PRISMS by Theodor W. Adorno


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Co-director of the Frankfurt School in pre-war Germany, Adorno (1903-1969) is one of those pivotal intellectual figures--along with Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse--from whom much leftist cultural criticism is directly derived. As these twelve touchstone essays reveal, Adorno's outlook was based upon Marxist causality (""Nothing intellectual was ever conceived, not even the most escapist dream, whose objective content did not include the transformation of material reality""); on implicit opposition to the ""captivity of bourgeois immanence""; on deep skepticism toward ""consumer culture"" (per critics as traffic managers for whatever the culture is overproducing at the moment); and on a willingness--like that of his mentor, Walter Benjamin--to write jumpily, to let ideas flair off each other rather than merely follow from them. Though all the essays here are of interest, some stand out negatively and positively. A musicologist as well as a philosopher, Adorno takes on both jazz and SchÖnberg. The jazz essay grabs a simple truth--that jazz is less free-form than is often believed--and runs it up to a ridiculous height: "". . . its rebellious gestures are accompanied by the tendency to blind obeisance, much like the sado-masochist type described by analytic psychology."" On SchÖnberg, he is better--because scholarly and minutely specific. But the most successful full essay here (for that reason and its breadth) may be the one contrasting Hugo Hofmannsthal's and Stefan George's separate responses to late 19th-century German Romanticism--and the historical reverberations these were to have. But it's not as an essayist that you read Adorno. He is not Walter Benjamin; he hasn't Benjamin's vision or plasticity of style; he can be leaden or overly pithy (""Kafka scrutinizes the smudges left behind in the deluxe edition of the book of life by the fingers of power""). What he does have consistently (if paradoxically) is an endless flicker of profound brilliance. It's here when he writes about Valery and Proust: ""If Valery understands something of the power of history over the production and apperception of art, Proust knows that even within works of art themselves history rules like a process of disintegration."" Or, about Spengler, Benjamin, Kafka. The titular description, ""prisms,"" suits Adorno--a major thinker of facets and angles and revolutions--and the collection itself is an ideal introduction to his work.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1982
ISBN: 0262510251
Publisher: MIT Press