Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

Brecht and other refugees from Nazi Germany—authors, composers, and artists—moved to Los Angeles because of its reputation as a safe haven. Despite this positive, lifesaving function of the city, the poem conveys Brecht’s feelings of dislike for this sprawling metropolis on the West Coast of the United States. According to a published note on Shelley, Brecht felt akin to the British poet in his awareness of the plight of the lower classes. Brecht expands this notion to include people of all social strata. Taking up Shelley’s theme of the modern city as a manifestation of hell, Brecht believes that Los Angeles provides a more appropriate model of hell than London because it is no longer the smoky (yet productive) city of the Industrial Revolution that was hell mainly to the workers. Instead, the lush, overripe city of Los Angeles alienates people of all classes. The semblance of riches, of nature blown out of proportion, of houses that are empty shells, and of people apparently pursuing an idle life merely signify decadence that hovers on the edge of decay. The individual no longer plays a meaningful part in the life of the city but is swept through it as an isolated being, engulfed by the raging river of the masses. The American tendency to “keep smiling,” exemplified by the “jolly-looking people” in their cars, is no longer a sign of happiness but rather of emptiness. Society’s goal is no longer the contentment of people occupied with purposeful work. On the contrary, it appears to Brecht that its hectic movement is reduced to complete idleness that continues moving only to serve itself. Without its unabating motion, symbolized in the poem by “the endless procession of cars/ Lighter than their own shadows, faster than/ Mad thoughts,” society might collapse. However, it would be mad to think about change. In the original German version, the word for “mad” is töricht, which carries the meaning of folly rather than of madness. Töricht implies that entertaining thoughts of changing the cycle would have disastrous effects: Once questioned in its function, this nonstop movement might collapse into itself, leaving behind a ghost town that is already envisioned in the empty houses.

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In the last stanza, Brecht shatters all appearances by hinting at reality in the form of social conscience. The fear of being thrown out into the street carries with it the association of economic hardship, a logical contrast to the villas and the abundance described in the previous stanza. Brecht is probably also alluding to the experience of having been driven out of his home by the ruling powers in Germany. After all, he had to flee from the persecutions of the Third Reich, which stopped at neither villas nor shanty towns.

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