional hero in Brecht’s theatre reiterated the presence of the Captain Americas who could thrive in the American mass culture.

At the beginning, the play invites the faith of the spectators/readers in Galileo’s quest for scientific truth. Yet, unlike the conventional, eccentric ethical truth-seeker; Galileo is shown to be gluttonous, deceptive and inconsiderate. His quest is intercepted by the indulgent pursuit of life and pleasure. This holds his status as a Knowledge seeker in tandem with his corporeality. However, the hurdles which he faces are not an outcome of his lack of heroism. His circumstances are determined by the social, political and economic conditions of his times and the authority which limits and dictates his actions. This is a quintessential instance of Brechtian Gestus which affirms that it is social relations and not ones psychology which dictates our actions.

Galileo’s recantation is best suited to explain the purpose of this deflation of the heroic and is a significant catch to understand Brecht’s politics. It was an obvious comment on the fascist Nazi Germany from which Brecht sought a voluntary exile. Galileo’s desire to seek knowledge was agential and revolutionary, but his discoveries could not be established as truth in an era with its own “regimes of truth” which buttressed the ruling ideology. Hence, he could not evolve as a hero who would single-handedly vindicate the system that systematically coerced everyone.

Additionally, Brecht had only two tangents to place his hero in accordance to the norms of his times. In Germany, being “heroisch” or heroic was closely related to Hitler’s violent individualism, “it had always worn a uniform, three different uniforms, but had never been seen in civilian clothes” (Klemperer). Hitler thrived in propagandist literature like “Triumph of Will” which projected him as a divine and likeable ruler. On the other hand, American mass culture especially the comics industry showed Supermans and Captain Americas fighting the system by virtue of their idealised selves and national identity. Brecht was against any of such violent, vile and idealised notions of heroism.

His characters are not romantic heroes, whose triumphs conceal the underlying play of power .They are agential in so far as they are constantly regurgitating the politics of the “obvious” and are fighters in their endeavours to critique.

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