Poetry After Auschwitz – What Adorno Didn’t Say

At the beginning of April, while participating in the defense of an elegant and insightful dissertation on Osip Mandelstam, I stumbled over one of those statements that Adorno never said, but which lots of people think he did: namely, that is was “impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz.”  When my turn came to offer a few comments on the dissertation, I pointed out that what Adorno had said was that it was barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz, not that it was impossible. And then I went on to note that, in any case, he later took it back, conceding that “perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream.” What I didn’t say (mainly because I hadn’t really thought about it) was why he would retract a statement that he never made in the first place.

It’s probably easier to understand why Adorno is almost always misquoted (a collection of his various statements on Auschwitz and poetry is available on HerbertMarcuse.org)  than it is to understand why he made matters worse by behaving as if he’d written what he hadn’t.  It’s just easier to assume that Adorno said that it was “impossible” to write poetry after Auschwitz. It’s one of those things that we assume Adorno must have said because it spares us the difficulty of wrestling with what he actually said. The fact that it is possible to poetry after Auschwitz can be confirmed by pointing to all the poetry that has been written since Auschwitz. The barbarity of continuing to write poetry after Auschwitz requires a discussion of what counts as barbarism — which would force us to ask uncomfortable questions about how we go about distinguishing barbarism from culture.

The widely misquoted statement about poetry after Auschwitz comes at the close of “Culture Critique and Society,” the opening essay (originally written in 1949) in Prisms (a collection of essays published in 1955). The German reads:

Kulturkritik findet sich der letzten Stufe der Dialektik von Kultur und Barbarei gegenüber: nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch, und das frisst auch die Erkenntnis an, die ausspricht, warum es unmöglich ward, heute Gedichte zu schreiben. Der absoluten Verdinglichung, die den Fortschritt des Geistes als eines ihrer Elemente voraussetzte und die ihn heute gänzlich aufzusaugen sich anschickt, ist der kritische Geist nicht gewachsen, solange er bei sich bleibt in selbstgenügsamer Kontemplation.

Samuel Weber’s English translation — which is keenly aware that German sentences work differently than English ones and takes time to breathe — is scrupulously faithful to Adorno’s text, albeit at the price of leaving a sentence that almost begs to be quoted out of context, a reminder that (for translators as for everyone else) no good deed goes unpunished:

Cultural criticism finds itself today faced with the final state 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.

To belabor the obvious: “Cultural Criticism and Society” is about the practice of cultural criticism, not poetry. Its fear is that criticism now runs the risk of integration into the culture industry, where it serves as a sort of upscale advertising for cultural wares. The production of cultural goods that have status of things — which, according to Adorno, is not necessarily a bad thing (see his discussion of Beethoven’s final string quartet in the “Culture Industry” chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment) — has now reached the point where everything, including spirit itself, is turning into a thing (which, to make things perfectly clear, is a bad thing). Therefore, critics should recognize what they’re up against, avoid playing the role of smug guides to the cultural goodies, and try to make sense of the difficulties that the poets are having (even — and, perhaps, especially — in those cases when the poets aren’t all that aware of it). This means that they need to talk about the society in which this poetry is being written.

Adorno retracted the statement that he never actually made at the start of Part III (“Meditations on Metaphysics”) of that Book Nobody Reads Anymore: Negative Dialektik. Here’s the German:

Das perennierende Leiden hat soviel Recht auf Ausdruck wie der Gemarterte zu brüllen; darum mag falsch gewesen sein, nach Auschwitz ließe kein Gedicht mehr sich schreiben. Nicht falsch aber ist die minder kulturelle Frage, ob nach Auschwitz noch sich leben lasse, ob vollends es dürfe, wer zufällig entrann und rechtens hätte umgebracht werden müssen. Sein Weiterleben bedarf schon der Kälte, des Grundprinzips der bürgerliche Subjektivität, ohne das Auschwitz nicht möglich gewesen wäre: drastiche Schuld des Verschonten.

Here’s what E. B. Ashton came up with:

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 put on him who was spared.

There is much to criticize in this translation, particularly the intrusive and overly chummy “you,” which robs the passage of what is most immediately at issue. It is not primarily a question about whether you, the reader, can go on living after Auschwitz, but rather one about the status of those who escaped by chance: for example, Theodor Adorno. There is one final sentence in this monstrously long paragraph that drives this point home:

Zur Vergeltung suchen ihn Träume heim wie der, dass er gar nicht mehr lebte, sondern 1944 vergast worden wäre, und seine ganze Existenz danach lediglich in der Einbildung führte, Emanation des irren Wunches eines vor zwanzig Jahre Umgebrachten.

Here’s Ashton’s translation (which, mercifully, drops the “you”):

By way of atonment 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.

The target here is no longer the culture critics who, consciously or unconsciously, render services to the culture industry, but instead their critic, who had escaped.

Thanks to the publication of Adorno’s dream notebook, we know what sorts of things he was dreaming about during the years that were granted to him as a result of the lucky accident of not having been detained on one of his trips from England to Germany during the first years of his exile. At the end of March 1944 he recorded the following:

In an arena, under my command, a large number of Nazis were to be executed. They were to be beheaded. There was a hitch for some reason or other. To simplify matters it was decided to smash the skulls of each of the delinquents individually with a pickaxe. I was then informed that the victims were overwhelmed by an indescribable terror at the prospect of this uncertain and excruciating form of execution. I was myself so disgusted by this atrocity that I awoke feeling physically sick.1

Here we have a dream from an accidental escapee that manifestly lacks that “coldness” that, if we are to believe Negative Dialektik, made both Auschwitz and the afterlife of those who accidentally survived it possible. At night, Adorno would seem to be confirming the lesson that he had learned from Max Horkheimer’s account of the genesis of “bourgeois subjectivity”: it achievement comes at a terrible price.

Back in Germany, Adorno atoned for his survival by dreaming that he had not survived and that his life had been the hallucination of one who had been slaughtered in 1944.  But, in 1944, having found safety in Los Angeles, he found himself revolted by a dream in which he found himself exacting an atonement of a different sort. Could that same lapse of bourgeois coldness that allowed him to sympathize with the sufferings of the monsters who haunted his dreams (a sympathy that nurtured, if only in his dreams, a sense that he was not himself a monster) have explained why he might be willing to make amends for a statement that he never made?

  1. Adorno Dream Notes, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: Polity, 2007) 26.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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3 Responses to Poetry After Auschwitz – What Adorno Didn’t Say

  1. makropoulos says:

    It may be unfair to class Negative Dialectics as the Book Nobody Reads Anymore. Certainly most are in agreement that the Ashton translation is inadequate. But there is a new translation from one Dennis Redmond which is freely available on the net. It seems much truer in spirit to the original. Since I can’t read German I can’t say for sure but Gillian Rose has agreed that Ashton often laspses into an English vernacular totally removed from Adorno. I can vouch that the Redmond translation is far harder to read – which I reckon is a definite indication that it’s closer to what Adorno wrote!

  2. Pingback: After Auschwitz … music – Telegraph Blogs

  3. Weber took some license with the passage from Prisms: “ein Gedicht zu schreiben” literally means “to write a poem,” not “to write poetry.”

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