“The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately.”
“To call a work obscure is just as disastrous as to call it a masterpiece of clarity: the text becomes burdened with a prejudice that prevents the reader from relating to it directly. The work is imprisoned.”
These backward habits of judging writers in terms of their presumed ability to improve social consciousness may be tough luck for snobbish Proust and depressive Leopardi, for Henry James the closet case and Montaigne the son of bourgeois privilege. But they are even tougher for the students, who come away with the impression that the correct response to a text is to run a crude political propriety-meter over it and then let fly with a wad of stereotyped moralizing. “Boy, Professor Peach really did a job of unmasking the hierarchical assumptions in Dante last week, all those circles and stuff, you shoulda been there.”
Politics ought not be all-pervasive. Indeed, one of the first conditions of freedom is to discover the line beyond which politics may not go, and literature is one of the means by which the young (and the old) find this out. Some works of art have an overt political content; many carry subliminal political messages, embedded in their framework. But it is remarkably naive to suppose that these messages exhaust the content of the art as art, or ultimately determine its value. Why, then, the fashion for judging art in political terms? Probably, people teach it because it is easy to teach. It revives the illusion that works of art carry social meaning the way trucks carry coal. It divides the sprawling republic of literature neatly into goodies and baddies, and relieves the student of the burden of imaginative empathy, the difficulties of aesthetic discrimination. It enables these scholars, with their tin ears, schematized minds and tapioca prose, to henpeck dead writers for their lack of conformity to the current fashions in “oppression studies” — and to fool themselves and their equally nostalgic colleagues into thinking that they are all on the barricades.
The third essay, ‘Skoteinos, or How to Read Hegel’, is in many ways the most interesting in the book as it takes up the question of the difficulty of reading Hegel’s works, considers the experience of engaging with Hegel’s philosophy. Many commentators regard Hegel’s prose as at best poor and at worst wilfully obscurantist. “If only he would have written more clearly” is the often repeated lament. Adorno brilliantly argues that such comments betray a failure to understand the nature of Hegel’s break with previous philosophy. “The norm of clarity holds only where it is presupposed that the object itself is such that the subject’s gaze can pin it down like the figures of geometry.” (p.98) If the clarity of our concepts is to grasp the shadowy nature of a shifting reality, if the labour of thought is to actively cast light on that reality, then thought must capture the shadows of reality rather than simply dispel them. In order to identify objects with adequate concepts, our concepts must paradoxically seek to grasp the nonconceptual that is, or is in, objective reality. Rejecting Wittgenstein’s maxim that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof must one be silent” as “utterly anti-philosophical”, Adorno claims: “If philosophy can be defined at all, it is an effort to express things one cannot speak about, to help express the non-identical despite the fact that expressing it identifies it at the same time.” (p.102) According to Adorno, it is this paradoxical nature of Hegel’s undertaking, of attempting to grasp in thought that which is other than thought, which gives rise to the difficult style of his works; the style attempts to grasp the content and is not simply a result of incidental factors, such as a whim on Hegel’s part or a simple lack of ability to write clearly. The attempt to express the truth in the tension between the clarity of the concept and that which is unclear is ‘clearly’ not an abandonment of clarity as a goal. It is also, however, “not the same thing as the vague and brutal commandment of clarity, which for the most part amounts to the injunction that one speak the way others do and refrain from anything that would be different and could only be said differently.” (p.106) In Adorno’s view, Hegel is thus not to be criticised for writing in the manner he did, but rather for believing that he had more success in his undertaking than he actually had.
“But how inadequate the words seemed, as they trailed over the top of the paintings themselves, so light and rich, so moving and intriguing. And how bankrupt the critical attitude which regards all carefully formed artistic expressions – the ‘complex translation of the seen and the felt to a series of visual marks on a flat surface’ – as the mere epiphenomena of a social, historical system. Serious beauty surely demands more of us than this.”