“Wichtig zu Lernen”: Einverständnis and
Body Politics in Brecht’s Lehrstücke
Adviser: Devin A. Fore
Jacob T. Denz
“The thesis contributes greatly both to the intellectual climate of the undergraduate population and to a general sense of camaraderie, and it was one of the factors that attracted me to choose Princeton.”
Like so many seniors, I returned to Princeton in September already seized with a great emotional investment, and no small amount of nebulous and as yet poorly directed anxiety, regarding my senior thesis. I had great plans, a brilliant adviser, and an at least healthy dose of academic ambition.
I lacked only a topic. Regrettably, in the early weeks of the fall semester I wasted many precious minutes of my brilliant adviser’s time and energy proclaiming that I wanted to write something on “the body” during the era of Germany’s Weimar Republic. Clearly, this would not do. My eventual topic, the elaborate verbal and nonverbal machinations of bodies, their conflagration and dissection, in Bertolt Brecht’s series of short theater pieces known as the Lehrstücke, grew out of a number of conversations with my adviser in which he suggested a wide array of literary and critical texts for my examination. Having never planned anything approaching the magnitude of a thesis research project, I was extremely grateful for direction as to reading material, especially given that virtually every aspect of the topic, from Brecht and the history of embodiment in theater to the etymology of the word Einverständnis, was quite new to me. I ultimately argued that the pieces, which serve the apparently straightforward purpose of promoting Communist revolution, actually proceed according to a very complex dialectic of negotiation between material bodies and the image or ideal to which they are supposed to conform. In the politically charged theatrical and historical context of these pieces, this ideal frequently takes the form of conceptual and physical solidarity among many bodies incorporated into a greater collective agency. I further argued that the resulting approach to embodiment differed from those circulated by theorists both of “traditional” and of “postmodern” theater, terms that remained perhaps too vague to provide the mileage I might have liked.
Needless to say, the different parts of this argument did not arise together all at once, and it would have been impossible to predetermine its content. That is to say that in writing my thesis I did not begin with a “thesis.” Even when committing to a more or less definitive overall argument did eventually become necessary, my concern was chiefly that it have the scope and specificity to allow for the sorts of readings of individual pieces in which I was most interested. Surely this approach is more appropriate to some types of projects and some departments than others, and perhaps I should have proceeded differently. The preponderance of my academic work up to that point had consisted of what I reify in my mind as “close reading,” and I was thus interested in pursuing a project that played as much as possible to what I perceived to be my strength in this area. There were both advantages and drawbacks to this approach. I do believe that I produced some good readings, one of which may even constitute an original interpretation worthy of the consideration of others who take an academic interest in the Lehrstücke. On the other hand, I found it extremely challenging to craft the sustained “global” argument that eventually became my introductory chapter, and even more so to ensure that it bore some relation to my readings in the chapters that followed, readings that often recycled the language of the main argument but without always advancing it in any clear direction. The pursuit of coherence and overall intellectual thrust in a project whose length was more than double that of anything I had written to that point was probably the greatest challenge of my thesis process.
As the project was first taking shape, I availed myself of my adviser’s expertise largely by soliciting his recommendations as to reading material in the various disciplines with which my thesis was or might have been concerned. For a time, my research chiefly involved reading these books in my carrel, a soundproof, subterranean dungeon in which there was no threat of pleasant diversion. From this reading resulted an expansion of my thinking about the topic to include a focus on the formal elements of theater. The final product may not have perfectly integrated this arena with the continental philosophy I also sought to employ and with which I was much more familiar, but I am sure that I learned a great deal from approaching the question in a way that was new to me.
As I began to write chapters, my thesis benefited from review by a number of readers in several different contexts. I highly recommend the Program in European Cultural Studies thesis colloquium, and thus the certificate program as a whole, to anyone whose interests lie in this area; the requirement that I submit a chapter for examination by my peers in February turned out to be quite helpful, if only because it meant that I had to have at least one chapter written by February! The German department also organized a thesis colloquium that allowed me to receive helpful advice on my introductory chapter from others engaged in the process of writing a thesis. Regardless of the field, I would strongly suggest that anyone engaged in writing a thesis take any opportunity to have part or all of it reviewed by a fresh pair of eyes. It is very easy to lapse into analysis whose basic comprehensibility depends upon the terms set out in one’s previous discussions with one’s adviser, and a third party is often in the best position to catch these moments. I am glad that I had the opportunity to have my work reviewed by my peers but wish that I also had discussed my work with relevant faculty members beyond my adviser. After my thesis was submitted, I received comments from my second reader concerning important dimensions and bodies of scholarship I had overlooked whose incorporation would have made the project much stronger. I ultimately learned a great deal from this experience as my department’s oral examination gave my adviser, my second reader, and me a chance to discuss these issues. However, I suspect I could have learned even more had I simply taken the time earlier in the process to discuss my work with more faculty members to whose research interests it was relevant, as this might well have provided the impetus for a more thoroughgoing review of the scholarship on my part.
