Whittaker Chambers, LIFE Magazine, and the Enlightenment

The final version of Dialectic of Enlightenment, a book that (as I’ve argued in an earlier post) may have less to do with “the Enlightenment” than its critics sometimes assume, was published at the end of 1947 and more or less ignored for the next two decades.1 A few months earlier a discussion of the Enlightenment that is now completely forgotten turned up in a rather unlikely place: the September 15, 1947 issue of LIFE magazine. No less unlikely was its uncredited author, a man who, a year later, would become famous for things other than his writing: Whittaker Chambers.

Whittaker_ChambersChambers had joined Henry Luce’s influential and profitable publishing empire eight years earlier with an article for Time on Finnegans Wake. Prior to that, he had written for various Communist publications and worked as a spy for the Soviets. By 1937 he had broken with the party and was seeking ways to extricate himself from his work for the GPU. One of the things that initially attracted him about the possibility of employment at Time was that, in addition to providing him with a living, having his name before the public might make it harder for his former employers to liquidate him.2 The most secure path out of the underground, however, would be to turn informant and, in return for his revelations, gain protection. On September 1, 1939 he met with Adolf Berle, Franklin Roosevelt’s advisor on economic and diplomatic matters (efforts to meet with FDR himself were unsuccessful), and informed him that a spy ring operating in the State Department had been passing secret documents to the Soviet Union.

Chambers’ meeting with Berle in the gardens of Woodley, the Federal period mansion Berle was renting from Henry Stimson (Roosevelt’s Secretary of War) turned out rather differently than he had hoped. Berle was already aware of the questionable loyalties of the individuals whose names Chambers revealed and, from previous experiences with former Communists, was inclined to think that they tended to exaggerate the Party’s influence. Berle, in any case, had more pressing things on his mind: eight days earlier the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had been announced and German troops were poised to invade Poland.3

Nine years later, with Republicans in control of the House and the Cold War ramping up, 00430001Chambers was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he testified that Alger Hiss, a figure of some importance in the Roosevelt State Department, had also been a Soviet spy. Denials (from Hiss), law-suits (involving Hiss and Chambers), and fame (initially for Chambers, but more significantly for the first-term California representative Richard Milhous Nixon) followed.

I would have been unaware of Chambers’ account of the Enlightenment (which, understandably, occupies a rather minor place in the literature on Chambers) were it not for Michael Kimmage’s mention of it in his book on the complicated relationship between Chambers and Lionel Trilling (who would use Chambers as the basis for one of the major characters in The Middle of the Journey, a novel that was also appeared in the eventful year 1947).4 I leave it to others to follow up on Kimmage’s suggestion that Chambers’ later comments on the Enlightenment in Witness and Cold Friday might “bear comparison” to Dialectic of Enlightenment and Minima Moralia.5 But Chambers’ account of the Enlightenment in LIFE merits attention in its own right, if only for what it suggests about how one of the culture industry’s more successful venues went about presenting the Enlightenment to an audience that would be far larger than any of the better known and more respectable studies of the period.

History in Images

“The Age of Enlightenment” was the fifth in a series of ten feature articles that appeared in LIFE between 1947 and 1948 under the general title “The History of Western Culture.” The articles and the dates on which they appeared are as follows:

  1. The Renaissance (March 3, 1947)
  2. The Middle Ages (April 7,1947)
  3. Medieval Life (May 26, 1947)
  4. The Glory of Venice (August 4, 1947)
  5. The Age of Enlightenment (September 15, 1947)
  6. The Edwardians (November 17, 1947)
  7. The Age of Exploration (March 22, 1948)
  8. The Protestant Reformation (June 14, 1948)
  9. Eighteenth Century England (September 13, 1948)
  10. 1848 (November 22, 1948)

None of the articles appeared with bylines. As Dwight Macdonald, who had spent time at Luce’s Fortune before moving on to better things, observed,

As nuns sacrifice their hair, so Luce’s writers are shorn of their names. It is a symbolic renunciation of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Once they have taken the veil, any gallivanting outside the walls is discouraged. Writers who have contributed to secular journals have been “spoken to,” delicately but unmistakably.6

There were occasional exceptions to the rule. Chambers’ article on the Devil in the February 2, 1948 issue carried a byline, which prompted a letter from a reader who found it “superbly unique” and inquired “Who is Whittaker Chambers and what else or where is he writing?”7 The response on the letters page explained,

A senior editor of Time, Whittaker Chambers has edited every department in that magazine except business. He began contributing to LIFE last year by writing the long articles in LIFE’s series on the history of Western Culture. His next article, “The Age of Exploration,” will appear in the March 22 issue. Chambers, who is a Quaker, was born in Philadelphia.8

Drawing on Chambers’ subsequent discussions of his time working for Luce, Terry Teachout (the editor of his selected journalism) concluded that his involvement in the project began with the second article and ceased with the eighth.9 It is, however, unclear whether it makes sense to speak of authorship when dealing with productions of this sort.

