Theodor Adorno: One Last Genius 
by Detlev Claussen.
Harvard, 440 pp., £22.95, May 2008, 978 0 674 02618 6
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One of the many things that Adorno admired about Beckett’s writing was its ‘scrupulous meanness’, to borrow Joyce’s description of his own literary style in Dubliners. Beckett’s works take a few sparse elements and permutate them with Irish-scholastic ingenuity into slightly altered patterns. Complete dramas are conjured out of reshuffled arrangements of the same few scraps and leavings. It is an economy with which Beckett had some acquaintance in real life, when towards the end of the Second World War in Nazi-occupied France, he and his wife scrabbled about for a few carrots or onions along with the rest of the half-starved population. The tramps of Waiting for Godot (though who says they are tramps?) are similarly reduced to hoarding the odd vegetable. Beckettian humanity is famished, depleted, emptied out of any rich bourgeois inwardness; and though there may be an Irish memory of famine here for Beckett, Adorno could find in this image the poor forked creatures of Auschwitz. The Jew and the Irishman could find common ground in this stark extremity, as they find common ground in Ulysses and in many popular jokes. Both understood that one could live and write well only by preserving a secret compact with failure.

What is most drastically impoverished in Beckett is language itself, which in a Protestant animus against the ornamental is hacked to the bone. Perhaps there is an Irish exile’s reaction to blarney here, a monkish distaste for the swollen rhetoric of the Irish Revival. Like Stephen Dedalus’s, Beckett’s is a life devoted to silence, exile and cunning. Adorno’s style reveals a similar austerity, as each phrase is forced to work overtime to earn its keep, each sentence wrought into a little miracle or masterpiece of dialectics. Both men have an aversion to opulence, one which is both aesthetic and political. In an age of propaganda, the fewer words you spin, the less likely you are to lie. Simply to propose was to risk being complicit with a language degraded by the horrors of modernity. Like Beckett’s, Adorno’s is a language rammed up against silence, a set of guerrilla raids on the inarticulable, in which the reader has no sooner registered a truth claim than the opposite is instantly advanced. Each proposition loops back on itself, struggling to avoid a bald presentation of the isolated object, but also to avoid swallowing it up in some ghastly concentration camp of the Absolute Idea. It is a distinctively Modernist style, in which the truth can no longer be portrayed directly but can only be squinted at out of the corner of one’s eye, grasped only by bouncing one proposition against its opposite. Perhaps this is what Adorno had in mind when he called art a negative image of reality.

Beckett’s language, which manages like some wounded animal to drag itself along when it has long since run out of breath, is constantly threatening to slip into the chaos that laps at its edges. What strikes us most, however, is the meticulous exactness with which it weaves the wind, the rigorous logic with which it tries, in the author’s phrase, to eff the ineffable. This is an art that trades in wisps and rumours of meaning; but it does so with a balletic elegance, a clear-headed, mock-pedantic precision that recalls Adorno’s stringently analytic attempts to give voice to the unsayable. Mock pedantry is a familiar Irish genre, from Swift and Sterne to Joyce and Flann O’Brien. Language must lend shape to truth without betraying its essential indeterminacy. In the Beckettian phrase, it must keep trying to fail better. Beckett once remarked that his favourite word was ‘perhaps’; and it is not too fanciful to link this to his membership of the French Resistance, for which he was later decorated by the French state. The opposite of indeterminacy from this viewpoint is Fascism or Stalinism, with their crazed assurances. Determinacy is what kills. Moreover, indeterminacy is a source of hope as well as scepticism, since if the world has no definitive shape to it then there is no reason why Godot may not show up after all. Instability may be a cause for comfort as well as distress.

