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1 February 2022updated 24 Oct 2022 4:01pm

Adorno’s damaged life

Seventy years after its publication, Theodor Adorno's Minima Moralia is a warning against resurgent fascism

By Peter E Gordon

Minima Moralia is a work of exile. Published just over 70 years ago in 1951, the greater share of it was written at the conclusion of the Second World War, when its German-born author Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno was living in Los Angeles County, not far from other artists and intellectuals who had the good fortune to escape the Third Reich. “The violence that expelled me,” he explained, left him with an enduring sense of guilt at the very fact of his survival. The book’s subtitle, “Reflections from Damaged Life”, is a record of this unhealed wound, a bitter confession that even to write about individual experience suggests a complicity with “unspeakable collective events”. But Adorno worked at the trauma and made of it an irritant for thinking, sand for the pearls of insight that would fill each page. It is the most personal book he ever wrote, and even at the highest peaks of abstraction, it does not efface its origins in autobiography. Not unlike the Essais by the 16th-century humanist Michel de Montaigne, Adorno’s book is not only a series of philosophical experiments but also an exercise in self-portraiture. What Adorno calls “subjective experience” must serve as a permanent element for all criticism if it does not wish to contribute to the further destruction of humanity.

How can we classify an intellectual who abhorred classification? Critical of all group loyalty and always distancing himself from his social surroundings, Adorno was a cosmopolitan intellectual who carried his erudition on his back as the only possession that mattered. In the first aphorism of the book, Adorno offers a homage to Marcel Proust as an embodiment of European spirit who draws back in horror from the noise and ruin of what now passes for culture. “The son of well-to-do parents who,” Adorno writes, “engages in so-called intellectual profession, as an artist or a scholar, will have a particularly difficult time with those bearing the distasteful title of colleagues.” In the “competitive hierarchy” of official culture he is seen as a “dilettante, no matter how well he knows his subject,” not least because he objects to the “departmentalisation of spirit”. If he dares to think of himself as an “independent intellectual,” he is nonetheless exposed to the “practical” demands of the institutions he has left behind. “[S]ome have to play the game because they cannot otherwise live, and those who could live otherwise are kept out because they do not want to play the game.”

Adorno admired Proust but he was also describing himself. Born in 1903 in Frankfurt into a middle-class family, Adorno was raised as an only child by parents whose boundless affection equipped him with an almost narcissistic confidence in his own abilities. His father Oscar Wiesengrund was an assimilated Jew, a wine merchant, and the young boy known as “Teddie” often played with friends among the wine bottles that were stored in the cellar. Years later, after his father’s business had been destroyed, Adorno came to feel that his philosophy was like “messages in a bottle”, thrown out to sea onto the “rising tide of barbarism”. Minima Moralia itself is a work that flouts the official categories, a Wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities comprising insights and aphorisms that are arranged in no particular order and honour no disciplinary rules. “Cultural criticism” is one name for this anti-genre of free-ranging commentary that encompasses both bitter reflections on fascism and loving memories of the author’s own childhood. No published work better conveys Adorno’s inimitable persona, his special gift for intermingling the sociological and the autobiographical, the nostalgic and the austere. The genius of his writing is that he never permitted himself to rest completely in either domain. Even at the highest pitch of philosophical abstraction he never unbinds himself from the social world, and even when writing in admiration about a work of art he interlaces formal analysis with grim reminders of the suffering that art cannot transcend. 

Minima Moralia is scored with nostalgia. It is the transcript of an embattled spirit, of the innocent cast overboard into a society that no longer offered the comforts he once knew. Adorno’s fondest recollections from childhood were of evenings with his mother Maria and her sister Agathe, a pianist, when Teddie would sit beside his aunt to play pieces transcribed for four hands. “Four-hand playing,” he would recall, “was the gift the geniuses of the bourgeois 19th century placed at my cradle at the beginning of the 20th.” One of the later entries in Minima Moralia is titled, “Regressions,” in which Adorno writes of his early memories of the “Cradle Song” by Brahms, a piece that he associated with the curtain around his childhood bed that shielded him from light so that he could sleep “in an unending peace without fear”.

Still, Adorno always remained alert to the hidden links between innocence and brutality. No island of perfection escaped his critical eye. Dreams of the “authentic” are turned into harbingers of terror. In one aphorism, Adorno writes that, “I ought to be able to deduce Fascism from the memories of my childhood.” He recalled schoolyard bullies who teased him as a boy, who beat him and took delight when he, the top of his class, made an occasional error. He saw in them an anticipation of those who would later torture their prisoners. The bull-headed kids who interrupted the teacher and “crash[ed] their fists on the table” hardened into a Männerbund, whose members preached “worship for their masters”. In such passages Adorno leaps across the decades. Untroubled by the scruples of historicism, he sees the catastrophe that was prepared long ago. The wounds of the sensitive child had not yet healed when the adult took up his pen to condemn the mindless collective, whose brutality had metastasised into the modern state. “In Fascism,” he concludes, “the nightmare of childhood has come true.”

