Saturday, March 12, 2011

Poetry after Auschwitz: What Adorno Really Said, and Where He Said It

Gore Vidal remarks somewhere upon the irony that George Santayana is remembered today only for his warning about forgetting. (All who remember Santayana are doomed to repeat that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.) Theodor Adorno seems to have suffered a similar fate, remembered by most nonspecialists only as a German gloom-meister who pronounced that after Auschwitz, poetry could no longer be written. Few realize that what Adorno actually wrote was more complex and subject to revision in his later work.

The original quote (always taken out of context and rarely footnoted) occurs in the concluding passage of a typically densely argued 1949 essay, "Cultural Criticism and Society," reprinted as the first essay in Prisms. Here is the entire passage,  from the English translation by Samuel and Shierry Weber:

The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation. (Prisms, 34)

It's a difficult passage from a difficult essay, made more difficult by being wrenched out of context. (One really must read the entire essay to understand the closing lines. If you find an inexpensive copy of Prisms in a secondhand bookstore, grab it.) Adorno's meaning, particularly what he means by the word "reification," becomes clearer when read in light of two earlier sentences in this same page-long paragraph: "In the open-air prison which the world is becoming, it is no longer so important to know what depends on what, such is the extent to which everything is one. All phenomena rigidify, become insignias of the absolute rule of that which is." Here's my paraphrase/interpretation of the key sentences: To persist, after Auschwitz, in the production of monuments of the very culture that produced Auschwitz (Adorno might have spoken of Strauss's Four Last Songs  rather than generalized "poetry") is to participate by denial in the perpetuation of that barbaric culture and to participate in the process (reification) that renders fundamental criticism of that culture literally unthinkable.

This is a harsh, devastating idea, and Adorno eventually came to consider it something of an overstatement. In his late work Negative Dialectics he offers this conditional revision--a revision that is, in its own way, perhaps even more devastating than the final paragraph of "Cultural Criticism and Society." I quote from the English translation by E. B. Ashton:

Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living--especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared. By way of atonement he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all, that he was sent to the ovens in 1944 and his whole existence since has been imaginary, an emanation of the insane wish of a man killed twenty years earlier. (Negative Dialectics, 362-363)

This is a great and terrible passage, philosophy written with Kafka's ice-axe, history as a nightmare from which there is only one awakening. It's impossible for me to read these lines without thinking of Primo Levi, of Jean Amery, of Paul Celan (whom Adorno may well have had in mind as he wrote). This passage deserves to be at least as well-known as the line about poetry and barbarism.


chenanigan said...

Thanks for the contextualization of that often-misquoted line! I have to sit down at some point with the entire essay, but your breakdown and working through of it is very helpful in the meantime. I'll have to mull over it a lot more before I can say anything more insightful than that.

Oh, interesting that you mentioned Levi, Amery, and Celan at the end - apparently, the whole "poetry after Auschwitz" bit was written in response to Celan's "Todesfuge".

Marius Rime said...

Here is a link to PDF of Adorno's Prisms

Mista Ree aka The Mad Jazzer said...

This is definitely a good explanation. Adorno is regularly misunderstood and misquoted but I'm always afraid of making excuses for him. In other words, I think people often try to soften his position through explanation (I'm thinking here of, for example, his position on jazz -- Where one might say, "Well, he didn't really mean 'Jazz'"). Your contextualization is an accurate one but in the end it's an affirmation -- i.e. we might better understand Adorno, but in the end, it's still barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz. (I don't know about you, but I'm completely on board with that position) Am I right?

eatbees said...

I also thank you for the contextualization, but I still think it's bullshit. If writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, then it's also barbaric to write poetry after the Rwanda massacre, Vietnam, the Cultural Revolution, the Stalinist purges and famines, the slaugher of Native Americans, the Mongol invasion of Baghdad, the Crusades, the Roman conquests, you name it. I'm not buying that it's bourgeois objectivication that made Auschwitz possible. What made it unique was the calculating, mechanistic, coldly efficient way it was carried out, but other than that, it's no different from any number of horrors that humans have been capable of, and have done, since the beginning of history. Given that, I think it can be argued that poetry, or any individual expression of joy and wonder, is precisely the response needed to horrors such as Auschwitz. It doesn't mean that we're blinding ourselves, or in denial — it means that in spite of all that, we can go on living, and even affirm the value of living, for the flashes of beauty which are our categorical rejection of "Auschwitz" and all that would reduce us to. If not for poetry and the like, humans should have probably ceded our right to exist millennia ago. Is that what Adorno wants?

