“It’s Mahagonny again.” —FM Einheit, Stein
8-27: 1520. As I prepare for Hurricane Irene’s arrival in New York, rain alternates with a dull, sodden stillness teeming with mosquitoes. Neighbors inspect their properties and squirrel away loose backyard objects in garages and basements. We closed all the shutters in the office yesterday to keep broken glass from flying in, and at the funereal opening at the gallery last night, staff finished by lashing everything down on the roof and moving art away from the skylight and off the floor.
8-28: 100. The rain is no longer falling, but whipping against all parts of the house. Cynics on both social media and hard life (the existence equivalent of a “hard copy”) think the news’ storm coverage is fodder to distract folks from important issues, and to whip up consumer frenzy for staples. I’m the only person I know with 8 pounds of rice, 10 pounds of beans and 6 kinds of soup; at 2 surveyed supermarkets, the first products to disappear were beer and Entenmann’s baked goods.
Seems clear who will survive, and have the energy to bail out the basement. The neighbors have been guffawing on their porch and plinking empties into a bin of bottles since midafternoon.
Thinking about disasters and human nature, I turn to art again, which lately has meant so much Bertolt Brecht. (Einstürzende Neubauten’s former percussion engineer, FM Einheit, may reference this inevitability when he notes the above beside “Mr. Smith” on the Stein album.) I listened to The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny today while tying down or locking up everything in the yard today, and think how funny it is that Eric Cantor would insist that federal emergency aid be offset by matching cuts. Seeing that Ron Paul finished second behind Michele Bachmann in the Iowa Straw Poll, it really seems that we are in the land of Do As Thou Wilt; and Texas Governor Rick Perry has told residents that they should “pray” to relieve the state’s drought.
In Mahagonny, at the end of Act One Scene 10-11, the Vegas-type gangster-founded funtown of Mahagonny is being threatened by a typhoon/hurricane. One of the “residents,” Jimmy the lumberjack who made a fortune in Alaska chopping for years in the freezing wastelands, is annoyed with all the laws that make the town dull. Mahagonny’s founders, themselves criminals on the lam, wanted to create a land of peace and contentment where there are niceties “a man can depend upon” (they also want it to be their predictable cash cow). These polar worldviews clash when Jimmy erupts in exasperation at the narcotizing tameness of the city, and just as he exhorts people to break the rules and think their own thoughts, a hurricane menaces Mahagonny. He explains:
“We don’t need help from hurricanes, let whirlwinds do what they can / For though they may cause their share of pain, the most frightening force is Man.”
Widow Begbick, founding grande-dame of Mahagonny, comes to see his point:
“So do whatever you enjoy, or typhoons will do it for you / For when hurricanes start to destroy, there’s nothing that we can do.”
What a parable for our times in the United States, occasionally compared to those of Weimar Germany. That was Brecht’s era, one of postwar depression and reforms that did too little too slowly, resulting in a widespread discontent ripe for Nazi mining. He produced art that decried and satirized that dangerous vulnerability, which seems more a fundamental of human nature than an artifact of its time. Just juggle current U.S. politics and climate change (Hurricanes Irene and Katrina specifically) in your forethoughts as you consider the Weltanschauungen exhibited in the clip linked above.