First of all, everything that appeared in Luce’s publications was edited to bring it into conformity with the house style. As Macdonald (admittedly, an unfriendly witness) observed,

The specifications for an editorship at Time, Inc., are those for a good radio set: maximum receptivity and minimum static (read: independent thought). After years of selective breeding, Luce has developed a set of human instruments delicately adapted to their great task, the transmission of the dynamic radiations of the Lucian personality out of the ether onto the printed page (584).

Teachout suggests that during his career at Time Chambers found ways of reconciling the house style with his own and gained a measure of freedom after his transfer from the Foreign News section at Time to a “Special Projects” unit where, with James Agee, he prepared cover stories on cultural, historical, and religious themes that were too challenging for Luce’s other writers. But any assessment of Chambers’ role in the LIFE series on the “History of Western Culture” must, at some point or another, recognize that the words he supplied were but one component (and not, perhaps, the most important one) in the final product. In contrast to Time and Fortune, at LIFE the image was the dominant element.

The cover of the inaugural issue displayed the massive (and unidentified) Fort Peck dam towering over two small figures in the left foreground. The only words on the page — the soon-to-be familiar logo, the publication date, and price — provided nothing in way of orientation for viewers attempting to negotiate what, at first glance, might pass for a real life (or, as the house style would have it, “real LIFE”) version of a de Chirico landscape.10


Screenshot 2015-08-12 14.47.30

Turning to the first page, the viewer (it seems out of place to speak of “the reader”) is confronted with a full page image of a new-born child dangling upside down from the a doctor’s hands. At the bottom of a page that carries the painfully obvious pun “LIFE BEGINS” are six lines of text that make it clear where authority lies: “The camera records the most vital moment in any life.”

Screenshot 2015-08-12 14.47.47

In LIFE the camera (and the photojournalist that it pulled behind it) played the role that, at the birth of modern journalism, had been played by Addison’s Mr. Spectator: it wanders through the world, recording everything it sees. But while Mr. Spectator recounted what he had seen in prose, LIFE served up images that purported to bring its consumers face-to-page with the thing itself. The early issues of LIFE — either out of a giddy enthusiasm for what could now be done with its large format pages or, more likely, in order to differentiate this latest (and, it turned out, massively successful) product from Luce’s other publications — was a bit heavy-handed in emphasizing the novelty of what it was doing. The writers, as before, typically went uncredited, but the names of the intrepid photographers were celebrated. As might be expected, the inaugural issue was a bit over the top: photographs of FDR appeared under the rubric of “The President’s Album,” as if the viewer had been granted access to the great man’s private files, and — in a sort of imagistic celebration of images — there was a spread on paintings by John Steuart Curry (“the greatest painter Kansas has produced”), followed by a spread of photographs of Helen Hayes (”the greatest living actress”) as a child.

LIFE was the perfect vehicle for capturing a world where, as Adorno wrote, “Life has changed into a timeless succession of shocks, interspaced with empty, paralyzed intervals.”11 LIFE reproduced what life had become, allowing its subscribers to occupy a position not unlike that of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History as they turned its pages and stared awestruck at the every growing rubble pile of catastrophes: Coventry, Stalingrad, Buchenwald, Hiroshima. Years later, old copies of LIFE would become part of a peculiar rite of passage for some members of my generation when, having stumbled upon them stacked away in attics or hidden away in closets, we would open their frequently innocuous covers and catch a glimpse of what history had been preparing for us.

The Historical Image Gallery

A prefatory note in the inaugural article of LIFE’s “History of Western Culture” explained the general approach behind the project this way:

the spirit of this series will be the spirit which has moved American universities more and more to teach history not in narrow courses but in comprehensive surveys of civilization.

