Hannah Arendt, “Walter Benjamin”, Men In Dark Times

To put it bluntly, it would be as misleading today to recommend Walter Benjamin as a literary critic and essayist as it would have been misleading to recommend Kafka of 1924 as a short-story writer and novelist. The describe adequately his work and him as an author within our usual framework of reference, one would have to make a great many negative statements, such as: his erudition was great, but he was no scholar; his subject matter comprised texts and their interpretation, but he was no philologist; he was greatly attracted not by religion but, “Walter Benjamin by theology and the theological type of interpretation for which the text itself is sacred, but he was no theologian and he was not particularly interested in the Bible; he was a born writer, but his greatest ambition was to produce a work consisting entirely of quotiations; he was the was the first Germ to translate Proust (together with Franz Hess) and St.-John Perse, and before that he had translated Baudelaire’s Tablueax Parisiens, but he was no translator; he reviewed books and wrote a number of essays on living and dead writers, but he was no literary critic; he wrote a book about the German baroque and left behind a huge unfinished study of the French nineteenth century, but he as no historian, literary or otherwise; I shall try to show that he thought poetically, but he was neither a poet nor a philosopher. – Hannah Arendt, “Walter Benjamin”, Men In Dark Times, pp.155-156


The themes which monastic discipline assigned to friars for meditation were designed to turn them away from the world and its affairs.  The thoughts which we are developing here originate from similar considerations.  At a moment when the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes are prostrate and confirm their defeat by betraying their own cause, these observations are intended to disentangle the political worldlings from the snares in which the traitors have entrapped them.  Our consideration proceeds from the insight the the politicians’ stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their “mass basis,” and, finally, their servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus have been three aspects of the same thing.   It seeks to convey an idea of the high price our accustomed thinking will have to pay for a conception of history that avoids any complicity with the thinking to which these politicians continue to adhere. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History”, in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, p. 258

Walter Benjamin at work

Walter Benjamin at work

Georg Lukacs wrote of some members of the Frankfurt School, Adorno in particular:

A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the “Grand Hotel Abyss” which I described […] as “a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.

In much the same way, Adorno was critical of his mentor and friend Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Production”, “I am all too aware of the weakness of the work. And this consists, to put it crudely, in the tendency to engage in Jeremiads and polemics” (Quoted in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor Adorno: Selected With Introduction, Commentary, and Notes, p.249n78), a charge I find all the more fascinating and lacking in ironic self-awareness considering Adorno’s tendency toward the exaggerated statement for elucidating a far more mundane point (something Lepper, the editor of the above volume of Adorno’s writings on music, notes early and often as part of Adorno’s “style”). Indeed, “Art In The Age Of Mechanical Production” may well be one of the most positive statements regarding the revolutionary potential of popular art (film in this case) from a leftist perspective written in the 20th century.

Just as Lukacs became contemptuous of the kind of too-comfortable armchair dialectics of Adorno and his circle, Adorno’s rejection of Benjamin precisely because he was “undialectic” (quoted in Arendt, p.162) and spoke scathingly of Benjamin’s “attempt to capture the portrait of history in the most insignificant representations of reality, its scraps, as it were.” (Arendt, p.163), sprung both from a fairly meritorious critical eye which nevertheless missed the deeper heart of the one being criticized. While it may well have been the case that Adorno’s life was just a tad too comfortable for one claiming a mantle as a revolutionary, so, too, were Benjamin’s works, in Arendt’s words, the strangest kind of Marxism. For Benjamin, however, his dedication to the revolutionary cause, while certainly a vital part of the intellectual toolkit he brought to every task – he came very close to joining the party in the mid-1920’s – was nevertheless uncomfortable enough with Marxist dialectics and a materialism stripped of its spiritual dimension that even to call him a Marxist (Lukacs mentions Benjamin as among his circle of “comrades” for which he grew contemptuous) is a fundamental misunderstanding of the man and his work.

Born in 1892, coming of age just prior to World War I, seeing little in Weimar Germany to recommend itself either to himself as critic or to others as a writer, finally trapped within the maelstrom of history in western Europe in the 1930’s, Benjamin took his own life after, having already made an arduous trek through southwestern France, precious papers in hand to allow him passage, he arrived at the Spanish border the day Spain closed its doors (albeit temporarily; no one, of course, could have known this at the time) to refugees from unoccupied France. His decision to end his own life, while certainly tragic (Berthold Brecht wrote that Benjamin’s death was the first real victory for the Nazi’s against German literature), was, given the circumstances, easily understandable. Not well known in his own time, his closest friends and supporters long since gone to the United States, and his physical, emotional, financial, and probably psychological resources spent, how is one person suppose to stand against the juggernaut of that moment in European history?

