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Ice Is Set On Fire

"A poem about drowning refugees, those who drown in view, in view of the shore, in view of others, speaks across times to tell us that it is not enough to learn to read, to learn to see – but also to act."—Esther Leslie on how Bertolt Brecht and War Primer teaches us how to read and how to act. 

Esther Leslie 7 July 2017

Ice Is Set On Fire

Around 1926/7 Brecht wrote some poems under the title Lesebuch für Städtebewohner, ‘Handbook for City Dwellers’, or, ‘A Reader for those who live in Cities’.  Here a few lines:

If you meet your parents in Hamburg or elsewhere
   Pass them like strangers, turn the corner, don't recognize them
   Pull the hat they gave you over your face, and
   Do not, o do not, show your face

These poems speak in a sinister language of erased traces or covering tracks, not answering doors, being anonymous, moving on, hopelessness, taking poison, in order to stay alive. That is to say the poems attempt to find a new social morality, in order to make life in an uncomfortable place tolerable or better survivable. Nihilistic, cool, shell-shocked and disaffected, these physiognomies offer tips for surviving in the cold, policed cities, and, resourcefully, they propose new cultural forms made out of the scraps and rubbish and ugliness of what surrounds them. They are prophetic too -  ‘Erase the traces’, rather than have someone else efface them. Living traceless lives is a useful technique for existence and it will become an essential mode for those who live through, or survive through the years to come, caught up in the swift disappearances in the dead of night before the Secret Police arrive, those who find themselves moving in moments in order to catch the last train out before the bombs fall, the lines is pulled or diverted, or any other contingency crashes in. 

I mention this poetic cycle because it takes us towards Hitlerism, a period during which War Primer was written, and the other side of which War Primer gazes from, and gazes back on. I also mention it because its title contains the word Lesebuch, which might be translated as, Manual, Handbook or perhaps best Reader – indicating a kind of pedagogic value to the text. This book, these poems, will give you lessons in city life, in these days, and it will help you to learn how to modify your behaviour, become cool, distanced, in order to save yourself, if no-one else. A Lesebuch, a Reader that teaches. 

War Primer – in German Kriegsfibel – has a similar aspiration. A primer is a learning text, a text that teaches how to read or how to write or how to do simple mathematics. In the early 1930s Walter Benjamin wrote two reviews of three of Tom Seidmann-Freud’s primers –Spielfibel, or ‘Play Primers’, which were reading, writing and numeracy books for children. He was enthusiastic, describing Seidmann-Freud’s intent: 

It is not oriented towards ‘appropriation’ and ‘mastery’ of a particular task – this style of learning only suits grown ups -, but rather it takes account of the child, for whom learning, as with everything else, naturally signifies a great adventure.

Benjamin describes something of the method that Seidmann-Freud employs to encourage the child to learn, and learn actively: 

Resting places and little huts to lodge in have been provided everywhere: this means that it is not necessary for the child to write on and on to the point of exhaustion. Rather, there an image awaits his signature, here a story awaits the missing words; there again a cage waits for a bird to be sketched-in, or – elsewhere – a dog, a donkey and a cock await their woof, bray and cook-a-doodle-do. 

Two models of primers then – those that teach how to survive in the unwelcoming asphalt city and those that teach to read, to write, to count, through activating a person, stimulating them to thought and action, rather than cajoling them towards finished results. The primer as a tool for learning to live in cities or to read. Kriegsfibel, War Primer is a tool for learning to read – learning to read, through a certain self-activation, the miserable outlines of the world in which war is always either happening or about to happen, a world we might well recognise. It is also a kind of Baroque emblem book, a mode like the primer bring in proximity but not unity word and image, such that the reader must decipher, referencing words against image. The results are multi-vocal, multidimensional. It is in this very mode of address that the educational impulse resides. 

The primer is also, originally, some sort of prayer book – at least possibly. The German word ‘Fibel’ may be derived from a corruption of the word ‘Bibel’, or Bible, since early reading primers used excerpts from the Bible to teach reading. How contradictory and incongruous, then, should the words Krieg and Fibel, War and Primer sound next to each other – words that should pull in different directions, military and mercy, except of course one thing Brecht teaches us is that they don’t, they pull together., and the Christian cross in this book is a grave, and grave after grave, even if one has a glove atop it that looks like a beseeching hand that would call upon the avenger in the sky who would punish those who committed injustice, but does not. 

