Hating Adorno (A Brief Compendium of Nasty Comments)

Shortly after delivering his inaugural lecture as Privatdozent in philosophy at Frankfurt in 1931, Theodor Adorno confessed to his onetime mentor and sometime friend Siegfried Kracauer “I am not entirely clear about what it was that so upset people about it.”1

While Adorno had many friends and admirers, he also seems to have also had a remarkable ability to be disliked by an astonishing number of people. About a decade ago, while working on an article that had something to do with Adorno, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to collect as many of the nasty things that others had said about him as I could and jam them into a footnote. Eventually the lunacy of the exercise became clear to me and I removed the footnote.

I was recently reminded of my folly when Corey Robin posted the great Lotte Lenya’s wicked characterization of our hero (see item #4 on the list below). Since one of the functions of this blog is to serve as a resting place for various efforts that are unlikely to find respectable homes (think of it as a sort of Dickensian orphanage for misguided ideas), I figured that this might be as good a place as any to “curate” (as it has become the fashion to say) a few of the better ones here.

  1. We can begin with the sociologist D. G. MacRae’s widely quoted recollection that, upon meeting Adorno for the first time, he found him “the most arrogant, self-indulgent (intellectually and culturally) man I had ever met.” Reflecting on his evaluation two decades later, he went on to observe, “I can think of additional claimants for that position, but I doubt if they are serious rivals.”2
  2. Hannah Arendt described Adorno to Karl Jaspers as “one of the most repulsive human beings I know” (and, let us not forget, this comes from a woman who somehow managed to find Martin Heidegger fling-worthy). The immediate cause of Arendt’s outburst was her suspicion that Adorno and Horkheimer (“a really disgusting bunch”) had been behind a recent article in Der Spiegel that raised the issue of Heidegger’s Nazism.3
  3. While Karl Jaspers responded to Arendt that he thought that Der Spiegel‘s interest in Heidegger’s National Socialist past “legitimate,” he was no kinder toward Adorno. He characterized him “a fraud” and declared “In what I have read of him, I find nothing worthy of serious consideration ….”4
  4. In a letter to Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya called Adorno a “paleface flaming asshole” — the occasion for this outburst was a letter from Adorno to Weill in support of Brecht’s proposal that Weill surrender his rights as composer of the Threepenny Opera in order that Brecht might mount a new production with different music. Adorno proposed that music for the play be supplied by a “Negro jazz ensemble” playing with “the greatest and most radical improvisatory freedom,” a suggestion that Weill described to Lenya as “completely idiotic.”5 And let me record here my admiration for the dedication that Lys Symonette and Kim H. Kowalke put into their edition of the Weill-Lenya letters. Among its many merits is its providing an index of terms of endearment, an activity that Weill and Lenya raised to an art (in contrast, while the Arendt-Heidegger correspondence faithfully reproduces the insipid cutesy talk that these two love-birds employed, the editors failed to index it; this, I think, is no great loss).
  5. Siegfried Kracauer described an article Adorno had written on him as “emotionally laden” and “slanderous” and wrote that Adorno himself “does not shrink from telling falsehoods.”6
  6. The Leo Lowenthal papers at Harvard contain a letter from Lowenthal to Horkheimer dating from the summer of 1941 that begins with the words “I hate Teddy” and proceeds to explain, at some length, why.  Subsequent letters charged that Adorno’s “boundless narcissism” and “vanity” regularly undermined his relationships with other colleagues. Horkheimer, as far as I can tell, sensibly opted not to respond. After all, he had work to do (and so do I).

In the age of digital reproducibility one never knows what might prove useful and, since future generations of scholars might draw some benefits from having all of this collected in one place, feel free to post any that I’ve missed in the comments section below.

I hope to have something more sensible to post soon — the summer has been far busier than I’d expected.

  1. Letter to Siegfried Kracauer of June 8, 1931, quoted in Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, The Complete Correspondence 1928-1940, ed. Henri Lonitz, trans. Nicholas Walker (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999) 11 ↩︎
  2. D. G. MacRae, “Frankfurters,” New Society 27 (No. 59), March 28, 1974, 786 ↩︎
  3. Letter to Karl Jaspers of April 18, 1966 in Lotte Kohler and Hans Sander, ed., Hannah Arendt Karl Jaspers Correspondence 1926-1969, trans. Robert and Rita Kimber (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992) 634 ↩︎
  4. Letter to Arendt of April 29, 1966, 638. ↩︎
  5. See Lys Symonette and Kim H. Kowalke, Speak Low (When You Speak Love). The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996) 319-322; for less colorful but no more charitable assessments from Lenya, see 154, 266. ↩︎
  6. Martin Jay, Permanent Exiles : Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985) 235. ↩︎

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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9 Responses to Hating Adorno (A Brief Compendium of Nasty Comments)

  1. Pingback: Staring Into the Abyss – Polemic

  2. makropoulos says:

    I don’t know if it would count as invective exactly but there is a curious note at the end of the Cambridge Companion to Berg where the author Anthony Pople is talking about how certain people can resemble their names. He says,

    “Oddly enough, Adorno, who throughout his life, was known as Teddie, was also very much ‘like’ his name. If Berg was an Alpine chapel then the short, stout Adorno, who spoke continuously in an over-articulated voice, was an animated teddy bear who kept trying to cover himself in as many ornaments as possible.”

  3. I’m surprised non of Schoenberg’s comments about Adorno made it on here!

    • Feel free to contribute a few. I know there’s a letter in which he disparages Adorno’s abilities as a composer, but that’s a minor complaint.

      • Schoenberg on Adorno in a letter he wrote in 1949 “I have never been able to bear the fellow. It is disgusting by the way how he treats Stravinsky”. I Don’t have a quote for this but I have also read read that he also rejected Adorno’s account of him in philosophy of new music too. I find Schoenbergs comments a bit disappointing though since they don’t really help us understand what precisely it was about Adorno’s work that he found so objectionable.

  4. Wiesengrund says:

    Well, it appears, apart from the Heidegger example, that he may have been a very uncomfortable personality. What else do you want to get out of this?

    • I suspect there’s not a lot that can be gotten out of this: I had it sitting around on my computer and, having been busy lately, I hadn’t posted anything in a while. Compounding my shame, it seems to have pulled a ridiculous amount of traffic to the site. Fortunately, I have a couple of long and tedious posts of Whittaker Chambers and the Enlightenment that should be ready soon. Or, maybe I should just give up and start photoshopping images of kittens’ faces onto the bodies of members of the Frankfurt School.

  5. Katherine Hollander says:

    Gorgeous. I’ve been waiting for this for years! You should put “I Hate Teddy” on a t-shirt.

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