All the same, I think Arendt’s inclusion of Benjamin in a volume dedicated to extraordinary people living through extraordinary times (essay subjects include Lessing, Pope John XXIII, Brecht, and Karl Jaspers along with Benjamin and a couple others) is more than a little misleading. Benjamin was, alas, no more a product and commentator upon his times than he was a “simple” literary critic or historian or theologian. Indeed, paying attention to Arendt’s descriptions of Benjamin’s work, the themes she emphasizes, and the examples she cites, it becomes clear that Walter Benjamin was far more a man of the 19th century, particularly 19th century Paris with its rich bohemian subculture, than of the 20th. He was well educated yet could not bear the thought of academe. Like many children of that first generation of German Jews to succeed at assimilation, Benjamin neither considered himself “Jewish” nor did he wish so to be perceived, yet he ran up against official and cultural and social anti-Semitism throughout his life, policies that restricted what he as an unbaptized yet also unpracticing Jew could achieve. Despite this, throughout his adult life, he flirted (at the very least) with Zionism, having made friends with Gerhard Scholem before the First World War broke out. He was constantly writing Scholem that he was considering emigration to Jerusalem, yet he could never quite make the leap precisely because it involved labeling both his person and his work indelibly as “Jewish”, something he didn’t care to do.

Like the description Arendt gives in the epigrammatic quote concerning Benjamin’s literary interests and output, Benjamin was also jealous of his own prerogative concerning the kind of man, the individual, he wished to be. Arendt uses a the French word flâneur as what best suits Benjamin. It is no surprise that part of his never-completed Arcades project saw light under the title “Die flâneur”. The flâneur were a type, not quite a class and certainly not a “community” as we would understand it, who had a certain presence in 19th century Paris. Often derided as bums, they were children of wealthy bourgeois homes who, having no responsibilities to themselves or others, would wander through the streets and arcades and boulevards of Paris, taking in what there was to see and hear, experiencing what there was to experience, without any particular rhyme or reason. Obviously there is something more than a little decadent (both in literal and political uses of the word) about such living. At the same time, there’s an attractiveness to the kind of freedom – freedom from financial worry; freedom from interpersonal responsibility; freedom from the any sense of a purpose or end to such activities – that still appeals. They were, in a word, bohemians, although perhaps without the aesthetic self-consciousness of some such.

Benjamin was comfortable in academic work (his Habilitationschrift was a study of German Baroque Tragedy), with the popular essay (“Unpacking My Library”), critical appreciation (essays on Brecht and Kafka), and even venturing a typically Marxist style and subject matter (“Theses On History”). He both desired the approval of academics, yet because of the demand that he be baptized before he could serve on a University faculty (that would have required him acknowledging his Jewishness as definitive, something he never wanted to do), was never really desirous of such a position. He could play with a variety of vocabularies – Marxist, theological, aesthetic, poetic – without either losing his distinctive voice; he could use these styles without ever becoming so immersed in them he lost his particularity. That particularly after the First World War Benjamin always kept his options open both with Zionism and Communism (two ideologies that vocally detested one another), he never concerned himself even with having to make a choice. He faced the criticisms of friends (Adorno) and mentors (Scholem) with a kind of equanimity borne, I think, from a kind of self-awareness that allowed him to know they just didn’t get him.

What to many might seem the inconsequential, perhaps even dilettante, concerns – his bibliomania, for one; an incident, highlighted by Arendt, of Benjamin becoming enthralled by two grains of wheat upon which a prayerful soul had inscribed the entire Shema Israel – and see in them an importance that others, far more concerned with the scope and sweep of History, not only wouldn’t see, but couldn’t see. This, too, is a kind of aestheticism, a very 19th century attitude toward life and the world that was very much out of place in a world riven first by tragedy in Benjamin’s early adulthood, soon to be destroyed completely. Most intellectuals considered the First World War, with its destruction of a species of European cosmopolitanism, a “turning point” in the most literal way: historical reality had invalidated the best hopes of the previous century and there was, thus, no going back. Yet it was Benjamin who wrote in his “Theses on History” that history was an Angel, her eyes turned toward the wreckage of the past, always being pulled backwards with the present moment. For Benjamin, that wreckage was both very real yet also still held the truth of what had constituted it in the very piles of dust and brick and bone and blood. Far happier in Paris than he ever had been in his native Berlin, far more attracted to the minutiae of life than to the grand sweep of History, quite happy to write quasi-Marxist cultural criticism or an appreciation of Brecht’s early works, Benjamin was far more a creature of an irretrievable past than he was the historical moments through which he lived.

We usually consider people to be products primarily of the social, political, economic, and cultural conditions within which they live. Benjamin, however, while never rejecting his own times, was nevertheless a half-conscious throwback. His “No” to his times – exemplified in his adoption of a Marxist vocabulary while never fully embracing either Marxism or the Communist Party – was as much a desire to reclaim a better past as it was a hope in a future no longer touched by the desolation of his own particular times.

