Adorno Considers a Career Change: The Curious Relationship between Theodor Adorno and Virgil Thomson (Conclusion)

Historians labor under the burden of knowing what those they study couldn’t have known: how things turned out. In the spring of 1941 Adorno couldn’t be sure that he would join Horkheimer in California (Marcuse, after all, was already there). Nor would it have been clear to him, in the spring of 1942, that the dictation sessions in which he and Horkheimer were engaged would wind up producing anything that resembled a book. And even if he suspected that he was considerably more gifted than his co-author, he had little reason to assume that talent alone was enough to secure a future in émigré Los Angeles. If members of the Institute for Social Research were attracted to the theory that the triumph of monopoly capitalism had  transformed society into a massive protection racket in which self-preservation required subjection to a patron, it may have had something to do with the ways in which the theory captured the often fraught relations within the Institute. While Adorno could take some comfort in knowing that Marcuse had been expelled from Paradise and that he had been called west to work with Horkheimer, there was no way for him to know whether he too might, at some point, become dispensable. Anyone who has spent much time reading the correspondence of the members of the Institute during its American exile is likely to come away with the impression that it was not the most amiable of organizations. As Leo Lowenthal once observed, “Notes on a Troubled Friendship” — the subtitle of Martin Jay’s article on Adorno’s relationship with Siegfried Kracauer — “might serve as a proper characterization for the mutual relations of all of us.”1

Jumpy, Depressed, and Looking East

Adorno's Home on Kenter Avenue

Adorno’s Home on Kenter Avenue

Exile is hard. As Brecht noted shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, “Enmities thrive here like oranges and are just as seedless.” The normal tensions of exile life were exacerbated by the Institute’s financial difficulties, which created a poisonous atmosphere in which prospects for continued support were directly proportional to one’s proximity to Horkheimer. While the difficulties confronting German émigrés in Los Angeles pale in comparison with the treatment that would soon be visited upon west coast residents of Japanese descent — not to mention, of course, the fate of those unable to escape the ever-expanding borders of the Third Reich — what might seem minor annoyances to us still took their toll on them.

Brecht reports that the 8 PM curfew imposed at the end of January 1942 made Adorno “very jumpy.” His diagnosis is confirmed in the letter Adorno sent to his parents in March 1942.  He apologized for having been out of touch, attributed his lapse to “the general state of depression affecting me”, and went on to explain,

The reason for the depression, aside from the general situation, is the completely uncertain state of affairs here. Officially, we are classed among those who are to be evacuated. On the other hand, there has been much talk of reclassification, but I am rather sceptical. At any rate, the situation is such that one really does not know what to do. … From tomorrow onwards, we have to be home no later than 8 each evening, and are not allowed to go more than 5 miles away from the house, which, with the truly monstrous distances here, amounts to being completely locked up. We can no longer go to Hollywood, only just to Beverly Hills, and our wonderful drives, our only source of relaxation, are now a thing of the past. It is particularly inexplicable that these regulations should be most strict against emigrants — the most reliable enemies of Hitler in the whole of America — and the Japanese (87).

In June he informed them that the “evacuation of the Japanese” from the region in which he lived had begun and that both Brecht and the philosopher Hans Reichenbach had been visited by the FBI.

This, then, was the context in which the strangest item in the exchange of letters between Adorno and Virgil Thomson needs be read.

Overcoming Isolation

At the end of July 1942, Thomson, working his way through a season’s worth of thomsonunanswered mail, came upon the article on Sibelius that Adorno had sent him at the end of December. Concluding that, though it had “good ideas and good phrases in it”, its “aggravated tone” was “more likely to create antagonism towards yourself than toward Sibelius,” he returned it. But he closed the letter with an invitation to “let me know from time to time what you are up to.”2

Three months later, Adorno responded. His letter of October 21, 1942 began by thanking Thomson for the invitation to tell him “something about my present work and existence.”3 Indeed, accepting that invitation, he explained,

is more than a pleasure. For the isolation unavoidably bound up with the life of a man like myself here in the West – not to mention the curfew restrictions which do not allow me to leave the house after 8 p.m. – leads to an almost desperate urge to speak to the very few men with whom one believes to have something decisive in common; and I hardly need to tell you that I met nobody from the New World who gave me this feeling as strongly as you did, quite apart from what you have done for me by your publications.

A description of his living conditions and his work with Horkheimer followed.

