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Understanding the Philosopher of Auschwitz


By Stefan Müller-Doohm; translated by Rodney Livingstone

Polity Press, 667 pages, $75.

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Adorno: A Political Biography

By Lorenz Jäger; translated by Stewart Spencer

Yale University Press. 248 pages. $35.

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Although Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno was one of the two most prominent German philosophers of the postwar period (the other was Adorno’s nemesis, Martin Heidegger), he is perhaps best known in the United States for some nasty things he wrote about jazz, and for his claim, expressed in the early 1950s, that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”

This explosive little aphorism, which comes at the end of a complicated essay, is usually misquoted. Adorno did not say what people usually take him to have said — that it is impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz. (He did worry that it was indeed impossible, but for different reasons.) He was saying that since the Shoah implicated the finest tools of civilized “progress” in its pursuit of the greatest barbarity, even the refinements of poetry are irrevocably suspect. In the end, the Final Solution obliterated the traditional distinction between culture and savagery.

The extremity of Adorno’s position and the perils of his method are clearly visible in this one signal moment. On the one hand, Adorno was capable of subtle and often brilliant arguments. On the other, he was a master of striking aphorisms. Paradoxically enough, these apothegms obscure his arguments even as they sum them up. They are, if anything, too clear.

Adorno devoted this brilliance and this clarity to trying to puzzle through the implications of National Socialism. He has, for good reason, been called the philosopher of Auschwitz. As a young professor at the University of Frankfurt, he was forced to flee Germany in 1933, and so he never had to suffer directly the atrocities of the camps. Nevertheless, as he makes clear in the final section of his great work “Negative Dialectics,” which was published in English in a truly awful translation in 1973, the Shoah rendered even the notion of his lucky survival problematic. From the moment he returned to Frankfurt in 1949 until his death at 66 in 1969, he did everything to make sure that the fledgling Federal Republic thought through its fascist past. As a refugee who had written against the Nazis throughout the 12 years of their “Thousand-Year Reich,” Adorno had great authority. He exercised it within a number of public venues — in lectures, in newspapers, on the radio. As both these biographies show, Adorno had a deep and enduring effect on his nation’s culture.

This influence was greatest on the generation that came of age in the 1950s and ’60s — that is, on the inheritors of the National Socialist debacle. Adorno’s work spoke to their needs because it proved to be a difficult and heady mixture of the traditional and the revolutionary. It combined the legacy of high German philosophy (Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche) with Freudian psychology, the sociology of Max Weber and the critical analyses of Marx. It used this heady theoretical brew in order to explain how the most scientifically advanced civilization the world had ever seen could have pursued such terrifyingly irrational goals with such murderously rational precision. Adorno demonstrated that progress and regression are intimately tied, that Auschwitz was less an aberration than a culmination. In the end, he argued that reason in our capitalist modernity has been reduced to the mere pursuit of technological improvement and economic expansion and is therefore not reasonable enough. The world — and our thinking — requiress radical change.

The appearance of two biographies of Adorno, both produced around his centenary in 2003, gives us a hint of Adorno’s enduring importance in Germany. (Just a hint, though. Adorno has become an academic industry of scale in that country, and we Americans are just beginning to catch up.) In his dedication and preface, Müller-Doohm, a sociologist, makes it clear that he has great respect for his subject. His book, with more than 150 pages of reference material, is very well researched. It provides dutiful, clear and frequently insightful accounts of Adorno’s many writings. This is no small task, because Adorno, who was born into comfortable circumstances and had the good fortune to marry a remarkably intelligent and competent woman who took care of the mundane details of his life, was able to devote himself manically and exhaustingly to work. He wrote a great deal in a number of different disciplines: philosophy, sociology, and musicology. He was a superb literary critic and a serious composer of very difficult music. (He advised Thomas Mann on the musical portions of the novelist’s “Doctor Faustus.”) While Müller-Doohm certainly does not ignore Adorno’s less endearing traits (his vanity, his frequent sexual infidelities and other personal betrayals), he spends little time on them. This is a serious intellectual biography, a monument to a great thinker.