There is something tragically heroic in such a stance, one which understands one’s own time only as a negation both of what has been and what will be. As long as life promises possibilities, it is easy enough to face adversity and continue to struggle on. Facing the full wrath of Historical forces beyond anyone’s ability either to withstand or even comprehend, however, that ghostly past and evanescent future can be crushed along with everything else. Thus was Benjamin’s end, death by his own hand, comprehensible. The gigantic machinery of mass death was pushing hard upon him, resisted by the equally strong forces of those who, acting out of fear, became its unwitting agents, would leave few of us the wherewithal to carry on. If the First World War had destroyed the 19th century, it is not hard to imagine one such as Walter Benjamin, believing the Gestapo was close on his heels and his only escape route now closed, to understand this new war, waged by demonic forces of anti-culture and anti-humanity, might well destroy not only the 20th, but perhaps the 21st as well.

It has been the work of many to resurrect Benjamin’s life and work, reconstitute his correspondence, and try  best to explain this one individual, lost in his own time, to those who have come after who, perhaps, feel more than a little affinity for one who just wasn’t completely at home in his own times. His subject matter might seem to be inconsequential. His style might seem eclectic, even precious on occasion. His scope of interests  are not quite as clear if we consider only what was published in his lifetime. All the same, this incomplete life (Benjamin was three years younger than I am now when he died) and his incomplete work together demonstrate that even fragments can be meaningful.

After all, someone once wrote the Shema Israel on two grains of wheat. In the scraps of life we might yet find the whole of history, if we are willing to look with enough care.

Tom Beaudoin, “Introduction”

What I am really talking about here is the way that music has a powerful way of putting together human identity for individuals and groups.  Music is a kind of glue that helps different aspects of identity stick together and endure.  Many dimensions of experience are tutored an shaped by popular music cultures: who we are racially and ethnically, what we take ourselves to be in terms of gender and sexuality, where we belong generationally, spiritually, and more.  One way of talking about this powerful role of music is to use the notion of “subjectification”, which means “subject-making,” where the “subject” is the human subjectification, we are pointing to the ways in which who- and whose – we take ourselves to be are deeply influenced by, and substantially implanted in, the ways that we are persuaded to count certain things as being “real” and mattering more than other things.  This persuasion happens through the hidden curriculum” of our families, schools, religious institutions, and larger social environment, including our media, and especially including the music that influences and/or comes from “the people” – “popular music.” – Tom Beaudoin, “Introduction”, in Beaudoin, ed., Secular Music & Sacred Theology, p.xi.

It is with something like a combination of thankfulness, awe, and trepidation that I begin this precious Christmas gift from my wife, Secular Music & Sacred Theology.  The editor notes there is a blog entitled Rock and Theology.  In fact, there was such a blog, it’s last post being just over a year ago, January 1, 2014.  Which figures, really.  After all, I’m the guy who really started getting in to The Grateful Dead six years after Jerry Garcia died.

Which, at the end of the day, is neither here nor there.  Perhaps their blog ended.  Perhaps part of the fruit of their labor was finding a publisher for the book I’m reading.  None of that means, however, that the traces they’ve left behind cannot be mined.  After all, this is precisely the journey I’ve set myself upon, perhaps been on before I even knew it.  The importance of music in human life cannot be something God does not use to “speak” to us, regardless of whether we label it secular or sacred.  In the essays in this book, if nothing else, I might find both wrong and right paths to pursue, even as I continue to push forward to explain, if to no one else then at least myself, how this is.

Beaudoin’s introduction begins largely where I do: Music is something vital that shapes human life.  What he does not say is that the separation of music – and culture in general – from our everyday life is the result of historical forces that should also be part of our theologizing about music.  Particularly we in the west live in a place and time in history where “music” has become a product rather than something that informs human life in the most literal sense: giving it shape and substance and meaning.  I keep thinking about the anecdote Dan Levitin uses near the beginning of his book This Is Your Brain On Music.  A colleague of his was studying a society in Lesotho, a small nation in southern Africa.  Early in his time there, he was invited to join in a community festival that included singing.  Levitin’s friend demurred, insisting that he cannot sing.   The people in the village looked at him as if he had just confessed that he could not breathe; for them, singing was as natural and normal as our bodily functions.  For us in the west, however, music has become something with a set of criteria that, if not met, does not exist.

For all the limits placed upon music by what cultural critic Theodor Adorno calls “the Culture Industry”, music persists as a way we interpret, understand, and move through our life in this world.  Particularly in a secularized society such as our own, it can help – along with art, the novel, architecture, and even the human sciences – shape our lives as a substitute for religion that no longer has broad social or cultural cache.  All the same, there continue to be people of deep religious, specifically Christian, faith.  Living in two worlds, as it were – the one shaped by our largely secularized society and its values and limitations, the other shaped by our sense that God has acted in this world in a unique way in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – contemporary theologians have been and continue to struggle to make sense of what it means not only to be a Christian in this strange, irreligious, pluralistic context as well as see and hear and feel even in the midst of the insouciance of so much of our cultural products the still, small voice of God; the vision of grace and truth; and the flow of the Spirit moving even where its very existence is denied.

