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To Those Born Later

In english, sometimes the poem is called “Posterity” and other times “To Those Who Follow in Our Wake.” But in my edition of Brecht’s poems, it’s called “To Those Born Later.” It was written in 1939 during his exile in Denmark.

The poem is easily found on the web. It’s nothing to copy and paste it into a blog post. These days the poems of Bertolt Brecht, especially those from the late 1930s and 1940s, have a resonance so strong you can feel the vibrations emanating from the bookcase.

Rather than copying and pasting the text, I wanted the feel of the poem as it appeared character by character as I typed it on my keyboard. In these dark times, it’s difficult to talk of trees. Words fall into a riptide that pulls them rapidly out to sea. I imagine even the trees have difficulty talking of trees.

 

To Those Born Later
By Bertolt Brecht
I
Truly, I live in dark times!
The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet had
The terrible news.

What kind of times are they, when
A talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?
That man there calmly crossing the street
Is already perhaps beyond the reach of his friends
Who are in need?

It is true I still earn my keep
But, believe me, that is only an accident. Nothing
I do gives me the right to eat my fill.
By chance I’ve been spared. (If my luck breaks, I am lost.)

They say to me: Eat and drink! Be glad you have it!
But how can I eat and drink if I snatch what I eat
From the starving, and
My glass of water belongs to one dying of thirst?
And yet I eat and drink.

I would also like to be wise.
In the old books it says what wisdom is:
To shun the strife of the world and to live out
Your brief time without fear
Also to get along without violence
To return good for evil
Not to fulfill your desires but to forget them
Is accounted wise.
All this I cannot do:
Truly, I live in dark times.

II
I came to the cities in a time of disorder
When hunger reigned there.
I came among men in a time of revolt
And I rebelled with them.
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.

My food I ate between battles
To sleep I lay down among murderers
Love I practiced carelessly
And nature I looked at without patience.
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.

All roads led into the mire in my time.
My tongue betrayed me to the butchers.
There was little I could do. But those in power
Sat safer without me: that was my hope
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.

Our forces were slight. Our goal
Lay far in the distance
It was clearly visible, though I myself
Was unlikely to reach it.
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.

III
You who will emerge from the flood
In which we have gone under
Remember.
When you speak of our failings
The dark time too
Which you have escaped.

For we went, change countries oftener than our shoes
Through the wars of the classes, despairing
When there was injustice only, and no rebellion

And yet we know:
Hatred, even of meanness
Contorts the features.
Anger, even against injustice
Makes the voice hoarse. Oh, we
Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness
Could not ourselves be friendly.

But you, when the time comes at last
And man is a helper to man
Think of us
With forbearance.

MOTTO
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

Song of Finitude

The song about humans and non-humans on the earth is of an undetermined length. Undetermined, but finite.

It doesn’t go on forever, but the last note isn’t a set number of beats away.

Right now we’re playing so far ahead of the beat that the song is starting to lose its shape.

Temporality
Tempo-
Rality
Tempo
Reality
Tempo changes everything

Corporate Team Building: The Devil’s Staircase

Fintan O'Toole has a piece in a recent New York Review of Books called, “Beckett in Love.” He starts the piece, not with love, but with failure. Not an uncommon gambit when ruminating about Samuel Beckett. O'Toole begins with the point of contact most familiar to the person least familiar with the author. It's a favorite quote of the entrepreneurial set because it resonates with a strategy of dogged determination.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

The quote is from the late work “Worstward Ho.” In an age where we thirst for “context,” except when it doesn't suit our purposes, O'Toole goes on to explain the larger context of the quote.

“Fail better” (which I recently saw on a recruitment advertisement for a financial services company) is followed a few lines later by a reminder that, for Beckett, the phrase is an exhortation, not to keep trying until you succeed but to keep failing until you fail completely: “Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.”

The popular form of the quote is plucked from Beckett's “Worstward Ho” in an attempt to turn failure into just another strain of pre-natal success. Beckett, on the other hand, only found his own voice by delving deeper and deeper into failure, loss, exile, and poverty. It's fair to say that Beckett found a form of humor in these depths, but it isn't the free and superior laugh of the successful entrepreneur — the master satisfied with a job well done after several setbacks. Nor is it the comedy of bringing the high and mighty to earth, rather it's the laughter of the lowest when the epiphany strikes that there may not be a “bottom” to hit.

