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Truly I Live in Dark Times!

On November 9th, the day after the US presidential election, I had just arrived in England to attend a conference, and I spent the first few hours wandering around in a daze at the unexpected result. "These are dark times, these are the dark times" was a phrase I kept repeating in my head. They are from a poem by Bertholdt Brecht that seemed appropriate for the occasion:
Truly I live in dark times!
An artless word is foolish. A smooth forehead
Points to insensitivity. He who laughs
Has not yet received
The terrible news.
The translation is by Scott Horton, from 2008, and his discussion of the meaning and context of the poem is unsurpassable, so I recommend you follow this link and read what he had to say. My personal knowledge of this poem ('To Those Who Follow in Our Wake,' from 1939) goes back to a long phase of devouring Brecht's plays and poems when I was in my twenties. This poem, from his Svendborg poems, was one of the only German poems that I could partially recite in the original language. And in the wake of Donald Trump's election victory, I found myself saying the words aloud again:
Wirklich, ich lebe in finsteren zeiten!
Das arglose word ist toricht. Ein glatte stirn
Deutet auf Unempfindlichkeit hin. Der lachende
Hat die furchtbare Nachricht
Nur noch nicht empfangen.
A week later, I was in a classroom at Columbia College Chicago, taking time with the students to discuss their reactions to the election result and what it meant to them as a group of young people, all around twenty years old and from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

A black student burst into tears, and spoke about how afraid she was for her rights and her personal safety.

A latino student said he had relatives who were law abiding but undocumented people, and he didn't know whether they would be rounded up and deported or not.

Another student spoke about her gay friends, and how they were nervous about the fate of recently decided Supreme Court decisions in favour of gay rights.

And when it seemed like the right moment, we found our way back to a conversation about what our response should be as artists and writers when confronted with the dark times. Direct political action is necessary, yes, but is it trivial or unimportant to try and respond artistically as well? I was glad to discover that all of my students agreed that giving up their desire to express themselves artistically would only be handing an easy victory to the forces of the dark times.

At that point, I felt able to show examples of visual artists' responses to previous dark times.

There is Jacques-Louis David's portrait of Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801). Many people at the time saw Napoleon as the great preserver of the French Revolution and the man who tried to liberate Europe from the feudal monarchies that held sway over the rest of the continent. Others, of course, saw Napoleon as a brutal invader whose Alexander the Great complex led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in 15 years of bloody war. David, as a painter, created a portrait of a heroic figure, full of stirring action and manly accomplishment, the boy-Emperor pointing to the summit of the mountain, both literally and figuratively. David's response to the dark times, then, was to accommodate himself completely to the winners, to put his art in their service.

On the other side of the Pyrenees, Goya responded to the Napoleonic invasion of Spain very differently:

This painting -- The Third of May 1808 (painted in 1814) -- depicts what happened to the people of Madrid after they rose up against the invading French armies during the Pensinsular War: reprisal via summary execution. There's no doubt which side Goya is on: the dead and the about-to-be-killed people are painted with a revolutionary realism and sympathy, while the soldiers are a faceless phalanx of murderers. Goya initially supported the aims of the French Revolution, but in this painting he wants us to look at recent, real events with outrage. Art as witness.

Finally, there is art as protest, via Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei's installation of life jackets wrapped around public places (Berlin in the above photo), intended to draw attention to the fate of  the hundreds of refugees who drown each year in their attempt to reach Europe. This is one of many actions, photographs, and installations that Ai Wei Wei has undertaken or created as he uses his own celebrity to shine a light on one of the most dire consequences of the wars in our own dark time:

Photo copyright

We talked in that class about other pictures as well, and other writers, but the selection above encompasses the poles of possible reaction, from complicity to protest.

Five months on from the US presidential election, I think the times are just as dark. But I'm slightly heartened by the protest that has been stirred up.

In the last stanzas of Brecht's poem, he addresses the reader of the future, whom he hopes is living in better times, and he asks them to forgive him for any ill deeds he felt required to perform in order to combat injustice. Partly this is a justification of the philosophy of "the ends justify the means," a cloak worn by Nazis and Communists alike. But one of the fascinating and moving aspects of the poem is the way it is infused with a deeply political awareness of the Nazi horrors of the late 1930s, a Marxist response to that, and a strangely Buddhist tone, too:

You, who shall emerge from the flood
In which we are sinking,
Think --
When you speak of our weaknesses,
Speak also of the dark time
That brought them forth.
For we went, changing our country more often than our shoes.
In the class war, despairing
When there was only injustice and no resistance.
For we knew only too well:
Even the hatred of squalor
Makes the brow grow stern.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh. Alas, we
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.
But you, when at last it comes to pass
That man can help his fellow man,
Do not judge us
Too harshly.


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