Friday, March 30, 2018

A Translation of "Kontroverse über die Heiterkeit" by H. H. Stuckenschmidt and Theodor W. Adorno

H.H. Stuckenschmidt and Theodor W. Adorno’s Polemical Exchange on the Topic of Lightheartedness

In the journal Anbruch, Kurt Westphal has lately said a few things about motoric music.* I can descry in his article certain tendencies that I have felt honor-bound to oppose in every context and that I can least patiently abide in a colleague who hails from my own generation.

It is of course characteristic of the Germans’ boorish maltreatment of artistic (and not only artistic) matters to concede that a work has quality only when all the effortful work, the full torrent of sweat, that was lavished on it, unmistakably manifests itself in the work’s style and form.  In this country, the habit of grabbing one’s left ear with one’s right hand is so exactly identical to the concept of intellectual house-brokenness that Nietzsche was obliged to devote a substantial portion of his life’s work to combatting this mindset.

I have no cause for demurral if the idolaters of intellectual strain wish to interrogate one another on the caloric expenditure exacted by one another’s works.  But the repeated obtrusion of their system into the sphere of objective aesthetics and the application of this system as a gauge of artistic value is an unprecedented phenomenon against which I cannot protest harshly enough.     

Let it be said once and for all: there is no position that is more inimical to art, and in Germany no position that is more dangerous to occupy, than that of the person who is a hard worker as a matter of principle.  And if I must choose between the genius of Mozart, whose ideas floated into his mind like roasted pigeons into the mouth of the steersman in the Land of Cockaigne, and the genius of Wagner, which subjected itself to multi-week workouts in order to fortify itself adequately for its taxing tête- à- tête with his muse, I shall unhesitatingly plump for the first and let it be it debated whether it did not perhaps produce art that was even superior to that of the second. 

The type of movement that Westphal speaks of so disdainfully, consisting of the cheekily motoric exhaustion of a single rhythmic motif, is certainly easier to compose than Schoenberg’s, engendered by the mastery of numerous disciplines.  A Rossini overture is less effortfully written than a Beethoven adagio.

But it must be said at the outset that (as goes without saying everywhere but in Germany) the meaning of a work of art ultimately becomes apparent in its effect and not in what precedes it.  Quite apart from the fact that I can readily imagine a creative artist who puts an unsurpassable amount of work into contriving forms of seemingly unsurpassable lightness.  And vice versa.

There is no more instructive or salutary prescription for German intellectuals than an occasional visit to a vaudeville show.  There they will receive manifestly ocular proof of the difference between easy and difficult art in, for example, the respective performances of a juggler and an athlete.  Both our art and our criticism would be in much better shape if these people occasionally hunted their quarry in other forests.

For we have only just now effortfully shaken ourselves free of the ballast of Wagnerism, of philosophical art.  And now here come these gentlemen again with quite similar gripes.

It is with great regret that I am also obliged here to tweak the nose of my highly esteemed friend Wiesengrund.  In this same journal he has published a declaration of fundamental opposition to “the new lightheartedness.”  All fine and good.  Sneering blockheads are vomit-inducing.  Certain portions of recent music have been sneered at a bit too much.

The cheeky optimism of this kind of art is certainly boring over the long run.  But it has wreaked less mischief than the principled sniveling and caterwauling of pessimistic gloom-mongers.  One can say what one likes against lightheartedness—if it comes from the heart, it has got more blood, more life-affirming strength of will, than sullenness.  Depth schmepth, lived experience schmived experience: the goal of all fundamentalist melancholics is and remains negation, passive nihilism, suicide (which they, being unfaithful to their core maxim, resolve upon only in very exceptional cases!).

The only excuse for the pessimistic artist is a faith in a better world in the hereafter.  (Wagner’s tragedy created an outlet for the idea of salvation, for a metaphysical idea par excellence.)  We, bereft as we are of all metaphysical faith, prepared for nothing but a better, utopian version of this world, have no right to employ artistic means to proclaim the great lugubriousness.  We haven’t even got a reason for doing so.  In a word, we have got other things to worry about.

But where does this faith in the advantages of tear-drenched miens, this resentment of the “keep-smiling attitude,” come from?  From the same delusory notion that one is a better person when one makes life difficult for oneself.  From the fear of simplicity.  From the inferiority complex of German intellectuals, their sense that their fellows in other countries might not be taking them seriously.  “Excuse me, Mr. Auditor: our lot also put in their eight hours a day.  Just take a look at this exercise in double counterpoint…”  Children, don’t kid yourselves.  People have long since gotten wise to your shtick with the buskins.  We want to be satisfied with having talent and being able to do something.

We are much of a mind to auction off the dignified beard of “the difficulty of composition” to the highest bidder.  There are still scads of punters who would love to buy it.

H. H. Stuckenschmidt

My dear Stuckenschmidt,

First of all, it seems to me as though there has been some sort of misunderstanding here.  The notion of “work” in a piece of music has nothing whatsoever to do with the “torrent of sweat lavished on it,” a phrase that plainly refers to the psychological circumstances of the act of production.  Rather, work is applicable as a category only to the product itself: “thematic work,” for example, is tantamount to the wealth of motivic-thematic relations in a composition regardless of how those relations were established by its composer.  Admittedly Westphal has said that one sort of piece is harder to compose than another, but in so doing he is seeking to rehabilitate not the Romantic religion of art’s miracle of creation but rather the effort of execution—which is something he understands well.  In his eyes the artistic effort entailed by craftsmanship, by no means to be confused with the notorious suffering of the artist who sacrifices himself to his work, is only a measure of the internal technical task that the artist sets himself.  We want to be satisfied with having talent and being able to do something.”—quite right: but Westphal’s objection, which has incessantly set itself apart from the psychological treatment of music with peculiar acerbity, is aimed precisely at the rhythmical motorists’ inability to do anything—not because they are finding composing particularly easy (he is fighting against them and I have unflaggingly been fighting against them), but because their music itself is not up to par.  The fact that composers today, confronted with unsubstantiated compositional material and living in an atomized social condition, no longer find it very easy to write frankly harmonious music as their predecessors did two hundred years ago is neither an accident nor news to the motorists any more than it is to us.  So why not say so?  Anybody as radically schooled in French music as you are really shouldn’t be so quick to fancy that he can smell Fafner’s horde lurking behind mere professionalism.

