I’ve been in eastern Germany on holiday (“the former DDR”, as the Germans seem always to refer to it) and so my thoughts turned to the bard of East Berlin, Bertolt Brecht. I took with me a second-hand copy of a slim volume of Notes from the Calendar, a collection of stories, poems and anecdotes which Brecht had assembled on his return to Germany in 1947, and which seems now to be out of print. It includes some of his more famous poems (for example, “Questions of a Studious Working Man“) and some which deserve to be better known (“Legend of the Origin of the Book Tao Te Ching on Lao Tzu’s Way into Exile”), as well as “The Augsburg Chalk Circle”, a story which is the forerunner of his play The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
But the reason I bought it was for the “Anecdotes of Mr Keuner”, a set of paradoxical stories which I was first introduced to years ago by the critic and provocateur Albert Hunt. One story in particular, “Form and Substance”, reminded me of the present government’s economic programme, and I hope that Methuen, its pubishers, will forgive me for reprinting this Anecdote here:
Form and Substance
Mr K contemplated a painting in which certain objects were given a very arbitrary form. He said: “With some artists it’s the same as with many philosophers when they look at the world. In striving for form, they lose the substance. I once worked for a gardener. He gave me a pair of shears and told me to clip a laurel bush.
The bush grew in a tub and was hired out for festive occasions. So it had to be in the shape of a ball. I immediately set about cutting off the untidy shoots, but however hard and long I tried to make it ball shaped I did not succeed. First I trimmed too much off one side, then too much off the other. When at last it was a ball, it was a very small one. The gardener was disappointed as said: “Yes, that’s a ball, but where’s the laurel?”