For his part, as a refugee from the Nazis rather than from Irish theocracy, Adorno knew that simply to write off a reified rationality was to play into the hands of the savage enemies of reason who murdered his friend Walter Benjamin. But reason was part of the problem as well, which only a certain dialectical or deconstructive style of thought could unlock. How could one retrieve that otherness that Western reason has suppressed without falling prey to a barbarous irrationalism? It is a problem that haunts the pages of Thomas Mann – another refugee from Hitler – for whose Doctor Faustus Adorno acted as musicological adviser. In fact, Modernism in general is shot through with a desire for some solid truth while at the same time mourning its elusiveness. Modernist culture of the mid-20th century is by and large a culture of negativity – of absence, lack, void, death, otherness, non-being and non-identity – and Paris is its capital: Sartre, Blanchot, Beckett, Kojève, Lacan, Levinas, Barthes, Derrida. With Derrida, an aversion to the determinate becomes almost pathological. He does not see that determinacies can emancipate as well as destroy. There are those who need to obtain some reasonably exact knowledge of how the world stands with them in order to diminish their unhappiness, and there are those at the Collège de France who labour under no such necessity.

This cult of the negative is no doubt as much the legacy of Mallarmé as it is of the death camps. Saussure’s celebrated claim that there is nothing positive in language was made long before the Holocaust. The ‘labour of the negative’ runs back all the way to Hegel. But there can surely be no doubt that this fear of positivity is also a reaction to the doctrinaire politics of the 20th century. Certainty after Auschwitz is barbaric, to adapt Adorno’s famous comment about poetry. The only way to escape this stricture is by becoming, like Adorno or Derrida, a kind of anti-philosopher, forging a whole new style of philosophical writing as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche had done before them. The only valid form of reasoning seems to be one which tries to reckon into itself the limits and contradictions against which it is bound to run up, and without which it is perhaps doomed to silence. One must speak while preserving in one’s words a core of silence, in homage to the millions whose tongues have been stilled. The trick is to engage with the living while keeping faith with the dead. Before Adorno began to write, another part-Jewish thinker, Ludwig Wittgenstein, a man who once observed that his thought was Jewish all the way through, had questioned the limits of representation in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, faithful among other things to the traditional Judaic ban on graven images. Adorno, too, warns of the delusory power of the image.

For a pious Jew (Adorno was the latter but not the former), such icons smack of false utopia in their beauty and integrity, and hence distract us from the unreconciled nature of the present. One such false hope is the illusion that Jews like himself can be smoothly assimilated. In the end, only God can restore a damaged Creation, so striving for totality is a kind of blasphemy. Pessimistic thinkers like Freud, Adorno considered, are of more service to human emancipation than those who seduce us with their roseate visions of the future. The only authentic image of the future is the failure of the present. It was, then, an ironic move on the part of Providence to have this critic of seductive appearances born and brought up in a Frankfurt street called Schöne Aussicht. It is rather less ironic, given Adorno’s well-known melancholia, that the gloomy Schopenhauer should once have inhabited the same spot.

To be faithful to political reality, art must preserve a certain discordance or non-identity, displaying in its inner contradictions the shattered state of the world. Philosophy, too, must go atonal. As Adorno writes in Minima Moralia, it must seek to ‘displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the Messianic light’. There are flickers of redemption here and there in history; but these traces, ruins and rumours of utopia can only be deciphered, Cabbalah-like, by a thought which is alert to what resists its own concepts. The opposite of this for Adorno is ideology, which as a form of ‘identity thinking’ is blind to the marginal, askew or excessive. It is surprising that Derrida took so long to recognise that many of the leading motifs of deconstruction were prefigured in Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, Dialectic of Enlightenment and Aesthetic Theory. There is a kind of materialism at work here too. In Adorno’s view, the only philosophy worthy of the name is one that allows the material conditions which make thought possible to speak in thought itself.