All of these memories spoke of displacement. During his period of exile, first the few, lonely years as a student at Oxford University in the mid-1930s, then in the US where he kept close to the émigré community and looked upon most of American life with a mixture of alienation and disdain, Adorno never felt at home. Aphorism 18 is entitled “Asylum for the homeless”. But it is an argument against the ideal of a permanent home. “Dwelling in the authentic sense,” he writes, “is no longer possible.” Little in Adorno’s work better expresses his mistrust of “dwelling” and “authenticity”, those cherished themes of existentialism. In 1941, after a few years in New York, Adorno followed his colleague, the philosopher and sociologist Max Horkheimer, out to Los Angeles County, where they lived not far from other artists and intellectuals, including Bertolt Brecht and the composer Arnold Schoenberg, all of them exiles from central Europe.

The sunny Californian climate reminded him of Tuscany. Still, is there anything more incongruous than the image of Adorno in Los Angeles? In the brave new world of America he witnessed Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel as reality. The music irritated his ears, the products of Hollywood offended his eyes, and even the door handles were unfamiliar. With his astonishing gift for overstatement the experience of trying to open or close them became yet another occasion for meditating on the rise of fascism. “What does it mean for the subject,” he asked, “that there are no more casement windows to open, but only sliding frames to shove, no gentle latches but turnable handles, no forecourt, no doorstep before the street, no wall around the garden?” His questions already anticipated the answer. “The movements machines demand of their uses already have the violent, hard-hitting, unresting jerkiness of Fascist maltreatment.” Such interpretations are typical of what Adorno called his “micrological glance”. Seen up close and with a critical eye, even the smallest fragments of everyday life lose their innocence and become signs of surrounding catastrophe.

Displacement, then, was more than a personal experience. It was the intellectual precondition for critical practice. Only in the book’s final aphorism is the method that animates the entire work condensed into a single formula: “Perspectives must be fashioned that 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.” His message was clear: every image of a coherent society must be resisted as ideological so long as even one individual remains in despair. Among the many observations from Minima Moralia that have earned Adorno his reputation for total negativity is the seemingly decisive statement: “There is no right living in the false.” But even this statement should not be inflated into a condemnation of the entire world. Instead it was meant as a cautionary note against false transcendence, against the consoling thought that one could live a life of private happiness and moral rectitude in the midst of general suffering.

It is a warning, ironically against the very sins of elitism and aesthetic quietism that his critics have so often accused him of. All too often, Adorno is portrayed as a scowling contrarian who looks down upon a debased reality from the privileged remove of a “Grand Hotel Abyss”. But this is caricature, and it does a disservice to his penchant for identifying partial moments of redemption even in the midst of an unredeemed world.

Minima Moralia is a book in aphorisms, a genre that Adorno learned from exemplars such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Kraus. Like Nietzsche, it conveys its claims in lightning strikes of paradox and wit; and, like Nietzsche, it occasionally trades in blusterous certitudes. It is perhaps regrettable that Adorno, the critic of all fetishism, is most celebrated for the overstatements that lend themselves to fetishistic quotation. “In psychoanalysis,” he writes, “nothing is true except the exaggerations.” A philosopher less enchanted with hammer-blows might respond that in Adorno’s thinking whatever is true must be salvaged from the exaggerations. The burden is often shifted to the reader, who must complete Adorno’s thoughts for him but can assent only to what survives rational elucidation. “Thinking that renounces argument,” Adorno once said, “switches into pure irrationalism.”

The title Minima Moralia alludes to the treatise known as the Magna Moralia, or “Great Ethics”, a work once attributed to Aristotle but now considered a compendium of Aristotelian ethical principles by a later writer. It is therefore tempting to read Minima Moralia as a grim rejoinder to the tradition, a chastened commentary on the minimal hopes that remain for us in the modern world now that the chasm has opened beneath us. It is true that the book describes a darkening landscape – how could it not given the years when it was written? The epigraph to Part I is taken from the 19th-century Viennese writer Ferdinand Kürnberger: “Life does not live.” But it sounds like something that Adorno could have written himself. Minima Moralia bears the subtitle: “Reflections from damaged life” and the entire book could be read as a set of variations on this theme. More than once, it laments the “withering of experience” and the rise of “administered beneficence” that no longer leaves room for “human impulses”. The human being who loses “live contact with the warmth of things” transforms himself into an object and “freezes”.