We live in a quiet nice little house in Brentwood, not far, by the way, from Schönberg’s place. My work here, apart from those little songs, has been almost entirely scholarly. Horkheimer and I work on a philosophical book analyzing the present situation under the viewpoint of the dialectics of rationalism and enlightenment which today apparently have overreached themselves. A section on Mythology and Enlightenment is finished – we now plan to elaborate first the part dealing with present mass-culture. If you read the articles on the End of Reason and on Veblen in last issue of our periodical you will easily see the direction at which we aim. Apart from that, we have done, and continue to do, some work for Washington, mainly concerning German problems, which may prove helpful.

The “little songs” to which he alluded were the “cycle of ditties” that he included in his June 7 letter to Thomson; Thomson found them “very delicate and very tender.”4

Adorno’s summary of his work with Horkheimer (which jibes with other reports on the progress they were making on Dialectic of Enlightenment) was followed by an extended — and surprisingly candid — reflection on the impasse he saw himself confronting.

All would be good and right, were it not for the fact that we live in a world in which the idea to seclude oneself and to write quietly, undisturbedly sentence after sentence, has not only the touch of an obsolescent luxury – which would not deter us at all – but even of the cynical and, above all, of the impotent. The products themselves are not neutral against the conditions under which they are created and in the present situation the external futility of la science pour la science makes itself felt in one’s own writings, marring them with the marks of the superfluous. There is an almost insuperable contradiction between the critical contents of our writings and their intrinsic presuppositions. It is hard to take for granted, within one’s own process of production, the very conditions of life which, as we try to show, do not prevail any longer.

What has now become the standard critique of the “performative contradiction” that plagues Dialectic of Enlightenment was was already apparent to Adorno: he was abundantly aware that he was working on a book that questioned the very possibility of its ever being written.

He was also aware that the ability of its authors to escape from the trap they were describing turned on the slimmest of contingencies:

Of course, all this has something to do with the special situation of our Institute, saved from the Nazis and brought over here in its entirety, with all the external and internal difficulties of outsiderdom. The exceptional position the Institute took, namely, to stick without compromise and “adjustment” to our convictions, unpopular though they were, tends to increase our isolation. What I want is not to give in but rather to overcome this isolation.

As a shrewd interpreter of Richard Wagner, it might have occurred to Adorno that the Institute’s endowment — moved into accounts outside of Germany prior to the Nazi takeover — bore an uncanny resemblance to the Nibelungen horde — with Horkheimer cast in the role of Fafner. But while Fafner was content with mere possession, Horkheimer and Pollock had invested what was left of their horde in stocks and American real estate. The returns were not encouraging.

Going Public

By the spring of 1942 it was clear that, in addition to its financial difficulties, the Institute’s relationship with Columbia University was becoming increasingly problematic. With Horkheimer in Los Angeles the task of maintaining ties with the university fell to Leo Lowenthal, who sent Horkheimer a stream of letters reporting assorted intrigues.5 Gradually adjusting to the realities of exile, Horkheimer had made sporadic attempts at overcoming the insularity that had characterized the Institute’s early years in New York. The Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, the Institute’s journal, had shifted from German to English and became Studies in Philosophy and Social Science. Encouraged by Paul Lazarsfeld, more aggressive efforts at securing grants had been initiated. A series of public lectures was inaugurated. Adorno’s success in using Thomson’s columns to call attention to his work on Lazarsfeld’s radio research project fits neatly into this broader effort. But the increasingly public role of the Institute was not without certain risks, especially for a group of scholars who had long been concerned about calling too much attention to their Marxian roots.

adorno_pianoThose risks became clearer on May 30 when B. H. Haggin — taking his point of departure from the discussion in Thomson’s February 8th column of the three chapters in Paul Lazarsfeld and Frank Stanton’s Radio Research 1941 that had to do with musical matters — devoted his music column in The Nation to a review of Duncan MacDougald’s account of song “plugging”, Edward Suchman’s study of the efforts of WYNC to attract new listeners, and Adorno’s analysis of the “radio symphony.”6 Haggin, it seems, had a number of axes to grind.  In addition to his column for The Nation, he wrote a radio column for the Herald Tribune and his relationship with Thomson does not appear to have been a happy one. Thomson solved the problem in 1949 by eliminating Haggin’s position.7

Haggin had little to say about MacDougald’s chapter. He criticized Suchman’s “poorly ordered progression of thought”, his “imprecise writing”, and his reliance on “the jargon with which a social scientist achieves his scientific precision.” But his chief target was Adorno (and, in passing, Thomson):

I find it difficult to write temperately of the motivation, the method, the results of the Adorno performance — of the pretentiousness, the ostentation, the aggressive awareness of his own “brilliance” that leap out at once from this German philosophy professor’s tortuous and occasionally ferocious thinking and jargon, from his musico-socio-psychological schematizations – which yield the lurid conclusions that Mr. Thomson welcomes “with cries of joy.”

