Swans, Starlings, and the Cessation of Time: A Mediation on Some Passages in Brecht


I am starting this blog on a note of stasis, in the apparent cessation of motion for two cranes conjoined in side-by-side flight, an image Brecht used to suggest love’s temporary suspension of the cynical, profit-driven laws of the City of Mahagonny:

JENNY:  See there two cranes veer by one with another.

JIM: The clouds they pierce have been their lot together.

JENNY: Since from their nest and by their lot escorted.

JIM: From one life to a new life they departed

JENNY: At equal speed with equal miles below them

BOTH: And at each other’s side alone we see them:

JENNY: That so the crane and cloud may share the lovely–

The lonely sky their passage heightens briefly;

JIM: That neither one may tarry back nor either

JENNY: Mark but the ceaseless lolling of the other

Upon the wind that goads them imprecisely

As on their bed of wind they lie more closely.

JIM: What though the wind into the void should lead them

While they live and let nothing yet divide them:

JENNY: So for that while no harm can touch their haven

JIM: So for that while they may be from all places driven

Where storms are lashing or the hunt beginning:

JENNY: So on through sun and moon’s only too similar shining

In one another lost, they find their power

JIM: And fly from?

JENNY: Everyone.

JIM: And bound for where?

JENNY: For nowhere.

JIM: Do you know what time they have spent together?

JENNY: A short time.

JIM: And when will they veer asunder?

JENNY: Soon.

BOTH: So love to lovers keeps eternal noon.

–Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

They give voice, of course, to the ephemerality of this rare suspension of the perception of time, of the speed of flight, and of the fact that both birds, both lovers, have achieved this oneness only through the brief alignment of two solitary trajectories that have come together and hence can come apart again.  It is the awareness of a dreadful temporariness that intrudes on love, which seeks to find in the fleeting the image of eternity.  It is no less that Baudelaire sought to give formulation to as “modernité” itself.  Brecht captured a similar image of this modernity of love in his poem ‘Discovery About a Young Woman’:

Next day’s subdued farewell: she standing there

Cool on the threshold, coolly looked at too

When I observed a grey strand in her hair

And found I could not bring myself to go.

Silent I took her breast, and when she wondered

Why I, who’d been her guest that night in bed

Was not prepared to leave as we had said

I looked her straight between the eyes and answered:

It’s only one more night that I’ll be staying

But use your time: the fact is, you’ve provoked me

Standing poised on the threshold in that way.

And let us speed up what we’ve got to say

For both of us forgot that you’re decaying.

With that my voice gave out, and longing choked me.

And yet though haunted by an awareness of its fragility and temporariness, this experience of cessation is not, I think, presented by Brecht as mere illusion, but rather as an image of a freedom–a miraculous suspension and flight–that is all the more tragic because it is an authentic image of what it would be like to live all our time differently from how we live in the “normality” of our everyday Mahagonnies.  The tragic image of flight also appears in one of Brecht’s politically-themed lyric allegories, his “Song of the Flocks of Starlings,” which refers obliquely to the communists in China who suffered defeat at the hands of the Nationalists:


We set out in the month of October

In the province of Suiyan

We flew fast in a southerly direction straight

Through four provinces, taking five days.

Fly faster, the plains are waiting

The cold increases and

There it is warm.


We set out, eight thousand of us

From the province of Suiyan

We grew by thousands each day, the farther we came

Through four provinces, taking five days.

Fly faster, the plains are waiting

The cold increases and

There it is warm.


Now we are flying over the plain In the province of Hunan

We see great nets beneath us and know

Where we have flown to, taking five days:

The plains have waited

The warmth increases and

Our death is certain.

Again, Brecht laments the tragic outcome, that the birds have flown into the nets where they face certain death.  Yet the end does not negate the extraordinary image of the flock in flight, growing by thousands each day, in which the laws of necessity that eventually return to the starlings’ doom have been temporarily suspended by the dark moving swarm that blots out the sky and defies the earth’s gravity.

2 responses to “Swans, Starlings, and the Cessation of Time: A Mediation on Some Passages in Brecht

  1. Pingback: Brecht’s opera Mahagonny in Los Angeles, USA, and on TV | Dear Kitty. Some blog·

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