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Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Theodor Adorno: Behind the Mirror



Adorno monument in Theodor-W.-Adorno-Platz, Frankfurt (containing Adorno's desk, chair, lamp, carpet, metronome and other utilities of his writing room): photo by dontworry, 2007

Behind the mirror. First word of caution for authors: check every text, every fragment, and every line to see if the central motif presents itself clearly enough. Whoever wants to express something, is so carried away that they are driven along, without reflecting on such. One is too close to the intention, “in thought,” and forgets to say, what one wants to say.

[Policeman using mirror to direct traffic at 14th St. and Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.]

Policeman using mirror to direct traffic at 14th St. and Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.
: photographer unknown, between 1909 and 1932 (National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress)

No improvement is too small or piddling to be carried out. Out of a hundred changes, a single one may appear trifling and pedantic; together they can raise the text to a new level.

Roosevelt Avenue, Jackson Heights. Still available, as far as I know: photo by David Fein, from Be the BQE, 3 June 2014

One should never stint on deletions. Length doesn’t matter and the fear that there isn’t enough there is childish. One shouldn’t consider anything worth preserving, just because it’s written down. If several sentences seem to vary the same thought, this usually indicates several variations of something the author has not yet mastered. In that case one should select the best formulation and work on it further. The toolkit [Technik] of an author should include the capacity to renounce productive thoughts, so long as the construction demands it. The wealth and energy of these latter ultimately come to benefit suppressed thoughts. Rather like the banquet-table, where one shouldn’t eat every last crumb or drink to the dregs. Otherwise one might be accused of stinginess.

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View through a camera lucida: photo by Ad Meskens, 2009

Whoever wants to avoid cliches, should not restrict themselves to words, lest one falls victim to vulgar coquetry. The great French prose of the 19th century was especially sensitive to this. Individual words are seldom banal: in music, too, the single tone never wears out. The worst cliches of them all are on the contrary word-grams [Wortverbindungen] of the sort which Karl Kraus skewered: totally and completely, for better or for worse, planned and implemented. For in them gurgles, as it were, the sluggish flow of stale language, precisely where the author should construct, through precision of expression, those resistances which are required wherever language emerges. This applies not just to word-grams but also to the construction of entire forms. If a dialectician always marked the dialectical recoil [Umschlag] of a thought which advances beyond itself by putting a “however” [aber: however, but] in front of the caesura, then the literary schemata would punish the unschematic intent of what is being discussed with untruth.

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Mirror in the street, Kings Cross, London: photo by Justinc, 2005

The jungle is no sacred grove. It is obligatory to resolve difficulties which derive solely from the comfort and ease of self-understanding. The distinction between the desire to write with a density appropriate to the depth of the object, and the temptation for the abstruse and pretentious sloppiness, is not automatic: a mistrustful insistence is always healthy. Precisely those who wish to make no concession to the stupidity of common sense must guard themselves against stylistically draping together thoughts which are themselves to be convicted of banality. Locke’s platitudes do not justify Hamann’s cryptology.

Florsheim Shoes, business at 515 5th Ave., New York City. Mirror detail

Florsheim Shoes, 515 5th Ave., New York City, mirror detail: photo by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., 1946 (Gottscho-Schleisner Collection, Library of Congress)

If one has even the slightest qualms about a completed work, regardless of its length, then one should take such with inordinate seriousness, out of all proportion to the level of relevance which it might register. The affective investment [Besetzung] in a text and vanity tend to minimize such misgivings. What is passed over with the tiniest doubt, may well indicate the objective worthlessness of the whole.


Reflections in spherical convex mirror, Millennium Square, Bristol, England (photographer seen at top right, in blue shirt): photo by Adrian Pingstone, 2004

The Echternacher spring procession [German folk parade, where marchers move three steps forward and two back] is not the course of the World-Spirit [Weltgeist]; restriction and revocation are not the means of narration [Darstellungsmittel] for dialectics. On the contrary this latter moves by extremes and, instead of qualifying such, drives the thought through uttermost consequence to its dialectical recoil [Umschlag]. The prudence with which one forbids oneself to venture too far with a sentence, is mostly only an agent of social control and thus of dumbing down.

[Constance Talmadge, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right, looking into mirror]

Constance Talmadge: photographer unknown, Lumiere Co., New York, 1921 (Library of Congress)

Skepticism against the oft-cited objection, that a text, a formulation would be “too beautiful.” The reverence for the matter [Sache: thing, philosophic matter], or even for suffering, can easily rationalize the resentment against those who find, in the reified shape of language, the traces of something unbearable, which befalls human beings: debasement. The dream of an existence [Dasein: existence, being] without shame, to which the passion for language clings, even though the latter is forbidden to depict the former as content, is to be maliciously strangled. The author should make no distinction between beautiful and factual [sachlichem: factual, objective, realistic] expression. One should neither entrust this distinction to concerned critics, nor tolerate it in oneself. If one succeeds in completely saying what one means, then it is beautiful. The beauty of expression for its own sake is by no means “too beautiful,” but ornamental, artsy, ugly. Yet whoever leaves off from the purity of the expression, under the pretext of unswervingly stating the facts, thereby betrays the matter [Sache] too.