A series of quotations from Adorno’s text followed — intended, of course, to convey something of the dreadful prose of this “German philosophy professor.” Haggin closed his column by turning the embattled Adorno into an evil genius whose ability to control the minds of others approached that of Fritz Lang’s Doctor Mabuse:

The alarming thing is that the matter goes further than this chapter. It isn’t only Mr. Thomson who utters cries of welcome; Adorno’s tripe is the sort of thing that social science research institutes, foundations, and journals go for. He is, we are told, “associated with the Institute for Social Research at Columbia University” and “has been in charge of the music research at the Office of Radio Research”; his influence in this research, his status and power are attested by the other writers’ genuflections to his suggestions, ideas, and writings: even MacDougald cannot mention the song publisher’s dictation to the song writer without a “Cf. T. W. Adorno, ‘The Fetish Character of Music and the Retrogression of Listening,’ Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, Vol. 7, 1938, p. 336.”

And the matter goes further than Adorno. But that will have to wait.

The final paragraph’s implied threat that further secrets would be revealed proved more than enough to drive the ever-vigilant Horkheimer over the edge. “Who is Mr. Haggin anyway?”, he asked Lowenthal. Desperately searching for ways of dealing with this unknown enemy, he suggested

If I am right in supposing that [Max] Lerner once was the editor of the NATION, [Franz] Neumann could perhaps inquire about that gentleman and induce him to tell them the truth about his stupid attack. I say this only because the article contains a hidden threat which might not only be aimed at Teddie but at the Institute as well.8

Eleven days earlier, Adorno — in a letter that began by praising Thomson’s attack on Toscanini (Adorno was probably unaware that Haggin was an ardent defender of the maestro) — asked Thomson the same question that Horkheimer would ask Lowenthal:

The article of B. H. Haggin in the Nation of May 30, p. 638 is very significant in this respect and I am proud and happy to be attacked together with you. Who is the man and which [sic] is the background of the whole affair? I think something ought to be done about it but I do not want to take any step without having your opinion.

Thomson — insouciant as ever and perhaps puzzled by his correspondent’s anxieties – responded by advising Adorno that the best course of action would be simply to ignore Haggin.

The attack, which I’ve only seen today, turns out to be a quite clear outline of your thesis. I am delighted. I recommend doing nothing at all about it. The less you say, the stronger your position will be, because Mr. Haggin will be obliged to make further exposition of your thesis in the process of attacking it.9

We do not know what Adorno might have made of Thomson’s suggestion that —  at least in contests such as this one —  the smartest move was not to play. But it is possible that it was beginning to dawn on him that Thomson might be a better guide than Horkheimer in the strange world in which he had found refuge.10

The Pitch

After revealing more about Adorno’s “present work and existence” than its recipient probably expected, Adorno’s letter of October 21 took an unexpected turn. Noting that the Institute’s funds were limited and that he was faced with the need “to think, in the long run, of making some money,” Adorno suggests

The right thing to do appears to me to look for a function which safeguards what we understand by intellectual integrity while allowing for a living and bringing me closer to the actualities of American cultural life. Since you are about the only person whom I know who has created for himself a position which actually combines those desiderata, and also the only one to advise and help me, I come to you once more. I think of working once again as a music critic.

After noting that academic positions “are rare and getting rarer” (a familiar lament), he points out that he has had “more than twenty years” experience as a music critic. He concedes that, despite his past service as co-editor of the journal Anbruch and his stints at the Frankfurter Zeitung and the Vossische Zeitung, “there still remains the problem of language.” But, he continues, “since you were so kind as to encourage my English writings, I cannot believe that this problem will be insuperable, and with the help of a good secretary I think I should be capable of managing the linguistic difficulties.”

Pressing onward, Adorno at last makes his pitch:

Do you know of any opportunity? What I should like most, of course, would be to collaborate with you, but I do not know whether there is any such chance. At any rate, I should be most grateful for your advice and possible help. Please do not misunderstand me. There is no hurry, no immediate need of pressure. I actually thought of some time next year. On the other hand, if something promising should turn up earlier I certainly should not like to miss it in case your own opinion is positive.