Ep said...

I'm in total agreement with "eatbees." Adorno shows his hand when he defines "poetry" as capable of nothing more than "self-satisfied contemplation."

Adorno here is bloviating in typical Frankfurt School VIP style. Both he & Horkheimer reveled in high-handed dismissiveness of anything that smacked of popular culture, or in the case of poetry, personal expression. These were the realms of the soft, commodified, bourgeoisie. Poetry, Adorno is saying, how effete!

Both Hork & Adorno leveled similarly arrogant, rigid, & dismissive criticisms against Benjamin & Fromm, who dared suggest that there was value in the grassroots & the personal. Fromm was literally erased by H. & A. from the history of the Frankfurt School for attempting to introduce psychology into its discourse. (Which didn't stop them, then, from taking credit for its introduction when psychology gained some intellectual validity in critical theory circles.)

Nelly Sachs & Paul Celan are testament to the wrongness of Adorno's touching "concern."

Mista Ree aka The Mad Jazzer said...

I think you are all missing the point. But I'll let Adorno explain it: "I once said that after Auschwitz one could no longer write poetry, and that gave rise to a discussion I did not anticipate when I wrote those words. I did not anticipate it because it is in the nature of philosophy - and everything I write is, unavoidably, philosophy, even if it is not concerned with so-called philosophical themes - that nothing
is meant quite literally. Philosophy always relates to tendencies and does not consist of statements of fact. It is a misunderstanding of philosophy, resulting from its growing closeness to all-powerful scientific
tendencies, to take such a statement at face value and say: 'He
wrote that after Auschwitz one cannot write any more poems; so either one really cannot write them, and would be a rogue or a cold-hearted person if one did write them, or he is wrong, and has said something which should not be said.' Well, I would say that philosophical reflection really consists precisely in the gap, or, in Kantian terms, in the vibration, between these two otherwise so flatly opposed possibilities. I would readily concede that, just as I said that after Auschwitz one could not write poems - by which I meant to point to the hollowness
of the resurrected culture of that time - it could equally well be said, on the other hand, that one must write poems, in keeping with Hegel's statement in his Aesthetics that as long as there is an awareness of suffering among human beings there must also be art as the objective form of that awareness. And, heaven knows, I do not claim to be able to resolve this antinomy, and presume even less to do so since my own impulses in this antinomy are precisely on the side of art, which I am mistakenly accused of wishing to suppress. Eastern-zone newspapers even said I had declared my opposition to art and thereby adopted the standpoint of barbarism. Yet one must ask a further question, and this is a metaphysical question, although it has its basis in the total suspension of metaphysics. It is, in fact, curious how all questions which negate and evade metaphysics take on, precisely thereby, a curiously metaphysical character. It is the question whether one can live after Auschwitz. This question has appeared to me, for example, in the recurring dreams which plague me, in which I have the feeling that I am no longer really alive, but am just the emanation of a wish of some victim of Auschwitz. Well, the bleaters of connivance soon turned this into the argument that it was high time for anyone who thought as I did to do away with himself as well - to which I can only respond that I am sure those gentlemen would like nothing better. But as long as I can express what I am trying to express, and as long as I believe I am finding words for what otherwise
would find none, I shall not, unless under extreme compulsion, yield to that hope, that wish. Nevertheless, something said in one of the most important plays by Sartre, which for that reason is hardly ever played in Germany, deserves to be taken immensely seriously as a metaphysical question. It is said by a young resistance fighter who is subjected to torture, who asks whether or why one should live in a world in which one is beaten until one's bones are smashed. Since it concerns the possibility of any affirmation of life, this question cannot be evaded. And I would think that any thought which is not measured by this standard, which does not assimilate it theoretically, simply pushes aside at the outset that which thought should address - so that it really cannot be called a thought at all." from Metaphysics: Concepts and Problems, p. 110.

jk said...