Beaudoin makes clear care must be taken when criss-crossing these boundaries.  At the same time, while naming the dangers of capitulation, interpretation, and liberation (pp. xxi ff), he turns these criticisms back around on the critics (pp. xxii-xxiii):

All three characterizations of the theology-culture dynamic (capitulation, interpretation, liberation) tend toward a violent special pleading.  By this, I mean that they impose theological restrictions on reality by force of a vindication of a certain selective enforcement of ideas and practices that make one Christian.  This is what Daniel Boyaris calls “christianicity” – Christianity as a kind of display of identity in a certain time and place, as an experience of being trained to recognize one’s essential Christian-ness as resident in beliefs and practices in an over-against relationship with Christianity’s “others.”

Beaudoin proposes, rather, a completely different way of understanding what it is the authors of the essays in this collection are attempting (p. xxiii):

I propose that we can understand theological work on culture as a pragmatic rehearsal.  A notion of pragmatic rehearsal does not aim to put to rest all these conundrums, but places itself within and across the lines of rhetorical force already at work in the other approaches.  By pragmatic rehearsal, I am suggesting a theory of the performance of academic theological knowledge: that theological work is a kind of dynamic, performed knowing, and to enact it is to operate intellectually and materially, with situational tools, on a cultural nexus of significance, and from an awareness contingently denominated “theological,” for the sake – and with the effect – of a conscious and unconscious intervention in practice.

After defining both “pragmatic” and “rehearsal”, Beaudoin turns the charge of “ephemeral” and “transient” around on critics of those who do theology and popular culture. In a way, it is little more than restating Karl Barth’s famous dictum that all theology is prolegommena: “[S]tated differently, such reflections [i.e., on secular music and sacred theology] show that the larger theological community’s analyses are no less theologically ephemeral and culturally transient than what “theology and popular culture” research discovers.” (p. xxiv)  Such a counter-offensive apologetic strategy, stated so baldly, putting the onus for claims of capitulation in particular upon those making them, is a good way to begin a study such as this.  It puts readers, both appreciative and critical (and, in the end, even the most appreciative should be critical) on notice that, regardless of whatever they might think as they read what follows, it is offered both with theological seriousness and deep faith, entry points for people to begin to think both critically and creatively about our contemporary culture and Christian faith.  The only difference I would make is to insist that this is not, or at least should not be, the role solely of academic theological specialists, but rather is the on-going task of the whole church during each moment of its life.

We are always to engage in pragmatic rehearsal, living our dynamic, performed knowing with the full knowledge that, regardless of the impact it might have upon us and other like-minded persons, it is no less passing, no less a product of its time than that of any other theological product.  The difference, at least for me, is that this is our task at this time.  It is one we should do both in full knowledge of its contingency and with full faith in its seriousness.

Maeve Louise Heaney, “Intorduction/Meaning In Music”

I was sad reading this book, but as I told my wife, I was bound and determined to finish it.  I had no intention of being defeated by a book.  When I reached the end, I was satisfied that, at the very least, I knew not what to say should I ever try to write about music as theology – Me, “Stuck In The Muddle – Music As Theology: What Music Says About The Word”, April 7, 2014

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[T]he question of whether contemporary music can mediate faith, and, if so, how, has a very complex object of interest – music of many genres, styles, with words or without, written in notation form or simply recorded or performed; music that is evaluated and commented on by listeners of all ages, musicians, composers, ministers, theologians, and parish priests.  How can we hope to come to any clarity? Ignoring its complexity and simply exhorting or effusing about the transcendence of music is too simplistic to be helpful. – Maeve Louise Heaney, Music as Theology: What Music Says About The Word, p. 71

Having finished White Hodge’s book on Hip Hop, and thinking about what to read next, I came to the conclusion that the only proper thing to do was to give Haeney’s book another go.  As you can see above, one of the first posts I did was an attempted review of Music as Theology.  There were several things wrong with that original post.  First, I would hardly call what I did “reading”, as days would go by without me even picking up the book. Second, what reading I did, and the subsequent “review” all occurred in the midst of my emotional and psychological crisis.  In other words I just wasn’t in the frame of mind to do the thing properly.  Finally, I recognized that what White Hodge had done was precisely what Heaney had written about.  Heaney had been far more abstract.  White Hodge, however, applied the very questions and criteria that Heaney highlights in her work, asking the same questions, doing the difficult hermeneutical and theological work necessary to mine the meaning of music as a source for God’s Word speaking to us.

When I decided, earlier this week, when I knew I would be finishing White Hodge’s book, to give Heaney another go, I found several videos of her performing original works.  The lyrics to the song above serve as a kind of epigram to the book as a whole.  They also say what can’t be said discursively, which is the mystery of music as theology that she seeks to explore.  I owed her another chance.

