Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Galileo - Bertolt Brecht

1966; 150 pages {8-41 : Introduction; 42-129 is the play itself; 133-150 : "Writing The Truth - Five Difficulties", an essay by Bertolt Brecht}. Genre : Dramatic Play. Overall Rating : C+ (the play rates a "B"; the rest rates a "D").
The book's plot centers around Galileo's invention (or more accurately, his plagiarism) of the telescope, and the impact this had on himself and on various institutions.
What's To Like...
Brecht gives a very even-handed presentation of Galileo-the-scientist, and Science-the profession. Being a chemist, it was interesting to me to see these two topics in such a light. In the play, there are a wide variety of responses to the introduction of the telescope.
For Galileo, it starts out as simply a money-maker. He is told about the Dutch already producing small telescopes, and he duplicates the design and sells it to the city of Venice as if it were his own idea. Later, he uses it to observe the moon and planets, and discovers that Aristotle was wrong - the earth revolves around the sun; not vice versa.
The city officials are only concerned with its marketabiity. It is seen as an amusement at best, or else a device for Peeping Toms. The government sees it as a military breakthrough - they will now be able to spot enemy fleets hours before those fleets see them. The church couldn't care one way or the other, unless it contradicts Scripture, and their interpretation thereof. The latter of course leads to a sharp conflict between the Astronomer and Rome.
What's Not To Like...
In a word, the Introduction, written by one Eric Bentley, sucks. Here's his first sentence :
"Brecht was all wrong about the seventeenth centruy in general and about Galileo Galilei in particular."
Wow! That really makes you want to read the book, eh? Bentley then spends 40 more boring pages, using Miltonesque verbiage, telling you why he's miffed at Brecht. In the end, it boils down to this : Brecht's Galileo isn't noble enough for Bentley. This one is a plagiarist, naive, and when it comes to facing the Inquisition's "methods", quite the coward.
Sorry, Eric. In Galileo, Brecht is exploring the inevitable tension between dogmatism and the search for truth. It's not meant to be historically accurate, any more than, say, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Get over it.
Oh, and the epilogic essay by Brecht is boring too.
A word or two about Bertolt Brecht...
Brecht (1898-1956) was born in Germany and was a lifelong Marxist and outspoken anti-Fascist. The latter appellation became hazardous to his health as Hitler came to power in the 1930's. So he chose to emigrate, but Hitler kept invading countries, necessitating multiple moves by Brecht. He went from Germany to Denmark, then to Sweden, then to Finland, and then to the USA. Here, as a self-proclaimed Marxist, he ended up being a target of the House of Un-American Activities. So his final move was (back) to East Germany. All because of his beliefs. Which is quite sad. Freedom-of-thought is ever the bane of dogma.
But I digress. I enjoyed Galileo, and even read it twice. Partly to better grasp the themes of the book, and partly cuz it was only 80 pages long. If you believe the Pope is infallible, or that Seeking After Truth is as noble an endeavor as you can have (and I fall into that latter category), then this book will challenge your beliefs.
By: Bertolt Brecht
Amazon Price: $7.95


Unknown said...

I love the cover photo you put up.

"Lads, I just figured out the sun doesn't move! What say you to a good stiff stout, to celebrate?"

Amanda said...

In general, I pay little attention to forewords, introductions, and commentaries. Oftentimes they are an excuse for academic snobbery. Nabokov often writes his own forewords and such, under a pseudonym, in order to satirize the traditional introduction.

hamilcar barca said...

Jason -

this was one i had to scan myself. all the existing images at Google were pathetically small.

your observation inspired me to research the photo. i'm pretty sure it is of Charles Laughton, who apparently both translated and starred in the play. and that hint of a Mona Lisa smile on his mug does seem to say, "Libations, s'il vous plait!"

hamilcar barca said...

Amanda -

I normally skip the forewards and epilogues too. but this time, since the foreward was half as long as the entire play, i thought i'd break habit and read Bentley's commentary. what a big waste of time. i like Nabokov's idea. Bentley didn't do Brecht any favors here.