Monday, November 10, 2008

For John Aubrey

Horkheimer and Adorno. Adorno and Horkheimer. Two sides of the same pfennig or two peas of the same cod? Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, or Tweedlesmart and Tweedlesmarter? Bud Abbott and Lou Costello or Curly Howard and Curly Joe DeRita? Jack Palance and Jean-Luc Godard, or Michel Piccoli and Luis Buñuel? Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Celine Dion or Soren Kierkegaard and Stellan Skarsgård? In short, was their affiliation one of senior to junior partner, soulmate to soulmate, or shotgun bride to shotgun bridegroom? From time to time, over the course of many years, I would ponder this question in connection with the Dialectic of Enlightenment; my perplexity being abetted by my almost total ignorance of Horkheimer's solo oeuvre. Then, a few weeks ago, I became acquainted with two of the Teddieless books--Eclipse of Reason and Critique of Instrumental Reason. I had scarcely stuck my readerly toe in each of them before I began to get the impression that most of the funny bits in the D of E had been penned by Adorno, that Horkheimer had had next to nothing to do with any of them. Horkheimer's Teddieless style is almost entirely barren of the one-liners that pullulate in the pages of D of E and that are seldom less abundant in Adorno's own Maxless writings; but to its credit, it also generally makes for incomparably smoother reading. Like Horkheimer, Adorno published in both German and English; but whereas Horkheimer's original English style is practically indistinguishable from the style of the English translations of his German writings, Adorno's original English style is much more transparent ("pellucid," one is tempted to say), much more straightforward than his translated German style. It's also much less funny. Qua booster of Adorno's reputation in the Anglosphere, I cannot but regret that he did not publish more widely in English; qua connoisseur of the art of comedy, though, I can only be too grateful that the Löwesbeitrag of his corpus was composed auf Deutsch.

Smiling appears to have come naturally to Horkheimer. On the covers of both New Perspectives (where he resembles a Catch-22-era Alan Arkin) and Early Writings (where he resembles a Quiz-Show-era David Paymer) he's smiling genially, wholeheartedly, and unaffectedly; while in portraits in which he presents a straight face he doesn't appear to be holding anything back. Physiognomically speaking, whether smiling or frowning Horkheimer always comes across as a man at home in his Lebenswelt. The Gesichtsbild for Adorno is quite different, in fact much more dialectical in character. In the majority of photographs that have found their way on to the covers of his books (for example, this one), Adorno wears an expression of stern disapproval mingled with a kind of unperturbed dismay; an expression that suggests his olfactory buds have just encountered a few particles emanating from the backside of someone just out of the frame. The Brits have, or used to have, a wonderful attribution for this very expression: po-faced. We have every right to regard this expression as the normal Adornonian expression: it's the expression we always picture to ourselves when we are reading his work, and it is to the very consistency of this expression that the aforementioned one-liners owe both their hilarity and their incisiveness. An Adorno who had ever allowed himself to yuk it up unreservedly in his prose would have lacked his signature power to amuse and disturb in a single compact gesture. If only he had exercised a parallel degree of restraint in life, or at least at all moments in life when he happened to be in view of a camera. Regrettably, though, there survive a fair number of photographs of a smiling Adorno, and in these his souriscence evinces none of the easy grace of Horkheimer's. In these pictures he really does give the impression of being off the clock, of letting his hair down (not that he had any hair to let down). The smiling Adorno, too, always looks much more Italian (or at any rate, Italian-American) than German. You feel that it wouldn't be out of character for the smiling Adorno to say, "I lova my spaghetti" and shove a heaping mouthful of that selfsame foodstuff into his piehole with his fingers; afterwards toweling off his marinarated hands on the front of his string vest.

Of course, Adorno didn't help matters much by getting so goddam fat in middle age. As a young man, Adorno was both thin and, beyond that, quite handsome. But from the early 40s onwards, his figure began to fill out. By the late 50s he was a certifiable butterball. While certain great men (e.g., Balzac, Churchill, DeLuise) become more like themselves the fatter they become, the engraissement of others constitutes a betrayal of their very essence as beings-cum-having-beens-in-the-world. As those famous lines from the turn-of-the-century music hall standard "The Penny-Farthing Man" remind us,

Aesthetics ain't nuffink but ascetics
wiv a cuppa "t" an' one less "c"
(and an extra haitch [an' an "e"]).

A man with Adorno's pretensions to aesthetic refinement should never have risked the merest shadow of the imputation of gluttony. The existing image of a fat Adorno is as every bit as off-putting as the counterfactual image of a fat Proust.

Unlike Teddie (who prior to his emigration called himself by his original surname, Wiesengrund), Max didn't elect to change his surname on arrival in the United States, perhaps on principle; perhaps merely because his mother lacked a maiden name that sounded as cool as Adorno does to American ears. I'm sure that if, as he was stepping off the boat at Ellis Island (or wherever immigrants debarked in those days), Max had known that within his lifetime a certain gravelly-voiced Miamian would begin to bring upon the Horkheimer name a degree of ignominy and opprobrium unmatched in North America by that accruing to any other German surname but Westheimer; if he had known that for millions of future American champions of Aufklärung this name would forever and indelibly be associated with unspeakably unconvincing toupees, unspeakably corny jokes about astronomical phenomena, and unspeakably cheesy local public TV production values (to say nothing of the unspeakably tasteless flagship publication of the Larry Flint media empire), he would have dropped that name then and there like a Heisskartoffel.

In his memoir of his period of tutelage under Alban Berg, Adorno writes that his teacher was not "above discussing the question of shaving. I, who considered the tedious procedure annoying, would have liked nothing better than a means to remove a beard once and for all, thus saving me the daily aggravation. In the true Altenbergian spirit Berg objected to such rationalism: what women liked about a smoothly shaven face was inseparable from the fact that they could feel the sprouting beard underneath. It was with such nuances that he discovered dialectics for himself." (TWA 25). I have always imagined Berg imparting this particular dialectical nuance to young Teddie in a burst of theatrically charged gusto bordering on fury. I picture Teddie and Berg strolling along the Graben or the Gentzgasse, with Berg suddenly interrupting their stroll, breaking away, and rushing ahead a few paces, sputtering in an underone all the while, "No, no, no, Wiesengrund, you just don't see what it's all about..." before halting and spinning around to face Teddie (thereby forcing him to a halt in turn); then, drawing his hand aloft in a rhetorical posture reminiscent of Rotwang as he remonstrates with old man Fredersen in Metroplis, exclaiming (in English, but with a raspy Bill Alexander German accent), "You see, women like to feel the beard SCHPROUTING underneath!" to the infinite bemusement of Teddie and passersby alike.

Probably it didn't happen that way. Then again, whoever might have been able to prove that it didn't is presumably long dead.

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