The Introduction and first chapter are, by and large, what one would expect from a published doctoral dissertation: an explanation of the theme, its sources both in personal and intellectual biography, an outline of the structure of the work, including name-dropping scholars whose work informs both the questions to be asked as well as giving clues to possible answers.  The first chapter, covering both musicology and ethnomusicology and finding them both, as she writes “young sciences” (p. 27), and her critique of both resembles, in many ways, comments Karl Popper makes about the questionable nature of psychology in the early- and mid-20th centuries, when there were still debates over foundations and methods.  With musicology, however, she notes that the disputes lie precisely at the heart of the questions she seeks to ask – about how it is music can convey meaning, specifically meaning about the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the heart of the Christian profession of faith.  Writing about early musicologist and philosopher Susanne Langer, Heaney says on page 33:

[I]t is precisely our lack of understanding of how language and symbols work which causes confusion when we try to “talk about” music and what it means.  Music is a symbolic, or indeed, semiotic form, as we shall develop in chapter 3.  That music has a powerful effect on human feeling is, perhaps, not a surprise, but Langer attempts to describe just the relationship between the two can be articulated.

By noting that the question of meaning in music leads one back, first, to meaning in language, we find ourselves in the midst of another area of dispute among linguists, philosophers, and semioticians.  “Meaning” then, becomes disputed territory, territory through which she will attempt to cut by remaining focused on the question of meaning, specifically theological meaning, in music.  As such she limits her discussions to musicologists whose work passes over particular disputes in music, such as whether there is such a thing as “Absolute” music – music which has no meaning except for those internal relations among its various parts – moving instead to those whose work creates a series of questions about meaning  that will be the focus of attention for the rest of the work.  Specifically, those questions deal with matters that should be familiar to anyone schooled in modern and post-modern philosophical and theological thought: questions about social location, about the privileged position of notated Western music in the musicological canon, and matters of whether meaning lies within music itself, or is something the listener brings to the music.

In fact, in Chapter 2, she answers that last question by highlighting what she calls a “Tripartite” model for a theological hermeneutic of music, in which the music itself, the performer, and the listener all have roles in discovering the meaning of any particular piece of music.  I am getting ahead of myself here, but there is a reason for that.  First, what Adorno was doing three-quarters of a century ago is, in many ways, not so much meaningless as it is no longer applicable, at least in whole.  Rather than focus attention on the art music of late modernity, and how it represents in itself the contradictions of that era, Heaney wants to look at “music” far more broadly.  While certainly attentive to matters of socio-historical context, as her primary interest is theological, the socio-historical context becomes just one of a set of categories in need of understanding if we are to come to an understanding of music as theology.

In that sense, returning to Heaney’s work, immediately following first Adorno, then White Hodge, I find myself in the midst of a kind of mediation, or perhaps integration, of approaches, one complementing the other, even as Heaney’s work tends to be more abstract even than Adorno’s.  Rather than dreading what’s coming, I look forward to my return to this work,

Theodor W Adorno, “Difficulties”

Perhaps only that music is still possible which measures itself against the greatest extreme, its own falling silent. – Theodor W. Adorno, “Difficulties”, in Richard Leppert, ed. Theodor W. Adorno: Essays on Music, p.660.

If you’ve journeyed with me through this long, occasionally arduous, always enlightening collection of essays, I’m guessing you are probably as thrilled as I am to have reached the end.  Not that ending a long work is an occasion either for relief or simple celebration.  It is, rather, celebration of an accomplishment.  This first real exposure to the thought, and writings, of Theodor Adorno has been eye-opening, thought provoking, and offered fodder for moving forward in my much larger personal project of thinking about and through music in the context of Christian liturgy, theology, and life.

Much of my “reflection” has consisted of putting in my own words what I gleaned from Adorno’s writings.  I have occasionally been critical, but by and large, since this is my first time both through Adorno and through this particular selection of essays, I wanted only to engage with what I received, rather than start an argument with a man dead forty-five years.  Which is a long way of saying that while there is much in here with which I agree, there is also much I find troubling.  In the long “Introduction”, Leppert quotes Georg Lukacs’ criticism of Adorno’s work on music:

A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss,’ which I described ni connection with my critique of Schopenhauer as ‘a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity.  And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.'” (pp.67-68)

This is more than just an accusation of dilettantism.  It is, in fact, an accusation of elitism; of sitting around, pronouncing judgment on the suffering of the world from a distance, then making sure they aren’t late for the latest art opening or philharmonic concert.  Lukacs’s barb was aimed not just at Adorno’s approach to music; it was, in fact, an attack on the Frankfurt School as a whole, with its “negative dialectic”, its acknowledgment of the horrors of the world without a single word about how it might be possible to alleviate it.  Indeed, an honest reading of the idea of “ideology” as Adorno constructs it would seem to negate the very project in which he is engaged.