Dismayingly, this vein of anti-philosophy receives scant attention in Detlev Claussen’s biography of Adorno, serviceably translated from the German by Rodney Livingstone. Claussen is illuminating on his subject’s politics, cultural heritage, historical context, musicology, intellectual liaisons and reflections on the culture industry, but remains lamentably tight-lipped about his philosophy. Negative Dialectics, Adorno’s philosophical summa, is dispatched in a couple of paragraphs. The book, however, compensates for this a little by refusing to be the kind of biography exemplified by Claire Tomalin’s recent, oddly acclaimed life of Thomas Hardy. Like much Anglo-Saxon life-writing, Tomalin’s study is covertly anti-intellectual. Writing about Hardy’s childhood, married life and so on becomes for the most part a way of displacing his work, ideas and social context. The English have always prized the lovably idiosyncratic individual over those arid entities known as ideas, which is one of the least creditable reasons to admire Cobbett, Orwell or Samuel Johnson. If they aren’t able to extricate the man or woman ‘behind’ the work, they tend to feel a little cheated. Their fondness for biography, a superior version of what the media know as ‘human interest’, goes hand in hand with their philistinism. It is not surprising that Adorno himself detested the genre. It is too often a middle-class alternative to material history, one in which that supreme creation known as the individual may hold untrammelled sway. Discussing the prosody of Don Juan is all very well, but how on earth did Byron get to Sintra on a club foot?

As far as such literary prurience goes, Claussen remains high-mindedly Teutonic. Beyond a discreet allusion to the fact that female students found him attractive, a fact the photographs of him provided in this volume do nothing to confirm, there is not a word about Adorno’s notorious philandering. On the contrary, Theodor Adorno: One Last Genius is a strenuously intellectual biography, the only sort the master himself might just have approved, in which the bare facts of his life always come to us interwoven with historical currents and philosophical wrangles. The method of the book is dialogical, tracing Adorno’s relations with that extraordinary generation of Middle European left-wing Jewish intellectuals who managed to survive the Second World War with their lives (if not always their left-wing opinions) guiltily intact: Horkheimer, Lukács, Kracauer, Hans Eisler, Fritz Lang, Paul Lazarsfeld, Leo Löwenthal, Friedrich Pollock and others. A handful of Gentiles – notably Brecht and Thomas Mann – are thrown in for good measure.

As far as the bare facts go, this future doyen of Critical Theory was born in Frankfurt in 1903, the son of an assimilated Jewish wine merchant and a Catholic mother who had been a court singer in Vienna. Claussen provides us with a vividly detailed portrait of the emergent Jewish bourgeoisie of the day. At the age of 15 Adorno was reading Kant’s first Critique and playing the piano magnificently; after graduating in philosophy in Frankfurt he migrated to Vienna to study music under Berg, himself a protégé of Schoenberg. By the late 1920s, he was affiliated with the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, later to be called the Frankfurt School, acquiring Marxist sympathies and rubbing shoulders with Brecht, Eisler, Bloch and Benjamin in Berlin. His Habilitationsthesis on Kierkegaard was accepted the day Hitler came to power.

Claussen sees Adorno as oddly sanguine about the Nazi threat. Having left Germany, he returned home more than once in the Hitlerite 1930s – on one occasion, with remarkable insouciance, to enjoy a vacation in the Black Forest. The sociologist Leo Löwenthal thought that he had to be dragged from his homeland kicking and screaming, unable to believe that anything bad could befall the son of such a privileged father. There was always a touch of the patrician about this champion of socialism, with his impeccable haut bourgeois tastes and well-bred disdain for much of modern life. Thomas Mann, who knew a German bourgeois when he saw one, found in him ‘an aloof, tragically clever and exclusive form of spirit’. It was impossible to live as a bourgeois, Adorno once remarked, and just as impossible to live as anything else. If the intelligentsia were the last enemies of the bourgeoisie, he remarked, they were also the last bourgeois. Scornful of Adorno’s left-pessimism, the pathologically upbeat Lukács described him as living in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’. Hans Eisler proposed an allegory of the Frankfurt School (which had been founded by German commercial capital) in which a rich old man, disturbed by the poverty in the world, sets up an institute to inquire into its cause. The institute duly reports back that the cause is himself.

