An account of my first discovery of Adorno may be unusual but may also lead straight into the heart of his thinking better than straight philosophical discussions.
I came to him via my passion for music and poetry which led naturally into other aspects of his thinking.
I was attending a college of higher education in Flensburg, Germany while waiting for the English academic year to start. My fellow students suggested I should read Adorno and Benjamin. I obtained two volumes of their essays and tried as hard as I could to read them but understood nothing. I renounced and gave my books to the students.
Some time later I went into a bookshop and saw the small volume by Adorno called"Noten zur Literatur" - "Notes to Literature." I opened the pages and found essays on my favourite poets. I began to read and moticed that his prose had something of the texture of Schumann's Kreisleriana and from then I was able to read. wihout alibinal attachment to words I can't read prose and Libido is an important aspect of Adrono's thinking.Later I heard that a piece from Kreislerina was played at his funeral
This was a miraculous discovery for me as I found myself in him as in Schumann. My arts had become just a little stale but these essays opened up the whole world of poetry and music for me as never before. I have never read better essays on these subjects and they are an intirnsical part of his philosophy - so there is inded a connection betwen him and performance, interpretation of musci, for example
The lecture called Lyric and Society he tells his audience that they may object to analytical dissection of a fragile lyric - spoil it -but that this very admission of the social content of art, that yhe puirity fo the poem negates interference from the 'nasty' world outside.He goes on to say that sociology, Psychology and such disciplines should not be imposed on the poem, but that scoial significance must come from within the poem itself and gives several examples of such interpretative tact. bringing out all the beauties of the poem dwon to the last syllable. I'll try to give an example of such an interpretation later, but it's difficult as in the English version the poem may be badly translated.
Witjhut this aesthetic component, I doubt whether Adorno can really be understood.
Later I will take his opponents for beter and worse into consideration
I am taking up the subject of the 'respectable' theorists who reject Adorno as an elitist who consider his rejection to commercial pop music as an 'oversimplification'. Now one thing Adorno does not do is to oversimplify. .I think the word elitist should be entirely cancelled from the vocabulary of theoretical and literary critcism.
This does not mean that I always agree with Adorno, that would be absurd.
Adrono wrote that shock essay on Jazz which tears it to pieces. He was too late to influence me as I was already a fan of Billie Holiday and others and nothing will convince me that she was not a genius.
As far as the run of the mill commercial pop music goes, Adorno was absolutely right. I notice how people g who go as perfromers and composers in the direction, the first thing they are taught is the standard classicl harmonies and their songs go round and round iwith these basic chords. These are taken for granted as though they were given by nature which they certainly were not. They have existed only for a few hundred years and this eternal repetition cannot but give the impression of music stuck in a rut.
I have been reading a book of interviews with ex-Adorno students several of whom were in the pseudo-revolutionary movement that turned emphatically against him aandI'm also interested in what comes after Adorno. My feeling is that he was a powerful influence and that they had by hook or by crook to find something against him. Some reject him lock stock and barrel and say his critical theory is no longer relevant no longer relevant. Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer all turned against each other but thiis does not mean that their philosophies became irrelevant. There was no fuss after beethoven's death about him being irrelevant; the Romantics , Schumann, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Brahms idealisedhimi but wrote music that could not have been more different..
Some of the interviewees say they have started projects directly with thw working class. A good step, but as the years pass I see nothing emerging from this.Many ordinary people are inclined to vote for people like Trump and Madame le Pen who represent everything Adorno hated in our world. Neither they nor the relevance of his critique have gone away. With every decade that passes I find his assessment of our world more true.
Another interviewee simply had to find some novels to which Adrono's criterion could no longer apply. He mentioned a few names, among them Peter Handke, admitting the fact that Handke may not really have succeeded. This guy takes up a thought of Adorno's that the greatest works, in a sense, are those that fail and turns this into a cheaply applied rule.He is quite simply not interested in success or failure, Critical refelctions are no longer relevant. It does not matter. Apart from the fact that there is no single thing in this world, not the chair i sit on, not the glass I drink from, that can extricate itself from Adorno's , Marx's, Ruskin's, Hegel's dialectics. I recognised the dialects in Beethoven and others long before I knew anything about Adorno. They don't belong to him but to the world in which we live
.Much more to write a but I will stop with an anecdote about a conversatipon I had with Germans who were on the anti-Adorno bandwagon. For a long time I tried to defend Adorno. I said, "It is not every day tha we find a Mozart or a Beethoven in our midst and our one task would be to defend them in the work they are doing. (My heroine, Rosa Luxemburg, would have agreed with me on this, but that is another subject). In the end i said to my friends, "O.K: I give up. Now you tell me what you are doing with the working class?" They were flummoxed and had little to say but then told me they were trying to get a swimming pool erected next to a factory. I asked, "Is that all!" and they replied, "Don't worry, Felix, for your sake will hang a picture of Alban Berg in the swimming pool."
