- Notes to Liteature: Vols I-II by Theodor Adorno, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Shierry Weber
Columbia, 284 pp, $35.00, June 1992, ISBN 0 231 06912 X
Adorno once called his writings Flaschenpost, messages in bottles tossed into the ‘flood of barbarism bursting on Europe’ for the benefit of unknown future readers. The floodwaters have now mercifully receded, and the bottles sporadically wash up on foreign shores, thanks to intrepid translators taking on the challenge of Adorno’s idiosyncratic prose. The first to make him accessible to an English-speaking audience was Shierry Weber, who, along with Samuel Weber, translated Prisms in 1967. A quarter of a century later, she has applied her considerable skills to Notes to Literature, which first appeared in German in three volumes (1958, 1961 and 1965) and, along with the material for a planned fourth volume, is now available in English.
Some of the most important essays – notably ‘On Lyric Poetry and Society’, ‘Extorted Reconciliation: On Georg Lukács’s Realism in Our Time’, ‘Commitment’, ‘Trying to Understand Endgame’ and several pieces on Walter Benjamin – already exist in English and have had a significant impact on the reception of Adorno’s ideas. But the collection as a whole provides the first substantial evidence for those unable to turn to the original German that Adorno was a powerful analyst of literature and its institutions. These essays contain many lessons that are still worth thinking about. ‘Great criticism’, Adorno wrote, ‘is conceivable only as an integral moment in intellectual currents, whether it contributes to them or opposes them, and such currents themselves draw their force from social relations’. His own attempts to realise that principle make evident the extraordinary tact required to avoid turning it into a warrant for dissolving art into a mere expression of its enabling context, a straightforward illustration of philosophical claims or a tool in the service of political enlightenment.
An abiding concern of these essays, from the first, written in the early Twenties, when their author was still a student called Theodor Wiesengrund, to those composed shortly before his death in 1969, is the proper way to conceive the relation between art and its social context, as well as between art and aesthetic theory. Throughout his career, Adorno sought to get beyond the sterile alternative of absolute aesthetic autonomy or no less absolute heteronomy. Although he eagerly drew on the insights of the Marxist critique of ideology, he was careful to stress that ‘the greatness of works of art ... consists solely in the fact that they give voice to what ideology hides.’ At one point in his 1945 ‘Theses on Art and Religion Today’, Adorno borrowed the metaphor of the monad from Leibniz to suggest the relation between individual works of art and those non-aesthetic realms such as religion, which make universal claims. Having no windows, the monad ‘represents the universal within its own walls. That is to say, its own structure is objectively the same as the universal. It may be conscious of this in different degrees. But it has no immediate access to universality, it does not look at it, as it were.’ Elsewhere, he claimed that works of art don’t exist in parallel to the world ‘outside’, but both remain subject to society and transcend it. As such, they demand an analysis in which ‘social concepts should not be applied to the works from without but rather drawn from an exacting examination of the works themselves.’
Adorno also insisted that although aesthetic theory was necessary to any critical response, the truth claims of art were not reducible to those of philosophy:
one does not understand a work of art when one translates it into concepts – if one simply does that, one misunderstands the work from the outset – but rather when one is immersed in its immanent movement ... if the work is not to be disfigured rationalistically, Verstehen in the specific conceptual meaning of the word will emerge only in an extremely mediated way; namely, in that the substance grasped through the completed experience is reflected in its relationship to the material of the work and the language of its forms.