Die Hoffnung der Welt, a close reading

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National Poetry Month isn’t over yet, and I happened to come across Tony Kushner referencing a line from a Bertold Brecht poem, and I thought I’d look in to it a bit. The poem is called “Die Hoffnung der Welt”, which is “The Hope of the World”, and the reference is to the last lines:

Aber das Mitleid der Unterdrückten mit den Unterdrückten ist unentbehrlich.
Es ist die Hoffnung der Welt.

I’ll give the Google Translate translation, just to begin with:

But the pity of the oppressed for the oppressed is essential.
It's the hope of the world.

Before I get too close to the words, I should start with the title and closing line. “Die Hoffnung der Welt” is, I think, generally a religious phrase—the Hope of the World is Christ, or is Salvation, or the Church. But Brecht, of course, does not find hope in religion or in Gd. He doesn’t, in the poem, seem to find much hope anywhere, at first. It begins Ist die Unterdrückung so alt wie das Moos an den Teichen? “Is oppression as old as the moss on the ponds?” And then goes on to talk about the oppression of pyramid-builders in ancient Egypt, four thousand years ago, and concludes, probably, yes, oppression is that old.

In the second verse, he says: when it’s one child that is about to be hit by a car, people grab that child and save him—not just the Good People, but anyone would do that. But when it’s a mass of people suffering, nobody will do that, not even the Good. Auch die Gütigen gehen vorbei und sind hernach ebenso gütig, wie sie waren, bevor sie vorbeigegangen sind. Even the Good go right past and are afterwards just as good as the were before they went past.

The third stanza begins: The more there are who suffer, the more their suffering appears natural, and the sufferers themselves begin to believe it. It becomes, he says, natural not only to ignore the suffering of other people, but even to ignore your own suffering, since after all, that’s what life is, isn’t it? Everyone, he says, that has dwelt on these grievances at all, has had to push down that impulse, that compassion. But, he concludes, the oppressed’s compassion for the oppressed is unentbehrlich, it can’t be done away with. And that, he says, is the titular hope of the world.

I want to focus on that word: unentbehrlich. It seems to be translated as either indispensable or essential, and I think indispensable is slightly better but still doesn’t get across the connotations in this poem, or at least what I take from it. Entbehren means to lack or miss something, or to do with out it; unentbehrlich is a slightly awkward construction that draws attention to the initial un. It’s not just that it’s crucial, or essential, or necessary, it’s that it’s not inessential, that it is not un-necessary. But more than that—if a thing is entbehrlich then we would miss it but we could do without it; if it is instead unentbehrlich then the void of its absence would be too much.

And in fact, what he’s saying in the middle stanza is precisely that we do get along without it. And right before the line, he says: Alle, die über die Mißstände nachgedacht haben, lehnen es ab, an das Mitleid der einen mit den andern zu appellieren. Everyone—everyone!—who has thought about the grievances has ablehnen, to reject or refuse, the appeal of the sympathy of one with another. That’s another odd little phrase there, that comes back, so let me look at Mitleid. Leid is sorrow (as in es tut mir leid, a first-semester German phrase meaning more or less I’m sorry). So mitleid is together-sorrow, or sympathy, but that mit draws attention (well, my attention, anyway) to the idea that it’s sorrow “with”, not just sorrow. I mean sympathy is, inherently, sympathy with someone, and compassion also requires an object of that compassion, but the with in mitleid draws attention to that.

So he says: everyone who has thought about it must reject the appeal of that with-sorrow, of one person with another person. But, he concludes, it is that with-sorrow—and here it is not one with another but the repetition das Mitleid der Unterdrückten mit den Unterdrückten, the downtrodden with the downtrodden, that can’t be unentberlich. And… there’s an ambiguity there, isn’t there?

Earlier in the third stanza, he writes: Und die Leidenden selber teilen diese Härte gegen sich/und lassen es an Güte fehlen sich selber gegenüber. And the sufferers (here is lied without the mit) themselves share this hardness and lack (lassen not entbehren) kindness toward themselves. And this is a hell of a reflexive sentence—selber and gegen sich and then sich selber gegenüber. Brecht is pounding on the idea that (in this sentence) the people don’t have sympathy for themselves. In the later sentence, he could say das Mitleid der Unterdrückten mit den Unterdrückten sich selber, but he chooses not to. That means that grammatically, he could be referring to two different groups of the oppressed, or to the same group of all of them.

I think this is the heart of the poem, for me, at least today, that perhaps missing sich selber and the mit on the leid. It’s not that those pushed down in one way can pity themselves or they can have fellow feeling for those pushed down in some other way. It’s both/and. That’s what you can’t do without, and that’s the hope of the world: that in active compassion for yourself you can learn compassion for others, and that in connecting with others who have been held down you can learn compassion for yourself under those oppressions you experience. And this is why it’s not just important or essential but unentberlich, un-leave-out-able.

But now I have another question. At the opening of the poem, he asks about moss on ponds, and says: it’s not avoidable. So what is the difference between saying that moss on ponds is not avoidable (nicht vermeidbar) and saying it’s unavoidable (unvermeidlich)? And why is das Mitleid (the sympathy or compassion or sorrow-together-with) unentbehrlich rather than nicht entbehrlich? Is the inevitability of moss on ponds quantitatively different than the non-inessentialness of compassion? And if so… how? And if not, how could it not be?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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