I'm hoping for some contrasting arguments, but have the feeling I'm decdidly unpopular on such Forums
I seem to writing a monologue on Adorno and will continue for the moment.
i'm still trying to find my bearings on PP and may find it's not the place for me..I have just looked at the section called blogs and I don't see any ongoing discussions there, something I had hoped for.
I wan't, for for moment to turn away from my admiration of Adorno, which remains intact, to some critical observations.
My household Gods: Adorno and Anna Pavlova, a bizarre combination, but they add up to. Felix. Pavlova provides a link to performance, subtle thought turned into movement, to mimesis - a subject otherwise dear to Adorno and Benjamin, but I think they had next to no appreciation of expression through our physical being.If I had been a student of Adorno's in Frankfurt I would have written him a letter trying to explain why I loved Ballet (including modern dance). A good topic, perhaps, to add to the discussions.
In some of his essays like Education after Ausschwitz I find sweeping statements, where he says we should not expect him to preach about love which simply isn't possible in our world. I can understand what he means if he is imagining a utopian world in which all socio-economic have been removed from our lives, Rosa Luxemburg certainly tried o imagine such a world when she attacked Lenin and Trotsky for becoming dictators. (The Russian Revolution, chapter 2) But Adorno certainly did love his wife,Thomas Mann and Alban Berg as he says himself in his correspondence (when writing to the widows after their deaths).
But something that has bothered me over the years is the derogatory way he refers to homosexuality here and there in Minima Moralia and other essays. He associates it blandly with fascism and since he refers to over-araing macho authoritarians who were still practising heterosexual men, he must be thinking of suppressed homosexuality and on this point I agree with him. But therre are passages in which he says that homosexuals are blind to differences, to 'the other,' and love only themselves, then contradicts himself in his essay on sexual taboos (in the volume Eingriffe by saying that lacking an adequate father gays identify themselves. There already you have a woman large as life. In the pictures I've posted to PP it is easy to identify my mother. Have you ever seen a more beautiful woman? She did not have Greta Grabo's protruding cheek bones.
One can't generalise about goes. As my lovely libertine teacher of French conversation, Madame David (Daveed) said wisely, 'There are as many kinds of love as there are people. There may be some male gays who narcisisistcally want to love themselves but many years of experience I have noticed that gays are generally in search of the lost heterosexual love. Many gays of the more passive variety, in their identification with femininity, still seek the other. The identification with women makes these come very much alive to them. There are women who become gay icons: Garbo, Monroe, Judy Garland, he daughter, Bett Mildred. I have spent my life instinctively, not consciously, being passionate about women in the arts: Christina Rossetti, Else Lasker-Schueler, the Brontes,, Katherine Mansfield and many, many others.In Verona I gave an illustrated talk on Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schuimann I love gazing at the pictures of these women. Maybe they stand for me as Madame Bovary did for FlaubertThen it is well.known that gays often get on well with women - I generally better than with men and that they are employed in the catering trades because of their rapport with women. At Fortnum and Mason's in London old ladies went regularly to have their therapeutic sessions with a gay employees in the begetable department. So we are socially useful as well and let no Adorno tell me I'm blind to women. There is no real dividing line and Tolstoy managed brilliantly with Anna Karenina in the most inspired parts of that b novel.
Sdorn becomes considerably more reasonable in his essay on sexual taboos again in the voluime entitled Eingriffe. There he protests against anti-gay legiislation and writes tha gays often have gifts which they can't realise in repressive socieites and that people like Proust n managed better in more aristocratic socieities in which homosexuality was accepted.
This theme has made me think of one that may be useful for the group-minus-grouip discussions: Gays and transvestites in performance in plays, in films, on the vaudeville stage, in Night Clubs and pubs (in England). I will try this writing in my Felixian unacademic style and if it won't do for PP, I'll leave quietly by a back door.