One challenge that I believe confronts every thesis writer, at least in the humanities, consists in the tension between the thesis as a more or less “finished” product that is at least officially expected to represent a contribution to knowledge in a particular field, and the thesis as an opportunity to explore ideas and combine texts in a less “rigorous,” more open-ended way. In principle, this tension is present in every piece of academic work, but it seems especially pronounced in the thesis given the weight that the University places upon it as a sort of culmination of a student’s academic career. I genuinely love the requirement that every single Princeton student complete a thesis, not least because it ensures that I will be able to have at least two different conversations with any alum I meet. I believe that the thesis contributes greatly both to the intellectual climate of the undergraduate population and to a general sense of camaraderie, and it was one of the factors that attracted me to choose Princeton. Nevertheless, I am skeptical that any “finished” piece of work, academic or otherwise, can truly represent or even summarize the “results” of a liberal arts education.
I preferred and still prefer to conceptualize the thesis as a very unique aspect of my education rather than as its final evaluation. In a way, this lifted some of the pressure: Unlike some Princetonians, I am in no danger of receiving offers to have any part of my thesis published, whether by Random House or by Princeton University Press. But it also meant following the path of a set of questions whose contours were not determined with an eye to filling any strategically chosen pre-existing “niche.” (That is what graduate school is for!) This is a luxury I am glad Princeton afforded me, and although my thesis certainly did not revolutionize Brecht scholarship, it stands for me as the image of a process through which I grew as a human being.
“Wichtig zu Lernen”: Einverständnis and
Body Politics in Brecht’s Lehrstücke
Jacob T. Denz
Devin A. Fore
Assistant Professor of German
“His readings provided a number of new perspectives and ways of thinking about work that I thought I already knew.”
When choosing a topic for your thesis, foremost in your mind should be the matter of how you want to be spending your time. I mean this in a very literal way. Writing a thesis will occupy an immense amount of your time and before you decide on a subject, you should give some thought to how you want to be spending these hours. Your research will of course be motivated by an intellectual inquiry, which will eventually coalesce around a set of concrete questions and texts, but before you dedicate yourself to these lofty concerns, take a step back and consider the time that you will spend carrying out the research. Jacob Denz rightly cautioned against fixating too much on the final product of your labor. Think some about the course of your labor itself. Writing a thesis will require an obsession, and obsessions are both intellectual and material. Many of us are so convinced by the cliché of the austere, ascetic scholar that we forget that the academic enterprise has to be motivated by a genuine passion and sustained by our daily habits. There is the life of the mind, but the mind also is connected to a body.
So how do you want to spend your time? Theses can take you places, to collections and libraries in foreign cities. If you’re so inclined, consider applying to your department or to the Office of the Dean of the College for funding that will allow you to travel for your research. Or perhaps you prefer submerging yourself into a novel on the couch over the contingencies of digging in archives? You may like an author, but can you spend two semesters of your life reading her works? Do you enjoy watching films more than reading microforms or interviewing editors? If your research requires working in one or several foreign languages, do you love the language enough to spend day after day immersed in it? Take a creative approach to your research. For all of the unforeseeable factors that you will encounter in the course of writing your thesis, one thing it guaranteed: You will log countless hours producing it and so it behooves you to reflect now on the passions and material habits that will carry you when your brain is fatigued from swimming in information.
A corollary piece of advice is not to get too attached to that punchy argument that you developed when you first began exploring your topic. You will likely have to adapt your approach and change your arguments as you gather evidence. Writing a thesis is an inductive process, and the trick is to keep your research focused and directed while simultaneously keeping the range of your inquiry open. Permit yourself to drift some, since new ideas will come into view when you stray from the course; but this drift must be offset by vigilant and regular assessments of the territory that you’ve covered. The faster you can recognize that your topic or argument has changed, the better. When reviewing your work, don’t get too attached to what you’ve already written. At those moments when you take stock, you will inevitably have to cut portions of what you have written, as painful as this may be. And if, when editing, you find it too difficult to “kill your darlings,” as William Faulkner put it, bring your pages to us, your advisers, and we’ll kill them for you. A second perspective is an indispensable asset when writing, and your adviser, who will likely be more familiar with both your subject matter as well as the suitable strategies for writing about it, is an important resource. Jacob’s suggestion to mobilize as many readers as possible is great advice, since each of these readers will help you streamline your argument, provide you with a fresh perspective on your subject, and remind you of what is exciting and novel about your research at moments when you’ve all but completely forgotten what interested you in this material in the first place.
Setting up weekly appointments with your adviser is a good idea, as this will establish a productive rhythm for you. I was extremely impressed with Jacob whenever we met during my office hours. Sometime we would simply bandy about new ideas that had emerged in the course of Jacob’s research; at other times our meetings were more focused, when we would talk through a chapter that he had submitted before our appointment. Although Jacob was writing about a German avant-garde playwright whose work I know quite well, Bertolt Brecht, his approach to reading Brecht’s work wasn’t always familiar to me. This meant that as often as I had advice for Jacob during our dialogues, I also had questions. Given the vast and daunting accumulation of secondary scholarship on Brecht’s work, there was little hope that Jacob could master all of this work, so he chose instead to read this scholarship selectively and focus his energies on close readings of several of Brecht’s plays. It was a risk that paid off. I was deeply impressed above all by Jacob’s close formal analyses of the texts, which revealed a mind acutely sensitive to the formal nuances of language. In the end, his readings provided a number of new perspectives and ways of thinking about work that I thought I already knew. Sometimes the ideas that he developed out of these readings mapped onto the existing body of scholarship about Brecht, and other times they deviated from the canonical positions in quite ingenious ways. In the end, the play between these correspondences and divergences produced an extremely original thesis.