Nietzsche is a poor expert witness to call here.  For one obvious thing, he wrote The Birth of Tragedy and invented the antithesis between the Dionysian and the Apollonian, which strikes me as being quite questionably monumental and neo-German indeed, but in any case, vis-à-vis Nietzsche’s own ideal of postcard-blue southernness and classical dancing, a moment’s reflection on it very efficaciously proves that his virtuous infinitude of a world of closed forms is possible only thanks to its foundation in the darkly and amorphously elemental; whereas you are only too eager to lay down the law in an unsituated two-dimensional void.  Loath though I ordinarily am to enter the lists as an apologist for Nietzsche, you sorely tempt me to do so: if anything in his works has any legitimate staying power, it is certainly his dialectical streak, which affords him enough profundity to discern all true form in the formidable tension between consciousness and the power of nature from which it wrests itself.  Only once one has erased consciousness, willfully dissolved it into nature, and also forgotten the force of the elemental, does nothing remain of the tension: in musical terms, classicism becomes a recipe for conservationists who have flunked out of the form module of the music theory course.  But that would really be a shame. 

Mozart, in any case, if one really wishes to impugn him as an Apollonian—as I could never have the heart to do—is thoroughly and completely implicated in the tension: one needn’t have particularly sensitive ears to hear how brutally and painfully this form was hewn out of the raw matter of nature—admittedly not out of the raw matter of his personal experience; but rather out of the forward-surging material into which that music threatens again and again to sink without a trace with its final chord.  But nobody is guiltier of that psychological obfuscation of that domain than Nietzsche himself, who took the creative individual as the starting point for his understanding of all art and consequently and repeatedly falsified the truth content that he encountered by transforming it into mere purportedly factual mental states.  You should also refrain from invoking Nietzsche because he remains completely and inalienably bound to the experiential world of the nineteenth century, a world to which you quite rightly are opposed and which you are now finding in your all-too-loyal discipleship of Nietzsche, even now that it can only presuppose an ingenuous credence in psychology.

Having said all this, I have no desire to squabble with you over Nietzsche and camouflage our very real differences of opinion by exchanging salvos in the sphere of received culture.  I cleave steadfastly to what I have previously said about the serenitas, the keep-smiling attitude, that is in vogue nowadays; indeed, now that the development of stabilized music has even more distinctly accentuated the prevalence of this attitude, I am inclined to say it again in harsher rather than milder tones.  I peremptorily reject all arguments either for or against lightheartedness because I regard them as being entirely beside the point; in connection with this one must also consider that irrespective of whatever burdens it has been saddled with, art by no means has any intrinsic need to outgrow a pessimistic cast of mind; just take a look at Kafka’s novels, whose agonizing heaviness is summoned up purely for the sake of achieving the optimum results.  My opposition to the new lightheartedness is in no way affiliated with the traditional German cult of received culture; I have said nothing about lived experience and depths in its sense; I enjoy taking in a vaudeville show as much as you do, and I am not in the habit of conversing with auditors.  What I am opposed to is, rather, a certain consciousness of reality: serenitas seeks to simulate a condition of objectively hermetic communitarianism, of secure ontological orientation, of equitable social organization, and to wheedle listeners; there is no such thing as such a condition, and this kind of aesthetic self-deception amounts to nothing but distracting oneself from the miserable state of social relations.  I am at war with the new serenitas as an ideology: as a mindset that is rooted not in the objective state of reality, but, rather, in certain quite transparent interests in the sphere of production; I am at war with it as the music of phony stabilization.  There are no objective grounds for being cheerful, and the very fact that cheerfulness is now advertising itself as such (as it never even thought of doing in the much-vaunted eighteenth century) is proof of its dubiousness: it sticks its head in the sand and stamps its feet in time with the motor—as long as the motor keeps running.  The conclusive demonstration of the presence of all this in the technical inconsistency of the works themselves seems highly important to me, and it is mainly in virtue of doing this that Westphal’s article has a worthy function.  It must further be said that the hurrahing optimism of the compact-car generation is in danger of forfeiting what art ultimately oughtn’t to lose altogether: humanity.  That there is no room for the latter in expressive pathos anymore goes without saying; but it also cannot be brusquely suppressed.  The inhuman lightheartedness of the bright void that consists in nothing but in its own tempo, in which nothing moves at all anymore—this will only frustrate the amelioration of this world and in the end must be seen through for this amelioration’s sake.  You speak of the utopian version of this world: well, I believe one can confidently behave towards that world in a slightly more utopian manner than you care to concede to me.

Yours very sincerely,
Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno

*See Kurt Westphal, Grenzen der motorisch-rhythmischen Gestaltung [The Limits of Motoric-Rhythmic Composition] in Anbruch 11 (1929), p. 295ff (Vol. 7/8, September/October).


Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2018 by Douglas Robertson

Source:  Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Werke, Rolf Tiedemann, ed. in collaboration with Gretel Adorno, Susan Buck-Morss, and Klaus Schultz (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main, 1986; Directmedia: Berlin, 2003), Vol. 19, p. 448.

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