So it wasn’t just about music; it was about dallying with aesthetics while millions died, shrugging one’s shoulders and asking, “What can I do about it?”  In Adorno’s defense, his position was realistic enough.  He was a professor of sociology.  He did what he could, which was to write works that demonstrated the thoroughgoing capture of society and culture by late capitalism, which included him and his work, insisting that the Stalinist left was little different from the capitalist right in their insistence that society and culture work together to support the political regime.  It was just that the capitalist countries were more subtle about their methods of control (with the exception of the McCarthyites, of course, you wouldn’t find any western counterparts to the Zhdanovites in Europe or America).

More to the point, in these two final essays joined due to their similar theme, Adorno yet again insists that the “difficulties” are multi-faceted, confronting both composer and the society in which and for which they compose with nearly insurmountable obstacles.  On the one hand, composers are, Adorno insists, faced with the need to present the truth.  The public, however, conditioned by a Culture Industry that has no desire for thought, preferring instead thoughtless entertainment, can neither understand nor use the music emerging as “new”, and therefore rejects it.  Not because it offers nothing; rather because it offers everything needed.

Adorno’s disdain not only for the masses inoculated against the new music through the machinations of the Culture Industry but also for a preference for what he considers “museum pieces”, such as the opera-going public or those who attend symphony concerts that rest heavily on tonal music of the past, is thoroughgoing.  Yet, it begs the question which Adorno continue to sidestep through his ideological descriptions, that if the new music were so rooted in the times and reflected those times to the public, at least some of the public outside the musicological academy and aesthetes would react positively to it.  That both atonality and 12-tone and serial music fell largely on deaf ears, with the summer institutes at Darmstadt not only reducing 12-tone method to mathematical formulas but creating countless pieces of music to which no one listened should at the very least given Adorno pause.  That it did not demonstrates a serious blind spot on his part.

The avante garde jazz pianist Cecil Taylor allegedly claimed that, since he had to practice and study in order to play his music, there is no reason his audience should not be required to do the same.  Adorno offers much the same argument; real listening requires work, thought, and even study if the music is to be more than “mere” entertainment, or worse, pure ideology.  In Ken Burns’s Jazz, Branford Marsalis called this “self-indulgent bullshit,” a sentiment with which I tend to agree.  Yet, Adorno defends his position:

The ideal that music should or must be generally understood, which is frequently assumed as unproblematic, has its own socio-historical index.  It is democratic; it was scarcely in force under feudalism.  At that time, what one might call the disciplinary function of mus, in the sense of Plato and Augustine, was foregrounded, as opposed to universal understanding or purported enjoyment.  At that time, consequently, music was also characteristically regarded as a kind of secret science.  No scores, but only voices have come down to us, presumably in order to keep the misera plebs far away from the alchemist’s kitchen of counterpoint. (p.662)

Which is as unreflective, and I might add unhistorical a position to take, particularly for someone for whom history was the category sine qua non for truly understanding music.  Because the Middle Ages did not assume clarity of understanding, we in our bourgeois, democratic age – for all its contradictions and trends toward totalitarianisms of various kinds – should not assume it, either; this isn’t so much an argument as an observation without an ear tuned to the multifaceted ways music of all kinds presents our modern age with its inherent contradictions while simultaneously being listenable and comprehensible.  To argue that the difficulty of the New Music is a hallmark of its timeliness, and that one shouldn’t assume listenability because historically that hasn’t been the case is even more elitist a position than the ignorant dismissal of jazz, based upon European imports and Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra.

None of which is to say there is nothing of value in Adorno’s work.  On the contrary, the simple fact that this massive volume of nearly 700 pages of text and commentary represents a small part of Adorno’s work on music is testimony to the importance he gave to this most illusive and enigmatic art form.  I would not have wasted so much time and intellectual effort working my way through such a volume if I saw no value in it.  His observations about the social function of music; about the role of what he calls the Culture Industry; of the social tensions between music presented as something more than simple entertainment and the creations of record company A&R people and management teams; the way marketing has replaced aesthetic appreciation in the creation and dissemination of music; these are all on-going issues that all those concerned not only about music, but our society in general, should think about.

Viewing the individual, however, as a surd, a creature of larger social forces ignores the reality that, as much truth as that view has, viz., that human individuals are only partially complete viewed outside a social context, there is still an individual who either likes or dislikes, can understand or not understand, music played.  That we now have the ability to understand more clearly how these mechanisms work, and how the conglomeration of individual preferences and brain functions coalesce in to this thing we call “music” needs to be integrated more thoroughly in to any social understanding and criticism of music.

I would add, as a final note, that, theologically speaking – and this is in harmony (no pun intended) with the dismissive attitude Adorno takes toward the democratic preference for comprehensibility – unless music is something human beings can understand, unless it serves particular functions positively rather than as a negation of any social function, we aren’t dealing with a human creation at all.  As my personal goal is understanding music more clearly so as to be able to bring people to hear in all sorts of music the song God is singing to creation, as well as the song creation sings to God, while there I have learned much from Adorno about taking care of stumbling blocks and hidden pitfalls, there is also the need to be clear – in our song, about our song, and through our song.  Otherwise, it is, yet again, self-indulgent bullshit.