Horkheimer eventually transplanted the Institute for Social Research to Columbia University in New York, and Adorno joined him there in 1938, after a spell as an ‘advanced student’ at Merton College, Oxford. ‘Advanced’ smacks a little of English understatement. In 1941, he moved with Horkheimer to California, where a bizarre alliance between Hollywood and German Marxist émigrés was unfolding. Brecht and Eisler both did work for the movie industry, while Adorno struck up friendships with Charlie Chaplin and Fritz Lang. Chaplin once did an impromptu imitation of him, while Lang coyly addressed him in correspondence as ‘Hippopotamus King Archibald’ and was rewarded with the pet name ‘Badger’. Among the beaches and fish restaurants of southern California, the refugee intellectuals, in Claussen’s memorable phrase, had been ‘expelled into paradise’. Mann lived in the vicinity, while Marcuse came to settle there and never left. Hollywood played its part in the war effort by granting parts as SS officers to émigré actors whose thick accents had made them previously unemployable. It was here that Adorno collaborated with Horkheimer on the studies of anti-semitism which were to find their way into The Authoritarian Personality. It was here, too, that Adorno became what many remember him as today: the first great scourge of the so-called culture industry, with its reification of emotional life. Claussen, however, questions the standard view of the man as a supercilious, jazz-hating cultural patrician, one of the last of the great German Kulturkritiker. He knew the film industry from the inside, observed it with some sympathy and never condemned film as a genre.

Adorno returned to Germany after the war, where the Institute, partly supported by US funding, reopened its doors in Frankfurt. In the climate of the Cold War, it sought for the most part to put its Marxist past behind it. But it did so at the very moment when that past was providing some precious theoretical resources for the burgeoning German student movement. Claussen casts doubt on the popular notion that Adorno’s death from a heart attack in 1969 sprang from his clash with radical students, who rushed onto the podium during one of his lectures, bared their breasts and assailed him with flowers and mock-erotic caresses. If they had known a little more of his private life, they wouldn’t have attacked him as dead from the neck down. In fact, he had some sympathy with the students’ revolt against what he had long called a ‘totally administered world’, as well as a good deal of disapproval. Beckett was similarly ambivalent: ‘Was ever such rightness joined to such foolishness?’ he wrote to Adorno not long before his death.

Critical Theory, Adorno once claimed, was like ‘bottles thrown into the sea’ for future readers whose identities could not be known. It is an interestingly ambiguous simile. Messages in bottles are usually cries for help, in this case from a mournful, marooned group of revolutionaries who had seen their hopes for political emancipation crumble to dust. Yet the message of Critical Theory was a response to that plight too. It also demonstrated, as if to someone scanning a desert island for traces of smoke, that against the odds there were some survivors. ‘We only have a chance at all of withstanding the experience of recent decades,’ Adorno wrote, ‘if we do not forget for a moment the paradox that despite everything, we are still alive.’ He also observed that ‘he who dies in despair has lived his whole life in vain.’ Mandarin Marxist, materialist of music, pioneering sociologist of culture and devout, agnostic Jew, Adorno was probably the greatest Marxist aesthetician of all time, and one of the finest philosophers of the 20th century. It would be interesting to know how many British philosophers could even name his books.

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Vol. 30 No. 17 · 11 September 2008

Terry Eagleton spreads the received idea that Adorno was a Jew, and that his Jewishness illuminates the religious dimension to his thought (LRB, 19 June). Adorno, he notes, was ‘part-Jewish’, a ‘Jew’ though not ‘pious’, ‘a Middle European left-wing Jewish intellectual’, one of the ‘emergent Jewish bourgeoisie’ and finally a ‘devout, agnostic Jew’. Adorno was not born, nor did he become, Jewish. His father, Oscar Wiesengrund, converted to Catholicism, and married a Catholic, Maria Calvelli-Adorno. Their son, Theodor, was baptised a Catholic, and raised as one by his mother and her sister. The only people who regarded him as Jewish were some anti-semitic schoolfellows. Even the Nazi authorities classified him as being of ‘half-Jewish descent’. Eagleton is not alone in making rather more of Adorno’s Jewishness than Adorno did. Rudolf Siebert, discussing the significance of the motif of the prohibition against graven images in Adorno’s work, describes him as an ‘unbelieving Jew’, who ‘remained as faithful to this Mosaic prohibition as any pious Jew’. Siebert is right about one thing, though: Adorno was an unbeliever. When Soma Morgenstern asked him if he had been brought up in a God-fearing house, Adorno answered ‘with a deep breath: “Yes, my father is a socialist."’

James Finlayson
University of Sussex

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