One imagines the corporate team building exercise where the high-priced enthusiasm consultant leads the bright-eyed group of employees through a visualization.

You know that dream where you're falling? Take yourself to that place right now. You're falling and falling. You begin to panic. Surely you'll stop soon. Perhaps you'll begin flying. But no, you fall and fall. What happens when the bottom comes? Terror sets in. It will be the end. It doesn't come. The exquisite disorientation of falling continues on and on. Numbness. And then, a moment when the absurdity of your situation emerges. You smile inwardly as you consider the notion that there may be no bottom to hit.

 

I Live In Outer Space

The New Inquiry's publication of an essay by Sam Kriss called the “Manifesto the Committee to Abolish Outer Space” really caused something click into place. I'd been thinking about the way that science uses concepts from romantic poetry to create enthusiasm and “buy-in” for its mission. When scientists use words like “beauty” and “awe” to describe natural phenomena they borrow from the romantic poets. The “love” of science is not at all scientific. There is no scientific theory of beauty; even scientists would acknowledge, it's not a proper subject for scientific inquiry.

Here's Kriss on what it means to abolish outer space.

We said earlier that for us to abolish something does not mean to destroy it. Once the cosmos was thought to be painted on the veil of the firmament, or to be some kind of divine metaphor, a flatness inscribed with thousands of meaningful stories. Since then it’s become outer space, a grotesque emptiness. Space is a site of desecration, an emptiness in which one moves, and moving into space means closing down any chances for Earth. C.A.O.S. is not interested in setting up limits. We want to create a future, not one of tin cans dodging rocks in a void, but a future for human life. To do this we must abolish outer space with all its death and idiocy, and return the cosmos to its proper domain, which is mythology, so that when we look up it will be in fear and wonder, and the knowledge that we live in a world that is not possible.

Sam Kriss makes clear that we've traded one mythology for another, but this new mythology is stamped with the imprimatur of science. Our new mythology equates outer space with adventure, bravery, ultimate knowledge, beautiful images of nebula and galaxies, and a vast new frontier for human exploration (and exploitation). In the back of our minds, we hold the possibility we may need a new planet if things go too off the rails on this one. Outer space is the source of a “reset button” for human-habitable planets.

The reality of direct human contact with outer space is instant death. Despite what you may have been told, outer space doesn't want us. Human bodies evolved on this planet with its atmosphere, rhythms of day and night, its particular gravity, and the many plants, animals and our other co-habitants. To survive in outer space we must replicate a minimum set of earth's qualities that have a necessary relationship to human life. Outside of normal earth gravity, we eventually turn into gelatin. Up and down, heads and feet, opposable thumbs, and the consumption of food, these are concepts that have no purchase in the vast expanses of space.

The beauty of outer space is created in post-production. It's like an using an Instagram filter to make your life look more interesting. For instance, the Hubble Space Telescope doesn't use color film–or any film at all. The distant light is recorded in shades of black and white. The color is a educational and promotional tool, not a direct perception of an object. Here's what hubblesite.org has to say about their use of color and seeing things that can't actually be seen by humans.

The colors in Hubble images which are assigned for various reasons, aren't always what we'd see if we were able to visit the imagined objects in a spacecraft. We often use color as a tool, whether it is to enhance an object's detail or to visualize what ordinarily could never be seen by the human eye.

Our idea of outer space is that it's over there–far away. We imagine ourselves to be Joseph Banks, Mungo Park, Charles Darwin or Dr. Livingstone in search of the undiscovered territory. For the most part, outer space is empty. There's nothing to discover. It's even emptier than “flyover country.” As Kriss notes in his manifesto, we lose nothing when we abolish outer space because “there's nothing there already.” Astronomers recently issued a report saying that based on data from the Kepler spacecraft their could be as many as 8.8 billion earth-sized planets capable of supporting life. What they neglected to say was that no human from planet earth will ever set foot on any of the those planets. While our imagination is infinite, our physical manifestation in space-time is nothing but finitude. Just like producing images of astral objects that can't actually be seen by humans, we create a catalog of planets, obscure unattainable objects of desire.

And while scientism ridicules the cosmology of others, it is still geocentric at the bottom of its thinking. We are already in outer space. Earth itself isn't outside of the universe. We are spinning, orbiting and hurtling through outer space. I already live in outer space.

 

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