It went on to observe that, though there had been much recent “discussion of saving our civilization” it had not been matched by an adequate “understanding of what civilization is.” While granting that there had been “many civilizations in the world’s history,” the one that mattered to LIFE was “modern Western civilization, which owes much to classical Greece and Rome, had its roots in the Middle Ages and grew most directly out of the Renaissance,” the age that produced “the ideal kind of man ….”

Living in the fresh morning of a new era in history, he was, above all, a rounded man who took all the world for his opportunity and all knowledge for his province. He was vigorous, creative and enormously confident.

In contrast, modern Western man “is not so confident.”

Standing uncertain of his place in history, he does not know where he and his world are going. But if he does not know where he is going, Western man can at least look back and see where he came from.

There was one particular group of “Western men” that needed help in understanding from whence it had come.

Americans need perspective on their past so that they can determine their future. To an extent they have never had before, they have now the opportunity to preserve and develop the culture which they have inherited and which has in it so much greatness and beauty.

In March 1947 the Cold War was still in its early stages, but implications of the prefatory note were clear enough: with the responsibility for the defense of Western Civilization now transferred from Europe to the United States, the new trustees needed some instruction regarding what, exactly, it what it was they were preserving and developing. Hegel’s characterization of the Phenomenology as a “gallery of images [Galerie von Bildern]” might not be a bad description of what LIFE was serving up: the heirs of Western culture surveyed what history had left them by surveying the catalogue of holdings.

Since LIFE was primarily a magazine of images, any history it presented was shaped by what would look good on a page. For all of the first article’s discussion of the significance of the Renaissance image of man, it is difficult to shake the feeling that the chronologically haphazard organization of the opening articles (which started with the Renaissance and then devoted two issues to the Middle Ages, before moving on the Venice) was determined by the Art Department’s keen sense of where the best images were. The text that Chambers produced had to fight for space on pages that were awash with pictures. Typically, it was only after two or three page jumps, which pushed the text back into the nether regions of the magazine (where the images became smaller and eventually became surrounded by the cheaper black and white advertisements that were consigned to the back) that the text began to occupy the center of the presentation. How many readers were willing to chase the text that far back (especially when there were other stories along the way to catch their eye) is an open question.

Toward the Grand Coffee-Table Abyss

Three years after the series had concluded, the November 5, 1951 issue offered what it described as “a conclusion to — a culmination of” the earlier series: an article on “Western Man and American Idea.” Reiterating the earlier description, it explained that the goal of that series had been “to give America, as the West’s ‘heir and hope,’ an understanding of the wealth and glory it had inherited.” Since that point, apparently, had not been sufficiently clear at the end of the initial series, which closed with a survey of the 1848 revolutions that had been content to juxtapose the “great and simple” understanding of freedom that inspired those revolutions — “the individual’s protection against tyranny” — with the “gigantic revolution against individualism” that Marxism had set in motion.

The 1951 article was written by John Knox Jessup, one of Luce’s closest associates, who had recently ended a stint on the Board of Editors at Fortune to become chief editorial writer at LIFE. Jessup’s conclusion left no ambiguity about the stakes.

The challenge of Soviet communism is unlike any challenge America has ever in its past met and surmounted. It is like Melville’s confrontation with the fact of evil in Paradise, except that the dimensions of this evil are more colossal than Americans had ever imagined.…

In the face of this challenge. Americans are more nearly united and more nearly alone, than ever before in their history. Even our artists and intellectuals are rediscovering America and rallying to the side of freedom. And meantime the capacity of other nations for sharing the honors of leadership of the struggle has been weakened — even Britain’s — by war and the dead-end experiment socialism.

On this lonely pinnacle the American can survey more history than he is seen before. During the past generation he rediscovered his personal links with Western Man and his membership in Western civilization. Somewhere in these turbulent years America’s acceptance of responsibility for the fate of its parents’ land, for the mother and father of its own present, quietly placed itself beyond question.

Beyond the services it might be rendering to the new owners of Western culture, this new installment also contributed to the balance sheets of Time, Inc.: it was written to serve as the concluding chapter of the History of Western Man, “a LIFE-size book of 306 pages, 113 of them in full color, reproducing not only the works of art which appeared originallyOffer 1 in LIFE but many others which display the greatness of Western Man’s cultural achievements.” The “text material” from the original series was supplemented by new chapters and “hundreds of black and white illustrations.” An advertisement in September 3, 1951 issue offered readers the chance to pick up the 350 page “BUCKRAM BOUND … STAMPED IN 14 KT. GOLD … LIFE-SIZE” book for $7.95 if they acted by September 29.12

The book opened with a page that contained a list of names assembled under the corporate heading “TIME INCORPORATED” that descended from “Editor-in-chief Henry R. Luce” to the “Business Manager Louis P. Gratz” and included editors, arts directors, researchers, writers, an art department, and assistants. Chambers was listed among the writers, but there was nothing to indicate the extent of his contribution. Then again, it is not clear (which is to say, I haven’t bothered to try to figure out) how much of what he wrote wound up being revised yet again.

