Chapter 5: Rethinking Brecht's Split Character: Dialectics, Social Ontology and Literary Technique

Consciousness, Literature & the Arts, January 4, 2014 | Go to article overview

Chapter 5: Rethinking Brecht's Split Character: Dialectics, Social Ontology and Literary Technique


"[T]he destruction, fragmentation, atomization of the individual psyche is a fact... "

5.1Introduction

Brecht's use of two distinct personas in the same character-that is his use of the so called 'split character'-is quite prevalent in his work. As Walter Sokel points out, the split personality is a major theme in A Man 's a Man, The Seven Deadly Sins, The Good Woman of Setzuan and Puntila (Sokel 1964). It is the argument of this chapter that conventional interpretations of Brecht's use of this technique are inadequate because they fail to consider Brecht's social ontology. This resulted from the perspective taken by Walter Sokel (1964) and Martin Esslin (1961) who approached Brecht primarily using a psychological model of literary interpretation as opposed to a socially philosophical orientated one. In the following sections, I re-evaluate Brecht's use of the split character from the perspective of Brecht as a Marxist philosopher. Specifically, I will show that Brecht's use of the split character is a device employed to highlight a dialectical antagonism of bourgeois society2, for example the antagonism between the individual-being (i.e. egoistic being) and the species-being (Gattungswesen). An in-depth analysis of Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan3 will demonstrate how this antagonism plays out in Brecht's work.

The chapter begins with an overview of the traditional interpretations of Brecht's split character and then moves to a discussion of Brecht's social ontology in order to reveal his understanding and belief in the aforementioned antagonism. In the following section, an analysis of Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan (Brecht & Bentley 1986) will demonstrate that Brecht's use of the split character is a literary device used to highlight the antagonism between the individual-being and the species-being.

5.2The Split Character

According to Martin Esslin, the presence of the split character in Brecht's work is the result of a split in Brecht's own character (Esslin 1961). Specifically, Esslin argues that in Brecht we find ambivalence to the question of what has primacy, instinct or reason. Tom Kuhn and Steve Giles also find this tension between instinct and reason in Brecht. However, to them Brecht shows preference to the instinctive nature of creativity over reason, at least in his early writing (Kuhn & Giles 2003). Nevertheless, this tension, according to Esslin, is the creative tension which nourishes Brecht's work (Esslin 1961).

Sokel, on the other hand, argues that the split character represents the relationship between Brecht's "deep-seated though oft-denied sense of the tragic [and] his political utopianism" (Sokel 1962: 128). According to Sokel, Brecht's sense of the tragic is revealed in the split character when the true nature (benevolent nature) of the character is self-denied in order to achieve some kind of benevolent end. Sokel illustrates this point in the split between Shen Te and Shui Ta in The Good Woman of Setzuan. In the play, Shen Te, the charitable and good natured protagonist is faced with external social pressures which make it very difficult for her to remain good and charitable. For example, the selfishness of a gang of freeloaders and her own pregnancy create demands on her limited resources that jeopardize her ability to continually be charitable. In an effort to prevent these external social pressures from inhibiting her altruistic goals, Shen Te invents an alter ego, Shui Ta. Under the guise of Shui Ta, Shen Te employs deceptive, hurtful, callous and selfish means to eliminate or circumvent the external social pressures that are threatening her altruistic goals. She does this in order to save her charitable goals and thus preserve her true nature. However, these means are at odds with the ends they are designed to achieve. As Sokel puts it, "[the] means defeat the end they are to serve" (Sokel 1962: 128). This use of selfish and hurtful means to achieve benevolent ends and the apparent necessity of doing so in bourgeois society is, according to Sokel, Brecht's sense of the tragic. …

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