Felix, welcome! I am enjoying your 'monologue' and finding it very stimulating. By no means are such discussions inappropriate to PP -- but, as you will see, the pace of conversations varies quite a bit on this forum. It's completely self-managed, so participation varies based on how and when individual users are inspired to contribute. Indeed, it may not meet your needs -- but I see that you've started joining existing threads, which is a good way to start, as well as doing your own investigations across the forum to see whom you might be interested in contacting. Also, have a look at the other outputs of PP: the book series (including the volume on Performance & Adorno), the journal, and the biennial international conferences. Good luck! --Theron
Thanks Theron, a sign of life on our planet. Nose streaming continuously. I'll reply later with some more monologue-ing.
Thanks again, Theron.The fact that PP doesn't appear to have on going discussions as I have found on other sites, where even if people didn't reply to you personally, the discussion went on, was a blow to me. This was no fault of PP but due to my circumstances.In the world I inhabit at present even one tenth, no one twentieth, of Adorno's insights into society and the arts is taboo. Isis commits physical murders but I have the feeling of an invisible Isis that kills people's minds.
To remain within the sphere of Adorno's dialectics, I'm the member of a musical forum where an unwritten but strict law forbids you to write anything about the content of music, You have to stick entirely to surface appreciation, likes and dislikes. To have studied music is a disadvantage. There were about three of us who knew something about music and we have been eased out of the site. This site allows conversations about subjects other than music. I once found a comment or two on Schopenhauer which were so wrong that I felt obliged to add an explanation. No answer. It may be that t they knew too little about Schopenhauer to know what to say, but there was not even a comment to say 'that was interesting'....'what did you mean by this?'...'your explanation confirms my dislike of Schopenhauer.' In most blogs I find a mentality which I would describe as tight arsed, often resentful and jealous - not in PP.
But even in my more general conversations with old otherwise intelligent friends I find this taboo in full vigour. Fortunately there are two exceptions to this rule. I can say things that are all too obviously true, such as that great music takes a step out of our prevailing reality, that is is not self-suffcient but aims beyond itself as suggested by Schubert when he wrote "Mozart's music makes us dream of a better world than the one we live in," I get brief replies such as "You are wrong," without further discussion..The same when I point out that from Romanticism onwards there has been a progressive dissociation from 'normality' that reached into the Schoenberg school and others.Already Wordsworth strikes out on this path when he writes about the growing child feeling the walls of the prison house growing around him. He was not a poet of nature but one who lamented the loss of nature. This feeling of loss brought an extra glow into the depictions of nature. The German romantic poet, Eichendorff was a civil servant and led a happy married life but banned all depictions of normality in his poems, instinctively I think and not consciously.
When I write about such things and especially when I mention the name Adorno an old friend cancels my letters. (He is still a good friend). Is this a panic about knowing too much about the world that is destroying us?
SO, when I discovered PP and saw its philosophical discussions including Adorno life seemed to brighten up. I felt I was stepping onto a platform which gave more sense to my life. When I discovered that there was very little in the way of discussion I fell with a bump back into my abyss. I wondered whether there was any point at all in opening one's mouth, in expressing any ideas or feelings.Yes, there as a good comment on Adorno but that is more or less where the discussion stopped. As I've written before, I go through all the blogs and mostly find one comment without replies. I wanted to reply to one woman's ideas but saw that she posted them a year ago. I talked about PP to a friend and she found it rapidly but had the impression that people might contribute once a month, once in 3 months por once a year. Maybe the main goal of PP is to gather papers and organise those international conferences which I cannot go and most of the suggested themes don't interest me.
Anyway I'll hang around try to add a few comments here and there and may continue my Adorno monologue to which this letter belongs.I can copy my comments and use them elsewhere.
And why is there always that instruction under letters, saying 'don't follow me - don't send my e-mail replies via e-mail.' Suely it is obvious when one joins a conversation that one expects it to continue???
Some aphoristic thoughts on Adorno's Theory of Musical Reproduction which I will refer to as MR.
This is an excellent volume of his notes for a book he never completed and contains many perceptive observations and lengthy citations by someone called Dorian and Wagner whose ideas on conducting Beethoven in particular Adorno admired greatly. I also find the book a bit maddening in its never ending dialectics and this may be my fault rather than his. Here I will consider the things I feel uncomfortable with or those I partly disagree with.
I will start with Adorno's very demanding definition of a person who deserves to be called musical; such a person for him in his Sociology of Music is one who can detect the form of Webern's String Quartet op.20 at a first hearing. After reading this I listened to that work and was unable to follow its form. Then, after repeated hearings with and without the score, I find I can now follow the structure of this Quartet.
To friends who were listening to music with me I offered a more lenient definition: a musical person is someone who enjoys listening to music and begins to notice particular features of the works he is listening to and continues on this path. of course, if he simply takes music for granted as it is transmitted on the radio, for example, he is in dfanger of not knowing whether the interpretation is adequate or not.