“Western Man, American Style”

The new book included one more attempt at explaining its general approach, an attempt that began with a quote from Carl Becker’s “delightful essay” “Everyman His Own Historian”: “every generation, our own included, will, must inevitably, understand the past and anticipate the future in light of its own restricted experience ….” But, since everything LIFE did had to be “LIFE-sized” or larger, the new explanation quickly assured its readers that there was nothing about recent American experience that could be considered “restricted.”

Our generation is confronted as none before it by the size and scope of time and space. It is confronted also by the massiveness of Evil, whether its symbol be the destructiveness of the Bomb or the hideousness of the concentration camp. In the face of these confrontations, and of the perhaps even more perilous abyss of the irrational “subconscious” of the human psyche, the supreme question of our time is whether anything can have any meaning. (9-10)

After a few paragraphs devoted to rehashing how much effort had been put into the volume (and who had done it) the opening discussion concluded by announcing that it was left to Americans to answer these “supreme questions.”

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the history of Western Man comes to a great forking. After the American Revolution a new and distinct branch appears in the United States where, under fresh and different circumstances, Western Man, American-style, proceeds to meet his own problems and solve his own destiny. It is the thesis of our final chapter that this American branch holds greater importance for the future of the human race than the European parent culture. For this reason this book bypasses almost entirely the nineteenth century in Europe develops the American story through a century of national growth to maturity. Only then in the twentieth century does Western Man, American-style, reverse the stark trend and returned to Europe as a mighty new force dedicated to the defense of Western civilization (10).

There were, however, a few other important things absent from LIFE’s account of the ascent of “Western Man, American-style” besides nineteenth-century Europe.

Shortly after the first installment appeared, one of the more astute readers of the series had noted that there was something crucial missing. A letter to the editor that appeared in the March 24, 1947 began by praising the general aim of the series, noting that

Such essays, thoughtful and effectively done, will go far towards broadening the horizon of 20th-century Americans. We are in such great need of perspective, as well as of maturity and judgment, that any step in that direction of providing the means by which these important requisites for successful living can be achieved is commendable.

But the reader was concerned that the approach LIFE had taken ran the risk of glossing over certain unpleasant facts:

I believe that one of the weaknesses which we always had in our study of history in US is that we have seldom taken cognizance of the unsavory aspects of our own history and culture. I hope, therefore, that your series will take into consideration the fact that there has existed, since the Middle Ages, a strong tradition of bigotry and oppression that has continuously threatened the tradition of freedom of which we are so justly proud. We certainly have had it in our own country from the time of the Puritan settlements down to the present. Our people should be aware of the great struggle that is going on between these two traditions and some effort should be made to point out that one force has stimulated progress and the other has tended to proscribe it.

The author of the letter, a young scholar who would go on to become one of the leading historians of his generation, was already quite familiar with the “unsavory aspects” of American history and would devote much of his subsequent career to exposing and rectifying them. He was teaching history at the North Carolina College for Negroes and his name was John Hope Franklin.


To be continued …

  1. A hectograph copy had been sent to a select group of friends and associates of the Institute for Social Research in 1944. ↩︎
  2. If this was his motivation, he picked the wrong place to ply his trade: the Luce publications were quite stingy with bylines. ↩︎
  3. For a discussion of the meeting, see Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1997) 161-163. ↩︎
  4. Michael Kimmage, The Conservative Turn : Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009) 156-157. ↩︎
  5. Kimmage 388, footnote 18. ↩︎
  6. Dwight Macdonald, “Time, Fortune, LIFE,” The Nation, May 22, 1937 584. ↩︎
  7. On the genesis of the article, see Terry Teachout’s introduction to Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, 1931-1959 (Washington, D.C. : Regnery Gateway, 1989) xxiv. ↩︎
  8. “Letters to the Editors,” LIFE, February 23, 1948. The mention of his religion in the response suggests that it may have been written by Chambers himself who, though raised as an Episcopalian, was attracted to the Quaker faith in the early 1940s (see Tanenhaus 171). ↩︎
  9. Teachout notes that he was not granted access to Chambers’ manuscripts (which have not been archived and remain in the possession of his family) and based his selection of articles for Chambers’ work at Time and LIFE on Chambers’ own references in his later books. ↩︎
  10. The complete run of the magazine is available from Google Books.↩︎
  11. Minima Moralia #33 “Out of the Firing-Line”. ↩︎
  12. As early as December 1947 LIFE had run announcements in the magazine offering “LIFE-using Teachers” the opportunity to pick up offprints of the original series at 10 cents each for the first 25 copies and 5 cents each thereafter. ↩︎
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Hating Adorno (A Brief Compendium of Nasty Comments)

