Brecht and Laotse’s gatekeeper

by Kelvin Smith

Bertolt Brecht was born on this day in 1898 and he had interesting relationships with publishers throughout his life. He didn’t write about them much but he did write an intriguing poem that might obliquely say something about the role of the publisher/editor in developing a writer’s talent. His Legende von der Entstehung des Buches Taoteking auf dem Weg des Laotse in die Emigration, was begun in the early 1920s but not published until the late 1930s.

The poem tells how, at the age of seventy, Laotse is on his travels when he is stopped by a customs official who makes him write down his teachings – eighty-one sayings – before he can go on his way. The poem ends with these words.

Aber rühmen wir nicht nur den Weisen
Dessen Name auf dem Buche prangt!
Denn man muß dem Weisen seine Weisheit erst entreißen.
Darum sei der Zöllner auch bedankt:
Er hat sie ihm abverlangt.

It’s not just the wise man whose name appears on the book who should be praised, but also the person who gets him to write down his wisdom. The role of the editor, agent, and publisher is important in making sure the ideas of even the greatest minds reach a wider audience.

Bertolt Brecht, Legende von der Entstehung des Buches Taoteking auf dem Weg des Laotse in die Emigration, 1938