No Comment, Quotation — May 31, 2009, 6:37 am

Brecht – On Kant’s Definition of Marriage

marriag1

Den Pakt zu wechselseitigem Gebrauch
Von den Vermögen und Geschlechtsorganen
Den der die Ehe nennt, nun einzumahnen
Erscheint mir dringend und berechtigt auch.

Ich höre, einige Partner sind da säumig.
Sie haben – und ich halt’s nicht für gelogen -
Geschlechtsorgane kürzlich hinterzogen:
Das Netz hat Maschen und sie sind geräumig.

Finish reading the sonnet here

The agreement concerning reciprocal use
Of chattels and sexual organs
Which he calls “marriage,” appears to me
In urgent need of clarification.

From what I hear, some partners are remiss.
They have – I don’t count it a false report –
Withdrawn their sexual organs from the bargain:
The net has holes, and some of them are large.

Only one course remains: go to court
Arrange an attachment of those organs.
And perhaps that will afford the partner occasion

To contemplate that contract more scrupulously.
If he doesn’t give it care, I fear very much
That the sheriff will have to appear.

Bertolt Brecht, Über Kants Definition der Ehe
in der „Metaphysik der Sitten“
first published in Studien (1936) in Gesammelte Werke vol. 4, p. 609 (E. Hauptmann & R. Hill eds. 1967)(S.H. transl.)


In Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals, he literally states, just as Brecht notes, that “sexual intercourse is the reciprocal use that one human being makes of the sexual organs and capacities of another,” he speaks in terms of human sexual capacity as a commodity which is bartered away in a contractual sense in connection with marriage. Moreover, he makes this bargained-for exchange the very essence of marriage: “It is not only admissible that the sexes surrender and accept one another for mutual enjoyment under the condition of marriage, this condition is essential to their doing so.” For Brecht, this is evidence of the commodification of human capacity, which he would understand critically from a Marxist perspective–although Kant in doing so is not drawing upon the facts of a capitalist society but rather upon ancient Germanic law, as incorporated and updated in the legal codes of the Kingdom of Prussia. To modern sensitivities, this view is shocking, and it certainly negates the spiritual values in which marriage as a religious institution is enshrouded. The views are therefore easily mocked and ridiculed, and Brecht does an extraordinarily able job. He’s not being entirely fair to Kant, of course. If we wade carefully through what Kant has written, the conclusion that he is seeking to advance the position of women and to give them rights comparable to those enjoyed by men, anchored moreover in a formal legal setting, becomes clear very quickly. Brecht has good fun with it, just the same.

Listen to Lotte Lenya singing the “Alabama Song,” sometimes also called the “Whiskey Song” or the “Moon of Alabama.” It derives from a poem Brecht first wrote in his Hauspostille and Kurt Weill first set it for the musical Mahagonny (1927) and then adopted it for the opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (1930). It is sung by the prostitute Jenny, and the theme that flows through this song and her character is, of course, the commodification of sex as an attribute of capitalist society. The original lyrics are in Brecht’s very peculiar English.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

leadership
service
integrity
creativity

Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today