So what of chenanigan's comment--does anyone know if Adorno's reference to poetry is related to Celan's Todesfuge? Just curious.

I found this because I was trying to broach the infamous Adorno/Auschwitz dictum to my husband, who recently wrote a personal piece about relation to the emergence of information regarding a mass grave that holds his grandparents in Slovakia.

I'm finding this discussion very helpful, and wonder if Brian Oard found Mista Ree's more explicit quote helpful as well?

Am I taking it that Adorno himself had these nightmares?

Mista Ree aka The Mad Jazzer said...

Yes, quite literally so. He wrote down his dream throughout his life:

Unknown said...

It seems rather straight forward via Adorno's recapitulation of the oft-used phrase -- after Auschwitz to write poetry is barbaric -- that he was being provocative. He clearly makes the distinction between cultural aesthetics and actual, existential life: the former may allow for the writing of poetry post A yet the very real reality of the latter may not allow for the writing of poetry after A.

As the author states, this is Kafka's ice-axe at work, making a finer, more sharper distinction. One might add, this is also Kafka's letter from the emperor that was held up due to extenuating circumstances: direct authority of thoughts and words are always hedged by a sea of people moving in the exact opposite direction, and we are caught swimming upstream toward something which shall never be attained, it would seem.

serendipity said...

Thank you for this explanation. I think a former response that says that Adorno’s comment could be said at anytime in history where there were wars and suffering is indeed exactly implied by Adorno because he makes it his job to point to the importance of understanding theory and art in social and historical context. I also agree on that one should not ‘soften’ anything. He did mean jazz, and it had it’s context. But he did also later on feel different about this, in a later age. So this is what is meant all the time, you are in your history, you can’t be above, which is what art would do if it was totally cut of from it’s connection to rest of culture, it would be a fetish of itself. I think he also says that any belief in a better world must go “through the stigmata of life” This you find in “Adorno and theology” (by Christopher Craig Brittain, 2010)

Tully3 said...

I haven't read Adorno extensively, probably because it seems to me he was prone to melodramatically provocative statements to make his points, which he often then tried to soften or "explain" later. I can't find fault with people who are turned off by his drama-queen proclamations about poetry, jazz, and rock and roll.... they strike me as pretty damned silly, and in the end are often just dead wrong because he was more preoccupied with being provocative than with being wise. Compared with someone like Montaigne, Adorno comes off almost as a talk show provocateur for intellectuals... with almost a pop-culturelike flair. Oh, the irony!

acratic said...

His mere survival" does not call for the same bourgeois coldness that produced Auschwitz - that statement is limited by the bourgeois habitus that Adorno shared. Surely a proletarian response to Auschwitz is possible and not dependent on a coldness.

Justin Moore said...

The poetry line seems anomalous in the passage, gratuitous, like a pet hate inserted. Hitler was a painter, why didn't he say to paint pictures after Auschwitz is barbaric?

Kirby Evans said...

Great post and great comments after the post! Really an interesting little tidbit. Thanks.

BRIAN OARD said...

A relevant excerpt from George Steiner's Paris Review interview, 1994:

INTERVIEWER: How then, fifty years later, do you assess Adorno's famous dictum, “No poetry after Auschwitz”?

STEINER: It seemed to me at the time an absolutely natural and crucial thing to say; and it hoped for disproof. That disproof came with Paul Celan's poetry, which refuted that statement — and Adorno knew it before he died. Let's take a few steps backward. The obscene question of counting dead heads doesn't arise, but I group the concentration camps, whether they be in Poland, in Germany or all over the damn place, together: the phenomenon of massive incarceration and elimination of millions of human beings from one end of the world to the other. One of the possible responses is to say our whole culture proved absolutely impotent and defenseless, in fact it adorned much of this stuff. Gieseking was playing the complete Debussy piano music on the nights when one could hear the screams of the people in the sealed railway cars at the station in Munich on the way to Dachau, just outside Munich. They could be heard all the way to the concert hall. That is on record. There's not the slightest witness that he didn't play magnificently or that his audience wasn't wholly responsive and profoundly moved.