Shortly after delivering his inaugural lecture as Privatdozent in philosophy at Frankfurt in 1931, Theodor Adorno confessed to his onetime mentor and sometime friend Siegfried Kracauer “I am not entirely clear about what it was that so upset people about it.”1

While Adorno had many friends and admirers, he also seems to have also had a remarkable ability to be disliked by an astonishing number of people. About a decade ago, while working on an article that had something to do with Adorno, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to collect as many of the nasty things that others had said about him as I could and jam them into a footnote. Eventually the lunacy of the exercise became clear to me and I removed the footnote.

I was recently reminded of my folly when Corey Robin posted the great Lotte Lenya’s wicked characterization of our hero (see item #4 on the list below). Since one of the functions of this blog is to serve as a resting place for various efforts that are unlikely to find respectable homes (think of it as a sort of Dickensian orphanage for misguided ideas), I figured that this might be as good a place as any to “curate” (as it has become the fashion to say) a few of the better ones here.

  1. We can begin with the sociologist D. G. MacRae’s widely quoted recollection that, upon meeting Adorno for the first time, he found him “the most arrogant, self-indulgent (intellectually and culturally) man I had ever met.” Reflecting on his evaluation two decades later, he went on to observe, “I can think of additional claimants for that position, but I doubt if they are serious rivals.”2
  2. Hannah Arendt described Adorno to Karl Jaspers as “one of the most repulsive human beings I know” (and, let us not forget, this comes from a woman who somehow managed to find Martin Heidegger fling-worthy). The immediate cause of Arendt’s outburst was her suspicion that Adorno and Horkheimer (“a really disgusting bunch”) had been behind a recent article in Der Spiegel that raised the issue of Heidegger’s Nazism.3
  3. While Karl Jaspers responded to Arendt that he thought that Der Spiegel‘s interest in Heidegger’s National Socialist past “legitimate,” he was no kinder toward Adorno. He characterized him “a fraud” and declared “In what I have read of him, I find nothing worthy of serious consideration ….”4
  4. In a letter to Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya called Adorno a “paleface flaming asshole” — the occasion for this outburst was a letter from Adorno to Weill in support of Brecht’s proposal that Weill surrender his rights as composer of the Threepenny Opera in order that Brecht might mount a new production with different music. Adorno proposed that music for the play be supplied by a “Negro jazz ensemble” playing with “the greatest and most radical improvisatory freedom,” a suggestion that Weill described to Lenya as “completely idiotic.”5 And let me record here my admiration for the dedication that Lys Symonette and Kim H. Kowalke put into their edition of the Weill-Lenya letters. Among its many merits is its providing an index of terms of endearment, an activity that Weill and Lenya raised to an art (in contrast, while the Arendt-Heidegger correspondence faithfully reproduces the insipid cutesy talk that these two love-birds employed, the editors failed to index it; this, I think, is no great loss).
  5. Siegfried Kracauer described an article Adorno had written on him as “emotionally laden” and “slanderous” and wrote that Adorno himself “does not shrink from telling falsehoods.”6
  6. The Leo Lowenthal papers at Harvard contain a letter from Lowenthal to Horkheimer dating from the summer of 1941 that begins with the words “I hate Teddy” and proceeds to explain, at some length, why.  Subsequent letters charged that Adorno’s “boundless narcissism” and “vanity” regularly undermined his relationships with other colleagues. Horkheimer, as far as I can tell, sensibly opted not to respond. After all, he had work to do (and so do I).

In the age of digital reproducibility one never knows what might prove useful and, since future generations of scholars might draw some benefits from having all of this collected in one place, feel free to post any that I’ve missed in the comments section below.

I hope to have something more sensible to post soon — the summer has been far busier than I’d expected.

