Bertolt Brecht:

Stories of Mr. Keuner



What’s wise about the wise man is his stance

A philosophy professor came to see Mr. K. and told him about his wisdom. After a while Mr. K. said to him: “You sit uncomfortably, you talk uncomfortably, you think uncomfortably.” The philosophy professor became angry and said: “I didn’t want to hear anything about myself but about the substance of what I was talking about.” “It has no substance,” said Mr. K. “I see you walking clumsily and, as far as I can see, you’re not getting anywhere. You talk obscurely, and you create no light with your talking. Seeing your stance, I’m not interested in what you’re getting at.”



Mr. K. once said: “The thinking man does not use one light too many, one piece of bread too many, one idea too many.”


Serving a purpose

Mr. K. put the following question:
      “Every morning my neighbor plays music on a gramophone. Why does he play music? Because he’s doing exercises, I’ve heard. Why is he doing exercises? Because he needs to be strong, I’ve heard. Why does he need to be strong? He says it’s because he must defeat his enemies in the city. Why must he defeat his enemies? Because he wants to eat, I’ve heard.” After Mr. K. had heard that his neighbor played music in order to do exercises, did exercises in order to be strong, wanted to be strong in order to kill his enemies, killed his enemies in order to eat, he put the question: “Why does he eat?”


Hardships of the best

“What are you working on?” Mr. K. was asked. Mr. K. replied: “I’m having a hard time; I’m preparing my next mistake.”


The question of whether there is a God

A man asked Mr. K. whether there is a God. Mr. K. said: “I advise you to consider whether, depending on the answer, your behavior would change. If it would not change, then we can drop the question. If it would change, then I can at least be of help to the extent that I can say, you have already decided: you need a God.”


Convincing questions

“I have noticed,” said Mr. K., “that we put many people off our teaching because we have an answer to everything. Could we not, in the interests of propaganda, draw up a list of questions that appear to us completely unsolved?”


Meeting again

A man who had not seen Mr. K. for a long time greeted him with the words: “You haven’t changed a bit.” “Oh!” said Mr. K. and turned pale.



“We can’t go on talking to each other,” said Mr. K. to a man. “Why not?” asked the latter, taken aback. “In your presence I am incapable of saying anything intelligent,” complained Mr. K. “But I really don’t mind,” the other comforted him. “That I can believe,” said Mr. K. angrily, “but I mind.”


A good answer

In court a worker was asked whether he wanted to take the lay oath or swear on the Bible. He answered: “I’m unemployed.” “This was not simply absent-mindedness,” said Mr. K. “By this answer he showed that he found himself in a situation where such questions, indeed perhaps the whole proceedings as such, have become meaningless.”


Mr. K. in unfamiliar accommodation

Entering unfamiliar accommodation, Mr. K., before he lay down to rest, looked for the exits from the house and nothing else. In reply to a question, he answered uneasily: “It’s a tiresome old habit. I am for justice; so it’s good if the place in which I’m staying has more than one exit.”


The indispensable civil servant

Mr. K. heard a civil servant, who had held his post for quite a long time, praised as being indispensable, since he was such a good civil servant. “Why is he indispensable?” asked Mr. K. in annoyance. “The department would grind to a halt without him,” said his eulogists. “How can he be a good civil servant if the department would grind to a halt without him?” said Mr. K. “He’s had time enough to organize his department to make himself dispensable. What is he really engaged in? I’ll tell you: blackmail!”


If sharks were men

“If sharks were men,” Mr. K. was asked by his landlady’s little girl, “would they be nicer to the little fishes?”
      “Certainly,” he said. “If sharks were men, they would build enormous boxes in the ocean for the little fish, with all kinds of food inside, both vegetable and animal. They would take care that the boxes always had fresh water, and in general they would make all kinds of sanitary arrangements. If, for example, a little fish were to injure a fin, it would immediately be bandaged, so that it would not die and be lost to the sharks before its time. So that the little fish would not become melancholy, there would be big water festivals from time to time; because cheerful fish taste better than melancholy ones.
      “There would, of course, also be schools in the big boxes. In these schools the little fish would learn how to swim into the sharks’ jaws. They would need to know geography, for example, so that they could find the big sharks, who lie idly around somewhere. The principal subject would, of course, be the moral education of the little fish. They would be taught that it would be the best and most beautiful thing in the world if a little fish sacrificed itself cheerfully and that they all had to believe the sharks, especially when the latter said they were providing for a beautiful future. The little fish would be taught that this future is assured only if they learned obedience. The little fish had to beware of all base, materialist, egotistical and Marxist inclinations, and if one of their number betrayed such inclinations they had to report it to the sharks immediately.
      “If sharks were men, they would, of course, also wage wars against one another, in order to conquer other fish boxes and other little fish. The wars would be waged by their own little fish. They would teach their little fish that there was an enormous difference between themselves and the little fish belonging to the other sharks. Little fish, they would announce, are well known to be mute, but they are silent in quite different languages and hence find it impossible to understand one another. Each little fish that, in a war, killed a couple of other little fish, enemy ones, silent in their own language, would have a little order made of seaweed pinned to it and be awarded the title of hero.
      “If sharks were men, there would, of course, also be art. There would be beautiful pictures, in which the sharks’ teeth would be portrayed in magnificent colors and their jaws as pure pleasure gardens, in which one could romp about splendidly. The theaters at the bottom of the sea would show heroic little fish swimming enthusiastically into the jaws of sharks, and the music would be so beautiful that to the accompaniment of its sounds, the orchestra leading the way, the little fish would stream dreamily into the sharks’ jaws, lulled by the most agreeable thoughts.
      “There would also be a religion, if sharks were men. It would preach that little fish only really begin to live properly in the sharks’ stomachs.
      “Furthermore, if sharks were men there would be an end to all little fish being equal, as is the case now. Some would be given important offices and be placed above the others. Those who were a little bigger would even be allowed to eat up the smaller ones. That would be altogether agreeable for the sharks, since they themselves would more often get bigger bites to eat. And the bigger little fish, occupying their posts, would ensure order among the little fish, become teachers, officers, engineers in box construction, etc.
      “In short, if sharks were men, they would for the first time bring culture to the ocean.”


Excerpts from Brecht’s Stories of Mr. Keuner, translated by Martin Chalmers (City Lights, 2001). Copyright 2001 by Stefan S. Brecht.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), author of The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage, and many other provocative plays, poems, and theoretical writings, composed his Mr. Keuner anecdotes at odd moments from the 1920s through the 1950s.