We can only wonder how long Adorno hesitated over this paragraph, weighing his words, calculating their implications, adjusting his tone and, sadly, still managing to produce a sentence — “There is no hurry, no immediate need of pressure” — that betrays a vision of a world in which nothing happens unless the requisite “pressure” is applied (after all, in a society dominated by rackets, it helps to have a button man).

Adorno’s pitch is followed by two shorter paragraphs. The first informs Thomson of Dagobert Runes’ decision not to publish his article on Schoenberg and the unresolved status of his lengthy study of Walter Damrosch’s musical appreciation program. The second reads as follows:

Please forgive my bothering you with my problems: it is only due to your kindness that I am becoming such a nuisance. I wish I could see you soon.

A month later (and we can only wonder how carefully Thomson calculated how long to wait before responding), Thomson sent a brief note that read:

It was a month ago I had your letter and very welcome it was. Musical life here is unchanged by the war. I do hope you will be back among us before too many years.

 LA 1940s

Contingency and Invention

Admittedly, the prospect of Theodor Adorno leaving Los Angeles, returning to New York, and beginning a career as a music critic for the New York Herald Tribune is only slightly less implausible than the likelihood of Virgil Thomson’s concluding — at the moment when the Herald Tribune was reducing its music coverage and shrinking his columns — that it would make sense to supplement his stable of reviewers with a German academic who required a secretary to police his prose. And its utter implausibility would seem to be confirmed by its not having happened. But, perhaps, our faith in The Way Things Turned Out is precisely what we need to question if we are to have any hope of understanding the experiences of Adorno and his fellow exiles.

As Tim Page points out, Thomson — who had no use for anyone “not trained in music” — sought out articles from such composers as Arthur Berger, Paul Bowles, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Peggy Granville-Hicks, and Lou Harrison.11 If Adorno was not in the same league, he was at least playing the same game. In any case, it is only in retrospect that the prospect of Adorno working at the Herald Tribune seems less plausible than his having abandoned his studies in philosophy to begin a career as a music critic in Vienna or his leaving a bewildered Schoenberg in order to return to Frankfurt to resume his academic career and defend a Habilitation that would be published on the exact date of Hitler’s assumption of power. Nor does it seem particularly plausible that, after having been dismissed from his post at Frankfurt in the first round of Nazi purges of Jews from academic positions, he would opt to remain in Germany writing music criticism, or that — when it gradually dawned on him that the new regime was not about to collapse — he would wind up at Oxford pursuing a second doctorate with Gilbert Ryle, rubbing shoulders with A. J. Ayer, Maurice Bowra, and Isaiah Berlin before eventually reestablishing contact with Horkheimer.

The career of an exile is ruled by contingencies. Walter Benjamin showed up on the Spanish border on the day that the police started turning back refugees; Adorno continued to make visits to Germany for far longer than prudence would dictate. Survival hinges on luck and the capacity of self-invention. In 1942 the odds of Adorno’s winding up as the co-author of The Authoritarian Personality — that classic contribution to American social science — may not have been significantly greater than the odds of his winding up as an occasional contributor to the music pages of the Herald Tribune. And whatever the odds might have been, neither Adorno — nor for that matter, we — know how to calculate them.

At the close of Minima Moralia Adorno observed that the only way to practice philosophy responsibly was “to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption” and, by doing so, find the means to “displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in messianic light.” One of the more pressing tasks facing those of us who deal, not with the Last Things, but instead with what Adorno’s earliest mentor Siegfried Kracauer termed “the last things before the last”, is to find a way to retrieve a past that is still contingent, still pregnant with an uncertain future, a past that could have turned out differently. The gap between the way things wound up and the way things might have been is one of the places where, however briefly, we can catch a glimpse of that peculiar contingency that lies at the heart of our history and ourselves.

Interrupted Conversations

We know from Adorno’s letter of April 14, 1943 (which I discussed at the close of my second post) that his correspondence with Thomson continued did not end with his peculiar letter of October 21, 1942. But Thomson’s brief note to Adorno from November 1942 is that last letter from Thomson to Adorno in the Thomson papers other than a short letter that dates from October 18, 1957. By then, Adorno had secured a career in Germany and Thomson had retired from his career as a critic. It reads

It was a great pleasure to see you in Berlin, though I regretted the briefness of our visit. I do hope there will be another soon, when we can talk at length.

