October 1st, 2008


How fortunate the man with none

"There is no money in this town! The whole economy has broken down! Oh, where is the telephone, is here no telephone, oh sir, goddamit, no!" What a great time this is to buy, listen to, and sing along with Robyn Archer's fantastic albums of Bertolt Brecht's theatre songs! These were a huge influence on early Momus; hard, unsentimental, witty, wise, Marxist takes on a 1920s economic collapse everyone's suddenly invoking again.

One of my favourite Archer-Brecht songs is The Solomon Song. The translation sung by Marianne Faithfull misses the point of Brecht's original, which is that assets (the wisdom of Solomon, the beauty of Cleopatra, the courage of Caesar) can suddenly turn into liabilities. The John Willett translation sung by Robyn Archer is much better, ending each verse, and each virtue, with the thought "how fortunate the man with none"! (Lotte Lenya's version is more concise: "Now I thought that brains were good -- guess not!")

Robyn Archer: The Solomon Song (stereo mp3 file)

Like Oscar Wilde before him, Bertolt Brecht had a way of turning simple inversions of received ideas into satirical wit. For Wilde it becomes superficial not to judge by appearances and "evil" becomes a way to explain the curious attractiveness of others. This effect works because the binary divisions of semantics are arbitrary and exaggerated. The more these divisions are repeated, the more a kind of counter-sense builds up, the sense that the opposite is also true and ought to be expressed from time to time. A Wilde or Brecht witticism allows that expression, usually followed by a releasing rush of laughter. Yes, raping a child-bride in her nightie just makes Mack the Knife more roguishly attractive! Liabilities are secretly assets, and assets liabilities.

If these reversals (and the arbitrary, repeated exaggerations of semantic binaries they depend on) thrive in comedy and wit, they also thrive in times of crisis. In a crisis, the received wisdom and habits which once kept everything going have collapsed. Suddenly their opposites rush into the vacuum with the force of suppressed truths. Wow, what we thought were assets were really liabilities! And what we thought were liabilities were really assets!

Recently we've seen that happening to any state unfortunate enough to strike oil, and therefore to be invaded for its oil, or to have no weapons of mass destruction and consequently be invaded for having weapons of mass destruction, while those with them are tiptoed around. Or you could see it in the financial meltdown, where people with money in the bank are now faced with the prospect that it might not always be there (and not because they take it out, either). Robert Peston, blogging for the BBC News website, says: "There is a widespread perception that the £35,000 limit to deposit protection in the UK is inadequate - and that it makes our banks more at risk of a run on retail deposits."

They're talking about a run on retail deposits -- normal, everyday bank accounts -- on the BBC website! We really are entering a looking glass world, one where even the firmest certainties of former times are reversed. If having money in the bank is no longer a sure thing, neither is owning property, currently losing its value faster than you can keep up your ludicrously over-inflated mortgage payments.

Those of us who've owned nothing for years are, at this point, feeling slightly vindicated. Especially those of us who moved to Berlin, attracted precisely by the city's appalling problems -- the fact that it's as broke and as out-of-work as we are. Berlin isn't just the city at the heart of the Weimar Republic our own civilisation is starting to resemble (celebrated by Brecht as The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny), it's also a city whose liabilities -- in the form of poverty, unemployment, empty buildings -- are, from a certain point of view, its greatest assets.

Here's comic novelist Julian Gough -- a Berlin acquaintance, and one of the sharpest, quickest-minded people I've ever met -- being interviewed last year on an Irish TV show. Julian talks in this clip about why Berlin's liabilities are assets for artists, why it's good for artists to have no money, and how he saw all along that Irish property was absurdly overvalued (he compares the collective delusions of the popped property bubble to Scientology):

Like Wilde before him, Julian Gough is unrelentingly paradoxical throughout his Late Show interview. He says he's more qualified to write about Ireland because he doesn't live there (exactly the reason I'm currently writing about Scotland, by the way), he says being poor and unemployed is better than being rich, he says the unemployed man's time -- properly calculated -- is worth more than an employer could afford, he says houses aren't worth the prices paid for them, and he imagines priests being seduced by children rather than vice versa (an inversion first seen in Freud's Seduction Theory). Gough also wears a long scarf that not only trails the ground, but breaks all the rules for ground-trailing garments by being show-up-the-dirt-white.

These inversions aren't just the prerogatives of the wit and the provocateur. They're also the essence of the license accorded the Shakespearean fool, the one allowed to be mad and, in so being, to be sane; to tell lies and, in so doing, to tell the truth. The fool above is from Peter Brook's film of King Lear. Normally the fool is just background noise, a song and dance man. But in times of crisis he changes places with the king, and his madness becomes the new sanity; in King Lear, the crisis sees the king becoming the mad one and, in becoming mad, sane. We may be in such a time now; a time in which paradoxical fools are suddenly right, and former kings and bankers wander the wilderness, mumbling to themselves.