Notes to Liteature: Vols I-II 
by Theodor Adorno, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Shierry Weber.
Columbia, 284 pp., $35, June 1992, 9780231069120
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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.

Thus, while it is a mistake to discuss the aesthetic merely in terms of an irreducible and irrational immediacy, it is equally problematic to ignore its resistance, based on the imperatives of form, to complete conceptualisation. Literary criticism, Adorno implies, must respect the boundary between the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic and yet call it into question in order to realise the critical, rather than the merely affirmative potential in art: ‘The contradiction according to which every work wants to be understood purely in its own terms but none can in fact be so understood is what leads to its truth content.’

Notes to Literature seeks to resist a globalising theoretical approach to its subject. The title, suggested by Adorno’s friend and publisher Peter Suhrkamp, evokes a musical analogy in which a supportive accompaniment rather than conceptual domination of its subjects is the goal. Appropriately, the collection’s opening piece is a spirited defence of ‘The Essay as Form’ against the traditional scholarly demand for methodologically rigorous treatises. Adorno tellingly counterposes the contingency and incompletion of the essay form to falsely totalising alternatives, whether they follow Cartesian recipes for systematic synopsis or Heideggerian injunctions to recapture an originary Being. Arguing for the essay’s affinity to the much-maligned traditions of both rhetoric and dialectical thought, especially the latter in its negative moments. Adorno claims it also resembles art in its attention to formal questions and resistance to the imperatives of discursive logic, such as the unequivocal definition of terms. And yet, unlike art, the essay uses concepts to pry open the hidden implications of its subject matter. As a result, its ‘elements crystallise as a configuration through their motion. The constellation is a force-field, just as every intellectual structure is necessarily transformed into a force field under the essay’s gaze.’

If such a non-totalised force-field can be detected within each of the essays in Notes to Literature, the same can be said a fortiori of the collection as a whole. For, as might be expected, the ‘notes’ Adorno plays often reappear in patterns or variations which betray their composer’s constant concerns. Yet they do so in a way that resists a summary recapitulation of his argument, never combining – to stay with the metaphor – into a fully organic musical composition. In one of the most trenchant pieces, ‘Parataxis: on Hölderlin’s Late Poetry’s. Adorno praises the anti-synthetic effect of paratactic rather than hypotactic constructions in the poet’s work as ‘artificial disturbances that evade the logical hierarchy of a subordinate syntax.’ Adorno’s own style, it has often been recognised, itself tended towards parataxis, paralleling the atonal compositional techniques which he absorbed as a follower of Schoenberg.

And yet Adorno knew that essayistic literary criticism, for all its debt to aesthetic technique, involved discursive rationality and conceptual mediation as well. If the truth content of works of art could not be derived from the subjective intentions of their authors, nor could it be realised through the subjective taste of the critic, expressing his or her own superior ‘aesthetic experience’. Echoing his friend Walter Benjamin, Adorno writes frequently of the crisis of experience, aesthetic or otherwise, in the modern world and chastises those, such as his other great friend Siegfried Kracauer, for naively relying on its power: ‘The conflict between experience and theory cannot be conclusively decided in favour of one side or another but is truly an antimony and must be played out in such a way that the contrary elements interpenetrate one another.’

Accordingly, while many of the essays in Notes to Literature draw on the experiences of Adorno’s own ‘damaged life’ as he called it, they are imbued with the theoretical arguments more rigorously developed in other works, such as Dialectic of Enlightenment, Negative Dialectics and Aesthetic Theory. Even to those familiar with these demanding studies, Adorno’s virtuosity in marshalling their arguments in the analysis of literary texts will seem dazzling. He ranges from explorations of the seemingly trivial aspects of literary production – choice of title, changes in the covers of books, the implications of punctuation – to the analysis of individual works, such as The Old Curiosity Shop, Goethe’ Iphigenie, Beckett’s Endgame and Balzac’s Lost Illusions, to judgments of the oeuvre of figures as disparate as Valéry, Proust, Kraus, George, Eichendorff and Heine. He also argues vigorously against opposing theoretical positions; the demand for ‘committed Literature’ in Sartre and Brecht, Lukács’s doctrinaire defence of realism against modernism, Heidegger’s attempt to turn Hölderlin into a mythic prophet of Being. Finally, there are appreciations of friends, such as Bloch, Benjamin, Kracauer and Thomas Mann – appreciations often laced with criticism, which in the case of the ‘curious realist’ Kracauer proved so troubling that their friendship did not survive it.

Throughout, Adorno’s adherence to the model of a non-totalised force-field operates to defeat one-dimensional analysis. Thus underlying his judgments on the historical implications of various cultural and literary phenomena is a constellation of deliberately unreconciled positions. At times, he stresses the crushing permanence of the structures of bourgeois society – notably the domination of the exchange principle and the commodity form – which survive whatever changes seem to occur on the surface. At others, he presents a picture of historical decline so bleak that even Marx’s critique of political economy, in which society can at least by judged by its own unrealised values, is now virtually obsolete. Even the time of genuine mourning for those values is gone, he implies in his grimmest moods.