Please give my compliments to your charming wife and remember me as ever your friend and admirer.

In contrast to the formality that marked Thomson’s earlier letters — which were always addressed to “T. W. Adorno, Esq.” and always carried the salutation “Dear Mr. Adorno” — the salutation on this letter reads “Cher ami.”

The documentation in the Yale Music Library of the peculiar relationship between Theodor Adorno and Virgil Thomson contains two additional items: a printed card from Margarete Adorno announcing, “in deepest sorrow”, that Theodor W. Adorno “ist am 6. August 1969 sanft entschlafen” and a handwritten draft of Thomson’s letter of condolence. After conveying his “deepest sympathy” he recalled,

He and I had been in touch regarding matters musical since 1940. And although in later years we did [not] meet often, our minds were always attuned and ready to take up any conversation where last we had left off.12

Revising his draft, Thomson crossed out the word “last.” Ever the Missouri gentleman, perhaps he thought that the word’s finality would be out of place in a letter to a grieving widow. Or the gesture may have betrayed a wish to leave his conversations with Adorno suspended, rather than terminated.

MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University.

MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University.

  1. Martin Jay, ed., An Unmastered Past : The Autobiographical Reflections of Leo Lowenthal (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987) 184.
  2. MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University.  A slightly edited version of the letter can be found in Virgil Thomson, Selected Letters of Virgil Thomson, ed. Tim Page and Vanessa Weeks Page (New York: Summit Books, 1988) 181-182.
  3. MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University.
  4. Thomson, letter to Adorno of June 12, 1942, MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University.
  5. See my “The ‘Eclipse of Reason’ and the End of the Frankfurt School in America,” New German Critique, no. 100 (2007): 47–76.
  6. B. H. Haggin, “Music,” The Nation, May 30, 1942.
  7. Thomson’s letter of September 20, 1949 informing Haggin that his services were no longer needed could well serve as a model of how this sort of thing should be done. See Selected Letters of Virgil Thomson, ed. Tim Page and Vanessa Weeks Page (New York: Summit Books, 1988) 237-238. Haggin would later respond with “Virgil Thomson as Critic,” The Nation, September 22, 1951 and, at greater length, with “The Imagined World of Virgil Thomson,” The Hudson Review 20:4 (1967): 625–35. Thomson was content to ignore him, explaining in a typically laconic response to an inquiring reader, “I happen not to have read Mr. Haggin’s remarks about me. Sometimes he approves of me and sometimes he doesn’t. I have long considered that the criticism of criticism was fruitless. Still less do I care to engage in polemics with any critic on the subject of myself”,  Selected Letters 274.
  8. Letter to Leo Lowenthal of June 18, 1942.
  9. Letter to Adorno of June 12, 1942,  MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University.
  10. It might be noted that, around this same time, Thomson was dealing with what was a potentially much more threatening problem involving unwelcome publicity. On March 14 he had been arrested in a raid on a “gay bordello” near the Brooklyn naval base.  The establishment was suspected of having been infiltrated by Nazi spies who attemptedto gain information about naval movements from the sailors who frequented it. Two months later the columnist Walter Winchell, apparently relishing the chance to marry his longstanding opposition to Nazism with his penchant for gay bashing, reported, “The ad-libbers are having fun with the yarn about Brooklyn’s spy nest, also known as the swastika swishery. … The musician mentioned in the Brooklyn house will embarrass his employers. He’s got many gunning for him, and this will give them a very loud haw-haw.” See Anthony Tommasini, Virgil Thomson : Composer on the Aisle (New York: W W Norton, 1997) 355-360.
  11. Virgil Thomson, Music Chronicles 1940-1954, ed. Tim Page (New York, NY: The Library of America, 2014) 1005.
  12. I have inserted the word “not”; without it the letter doesn’t quite make sense.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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3 Responses to Adorno Considers a Career Change: The Curious Relationship between Theodor Adorno and Virgil Thomson (Conclusion)

  1. S.C. Hickman says:

    I’ve enjoyed your biographical investigations. Sheds a certain personal light upon aspects of a philosopher’s life that usually go unnoticed. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Theodor Adorno, Dagobert Runes, and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism: The Curious Relationship of Theodor Adorno and Virgil Thomson (Part III) | Persistent Enlightenment

  3. Pingback: What We’re Reading: Week of May 18 | JHIBlog

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