Adorno's definition is, to say the least, unfair.
In the book called Prisms he uses a passage from Keats as a motto for his essay on Schönberg:
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore ye pipes play on:
Not to the sensual ear, but ,more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.
Adorno's book on MR is pervaded by this way of thinking. He believes that the interpretation of (great) music is impossible, that it can only be vaguely yet precisely aspired to - such are his never ending dialectics. I agree with him that it is salutary to look at the composer's hand-writing as it shows more of the character of the music -earlier in MR he quotes Schumann saying the same thing -; for Adorno notation as we know it is a symptom of repressive rationalisation. He is such a perfectionist or absolutist, on this subject that he hates perfection; he thoroughly dislikes the dazzling virtuosity of famous conductors; they may even get everything objectively right but they miss the inner spirit of the music. Here I have some sympathy for what he says as I once watched Bernstein conducting the inevitable 5th Symphony on television and his perfection was such that it said nothing to me; it was like being at the end of a production line that produces a Mercedes-Benz. But if good interpretation is impossible then I may as well go on thoroughly enjoying interpretations that aspire towards the 'truth' in music. Adorno also writes that one obtains a better interpretation by just looking at the score, but in a sketched essay at the end of the book he contradicts himself saying that music depends on its sensual realisation, on being heard.
In an earlier letter I myself gave only one example about how Schumann can be fatally misinterpreted even by 'great pianists.' I have never heard an interpretation of the second movement of Schumann's Piano Concerto that satisfies my entirely because pianists miss the humour in it. Here I do at least have the support of Clara Schumann who told her pupils that they should not take it as a slow movement but must be aware of the lively dialogue between the piano and the orchestra. Adorno would say such features must not be made too obvious; if a pianist were to play it as though saying to the audience, 'in case you don't realise it, this passage is humorous,' this would again ruin the interpretation. I nevertheless think that the humour should be clearly realised.
But if Adorno thinks nearly all interpretations are bad then I beg to differ. While agreeing with him that we are all pretty much fixated in an ideologically blinded world, I am surprised that musicians still emerge with a fresh musical intelligence and sensitivity. If they are reaching for an unobtainable perfection this makes them all the more moving. I discovered Schubert's Trio in B flat major among my grandfather's gramophone records when I was thirteen and that discovery remains an everlasting joy. Whatever may have been wrong with that interpretation the musicians realised Schubert's essential character perfectly. I could cite several interpretations that I admire and which are musically inspiring like those of Brendel at the piano, but will single out one in particular: I was never entirely happy with my various recordings of Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues until I discovered the one by Barenboim which satisfies me entirely. The entirely false schools of authenticity - I call them distortionists - are thrown aside and he realises the musical content emotively and intellectually in all its richness. There is not a motive in the counterpoint that is not saying something particular. I'm convinced Barenboim must have read Adorno's essay in Prisms entitled Bach defended against his admirers.
I think an intellect like Adorno's should be allowed to go to its extremes, even if we sometimes disagree.
This should come after my first comment about Adorno's theory of musical reproduction but my 'reply' refuses to go from there.
Going over that MR (Musical Reproduction) book I came across this passage where Adorno rejects even the intermediate stages in interpretation. He proclaims that there are no intermediate stages: the interpretation is either absolutely right or absolutely wrong. This means that if Barenboim gets a few passages wrong in his interpretation of the Bach 48 his whole interpretation is inadequate.
This is simply absurd, ridiculous, arrogant. I can't believe Adorno really thought this. We could then close our piano lids, put our violins and clarinets away and give up the impossible attempt to make music. This is not the Adorno I know from his Notes on Literature and his essays on music. He himself, if my memory does not deceive me, suggests that imperfect is better than perfect.
In his essay on Lyric and Society in the Notes to Literature, Bk 1 he writes that culturally disadvantaged people have an even greater right to search for the tones in which suffering and dreams are united, even if imperfectly and awkwardly.
When I read the sentence I have cited above I feel like closing the book and going back to my own experience of music. Our own experience is the only way we have of appreciating music and it cannot be cancelled by edicts from above. This reaction is regrettable because the MR book does in fact also contain vital clues to interpretation.
I taught a ten year old boy the piano and got him to play very nicely, passionately and musically. Adorno's criteria were irrelevant.Of course I had Adoro-esque ideas about interpretation but I refuse to be fanatical about them.
