PRINT December 1984


Minima Moralia, Narcissism and Death, and Jewish Experience in the Art of the Twentieth Century

MINIMA MORALIA IS THEODOR Adorno’s most characteristic work, and has become a classic of critical thinking. It is an examination of subjectivity in a situation of vanishing subjectivity, by means of an aphoristic—quasi-subjective—method. As Adorno writes, “If today the subject is vanishing, aphorisms take upon themselves the duty to consider the evanescent itself as essential:” He is aware of the contradiction in dialectical method this entails: “Dialectical theory, abhorring anything isolated, cannot admit aphorisms as such,” especially those that seem to assume “the mere being-for-itself of subjectivity.” Adorno’s aphorisms, like those of Nietzsche which are their implicit model, make no such assumption, as the subtitle of Minima Moralia indicates: “Reflections from Damaged Life.” Bourgeois society has caused the damage, and is aphoristically recreated as part of the condition for subjectivity, thus respecting the Hegelian “system’s claim to totality, which would suffer nothing to remain outside it.” But Adorno has a psychoanalytic sense of the subject, lending it a certain irreducible rawness and immediacy. This sharply separates his analysis of the condition of the subject today (really a self-analysis, for the moment of self-application adds to the trenchancy of all Adorno’s analyses) from that of Jean Baudrillard, with his belief that the psychological dimension has vanished, and Roland Barthes, with his concept of the “empty subject,” of its diluted, hemorrhaged condition today. Adorno retains a sense of the subject as “internal,” implying the perpetual possibility of integrity and autonomy, however different their shapes may be in different societies.

Two of Adorno’s observations seem to me to make especially clear the irony that pervades this book. “A writer,” Adorno writes, ’will find that the more precisely, conscientiously, appropriately he expresses himself, the more obscure the literary result is thought, whereas a loose and irresponsible formulation is at once rewarded with certain understanding.“ This statement goes hand-in-hand with his insistence, in Negative Dialectic, on impacted, dense style as an antidote to media-necessitated shallowness of style. To my mind, it converges with his assertion that ”consciousness of the unfreedom of existence in its entirety, suppressed by the demands of earning a living, that is, by unfreedom itself, only emerges in the intermezzo of freedom." Adorno’s precise, conscientious analyses are a kind of intermezzo of freedom in which bourgeois unfreedom is nakedly revealed. If at times they seem obscure in their dialectical paradoxicalness and perversity it is because they are never, and in their nature cannot be, discursive enough to fit into a positivistic, media conception of writing. If they could be, they would no longer reflect in their serpentine irony the unfreedom of society, but would rather contribute to the illusion of freedom conveyed by smooth, shallow style.

Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (London: Verso Editions) 251 pp.


“I AM SEDUCTIVE,” THE female narrator of this parody of the literature of seduction tells us, “I have the seductive, hermetic surface of some erotic machine object. I am also funny, vain and dazzling. When I speak, my words are titillating and elusive. They always have a metallic kiss.” No they don’t; they have the kiss of the cliché, which is the kiss of vanity. The persona evolved through these ten tall tales hates men, thinks that narcissism gives her the power of evil, and imagines that her prose-poem-like pieces are latter-day fleurs du mal. Hardly. They’re just more self-conscious texts waiting for deconstruction, academic examples of the literature of deviance. (The idea that to be deviant is to be “new” is the biggest cliché of all.) The book is verbal pornography; bad words copulate with good ones, orgiastically pressuring one another toward “serious” orgasm. But the discharge is pasty, and the bodies of the words show no sweat after their ordeal. A cameo appearance by Dorian Gray gives the language game away: an invented character is treated as “real,” is raised to a new level of artificiality. This could have been esthetically wonderful, but Sclauzero’s Dorian Gray has no resemblance to Oscar Wilde’s character. He’s just another name dropped into the narrative compactor—another verbal trick waiting around the street-corner of a story to seduce you.

Sue Coe’s drawings are another matter. They’re worth the whole book. In brisk black and white, mixing the surreal and the real, the fantastic and the ordinary, they lead us into the tunnel of nightmarish fun these stories think they create, but don’t. One drawing reminds me of the work of Alfred Kubin, another could take its place in one of Max Ernst’s collage narratives, still another evokes one of Oskar Kokoschka’s early posters. This is not to say that they are conclusively Germanic—they’re too catty for that—but rather that they operate within a surreal/expressionist vein to achieve their own stupendous individuality. I wish Coe’s photograph rather than Sclauzero’s were on the book’s back cover.

Mariarosa Sclauzero, Narcissism and Death, illustrations by Sue Coe (Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill Press/Open Book), 112 pp., 10 black and white illustrations.


THIS BOOK FOLLOWS THE JEWISH attempt to realize the dream of a people’s art through various worlds, taking it from Russia through the Holocaust to Israel and America. The book raises fresh questions about the relation of religious tradition to artmaking, and about the question of art’s independence or subservience to predictable social purpose—in effect, about its role as propaganda, a “higher” propaganda because it serves the presumably high cause of keeping a people together, making it conscious that it is one people. The ambition goes through many tribulations; in the end, all we have left is the work of many individual artists.

Avram Kampf gives us an excellent account of the Jewish cultural element in these artists’ art. He takes their stylistic achievements for granted,, never asking why so much of the art is illustrative and expressionistic (although far from exclusively, as he shows in his examination of Israeli abstraction), and for me, this means that the book raises more questions than it answers. And yet it is a foot in the door of a deeper examination: the failure of humanism to influence the Modern art generally regarded as most significant, or the critical failure to see the humanistic element in it (e.g., to see the Jewishness of Barnett Newman, as Kampf eloquently does). It even raises the question of the overt repudiation of humanism in much Modernism—part of the reason German art of the early 20th century is regarded as inferior to French art of the same period. Can esthetic innovation only take place when there are no humanistic “hangups”? Did such hangups make the Neue Sachlichkeit less stylistically innovative than Matisse, or just innovative in a different way? This book is a welcome addition to the reevaluation of 20th-century art that is already in progress. Modernism desperately needs to be approached from less insular points of view than have been applied in the past, needs the idea of its supposed hermetic development cracked open; why not ask how Jewish it is? Remember that Picasso wished he had a drop of Jewish blood in him. Maybe he did.

Avram Kampf, Jewish Experience in the Art of the Twentieth Century (South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin & Garvey), 240 pp., 177 black and white illustrations, 16 color plates.


Donald Kuspit contributes regularly to Artforum.