On Thinking About Hell

Here’s a little poem by Bertolt Brecht. He left Germany in 1933 when Hitler rose to power, arrived in Southern California in 1941 and then left LA after being summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. This guy knows a thing or two about living in exile.

“On Thinking About Hell”

On thinking about Hell, I gather
My brother Shelley found it was a place
Much like the city of London. I
Who live in Los Angeles and not in London
Find, on thinking about Hell, that it must be
Still more like Los Angeles.

In Hell too
There are, I’ve no doubt, these luxuriant gardens
With flowers as big as trees, which of course wither
Unhesitatingly if not nourished with very expensive water. And fruit markets
with great heaps of fruit, albeit having
Neither smell nor taste. And endless procession of cars
Lighter than their own shadows, faster than
Mad thoughts, gleaming vehicles in which
Jolly-looking people come from nowhere and are nowhere bound.
And houses, built for happy people, therefore standing empty
Even when lived in.

The houses in Hell, too, are not all ugly.
But the fear of being thrown on the street
Wears down the inhabitants of the villas no less than
The inhabitants of the shanty towns.

There are a couple of recent books that have come out on the influx of German writers, musicians and filmmakers during the Nazis’ rise to power in the 1930s and WWII. One of them is Weimar on the Pacific by Ehrhard Bahr and and the other is A Windfall of Musicians by Dorothy Lamb Crawford, which was just recently reviewed in the LA Times (read it here).

I find Brecht’s work incredibly modern and relevant. This poem especially seems to capture some of my own mixed feelings about the city I call home. A couple of years ago, I saw his opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany here in LA. Did you know that the “Alabama Song” made famous by The Doors (“Oh show me the way to the next whiskey bar…”) is originally from this opera and was written by Bert Brecht and Kurt Weil?


~ by Valerie Palmer on July 10, 2009.

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