And yet Adorno never fully gives in to despair or abandons the slim hope for a utopian reversal in the course of history, the achievement of a genuine progress which, as Kafka said, ‘has not yet begun’. Although he rebukes Bloch for being too generous in finding pre-figurative traces of a concrete utopia in all human culture, he adopts his friend’s figure of ‘homesickness’ to describe a yearning that transcends mere nostalgia. Eichendorff is thus a poet of Heimweh rather than, as his conservative defenders claim, of Heimat. In his eloquent tribute to Heine, Adorno makes clear that such a home goes beyond ethnic or national particularity: ‘there is no longer any homeland other than a world in which no one would be cast out any more, the world of a genuinely emancipated humanity.’ Adorno, like Proust, catches glimpses of it in childhood memories of ‘unimpaired experience’, of genuine happiness. He also reads seemingly conservative writers like Eichendorff, Valéry and George against the grain, finding in them moments of salutary protest against the depredations of bourgeois ‘progress’. Even the seemingly discordant introduction of foreign words, decried by linguistic purists in Germany as ‘inauthentic’ and ‘inorganic’, allows a ‘ray of light from ratio’ to strike ‘the stream of language, which gleams painfully in it’.

Despite Adorno’s desperate utopianism, pain haunts the essays in Notes to Literature, which never stray far from an insight he attributes to Kracauer, that the expressive element in philosophy reveals boundless suffering even in the most seemingly bloodless idea. One of the most sobering lessons of the Holocaust, he remarks with reference to the cases of both Kraus and Benjamin, is that Geist alone is utterly impotent to alleviate suffering in the face of ruthless power. Heine’s ‘wound’, his homelessness, is now universal despite the false consolations of the ‘culture industry’.

The latter concept, classically developed in Dialectic of Enlightenment, appears only sporadically in these essays, which are defiant in upholding the difference between genuine and non-genuine art. Adorno has of course, been pilloried over the years for his alleged élitism, and one of the essays, ‘An Open Letter to Rolf Hochhuth’, responds directly to this charge. Against Hochhuth’s defence of Lukács’s humanist celebration of the masses, he protests: ‘My aversion to contempt for the masses is as great as yours. No one can set himself off against the masses in élitist arrogance; he too is part of them.’ Nor is he willing to blame the victims of a process that is foisted on them: ‘massification – I have never used the word except as a critic of its use – is something done to the masses by the clean-cut cliques and individuals who administer them and then deride them for being the “masses”.’

Still, Adorno shows that he distrusted the earnest attempts by those victims to speak for themselves, at least insofar as doing so assumed the possibility of meaningful experience. Such a possibility, he warns, is an ideological fraud, tantamount to the misleading ‘jargon of authenticity’ in contemporary Existentialist philosophy, so brilliantly parodied in Endgame. Certain poems of the frankly anti-democratic Baudelaire, he insists in his essay on lyric poetry, were ‘truer to the masses toward whom he turned his tragic, arrogant mask than any “poor people’s poetry”’.

Such attitudes were not designed to endear Adorno to soi-disant populist champions who see any cultural hierarchy as tantamount to genocide. Indeed, alongside his notorious, if often poorly understood, critique of jazz, they show how uncomfortable Adorno should make defenders of political correctness as well as their opponents. His stubborn defence of what he called ‘aesthetic difference’ in the ultimate service of a fundamentally political critique confounds easy expectations of how literature relates to life. When he insisted on delivering his lecture ‘On the Classicism of Goethe’s Iphigenie’ in 1967, during the most tumultuous days of the German student movement, he affirmed the importance of resisting demands for instant relevance. And yet at the same time, Adorno no less fervently resisted the claim that esoteric was inherently superior to exoteric art or that Modernism was the last word in aesthetic development. All the writers to whom his ‘notes’ were an accompaniment may have been German or French males, which suggests a tacit acceptance of traditional canons, but Adorno was too suspicious of the reified concept of ‘culture’, too sensitive to the dangers of naturalising what was merely historical, to embrace any permanent hierarchy of ‘timeless’ value. In one of his last essays, he even admitted that his celebrated claim that it is not possible to write poetry after Auschwitz ‘does not hold absolutely’, although he then added: ‘it is certain that after Auschwitz, because Auschwitz was possible and remains possible for the foreseeable future, lighthearted art is no longer conceivable.’

Many of the positions taken in these essays, which once seemed obsolete to Adorno’s critics, are strangely appropriate again in the Post-Modern Nineties. Can anyone now doubt the wisdom of Adorno’s reluctance to countenance the instrumentally engaged art promoted by Sartre and Brecht? Is there anyone who would say that his famous characterisation of Lukács as ‘a person who rattles his chains hopelessly, imagining that their clanking is the march of the Weltgeist’, has lost its power? Even so unapologetically Marxist a critic as Fredric Jameson has recently admitted that ‘Adorno was a doubtful ally when there were still powerful and oppositional currents from which his temperamental and cantankerous quietism could distract the uncommitted reader. Now that for the moment those currents are themselves quiescent, his bile is a joyous counter-poison and a corrosive solvent to apply to the surface of “what is”.’ ‘Philosophy,’ the famous opening line of Negative Dialectics reads, ‘which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realise it was missed.’ But here, in one of his essays on Bloch, Adorno adopts a slightly more optimistic tone: ‘Philosophy should not let itself be talked out of what it has not succeeded in doing simply because humankind has not yet succeeded in doing it.’ A literary criticism informed by, but never simply reducible to, philosophy, sensitive to social constraints, but unwilling to give them the final word, also keeps alive the hope that these tasks, despite all evidence to the contrary, may still one day await us.

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