Theodor W Adorno, “Toward An Understanding Of Schoenberg”

[T] musical situation we are in forces us to reflect on what has been repressed – something whose meaning, compared to the rest of musical production, even its antagonists are aware of, in principle.  One must only be able and willing to regard music as a living and internally meaningful sequence of event and have a relatively good command of the categories of traditional, pre-Schoenenbergian music.  However different his melodies, with their large intervals, may be from the ones to which we are accustomed; however different the many toned chords sound; however refracted the colors and irregular forms are  – Schoenberg’s music resembles every other great music of the past in this respect, that it wants to be apprehended spontaneously as an organic structural complex of sounds.- Theodor W. Adorno, “Toward an Understanding of Schoenberg”, in Richard Leppert, ed. Theodor W. Adorno: Essays on Music, p.629

As a lover of music, it should be easy enough to get it.  For Adorno, Schoenberg represents more than just a radical shift in compositional technique or musical structure.  Arnold Schoenberg, whose work was first dismissed as “not music” then “passe” even as he trudged on through the decades, composing everything from chamber music to lieder to operas, represented the radical break within modernism that had been hinted at in Strauss and Stravinsky, yet only fully realized here.  Schoneberg was the musical representation of what art, particularly music, should do: it should confront the society within which it lives with the contradictions of that society.  It shouldn’t provide a synthesis to reconcile those contradictions.  It shouldn’t pretend to a whole that is, for high capitalist society, impossible apart either from barbarism or totalitarianism (which are different faces of the same coin, after all).  For Adorno, Schoenberg and the Vienna School that followed in his wake showed early 20th century Europe all its ugliness, how it had become unmoored from what kept it steady.  For that reason, Adorno insists, Schoenberg was both shunned and ignored throughout much of his career, only to return to prominence as the one who developed a compositional techinique – the 12-tone style – that came to dominate after the Second World War.  Yet even here, Adorno insists, what Schoenberg understood to be a style that liberates us from method was reduced to mathematical formula, putting a new set of chains on the music just as he set it free.

All of this should be clear enough from what Adorno has all ready written.  This particular essay, written just after the composer’s death, attempts once again an apologia for Schoenberg, his music, and his legacy that stresses the humanity of the composer; how his music is a somewhat natural historical progression from what had gone before; and the significant difference between Adorno’s music and that of what came before and the neo-classicists who were his main rivals in the years after the First World War.  Adorno’s simplest and clearest formulation of the matter appears on page 630:

The decisive thing is the density of composition, which no one ever conceived of before – its concreteness, not its abstraction.  Schoenberg leaves nothing unformed, every tone is developed from with the law of motion of the thing itself.

Schoenberg goes all the way back to Bach, demonstrating how the great composers struggled against the strictures not only of tonality but of musical forms, from the fugue through the sonata/symphony, but could never make the break that Schoenberg did.  This rewriting of musical history stretched the credulity of most of those who know western art music, although as always with Adorno, it is precisely within the extremity that the deepest truth is looked for.  Rather than use the structure of tonality and the sonata/symphony, Schoenberg used the structure of melody to guide his compositions.  What grew, like Topsy, often looked like it didn’t have much of a plan; the atonal pieces (such as the 2nd String Quartet, above), in particular, seemed to strike out in odd directions.  They were always, driven, Adorno continues to insist, by the inner logic of the music itself, rather than any externally imposed order.  “Atonality” was a way of dismissing what was strange and new, rather than coming to terms with an internal mechanism that prized melody over harmony, and freedom over the limitations previously imposed upon music.

Living and composing at a time when the orderly world of 19th century European progress collapsed under its own weight, bringing on decades of war, tyranny, mass death, and the rise of the United States as a world power, and with it the Cold War between the US and USSR, serious, honest musicians faced choices.  Far too many, for Adorno, chose to return to the status quo ante and pretend that nothing untoward had happened.  Others, succumbing to the pressures of the Culture Industry, produced nothing that could not be clearly heard without any actual listening occurring (“the music listens for the listener” was Adorno’s dismissive phrase for such music).  There were some, however, who had both the courage and the vision to show Europe in the first half of the 20th century what it was.  One of those was Picasso, in whose painting Guernica, we see the reality of modern war in all its brutality.  No one would call Guernica beautiful in the traditional sense; that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have honest, substantive aesthetic value.  Indeed, the 20th century called for an aesthetics of horror, a theory of the ugly in art, to account for those works that best reflected that most barbaric of times.  Schoenberg provided the soundtrack to a century of mass death.

