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Withdrawn their sexual organs from the bargain: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:

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.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

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

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2015

In the Shadow of the Storm

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Measure for Measure

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Israel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Camera on Every Cop

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“The campaign music stopped. Hundreds of people, their faces now warped by the dread of a third bomb, began running for cover.”
Photograph © Guy Martin/Panos.
Article
Part Neither, Part Both·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Eight months pregnant I told an old woman sitting beside me on the bus that the egg that hatched my baby came from my wife’s ovaries. I didn’t know how the old woman would take it; one can never know. She was delighted: That’s like a fairy tale!”
Mother with Children, by Gustav Klimt © akg-images
Article
What Recovery?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Between 2007 and 2010, Albany’s poverty rate jumped 12 points, to a record high of 39.9 percent. More than two thirds of Albany’s 76,000 residents are black, and since 2010, their poverty rate has climbed even higher, to nearly 42 percent.”
Photograph by Will Steacy
Article
Rag Time·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

From a May 23 commencement address delivered at Hofstra University. Doctorow died on Tuesday. He was 84.
“We are a deeply divided nation in danger of undergoing a profound change for the worse.”
Photograph by Giuseppe Giglia
Article
The Trouble with Israel·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“We think we are the only people in the world who live with threat, but we have to work with regional leaders who will work with us. Bibi is taking the country into unprecedented international isolation.”
Photograph by Adam Golfer

Acres of mirrors in Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City:

10

Rhesus macaques, who normally are not self-aware, will, following brain surgery, examine their genitals in a mirror. Similar evidence of self-awareness was previously limited to higher primates, dolphins, magpies, and an elephant named Happy.

In New Hampshire, Huckleberry Finn was arrested for sexual assault.

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