Thinking in Extremes

by Kelvin Smith

An exhibition called Benjamin und Brecht/Denken in Extremen officially opens at seven o’clock this evening at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. It draws material from the Walter Benjamin Archive and the Bertolt Brecht Archive, both housed at the Akademie der Künste, and, according to the website blurb, it includes key documents illustrating the pivotal and conflictual points in the relationship between the two men.

Publicity for the exhibition bears the famous picture of the chess game under the knorrigen Birnbaum in the garden of the house at Skovsbostrand in Svendborg where Brecht lived in exile, itself a potent symbol of the mix of collaboration and conflict in the relationhip. The pear tree is gone now and I believe I am one of the last people to have seen it. I shall explain.

I stayed at the Svendborg Brechthuset in May 2014, and on the last day of my visit the trustee and a friend were tidying up the garden. They decided that the old tree was beyond saving and the time had come to cut it down. This happened quickly and the trunk and few remaining branches were sawn up into logs for the next winter’s fire. Some of the more rotten pieces were thrown on a pile to rot down for compost. I asked if I might save a small bit of branch from the tree, and they agreed, and then moved on to other tasks required in the early Danish summer.

Perhaps a piece of the tree would add to the narrative and, if so, I would be happy to provide one as a late addition to the exhibition. I do not know what this small object would add to the story, but I do know that on that day in May 2014 I felt very strongly that the ending of that tree was a significant event. It felt like a final sign of the passing of the twentieth century and the start of a new era, though one in which the thoughts that prospered under that pear tree might still provided memories, myths and methodologies useful in the coming extreme times.

Brecht mentions the Birnbaum in Naturgedichte I, a poem that ends by reminding us that in some circumstances it is a good idea to live in houses with several exits. Benjamin and Brecht knew this only too well as, sadly, do so many others in our own times.

Hat das kleine Haus wohl im ganzen drei Ausgänge.
Das ist gut für Bewohner, die gegen das Unrecht sind
Und von der Polizei geholt werden können.