  1. Letter to Siegfried Kracauer of June 8, 1931, quoted in Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, The Complete Correspondence 1928-1940, ed. Henri Lonitz, trans. Nicholas Walker (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999) 11 ↩︎
  2. D. G. MacRae, “Frankfurters,” New Society 27 (No. 59), March 28, 1974, 786 ↩︎
  3. Letter to Karl Jaspers of April 18, 1966 in Lotte Kohler and Hans Sander, ed., Hannah Arendt Karl Jaspers Correspondence 1926-1969, trans. Robert and Rita Kimber (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992) 634 ↩︎
  4. Letter to Arendt of April 29, 1966, 638. ↩︎
  5. See Lys Symonette and Kim H. Kowalke, Speak Low (When You Speak Love). The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996) 319-322; for less colorful but no more charitable assessments from Lenya, see 154, 266. ↩︎
  6. Martin Jay, Permanent Exiles : Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985) 235. ↩︎
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Adorno Considers a Career Change: The Curious Relationship between Theodor Adorno and Virgil Thomson (Conclusion)

Historians labor under the burden of knowing what those they study couldn’t have known: how things turned out. In the spring of 1941 Adorno couldn’t be sure that he would join Horkheimer in California (Marcuse, after all, was already there). Nor would it have been clear to him, in the spring of 1942, that the dictation sessions in which he and Horkheimer were engaged would wind up producing anything that resembled a book. And even if he suspected that he was considerably more gifted than his co-author, he had little reason to assume that talent alone was enough to secure a future in émigré Los Angeles. If members of the Institute for Social Research were attracted to the theory that the triumph of monopoly capitalism had  transformed society into a massive protection racket in which self-preservation required subjection to a patron, it may have had something to do with the ways in which the theory captured the often fraught relations within the Institute. While Adorno could take some comfort in knowing that Marcuse had been expelled from Paradise and that he had been called west to work with Horkheimer, there was no way for him to know whether he too might, at some point, become dispensable. Anyone who has spent much time reading the correspondence of the members of the Institute during its American exile is likely to come away with the impression that it was not the most amiable of organizations. As Leo Lowenthal once observed, “Notes on a Troubled Friendship” — the subtitle of Martin Jay’s article on Adorno’s relationship with Siegfried Kracauer — “might serve as a proper characterization for the mutual relations of all of us.”1

Jumpy, Depressed, and Looking East

Adorno's Home on Kenter Avenue

Adorno’s Home on Kenter Avenue

Exile is hard. As Brecht noted shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, “Enmities thrive here like oranges and are just as seedless.” The normal tensions of exile life were exacerbated by the Institute’s financial difficulties, which created a poisonous atmosphere in which prospects for continued support were directly proportional to one’s proximity to Horkheimer. While the difficulties confronting German émigrés in Los Angeles pale in comparison with the treatment that would soon be visited upon west coast residents of Japanese descent — not to mention, of course, the fate of those unable to escape the ever-expanding borders of the Third Reich — what might seem minor annoyances to us still took their toll on them.

Brecht reports that the 8 PM curfew imposed at the end of January 1942 made Adorno “very jumpy.” His diagnosis is confirmed in the letter Adorno sent to his parents in March 1942.  He apologized for having been out of touch, attributed his lapse to “the general state of depression affecting me”, and went on to explain,

The reason for the depression, aside from the general situation, is the completely uncertain state of affairs here. Officially, we are classed among those who are to be evacuated. On the other hand, there has been much talk of reclassification, but I am rather sceptical. At any rate, the situation is such that one really does not know what to do. … From tomorrow onwards, we have to be home no later than 8 each evening, and are not allowed to go more than 5 miles away from the house, which, with the truly monstrous distances here, amounts to being completely locked up. We can no longer go to Hollywood, only just to Beverly Hills, and our wonderful drives, our only source of relaxation, are now a thing of the past. It is particularly inexplicable that these regulations should be most strict against emigrants — the most reliable enemies of Hitler in the whole of America — and the Japanese (87).

In June he informed them that the “evacuation of the Japanese” from the region in which he lived had begun and that both Brecht and the philosopher Hans Reichenbach had been visited by the FBI.

This, then, was the context in which the strangest item in the exchange of letters between Adorno and Virgil Thomson needs be read.