We should learn to read the world through this book. It wants to teach us some lessons. But we must already be able to read, to read this book. We must already be literate in the sense that Walter Benjamin pointed out, citing Laszlo Moholy-Nagy: the illiterate of the future will not be the person unable to read or write, but the person ignorant of how photography signifies. To read is to be able to read a photograph. And Brecht knew that photography was perfidious. His line from The Threepenny Trial of 1931, on the question of what photographic, naturalistic depiction can and cannot do, was amplified by Benjamin that same year to extend its range: 

‘For the situation is complicated by the fact that less than at any time does a simple reproduction of reality tell us anything about reality. A photograph of the Krupps works or GEC yields almost nothing about these institutions. Reality proper has slipped into the functional. The reification of human relationships, signalled by the factory, can no longer be revealed by the photograph.’ 

We learn nothing from the smooth reflective glossy surface of a photograph. We cannot read it, or we can read only its blank reflection in a circuit of ignorance. For what is real has become a function of the economy which hides away, has secret abodes and strategies of subterfuges, and what is real is the way in which humans have to treat each other as things, as in the factory, as in war, and this cannot be seen, this social process is not manifest visually. Yet, says Brecht, the visual field is not conceded to the photograph and to the press and their affirmative use of images. He observes:

Therefore something has actually to be constructed, something artificial, something set up. For this reason, art is indeed necessary. But the old concept of art, the one that rests on experience, is superseded. For whoever represents that which is experienceable in reality also fails to capture it. Reality is no longer experienceable in its totality.

There are perspectives, competing experiences, those who have and those who haven’t, those whose experience is partial, fragmented, those who float above and those who are masters and those who are serfs. These perspectives, these parts need to be gathered up – like Benjamin’s shattered vessels, a whole needs to be refashioned, constructed, set up, brought into visibility, in order to be read – in order for us to learn how to read this world. And so here the format of War Primer meets the demand to angle pictures with text, the caption, ‘the essential component of the shot’, as Benjamin put it in 1931, insisting too in his 1934 essay ‘The Author as Producer’: ‘What we require of the photographer is the ability to give his picture the caption that wrenches it from modish commerce and gives it a revolutionary use value.’ 

All this is background – the debates on photography and photomontage and indeed pedagogy that were so lively and critical in the 1920s and 1930s. Brecht’s War Primer begins at the start of the next decade, 1940, but finishes afterwards, after war, after Hitler, after the firestorms and mass deaths. It looks back and forward, its photos are in their time and out of it, in fact it compresses time, letting the past speak, or offer itself to be read, letting those who are gone speak from another time into the time of the media photograph, into the time of Brecht’s making of the War Primer, the jumbled time of the non-chronological images, into the time of its review before German publishers, committees of the GDR, into the time of its publication and its translation. Times compressed: Hitler before the microphone in 1940, giving the impetus to Brecht’s desire to stick down this moment, to make a new image-poetry out of the detritus of Life magazine or the Berliner Illustrirte, something new, constructed out of the rubble that could make us see and read anew. This Hitler on the first page of War Primer looks like a magician, a sorcerer conjuring up the worst of all, in an unholy alliance with technology. He looks as if he is about to open a show. This show, on the next page, needs metal, needs a heaviness to pummel bodies, a heaviness made by other bodies, and this heaviness that is war will mark the bodies of those who thought they were far from it, not implicated in it, just bathing. War builds, ice is set on fire, and then a storm of violence unending is unleashed. So much death. So many great men who are gangsters. So many perspectives – from above, below, within, outside, in the centre of, far away, peering through, blinded people, those who see and do not see. In their totality these fragments, augmented by their captions, their cool, cynical texts, generate something akin to a complex multi-relational experience. It is ‘complex seeing’. The juxtapositions of text and image and image and image ‘activate seeing’. And the image-texts are cold – icy. From 1944 we see an image of a tent in Norwegian snow: 

‘What brought you two to North Cape?’ – ‘A command’. ‘Don’t you feel cold?’ ‘Chilled to the bone are we.’ ‘When will you two go home?’ ‘When this snow ends.’ ‘And how long will it snow?’ ‘Eternally.’ 

We have to learn not only to read, to read words, to read a photograph, but also how to warm up in these cold, cold regions, which might mean learning how to resist, how to refuse the command, how to understand the power of refusal, of collective mass action. We learn to read the world, but not just read. A poem about drowning refugees, those who drown in view, in view of the shore, in view of others, speaks across times to tell us that it is not enough to learn to read, to learn to see – but also to act.