Brecht’s “The Life of Galileo” – Encountering Conflict

Brecht’s “The Life of Galileo” – Encountering Conflict

This not a new text in VCE but had been previously used as part of the Literature course, almost 15 years ago. Already, I can hear the sound of pattering feet heading off to the book list searching for a study guide that will help give you some seminal reading of the play script. Equally, you may be searching on the Internet for the “The Life of Galileo” by Bertolt Brecht in the number of different guises – the search terms matter as you will find literally hundreds of thousands of sites unless you are quite direct in your search. So what are you looking for and why?

Conflict? What forms of conflict? How do they manifest themselves? Through whom? Through what? Any why? Is any resolution to that conflict a compromise or a consensus? Is the conflict prolonged, and if “Yes”, then how, why and to what purpose?

Advice? Some pre-thinking does help, but so does some “unalienated reading” – I use that term for a reason, as Brecht’s own reading of his works comes with the previso that the current and prevailing historical context defines how you will respond to the play.

So …

  1. Don’t run to the study guide first … do that last!
  2. Read the play script first and make your own set of notes and annotations as you read.
  3. Seek out questions to ask both of yourself and of others, and do record your thoughts.
  4. Highlight passages of interest, identify phrases that catch your attention. What made you laugh and why? What made you re-read and why? What were the longest speeches and who made them about what? What was their significance to you?
  5. Annotate the margins of your own text, remembering that you are in the 21st Century and that you have a voice and and mind that can see and respond to the narrative as you see it, not necessarily as a “study guide” would see it!
  6. Summarise what you think the play is about in 50 words and no more! Yes 50 words!
  7. Search the Internet once you are finished.

You might like to know that Google has:

  • Some 727,000 references to “The Life of Galileo” (December 2012)
  • “The Life of Galileo” “VCE” – 420
  • “The Life of Galileo” “VCE English” – 52
  • “The Life of Galileo” “VCE” “Encountering Conflict” – 6
  • “The Life of Galileo” “Brecht” – 337,000
  • “Life of Galileo” “Brecht” – 684,000
  • “Life of Galileo” “Brecht” “study guide” – 295,000
  • “Life of Galileo” “Script” “Brecht” – 253,000
  • “Life of Galileo” “Scene Summary” “Brecht” – 25
  • “Life of Galileo” “Brecht” “Synopsis” – 352,000
  • “Brecht’s Galileo” – 13,700
  • “Brecht” “Galileo” “Analytical essay” – 642
  • Etc., etc., etc.

So what does some preliminary research tell you as a VCE student?

Trying to cope with limited experience, “encountering conflict” in the vast array of information that is available about “Galileo Galilei”, his trials and tribulations, his importance to science, the myths about the man, about “his” cosmology … about your understanding of the cost of truth. Then of course there is “Brecht’s “Galileo” …

Is “truth” a commodity to be bought and sold? Is it “immutable” (unchangeable) or is it flexible and bent according to the authority that “owns” “the truth”? Is a “truth” (any “truth”) worth dying for? Is any “truth” worth lying for? Can we separate Brecht’s Galileo the “scientist” from Brecht’s Galileo “the human being”? Or is there another “Galileo” from which we can learn? Is any truth “owned”? Do you have “faith” in “the truth”? The “truth of science”? The truth of “religion”? The “truth of truth”? How strong is that “faith”?

And now the  play; a fiction set to educate, entertain and force the reader or watcher to draw their own conclusions about just how a time of technological change can uproot existing belief systems and individual ethics and bring all that we know into doubt. Where “truth” may be demonstrated to be different from belief and faith in things past, determined simply as a means to survive, to find a fixed point, a stasis in a world which offers only flux and chaos, in which the benefit of hindsight continually re-writes what had been considered immutable as though it was one more step on a much longer road which has no clear ending.

The audience (surely?) must not leave the play as an indifferent or apathetic observer? She or he may need to take sides, to consider (or even to commit) to a moral and ethical position that they may not have previously chosen. But which side? But whose side? With what consequences for their “personal” truth?

 

Posted in VCE English

Ransom by David Malouf

“Ransom” by David Malouf – Allusion and Reversal?

Imitation is the best form of flattery! In writing “Ransom”, David Malouf was consciously paying homage to what is considered as one of the first stories to have been committed to writing, Homer’s “Iliad”. In doing so, perhaps there are questions of originality that might be brought to the reader’s attention, but Malouf’s originality (such as any fictional narrative may need this) is very much at the  level of both form and substance that he crafts into and onto Homer’s narrative of Achilles’ and Priam’s quest for peace of mind, in a world that will deny them this.

Nor is Malouf’s rendering of the story a lame parody or superficial imitation … a moment of ritual and ceremonial significance in the Iliad, previously written without full psychological explanation or detailed description becomes an opportunity for Malouf to examine the unsated  human facility for grief.

