Reading notes

On following paths

One of the best ways to discover new books is to follow the paths that other books leave for you:

Despite—or especially because of—this loss of faith in modernity and rationality, Adorno’s work seems just as necessary now as when I encountered it twenty years ago. His long paragraphs anticipate and consider the doubts, act out the contradictions and inconsequences—and yet, just through this endeavor of critical thought, leave the reader with the sense of something won, and with the need to go on thinking.

Kinross, Unjustified Texts, page 185

It’s hard to pass by an endorsement like that. And Adorno doesn’t disappoint, even in the first paragraph of the dedication:

The melancholy science from which I make this offering to my friend relates to a region that from time immemorial was regarded as the true field of philosophy, but which, since the latter’s conversion into method, has lapsed into intellectual neglect, sententious whimsy and finally oblivion: the teaching of the good life. What philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own.…Our perspective of life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer.

Adorno, Minima Moralia, page 15

If this is a bread crumb trail through the woods, I believe I’ve just found a dark but inviting cave to explore.

On living through difficult times

It follows directly from this that anyone who attempts to come out alive—and survival itself has something nonsensical about it, like dreams in which, having experienced the end of the world, one afterwards crawls from a basement—ought also to be prepared at each moment to end his life.

Adorno, Minima Moralia, page 38

Much of Adorno’s writing is structured in these seemingly contradictory statements. But rather than stand in opposition, the competing statements tangle and coalesce into something else entirely—a tool for subversion instead of nihilism.

…what in the days of art nouveau was known as a beautiful death has shrunk to the wish to curtail the infinite abasement of living and the infinite torment of dying, in a world where there are far worse things to fear than death. The objective end of humanism is only another expression for the same thing. It signifies that the individual as individual, in representing the species of man, has lost the autonomy through which he might realize the species.

Adorno, Minima Moralia, page 38

The circular syntax makes for a slight spinning feeling as you read, something Adorno no doubt intended.

On books as objects

In my childhood, some elderly English ladies with whom my parents kept up relations often gave me books as presents: richly illustrated works for the young, also a small green bible bound in morocco leather. All were in the language of the donors: whether I could read it none of them paused to reflect. The peculiar inaccessibility of the books, with their glaring pictures, titles and vignettes, and their indecipherable text, filled me with the belief that in general objects of this kind were not books at all, but advertisements, perhaps for machines like those my uncle produced in his London factory.

Adorno, Minima Moralia, page 47

Similarly:

In a world where books have long lost all likeness to books, the real book can no longer be one. If the invention of the printing press inaugurated the bourgeois era, the time is at hand for its repeal by the mimeograph, the only fitting, the unobtrusive means of dissemination.

Adorno, Minima Moralia, page 51

One wonders how Adorno would have responded to ebooks. The medium has the potential to be so unobtrusive that the book itself nearly vanishes, or else so gaudy it makes an illuminated text appear ascetic in comparison.

On violence

People thinking in the forms of free, detached, disinterested appraisal were unable to accommodate within those forms the experience of violence which in reality annuls such thinking. The almost insoluble task is to let neither the power of others, nor our own powerlessness, stupefy us.

Adorno, Minima Moralia, page 57

I’m reminded of one of the final passages in Imre Kertész’s Fateless. The narrator has returned home after a year in the camps (first Auschwitz, then Buchenwald). Around the dinner table, he becomes frustrated with the talk, which seems to compress the events (the stars, the ghetto, the camps, the liberation) into one great, unimaginable happening. When he addresses this with them, they ask what he means:

I answered, “Nothing in particular. Only saying that it all ‘came to pass’ isn’t entirely accurate,” because we did it step by step. It was only now that everything looked so finished, unalterable, final, so incredibly fast, and so terribly hazy, so that it seems to have simply come to pass—only now, retroactively, as we look at it backward. Of course, if we had known our fates ahead of time, then, indeed, all we could have done was to keep track of the passing of time. A silly kiss, then, is just as inevitable, for instance, as a day without activity at the customhouse or at the gas chamber. But whether we look forward or backward we are in either case moving, I said. Because, in fact, twenty minutes is in principle a rather long stretch of time. Each minute started, lasted, and then ended before the next one started up again.

Kertész, Fateless, page 187

Kertész’s response to powerlessness is to recognize that there’s nothing special about such a state: it’s the ordinary course of life, and so neither crippling nor enabling.

Excellent writing advice from Adorno

A first precaution for writers: in every text, every piece, every paragraph to check whether the central motif stands out clearly enough. Anyone wishing to express something is so carried away by it that he ceases to reflect on it.

Adorno, Minima Moralia, page 85

No improvement is too small or trivial to be worthwhile. Of a hundred alterations each may seem trifling or pedantic by itself; together they can raise the text to a new level.

When several sentences seem like variations on the same idea, they often only represent different attempts to grasp something the author has not yet mastered. Then the best formulation should be chosen and developed further. It is part of the technique of writing to be able to discard ideas, even fertile ones, if the construction demands it.

The prudence that restrains us from venturing too far ahead in a sentence, is usually only an agent of social control, and so of stupefaction.

On being right

When philosophers, who are well known to have difficulty keeping silent, engage in conversation, they should always try to lose the argument, but in such a way as to convict their opponent of untruth. The point should not be to have absolutely correct, irrefutable, watertight cognitions—for they inevitably boil down to tautologies, but insights which cause the question of their justness to judge itself.

Adorno, Minima Moralia, page 71

This is one of many instances when I’m not certain I completely grasp what Adorno is saying (though I’m convinced by the beauty of the construction that the fault lies with me and not with Adorno). But I’ll take from it what I will: that the job of the philosopher (or, in my interpretation, the critic) is not so much to be right as to be engaging. The former is like a race, while the latter is an exploration: one seeks an end in and of itself while the other is never ending.

On process

The injunction to practise intellectual honesty usually amounts to sabotage of thought. The writer is urged to show explicitly all the steps that have led him to his conclusion, so enabling every reader to follow the process through, and, where possible—in the academic industry—to duplicate it. This demand not only invokes the liberal fiction of the universal communicability of each and every thought and so inhibits their objectively appropriate expression, but is also wrong in itself as a principle of representation. For the value of a thought is measured by its distance from the continuity of the familiar.

Adorno, Minima Moralia, page 80

There’s a certain amount of alchemy to writing that ought not to be expunged. It’s tempting to try to sort it out (a temptation I am often prone to), but in the sorting you’ll inevitably lose the whole.

In defense of truth

Things have come to pass where lying sounds like truth, truth like lying. Each statement, each piece of news, each thought has been pre-formed by the centres of the culture industry.…The extreme case of Germany is instructive of the general mechanism. When the National Socialists began to torture, they not only terrorized people inside and outside Germany, but were they more secure from exposure the more wildly the horror increased. The implausibility of their actions made it easy to disbelieve what nobody, for the sake of precious peace, wanted to believe, while at the same time capitulating to it.

Adorno, Minima Moralia, page 108

And:

The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power, a process that truth itself cannot escape if it is not to be annihilated by power, not only suppresses truth as in earlier despotic orders, but has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false, which the hirelings of logic were in any case diligently working to abolish. So Hitler, of whom no-one can say whether he died or escaped, survives.

Adorno, Minima Moralia, page 109

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about the timeliness of this post. I will say that it’s taking me an inordinate amount of time to get through Minima Moralia, not because it’s difficult (which it is) but because it’s so utterly damning. I keep pausing to survey the territory around me, somewhat surprised to find I’m still standing amid the ruins.