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Still capture from video Ladies Room by Valentina Ippolito (2007): image by videohouse, 2007

Properly worked texts are like spider webs: hermetic, concentric, transparent, well-joined and fastened. They draw everything into themselves, whatever crawls and flies. Metaphors, which fleetingly dart through them, become their nourishing prey. Materials come flying to them. The binding stringency [Stichhaltigkeit] of a conception is to be judged by whether its citations evoke other citations. Wherever the thought opens up a cell of reality, it must push into the next chamber, without an act of violence by the subject. It vouchsafes its relationship to the object, as soon as other objects crystallize around it. In the light that it sheds on its determinate object, others begin to gleam.

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A mirror at sunset, having been replaced by a painting on the wall
: photo by Öljylautta, 2008

Authors settle into their texts like home-dwellers. Just as one creates disorder by lugging papers, books, pencils and documents from one room to another, so too does one comport oneself with thoughts. They become pieces of furniture, on which one sits down, feeling at ease or annoyed. One strokes them tenderly, scuffs them up, jumbles them up, moves them around, trashes them. To those who no longer have a homeland, writing becomes home. And therein one unavoidably generates, just like the family, all manner of household litter and junk. But one no longer has a shed, and it is not at all easy to separate oneself from cast-offs. So one pushes them to and fro, and in the end runs the risk of filling up the page with them. The necessity to harden oneself against pity for oneself includes the technical necessity, to counter the diminution of intellectual tension with the most extreme watchfulness, and to eliminate anything which forms on the work like a crust or runs on mechanically, which perhaps at an earlier stage produced, like gossip, the warm atmosphere which enabled it to grow, but which now remains fusty and stale. In the end, authors are not even allowed to be home in their writing.


Theodor W. Adorno: Leandro Gonzalez de Leon, 2009

Theodor Adorno: Behind the Mirror (1945), from Minima Moralia, 1951; translation by Dennis Redmond, 2005


Anonymous said...

This is so good that I would like to explore more fully the history of the piece and circumstances that led Adorno to write it. I would particularly like to share this with Jane, who is just learning to write effectively and read carefully, and with her teachers, who could also benefit by reading Behind The Mirror. The "around the world" selection of photos you've selected to sort of crack open and lighten the essay are all remarkable and I react to all of them differently, but with wonder. It's probably silly to say (photographs hit everyone in this intimate way if you're familiar with the setting), but I know that scene in Florsheim's on 5th Avenue. It reminds me of my own black and white, slightly later, childhood partly spent looking at and into floor-set shoe mirrors. I wonder also how Adorno would re-edit the piece, following his own admonitions, if he could. The preserved Adorno office-monument (complete with metronome) is sort of mind-blowing (I've never seen anything like this preserved in a publicly exhibited vitrine anywhere) and the Leandro Gonzales de Leon portrait is charming. Do you know how he came to draw it? Is it a book jacket illustration?

TC said...


Adorno wrote the aphoristic essays in Minima Moralia (the title a play upon a work on ethics by Aristotle, Magna Moralia) during the war, in Los Angeles, where he and his collaborator and close friend Max Horkheimer had installed their Insititute for Social Research at UCLA. Adorno stayed on there until returning to Germany in 1949 (when Horkheimer arranged for him to take up a professorship at Frankfurt).

Twenty-five years or so ago, I found this essay useful in teaching writing classes to night-school students, as a kind of basic tool-kit or manual.

Of course the severity of the piece was a bit off-putting to those who subscribed to the "first-thought, best-thought" method. But then I suppose that's why I had the (misguided??) idea they ought to consider it.

It is perhaps Adorno's most "accessible" text, but even here, the complications of his German syntax are a factor; in order to honestly represent those complexities, I have chosen to put up a very literal translation, which may perhaps come across as a bit crabbed, but is quite faithful to the original, for better or worse.

There is a better-known translation by E.F.N. Jephcott, in the version of the text that is commonly available from Verso Books.

About the photo at the top, I couldn't help hearing in my mind the old saw as to how people who live in glass houses ought not throw stones.

The Gonzalez drawing is copied straight-off from a fairly familiar photo of Adorno. He had that one "funny eye", which the drawing exaggerates. I kind of like the exaggerated effect, just ever so slightly over the top.

(The shoestore-mirror photography, by the way, kept me intrigued for several nights; it was only the intervention of a Higher Power that finally succeeded in sweeping all those other Forties N.Y.C. shoestore images out of the post.)

Anonymous said...

I love the translation you've used precisely because it presents itself (in dense thicket form, obviously) as a kind of tool-kit or manual. There are too many examples of things I like in Behind The Mirror to select even a few to highlight, but I will say that the final paragraph (beginning with "Authors settle into their texts like home-dwellers") is so very accurate.

TC said...


That final graph about the writer, though surrounded by and encased within the webs of the text he has composed, ending up without a home... certainly that seems the most poignant and affecting bit of the essay, especially when one considers that it was written in the problematic circumstances of enforced exile.

Adorno was well-employed and reasonably well-fed in America, but the culture, or lack of it, pretty much drove him batty. He was homesick throughout the time he was here, I think, and greatly relieved when the Frankfurt position gave him the opportunity to return to Europe.

file said...

yes, home isn't even where the art is, although that'll have to do, in the end there is No place like home

Curtis Faville said...

I refuse to eat in restaurants where all the walls are covered with mirrors.

Am I superstitious?

I also dislike mirrors on walls in houses. Watching myself has always made me extremely uncomfortable.

Be the BQE said...

Very honored to have the FREE photo included here behind the mirror of time. "One should never stint on deletions." Yes, but there is a time for additions. At least there is no extra cost...