Lorenz Jäger, an editor at a major German newspaper, does not think that Adorno was such a great thinker (he seems to prefer Heidegger), and he certainly does not want to erect a monument. His relatively brief account of Adorno’s life assumes that the reader is already familiar with Adorno’s arguments and cultural importance. Jäger is less concerned with providing balanced explications of the works than with discounting the works’ premises and dismissing their author. His desire to smash a revered idol would be invigorating if it were accurate and provided some insights. Alas, although he has strong opinions (he cares for neither psychoanalysis nor Marxism), Jäger has few insights. He delights in finding alleged hypocrisy, but does not show any interest in explaining it.

Jäger seems to have devoted a good deal of energy to locating disparaging comments about Adorno. To his credit, he has found quite a few — and some of them are quite telling. But even these should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. After the publication of “Doctor Faustus,” Mann maintained that Adorno overstated his contributions to the book, and this charge was picked up by Mann’s wife and daughter after the author died. Jäger makes much of this. Müller-Doohm, however, quotes other letters and diary entries by Mann which that put the lie to these claims. What is more, Müller-Doohm demonstrates that Mann made direct and verbatim use of Adorno’s memoranda in the novel. The evidence is pretty clear, and Adorno comes off quite well despite Mann’s — and Jäger’s — attempts to discredit him.

For whatever reason, Jäger does not pick up on the most interesting aspect of other people’s reactions to Adorno: their frequent, unreflexive antisemitism. Here is Gottfried Benn’s report on first meeting Adorno: “a very intelligent, not very good-looking Jew, but with such real intelligence as only Jews have, good Jews.” The odd part of this, though, is that Adorno was not really, technically a Jew, either good or bad. His mother was a faithful Catholic, his father an assimilated Protestant convert. Adorno himself was baptized in the Catholic Church and confirmed in the Lutheran one. But his name (Wiesengrund-Adorno [he lost the hyphen, becoming just plain Adorno when he was naturalized, however briefly, as an American citizen]) was recognizably Jewish as was his milieu. Even before the Nazis came to power, Adorno’s closest friends and collaborators — Siegfried Kracauer, Max Horkheimer and Walter Benjamin — were clearly and demonstrably Jews. Though Adorno felt little attraction for organized religion, his philosophy always betrayed a strongly theological bent. That theology is usually, albeit often unconsciously, Jewish.

Nevertheless, even before the dark absurdity of the Nazi racial laws, Adorno’s status as a Mischling erster Klasse — a child of a “mixed-race” marriage — meant that he never really fit in. Non-Jews looked at him and saw nothing but supposedly “Jewish” features (intelligence, aggression, vanity, sensitivity, effeminacy, etc.). Jews never accepted him as one of their own. Hannah Arendt, for instance, referred to him contemptuously as a “kleiner Halbjude” — a little half-Jew. So there is something both fitting and uncomfortable in the fact that Adorno became so strongly associated with the Shoah.

It is hard for Americans to imagine that a philosopher, especially a philosopher as ferociously academic as Adorno, could become an important figure in a nation’s culture. We can account for Adorno’s abiding reputation in his native land in a number of ways. The Germans have always prided themselves, however inaccurately, as “Dichter und Denker” — that is, as poets and thinkers. So they have long been willing to grant public prominence to their leading philosophers. Their social and educational systems are also more elitist than ours, and so the Germans are more comfortable — on the surface, at least — with the tangible signs of intellectual superiority. What is more, in the aftermath of the Second World War, a returning Jewish (or half-Jewish) critic of the Nazi past would almost have to have been accorded respect, however grudgingly.

Adorno, though, would notice something defensive in our trying to explain away his importance in these terms. He would ask if our well-grounded dismissal of German elitism does not contain a kind of smug pseudo-populism that is blind to its own worship of anti-intellectual elites. He would have some choice things to say about the fact that our president, who is an oddly inarticulate graduate of Yale and Harvard universities as well as the grandson of a senator and the son of a president, has been able to pass himself off as a man of the people, a regular guy, for more than a decade.

In the end, Adorno had some very cutting and very accurate insights — not into jazz, perhaps, but into a number of our salient beliefs and consoling self-delusions. Even when he got it wrong, Adorno almost always asked the right questions. Because he would not take “yes” for an answer, he remains an important thinker — even for us, and especially now.

David Kaufmann, who teaches literature at George Mason University, is currently working on a book on Adorno.

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