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« Stereotypes Redux | Main | Paul Johnson Redux »

August 28, 2002



I was leafing through the book review section of the L.A. Times last Sunday when I stumbled across “Thinking Hard, Listening Deeply,” a review of Theodor W. Adorno’s "Essays On Music." (Link here.) Being a musical ignoramus (I’m pretty much of the “I don’t know from music, but I know what I like” school), I am a sucker for books that will explain music to me, so I settled down to read the review. I was pretty quickly put in my place by the very first paragraph:

Given that whole careers are devoted to elucidating the thought of Theodor W. Adorno, an interested neophyte reader might well approach his work with trepidation. The ideal reader of his essays on music would have a thorough knowledge of the classical repertoire since Bach and philosophy since Kant as well as Adorno's other work, which runs to 20 volumes in the German collected edition.

This clued me in—I am, after all, an Ivy League graduate, and, I like to think, pretty quick on the uptake—that I’d better accept as Gospel everything that follows, because evidently no one other than (possibly) Adorno himself could be sufficiently intellectually prepared to criticize Adorno.

Feeling out of my depth, I was just about to bail when the reviewer, Adam Kirsch (identified somewhat obscurely as the author of the book of poems "The Thousand Wells") threw me a lifeline:

For even at his most abstract and theoretical, Adorno's writing is always oriented toward real life. Like Marx, he seeks to understand the world in order to change it.

I was intrigued that someone in 2002 was still complimenting a writer by comparing him to Marx, given the last century’s experience with “Practical Marxism.” Perhaps foolishly, I decided to stick it out. I learned that Adorno, born in 1903, was “from one of those Jewish households that revered German culture” (are there any other kinds of Jewish families in the serious books the L.A. Times reviews?)


He went on to study musical composition in Vienna, was a huge fan of the music of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. However, after eventually deciding to focus on philosophy, he joined up with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, a group that undertook the “sophisticated application of Marxist thought to cultural and social practices.” (I hope you picked up on that “sophisticated” and didn’t think they were just sitting around making “Workers of the World Unite” posters with magic markers.)

Unfortunately, timing is everything in life, and Adorno had the poor judgment to do all this right around the time Hitler came to power. Adorno and the Institute quickly skedaddled from Germany, Adorno heading for London and the Institute for Columbia University in New York. Adorno eventually also went to New York in 1938, and moved on to Los Angeles in 1941. Adorno’s arrival in Los Angeles, while probably not making the front page of the L.A. Times in those benighted days before it became a world class newspaper, certainly stimulates our reviewer to new rhetorical heights:

The paradox of Hollywood in the 1940s--Schoenberg on the one hand, Louis B. Mayer on the other--is writ large in "Essays on Music." Most of these pieces, which span his entire career, fall into two categories: those dealing with popular music, which Adorno treats as a commodity churned out by the "culture industry," and those dealing with serious, or "classical" music, which has a genuine spiritual and social function.

Hmmmm, I thought, I wonder how a Marxist differentiates a genuine spiritual function from, er, the ungenuine kind.

I also had a nagging feeling that I was missing something. Let’s see, the Forties, the Forties, what happened during the 1940’s? Oh yeah, I thought, smacking my forehead, the Second World War! That was when my father and my uncle were in the Navy, defending the 39-year-old Mr. Adorno from the Axis while he wrote “Essays on Music.” It goes to show just how crazy life can be, doesn’t it?

I read on, intrepidly:

In the bourgeois 19th century, th[e] individual, or "subject," was in a heroic phase of struggle, hoping to reconcile individual freedom and social justice. Music, especially that of Beethoven, expressed this humane aspiration and marks a high point in the world's spiritual history. The corruption of capitalism had not yet permanently divided the artist from the ordinary listener. In the 20th century, the rise of monopoly capitalism and mass culture has "colonized" the subject, turning the individual into an interchangeable unit within an oppressive economic and cultural system. As a result, serious music--that which expresses and confronts the human predicament--is condemned to be difficult, rebarbative, the pursuit of a few; while "light music," really a form of mass distraction and false consciousness, seeps into the subjectivity of almost everyone else.

Rebarbative means repellant or irritating, just in case you didn’t know. It’s a good word, and I suspect if I ever take a course in Serious Twentieth Century Music, it’ll come in handy.

On the other hand, it pales in comparison with that really brilliant phrase, “false consciousness.” I mean, you’ve got to admire a phrase that can completely dismiss any thoughts held by someone that you’re not fond of. The next time I get pulled over by the police, I’m determined to wave my hand airily and explain to the officer that I wasn’t speeding, his radar gun is simply a victim of his “false consciousness.”

I guess I must be suffering from “false consciousness,” too, because I thought that Beethoven was a self-employed capitalist who did pretty well by publishing his own scores, holding concerts (which he produced for himself) and teaching students. I guess that was before capitalism become corrupt or something, which apparently happened very shortly thereafter:

But from Beethoven to Schoenberg, composers increasingly felt that what they had to express--the growing alienation of the individual in society--was at odds with the musical language they inherited. Tonality and traditional form became inadequate to the mounting sense of crisis produced by capitalism…This new music earns respect because it faces our true situation.

I had a hunch that with our reviewer tossing in phrases like “growing alienation,” “mounting sense of crisis,” and “true situation” that we were building up to something big here. And, by golly, if the actual thunderclap of significance isn’t delivered via an actual quote (!) by Adorno (The Man Himself):

The only authentic artworks produced today are those that in their inner organization measure themselves by the fullest experience of horror.

I was, obviously, just floored by the sheer brilliance of it all. How insightful, how authoritative, how… how…European it all was! Jeeze, no wonder those guys can get away with stuff like 12-tone music and subtitled black and white movies with titles like “Persona.”


I mixed myself a stiff drink and thought, I’ve got to know more about this guy. Visions swam in my head of myself smoking a cigarette while chicks hung on my every word as I intoned: “The only authentic artworks…”. I headed for the Internet and typed in Adorno. What I found surprised, shocked and terrified me…but I’ll have to tell you about it in my next posting.



posted by Friedrich at August 28, 2002


c'mon, you're just stalling so you can find another copy of the review to replace the one you shredded in disgust, right?

if not, get your ass in gear and finish your review of the review. i mean, those of us wallowing in "corruption" need guidance from these enlightened types!

Posted by: dan t. on August 29, 2002 12:10 AM

Hey, Friedrich -
Just found your most recent which I hope to read momentarily -
Love your columns and hope to keep up on things of the mind regularly with you and Michael
All the best -
A reader

Posted by: margie on September 2, 2002 7:46 PM

Hope my comments came thru -
Love to read your stuff

Posted by: margie on September 2, 2002 7:48 PM

While I enjoyed your review, is the sarcasm so necessary? For all the problems surrounding Adorno's theories today, he still has relevance given the climate and relationship between mass audiences and music which has a somewhat serious point to make and actual compositional considerations behind it.

Posted by: TC on October 10, 2002 12:27 AM

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