Malouf’s subtlety is not only through the addition of extra characters and making the interior voice of each accessible and transparent.  The moment of supplication is, where Priam nobly “begs” for Hector’s body, reversed or “flipped”:

“Father,” he says again, allowed this time, overcome with tenderness for this old man and his trembling frailty.”Pelueus! Father!” The great Achilles, eyes aswarm, is weeping. With a cry he falls on one knee, and leans out to clasp his father’s robe. Automedon and Alcimus, their sword is now drawn a gleaming, leap to his side.

 “Sir!”

Achilles, startled, looks again.

The man is a stranger. Noble, yes, even in his plane row, but not at all like Peleus. What tricks the heart can play! The man is clearly not his father, but for half 100 beats of his heart is father has been truly present to him, and he continues now to feel tenderly vulnerable to all those emotions in him that belong to the sacred bond.

Which is why, to the puzzlement of his two attendants, he does not immediately take the interloper by the throat. But enquires, almost mildly, ‘ But who are you? How did you get into this hut? ‘ as if, who ever he might be, there was something uncanny in the strangers appearing so suddenly, and unnoticed, in a place thick with his followers.

The man is a stranger. Noble, yes, even in his plane row, but not at all like Peleus. What tricks the heart can play! The man is clearly not his father, but for half 100 beats of his heart is father has been truly present to him, and he continues now to feel tenderly vulnerable to all those emotions in him that belong to the sacred bond.

Which is why, to the puzzlement of his two attendants, he does not immediately take the interloper by the throat. But enquires, almost mildly, ‘ But who are you? How did you get into this hut? ‘ as if, who ever he might be, there was something uncanny in the strangers appearing so suddenly, and unnoticed, in a place thick with his followers.

The old man totters and looks as if he might fall. He glances apprehensively at the younger of the two men who faced with drawn swords. Alcimus, lionlike, can barely restrain himself from springing.

Priam steadies himself. The occasion has moved too quickly, and in a way he is not prepared for. He has come here to kneel to Achilles. Instead, the great Achilles is kneeling to him. Still, the moment has arrived. He must go on.

‘ I Priam, King of Troy, ‘ he says simply. ‘ I had come to you, Achilles, just as you see me, just as I am, to ask you, man to man, as a father, for the body of my son. To ransom and bring him home. ‘

 Priam closes his eyes. Now, he thinks. Now, they will strike. (See pp. 171 – 175)

In Homer’s Iliad the act of supplication is described as follows:

With these words Mercury went back to high Olympus. Priam sprang from his chariot to the ground, leaving Idaeus where he was, in charge of the mules and horses. The old man went straight into the house where Achilles, loved of the gods, was sitting. There he found him with his men seated at a distance from him: only two, the hero Automedon, and Alcimus of the race of Mars, were busy in attendance about his person, for he had but just done eating and drinking, and the table was still there. King Priam entered without their seeing him, and going right up to Achilles he clasped his knees and kissed the dread murderous hands that had slain so many of his sons.

As when some cruel spite has befallen a man that he should have killed some one in his own country, and must fly to a great man’s protection n a land of strangers, and all marvel who see him, even so did Achilles marvel as he beheld Priam. The others looked one to another and marvelled also, but Priam besought Achilles saying, “Think of your father, O Achilles like unto the gods, who is such even as I am, on the sad threshold of old age. It may be that those who dwell near him harass him, and there is none to keep war and ruin from him. Yet when he hears of you being still alive, he is glad, and his days are full of hope that he shall see his dear son come home to him from Troy; but I, wretched man that I am, had the bravest in all Troy for my sons, and there is not one of them left. I had fifty sons when the Achaeans came here; nineteen of them were from a single womb,and the others were borne to me by the women of my household. The greater part of them has fierce Mars laid low, and Hector, him who was alone left, him who was the guardian of the city and ourselves, him have you lately slain; therefore I am now come to the ships of the Achaeans to ransom his body from you with a great ransom. Fear, O Achilles, the wrath of heaven; think on your own father and have compassion upon me, who am the more pitiable, for I have steeled myself as no man yet has ever steeled himself before me, and have raised to my lips the hand of him who slew my son.”

Any reading of Malouf’s “Ransom” would not necessarily require a knowledge of Homer’s original to the extent that any reading of a novel is not explicitly a history lesson; Malouf’s “Ransom” should to that extent stand on it own merits, as should Homer’s Iliad. A dry, word-for-word comparison between the texts would require greater time, and yet the intertextuality and allusions of supplication that Malouf draws on and then boldly reverses the symbolic order of supplication does require acknowledgement.

As Malouf writes, in reference to Priam (p. 176):

He does not kneel. The occasion for that has passed. So the whole scene, as he had imagined and acted it out in his mind, does not take place.

Where Priam had previously knelt, Achilles has knelt. The roles of the original actors in the act of supplication have been reversed.

To what purpose? Fathers and their sons? Unresolved conflict? Mutual grief? Justice? Compassion as an antidote to pity?

Or as one reviewer has noted:

Homer, through The Iliad, makes us remember Achilles and King Priam, and Malouf’s novel helps us better understand why we should.

Posted in VCE English