So there was a nihilistic critique, which was Adorno's, or the formulation of Walter Benjamin: “at the base of every major work of art is a pile of barbarism.” You could take that line, as many in the Frankfurt school in a sense did, but take it a step further and say, “Let's shut up for a while.” I often had a dream of a moratorium on discussing these things at all — for ten years, fifteen, a hundred years — to try not to reduce them to articulate language, which in a curious way was to make them acceptable. That's what Adorno really meant: Careful! Even the greatest outcry if it is formalized, let's say, into verse or rhyme or stanzas, adds a mystery of acceptability to the phenomenon.

The second and most difficult step of all was saying, “No, in despite of all this, I can still convey, communicate something of the essential experience.” Out of the whole enormous range of Holocaust literature only three or four writers have pulled this off.

INTERVIEWER:Who are they?

STEINER: Celan above all. Without any doubt, Primo Levi, the Italian-Jewish writer: supreme, supreme, supreme. There isn't a word out of place; it's a miracle. One or two far less known East Europeans, some wonderful Latvian short stories. Perhaps half a dozen texts where I would say it has justified this incredibly bold attempt. But at what cost? Celan commits suicide. Primo Levi commits suicide. Jean Améry commits suicide. Long after, as if having borne witness, there was no more meaning to their lives and to the language they were using. What horrifies me is any attempt to capitalize on this material by those who did not undergo it.

Pedro Corga said...

Thank you so much for opening up a debate on this quote. I am currently using it in my PhD thesis and I interpret it as such: you can no longer write the kind of naive, innocent poetry that was written before Auschwitz, before the horrors of the Holocaust and Nazi domination. I take this quote as an alert sign that we must never forget these horrible things actually happened at a time most people wouldn't even imagine it, in a century characterized by an unquestionable faith on progress and rationality. This sentence by Adorno, for me, is like a warning sign so that this might not happen again. You can write poetry, of course, but if you rememeber Auschwitz you will never be able to write the same kind of worry-free, naive and innocent poetry written before these events. As Peter Sloterdijk said in Critique of Cynical Reason, "innocence cannot be regained".

Geff Twigg said...

Interesting discussion, I agree with Adorno, also his later statement can one go on living after Auschwitz? In regards to those who use Rwanda etc as examples of Adorno being wrong in some way are misunderstanding the statement. Everything before Auschwitz lead to that point at Auschwitz and everything leads us back there until we change to a complete new direction. Auschwitz is final. Of course one can write poetry but that will not change a thing because it's being written and read from within the capitalist construct. Adorno is not a nihilist he's a Marxist. Many artists produce Holocaust art, perhaps Gerhard Richter is a good example as he agreed with Adorno, it cannot be painted. Levi challenged the statement by saying after Auschwitz it is no longer possible to write poetry except about Auschwitz, which affirms Adorno premise that everything before leads to Auschwitz and everything after leads us back there. Levi never called himself a victim and stated he did not have the language to describe what being a victim is like, again this agrees with Adorno it cannot be put into words and to do so is barbaric. It is vital to grasp if Levi could not find the language to describe a victim of Auschwitz, and he spent the reminder of his life putting into words the unimaginable, it confirms the Adorno statement, it cannot be written because the existing use of language only gives us access to the very cultural construct that leads us to the next genocide.

gabrielaa. said...

thanks for this post & comments

Phil Vernon said...

The key question is simpler, really, and has been debated endlessly through history: whether to stay or exit life, in a situation where the contradictions and compromises made to keep 'society' on an even keel imply some version of Adorno's 'bourgeois coldness'
, cruelty and what Galtung calls 'structural violence'. Since there is no way we can completely overturn those factors, many opt for suicide as a logical conclusion, or - as in Che Guevara's case - suicide by attracted assassination while attempting revolution.