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  • Newness and Pleasure: Mahagonny Songs 1
  • Hans-Thies Lehmann (bio)
    Translated by Regine Rosenthal


Both the Mahagonny Songs of the Hauspostille (Manual of Piety) and the opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny have continued to pose a problem to critics due to a certain inner contradiction: In inseparable fusion, they voice an ideal of life and a critique of bourgeois living conditions. When critics rupture this ambivalence in search of a meaning, they obtain theses (“Critique of Capitalism,” “Anarchic Glorification of Primitive and Reckless Pleasure”). But then they are left with an unadaptable remainder that makes them resort to terms such as “indistinctness,” “half-heartedness,” and “indecision,” in order to fill the gap. Though Mahagonny is, to a degree, a portrayal of capitalist society and its business of culture, it is first of all an Elsewhere—a name and place indicating an illusion, a utopia of absolute freedom, of jouissance in its radical asociality. It is impossible to construct a specific mimetic relation that would define Mahagonny as a signifier of a specific signified. Rather, such a link would render incomprehensible both the structure of the opera and the songs of the Hauspostille. Does not Brecht himself forbid the idea of searching for a mimetic relation? Does not he himself, in the final lines of the Little Mahagonny, direct the reading toward a play of words in the chain of signifiers?

Aber dieses ganze Mahagonny Ist nur, weil alles so schlecht ist. Weil keine Ruhe herrscht und keine Eintracht. Und weil es nichts gibt, Woran man sich halten kann. Denn Mahagonny gibt es nicht, Denn Mahagonny, das ist kein Ort, Denn Mahagonny — ist nur ein erfundenes Wort. 2

[But Mahagonny only exists Because all is so bad. Because there is no peace and no harmony. And because there is nothing [End Page 16] To hold on to. For Mahagonny does not exist, For Mahagonny, that is no place, For Mahagonny — is only an invented word.]

An “invented” word cannot be attributed to a given signified; it does not name a known place but only realizes its meaning in the unfolding of its relation in the play of the text itself. Thus, to search for a firmly defined position against bourgeois society and then determine that Brecht’s critique is false, superficial, or half-hearted leads to an impasse. Instead, we ought to ask whether the theme, the subject of Mahagonny is not incorrectly described in the first place if defined as capitalism or capitalist art. An invented word has the advantage of having possibly different, even opposite meanings assigned to it. Thus the contradiction noted by the critics may be less the result of an incompetent Brechtian analysis of society than an objectively contradictory quality of the subject matter of Mahagonny: pleasure.

The opera articulates a thematic field that does not allow for a fixable and logically controllable form because the work centers on the transgression of logic. Its topic is pleasure itself. The songs and the opera indicate the “other” of bourgeois exchange relations in the very structure of these relations. Desire talks—but in the language of commodity:

As for the content of this opera, its content is pleasure. Fun, in other words, not only as form but as subject-matter. At least, enjoyment was meant to be the object of inquiry even if the inquiry was intended to be an object of enjoyment. Enjoyment here appears in its current historical role: as merchandise.

(Brecht 1964:36)

It is worth pointing out what Brecht does not say in this note to the opera. He does not state that his subject is that pleasure became a commodity. He does not state that its commodity character has rendered pleasure impossible. Rather, his note points out that the “investigation” must not stop short with the realization that pleasure has become a commodity. No—Brecht locates his topic in a specific historic figuration, and here the investigation begins. Even if pleasure becomes a commodity, the individual, according to Brecht, remains an “indefatigable fortune hunter” (Freud)—longing for pleasure with an intensity bordering on self-destruction. Even worse, people not only look for but actually find pleasure in...

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pp. 16-26
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