In such a glacial landscape what remains as a moral vision? In the opening dedication to Max Horkheimer, Adorno writes that the book is meant as a contribution to what was once considered philosophy’s highest mission: “the teaching of the good life”. But is such instruction still possible?  Adorno knew that with the professionalisation of philosophy this mission has suffered neglect. To ask how we should live our lives only conceals the bitter truth that there is no longer anything substantive to human life at all. We cannot pretend that people “still have the capacity to act as subjects” when in fact they are “no more than component parts of machinery”. And yet Adorno did not wish to surrender his devotion to the good. At the margins of capitalist society where the imperatives of production and exchange have still not wholly colonised consciousness we are still dimly aware that the world has gone hopelessly wrong. Only if we sustain our opposition to the current order and its imperatives can we “bring about another [order] more worthy of human beings”. Adorno had grown suspicious of grand theories. Although he sustained a seldom-stated bond with Marxism he was not primarily interested in political economy, nor did he have any real talent for the topic. Instead he was drawn to the inspection of lived experience in all of its exquisite detail. The starting point for such an inquiry is the embattled subject whose individual experiences even in their decay might still contribute to knowledge.

It is on this level of individual experience, always qualified by sociological knowledge, that Adorno sought the requisite sources of moral insight. Despite the tones of hopelessness that pervade his book, Adorno remains attuned to the fleeting moments of individual happiness even in the midst of despair. These moments are signs of the “non-identical”, traces in everyday life of the subject-in-exile who has not succumbed to the false social whole. We should not be surprised to learn that Adorno once told his publisher that part three of Minima Moralia was his favourite. It is there that we find one of the book’s most affecting passages, “Toy shop”, in which Adorno gave free rein to his interpretative skills.

It was also the entry that more than any other bears a resemblance to the ideas and methods of his friend Walter Benjamin, the German philosopher who had died by suicide only six years before at the age of 48, during his flight from fascism. Benjamin too, was fascinated by children’s books and toys, and his memory hangs over Adorno’s writing like a melancholy muse. Adorno reflects on the purposeless wonder of a child’s experience, and the disenchantment that sets in once capitalism imposes its demands. When the imperative of “earning a living” colonises our life all of the aimless activities of childhood must be abandoned and the specificity of things is lost. Hence the significance of child’s play. “In his purposeless activity the child, by a subterfuge, sides with use-value against exchange value” and resists the demand that things should be valued only in exchange. The child still knows what the adult has forgotten, that the things have value beyond their value as commodities, and when the child tends to this value “he seeks to rescue in them what is benign towards men”. Under the sober gaze of the adult, children’s games may seem superficial, but it is capitalism that has robbed human life of its depth. “The unreality of games gives notice that reality is not yet real. Unconsciously they rehearse the right life.” And, because children are not yet fully tethered to the mechanisms of production and commodification that have disfigured our nature, they also retain an instinctive love for animals, whose very existence seems to beckon as an undisguised utopia. “In existing without any purpose recognisable to men, animals hold out, as if for expression, their own names, utterly impossible to exchange.”

To accuse Adorno of sentimentalism would be mistaken. The task of Minima Moralia is to assist us in seeing the redemptive surplus that lies unrealised at the interstices of everyday experience. It does not draw back in horror from the totality of the world and condemn it all as false; it burrows deeply into the crevices of life to alight upon its small moments of enduring truth. In his more formal philosophical argumentation, and especially in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944),the work he had co-authored with Horkheimer just a few years before he set about writing Minima Moralia, Adorno identified such experiences as the remnants of mimesis: the fragile relationship of imitation that still obtains between human nature and the nature that exceeds the subject’s will to domination. The “live contact with the warmth of things” that he cherished most of all became the point d’appui for all his criticism, not only in everyday life but also in his sociology and even in his aesthetics, since, contrary to what his detractors have claimed, he refused to isolate artistic experience as a privileged domain beyond all social conditioning. To lay on the water and look peacefully at the sky, “rien faire comme une bête”, became in Minima Moralia the poetic image for this utopia. Adorno was not so naive as to imagine that such moments could suffice as a respite for social suffering. In a distorted world such experiences, too, are distorted; what they promise can only be fulfilled in a society that has at last become worthy of human beings. Until that day they too must remain in exile, promises of a life that will one day live.

Peter E Gordon is the Amabel B James Professor of History and a faculty affiliate in the Department of Philosophy at Harvard. This essay is a modified and abridged version of the author’s foreword that appears in the essay collection, “Minima Moralia in the 21st Century: Fascism, Work, and Ecology(Bloomsbury Books)

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