Adorno had a particular hatred of the pianist Alfred Cortot, may be because he went along with the Vichy regime and the Nazis in Paris. He says that Cortot emphasized what was already obvious. In fact Cortot realised several of Adorno's criteria in his interpretations. He played the melodies by Schumann and Chopin with a marvellous spontaneous plasticity and characterised them in relation to the whole. Not a note is taken for granted. He does not for a moment lose sight of the other interweaving harmonic and motivic dimensions in relation to melodies.
Here he does not play the accompanying chords in rigid time but gives them their own spontaneous motion. Adorno believed in playing against the musical notation. When the melody comes back he gives it the character of a response- as required by Adorno - playing faster and forte with strong chords suited to the dramatic climax of the piece, which then fades sensitively into a diminuendo for the closing section. He doesn't play the melody simply with a beautiful touch but uses a more penetrating characterising tone.
My impression is that Adorno, when writing about music or poetry he loves, sees weaknesses as virtues and virtues as weaknesses in artists he dislikes.
I will continue with some considerations of Adorno's book on musical reproduction - MR. In a previous letter I disagreed with him strongly but my esteem for him is as great as ever. Sometimes he does get his knickers in a twist.
In that book, at a certain point, he goes on to a comparison between music and poetry somewhat dubiously considering their 'translation', the translation of poetry into another language and the translation of music from the score into sound. Of poetry he says that the original is indifferent to its translation, cannot be affected by it. But he leaves out the problem of the recitation of poetry which is also a performance. On this subject I am about as fussy as he is as I rarely hear poetry recited well.. A conspicuously theatrical voice won't do; poetry read should hover somewhere between the text and a music of words.
One of my favourite essays of Adorno's is Lyric and Society in the first book of Notes on Literature. This essay was originally read by him over the radio and this reading can be found on Youtube. His interpretation of a poem by Mörike is sublime but his reading of the poem quite inadequate, quite flat. This may be due to his terror of false immediacy, of lyrical tones in an unlyrical world but contradicts his ability to enter into the emotions of poets and composers in his essays. indeed in this very essay. He did after all attack Bach's false admirers because they missed the lyrical tones, redolent of Chopin and Schumann, in his music.
In MR Adorno dislikes too much emphasis of 'the obvious.' Well Yeats, reading of his own poems made the obvious, or what should be but isn't, exceedingly obvious and this is why they are great recitations. He gives almost extreme emphasis to the alliteration and assonances. He dwells on single words for a seeming eternity thus upsetting the regularity of his metre, reading against the printed word in the way Adorno feels that musicians should play against the notation. Before starting his reading Yeats explains to his audience that they may find his way of reciting strange but he had put a lot of work into his poems and would not have them read as though they were prose. Auden reads poetry in a relatively flat way because he is writing a completely different kind of poetry, adjusting to a more sober world. perhaps Adorno felt this when he read the poem by Mörike but there is an unsolved contradiction here.
This relates somewhat to a subject dear to Adorno, his detestation of the authentic movements in the interpretation of music. This was at its worst in Germany. For them you had to play a deeply emotional composer like Bach without any expression whatever because his music represented a perfect order of being. You simply repeated the notes on the page. If I'm not mistaken something of this attitude spread over into some Existentialists. There is an Existentialist who has a late night programme on TV and he had a whole play of Hölderlin's recited in a delberately flat tone. Peasant voices might be Ok: but not ones who were stupid or made to sound stupid. Not only do you hae to eliminate expression but you have to detract from iy.
(When I had to give a reading of poems I had translated into Italian I tried at first to find an Italian reader but none of them satisfied me so I opted for reading myself. I felt that at least at a first reading I wanted to bring out the things I had put into the poems).
I forgot to add the link to Yeats reading his poetry:
He explains that he is keen on rhythm and his iambics stand out very clearly but he stretches them. In the third poem he describes an old woman who has to toil, bake and sweep while the young lie idle in their beds:
Their day goes over in idleness
They sigh if the wind but lift up a tress
On the Internet these verses begin with an 'And' but Yeats effectively eliminated this.The stress on -ness in the first line is unusual but effective in its emphatic rhyme with 'tress.' He puts a stress on unstressed words like 'their' -emphatically - and 'they' somewhat less so - to give voice to the old woman's complaint. He dwells on words like sigh, wind, lift and tress.
If you enjoy these readings, listen to the end as he reads The Lake Isle of Innisfree again with an even more eloquent older voice. Yeats wrote that when his collected poems were published he wanted to omit this poem because of its neo-romantic character but then realised he couldn't as his friends knew it off by heart. A great poem, to my mind.
Adorno is present in his absence.