That Schoenberg, at a time in which the possibility of art itself, in its very essence, became questionable, still composed music that does not seem impotent and vain in light of the reality , forms, in the end, what he once began. (p.640)

Theodor W. Adorno, “The Opera Wozzeck”

For the first time, I’m completely stymied by an essay in Leppert’s collection.  I do not know the opera at all, and Adorno’s comments, as laudable as anything he’s written (if for no other reason than Berg was his composition teacher for a time), mean little absent some kind of knowledge.  I will, then, just leave for the record that I did indeed read the essay, and ask you, in lieu of reading anything by me, enjoy Act II, presented above.

Theodor W Adorno, Two Essays On Mahler

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

[I]n Mahler’s music both things may be implicit: that as a brittle allegory that overreaches itself, the gesture of final, satanic defiance may signify reconciliation; that for the person who has lost hope, the nearby blaze of destruction may shine like the faraway light of redemption. – Theodor W. Adorno, “Marginalia On Mahler”, in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor W. Adorno: Essays On Music, p.614

Mahler occupies an odd place in the canon of western art music.  Coming at the point where both the symphony as a musical form and both classicism and romanticism had exhausted themselves, it seems Mahler made the decision to create not only a temporal escape.  His work, especially his symphonies, are among the first to use music to create space as well as a temporal world unto themselves.  Yet, too often, as Adorno notes in the first of the essays, “Mahler Today”, we hurry past Mahler, having spent time with Beethoven, then Brahms, then Wagner.  Mahler’s young-contemporary, Richard Strauss, is far more interesting precisely because of all the controversy that surrounds the man and his music.  Younger composers like Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg would pick up where Mahler left off, heading in opposite directions; yet their work is the opposite of Mahler’s, filled not with space and, very often, very little time.

As is his wont, Adorno picks up with Mahler where far too many leave off: the composer who comes at the end, whose work tries to breathe life in to an art form and musical style that is exhausted, a transitional figure whose work is overshadowed too often not only by those who came before him, but by his contemporaries.  As Adorno says on p. 604, “Mahler has not been overcome, he has been repressed.”

The bourgeois music culture of the prewar world has reconstituted itself and strictly rejects everything that is not in keeping with its moderate peacefulness.  Everything that does not fit in is regarded as crazy and esoteric, or banal and kitsch.  But precisely a situation that would like to bury the explosive productive power of music is ripe to be measured by its extremes. . . . The genuine significance of Mahler that can be discovered for today lies in the very violence with which he broke out of the same musical space that today wants to forget him.  Admittedly, Mahler’s breakout from bourgeois musical space is not unambiguous and can be truly understood only from with the dialectical opposition to the thing from which it launched itself: not as flight.

It is precisely Mahler’s insistence on making music out of shards and remnants, bits and pieces of shiny things, fitting them together just so, that thing about his compositional style that leaves so many cold, his works dark, always hinting at death, that constitutes for Adorno the reason for returning to Mahler, for considering him not only as an important historical figure, but as someone who has something to say to us today.

For Mahler, the depraved essence underneath the form is the only place where the true images are stored, to which form speaks in vain.  He picks them up as one picks up potsherds along the road, their fractured mass reflecting the sun in a way the well-preserved, full soup tureen hardly could.  It is not stifled pantheistic love of created beings and Nature, not a romantic return to lost simplicity that is occurring in Mahler’s work when it inclines toward lower things.  Rather, he is searching for the higher contents in the r downward plunge through history in the place where they appear to him here and now.  The ruins of moderate, formed musical practice are transparent for him right through to the starry heavens that once shone down upon it. (p.605)

I’ve rarely read a more apt, more incisive, more true description of a composer and his work.  Much the rest of Adorno’s apologia and marginalia are little more than variations on this theme: Mahler is ignored, then and now, precisely because he saw clearly enough the end of that through which and in which he worked.  That this aesthetic end also marked the coming catastrophe of Europe’s self-immolation in the First World War makes Mahler as much musical prophet as it does the innovative creator of space through sound.  His was indeed not necessarily a safe space, but then he saw more clearly, and articulated all the more forcefully, the truth behind the comforting lie of bourgeois domestic tranquility.  For that reason alone, as much in 1930 when Adorno was insisting on Mahler’s on-going relevance, we should take the time to visit these spaces Mahler opens up for us, and consider them, in all their darkness, as a possibility of what might yet lie in wait for us no less than a generation about to embark on self-destruction.

I will end with the ending of Adorno’s “Marginalia”, offered on the 25th anniversary of the composer’s death, from p. 617 of Leppert’s essay collection:

The individual who is carried along is not eliminated.  The community of lovers is made available to him.  The human being survives in the march on the strength of the variant, the determining asymmetry – this is what makes it so completely impossible to misuse Mahler’s music.  The men who otherwise were simply forced to die when they fell out of line, the line above the Strasbourg’s trenches; the nighttime sentry, the [soldier] who is laid to rest in the beauty of the cornets, and the poor little drummer boy – Mahler forms them out of freedom.  He promises victory to the losers.  All his symphonic music is a reveille.  Its hero is the deserter.