A couple of Commonplace Book Entries that resonate with one another across a century and a culture. Bertolt Brecht on the anonymous workers who drive history (but are forgotten) and George Eliot on ordinary lives.
Questions from A Worker Who Reads
Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the name of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished.
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song,
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years’ War. Who
Else won it?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?
So many reports.
So many questions.
“Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters” in a translation by Michael Hamburger
From an interview with Prof. Simon Reader (could there be any better name for an Eliot scholar?) at the New York Public Library blog.
Q: The subtitle of Middlemarch—“A Study of Provincial Life”—seems to be a direct description of her project and her method: an almost scientific examination the everyday. Was this approach to fiction avant garde at the time?
A: Certainly. Eliot was one of the first major English novelists to be concerned with representing reality as it was, in a kind of documentary fashion, as unadorned as possible. English Realism had already existed earlier in the century with Jane Austen, as well as Thackeray, although he’s dubiously realistic, and Dickens—again, kind of realistic, kind of not. Eliot really held herself back from introducing any kind of overly romantic, or sensational, or supernatural elements into her fiction. At the end of Middlemarch, she gives what could be construed as a thesis statement, saying “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” She’s trying to elevate everyday life, to elevate the life of the common person in all of their hidden obscurity, to magnify the value of small, ordinary actions.
And last, ordinary lives in painting (was looking for Millet’s “The Gleaners” but found Jules Breton’s “The Weeders” at the Met’s site.) Similar theme and style.