- “... just an invented word”
“Mahagonny—that is just an invented word” (BFA 2:331, emphasis added); this line ends the short epilogue which Bert Brecht wrote in 1927 for Kurt Weill’s first musical rendition of his Mahagonny Songs. Within it, the whole history of the Brechtian theatre is already laid out: its claim, its failure, and its survival.
The phrase is a step in the direction of that particular form of a parable wherein the “artistic mastery stands the test because the elements of art within it cancel themselves out in the end” (Benjamin 1989, 6:531). It is the first ending, in which the audience is urged to look by itself for an ending, 1 and it bears witness to the attempt to avoid a twofold danger: the represented shall not be confounded with reality—as if it were nothing but its imitation (imitatio); at the same time it shall not only be regarded by itself—as an autonomous absolute work of art. Thus the phrase describes the intention of the “estrangement effect” (Verfremdungseffekt): to interrupt the construction of a totality of the represented, to avoid “empathy” (Einfühlung), and to render the discussion of reality possible.
Walter Benjamin emphasized in Brecht’s work the tendency toward a “language purified of all magic” (1989, 2:956) which means a language without immediacy or infinity. This tendency is uttered paradigmatically in the claim that a word, for example “Mahagonny,” could be “just invented”: A just invented language would be purely mediate (mittelbar) and this language would be strictu sensu the only one in which one could write, within the present, “out of the bird’s-eye view of a really liberated society” (Adorno  1977:114). Therefore it would be at the same time the only language which could justify that gesture of laying bare the facts, of critiquing ideology, and of moralizing to be found in many texts by Brecht and in the majority of works on him. Many aspects of Brecht’s writings testify to his attempt to write in purely mediate and therefore in “just invented” words: his scruples against the “artistic and playful element of art”; his endeavor “to legitimate art in relation to rational thought” and what Benjamin describes in 1934 as the direction that he takes towards the “teaching poem” (Lehrgedicht) (1989, 6:531); his distance to the “still very artistic ‘Mahagonny’” which Brecht expresses in a letter in 1937 (1983:318); as well as his polemics against the “culinary” ( 1959, 2:10).
And yet such just invented words don’t exist. In the first place, the example of the word “Mahagonny” contradicts the claim. It already had a history in 1927: Mahagonny has a positive connotation in the songs of the same name that Brecht wrote in 1920/21 (BFA 2:456); it becomes the name of an imaginary [End Page 27] place of entertainment in a popular hit song of 1922; it signifies Nazism according to Bronnen from 1923 on (BFA 2:456); it appears as the name of the songs “for the hours of wealth, the consciousness of flesh and the presumption” (BBA 8:170) in Brecht’s collection of poems “Taschen-” and “Hauspostille.” Besides all this it invites from the very beginning anagrammatical or kryptonymical interpretations which will in part find their confirmation in the opera later on: In Mahagonny lies enclosed the Greek word agon, “meeting place,” “meeting,” “fight,” and “trial”—at the same time the major part of comedy. The name might also allude to “agony.” One could associate the red or brown mahogany wood (Mahagony-Holz) and interpret the city as a national-socialist Reich or Stalinist state. 2 Jim Mahoney shows up in the city of Mahagonny, and his name sounds like “my honey.” So already on a literal level Mahoney resembles the city, and yet the city’s name is his name expanded by “ag,” perhaps pointing towards the fact that it is acting (agere), yes indeed, armed by the right over life and death (agony). Mahoney may also allude to Kipling’s “Krishna Mulvaney,” 3 and Mahagonny furthermore to Magog, a biblical town of...