Overcoming Isolation

At the end of July 1942, Thomson, working his way through a season’s worth of thomsonunanswered mail, came upon the article on Sibelius that Adorno had sent him at the end of December. Concluding that, though it had “good ideas and good phrases in it”, its “aggravated tone” was “more likely to create antagonism towards yourself than toward Sibelius,” he returned it. But he closed the letter with an invitation to “let me know from time to time what you are up to.”2

Three months later, Adorno responded. His letter of October 21, 1942 began by thanking Thomson for the invitation to tell him “something about my present work and existence.”3 Indeed, accepting that invitation, he explained,

is more than a pleasure. For the isolation unavoidably bound up with the life of a man like myself here in the West – not to mention the curfew restrictions which do not allow me to leave the house after 8 p.m. – leads to an almost desperate urge to speak to the very few men with whom one believes to have something decisive in common; and I hardly need to tell you that I met nobody from the New World who gave me this feeling as strongly as you did, quite apart from what you have done for me by your publications.

A description of his living conditions and his work with Horkheimer followed.

We live in a quiet nice little house in Brentwood, not far, by the way, from Schönberg’s place. My work here, apart from those little songs, has been almost entirely scholarly. Horkheimer and I work on a philosophical book analyzing the present situation under the viewpoint of the dialectics of rationalism and enlightenment which today apparently have overreached themselves. A section on Mythology and Enlightenment is finished – we now plan to elaborate first the part dealing with present mass-culture. If you read the articles on the End of Reason and on Veblen in last issue of our periodical you will easily see the direction at which we aim. Apart from that, we have done, and continue to do, some work for Washington, mainly concerning German problems, which may prove helpful.

The “little songs” to which he alluded were the “cycle of ditties” that he included in his June 7 letter to Thomson; Thomson found them “very delicate and very tender.”4

Adorno’s summary of his work with Horkheimer (which jibes with other reports on the progress they were making on Dialectic of Enlightenment) was followed by an extended — and surprisingly candid — reflection on the impasse he saw himself confronting.

All would be good and right, were it not for the fact that we live in a world in which the idea to seclude oneself and to write quietly, undisturbedly sentence after sentence, has not only the touch of an obsolescent luxury – which would not deter us at all – but even of the cynical and, above all, of the impotent. The products themselves are not neutral against the conditions under which they are created and in the present situation the external futility of la science pour la science makes itself felt in one’s own writings, marring them with the marks of the superfluous. There is an almost insuperable contradiction between the critical contents of our writings and their intrinsic presuppositions. It is hard to take for granted, within one’s own process of production, the very conditions of life which, as we try to show, do not prevail any longer.

What has now become the standard critique of the “performative contradiction” that plagues Dialectic of Enlightenment was was already apparent to Adorno: he was abundantly aware that he was working on a book that questioned the very possibility of its ever being written.

He was also aware that the ability of its authors to escape from the trap they were describing turned on the slimmest of contingencies:

Of course, all this has something to do with the special situation of our Institute, saved from the Nazis and brought over here in its entirety, with all the external and internal difficulties of outsiderdom. The exceptional position the Institute took, namely, to stick without compromise and “adjustment” to our convictions, unpopular though they were, tends to increase our isolation. What I want is not to give in but rather to overcome this isolation.

As a shrewd interpreter of Richard Wagner, it might have occurred to Adorno that the Institute’s endowment — moved into accounts outside of Germany prior to the Nazi takeover — bore an uncanny resemblance to the Nibelungen horde — with Horkheimer cast in the role of Fafner. But while Fafner was content with mere possession, Horkheimer and Pollock had invested what was left of their horde in stocks and American real estate. The returns were not encouraging.

Going Public

By the spring of 1942 it was clear that, in addition to its financial difficulties, the Institute’s relationship with Columbia University was becoming increasingly problematic. With Horkheimer in Los Angeles the task of maintaining ties with the university fell to Leo Lowenthal, who sent Horkheimer a stream of letters reporting assorted intrigues.5 Gradually adjusting to the realities of exile, Horkheimer had made sporadic attempts at overcoming the insularity that had characterized the Institute’s early years in New York. The Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, the Institute’s journal, had shifted from German to English and became Studies in Philosophy and Social Science. Encouraged by Paul Lazarsfeld, more aggressive efforts at securing grants had been initiated. A series of public lectures was inaugurated. Adorno’s success in using Thomson’s columns to call attention to his work on Lazarsfeld’s radio research project fits neatly into this broader effort. But the increasingly public role of the Institute was not without certain risks, especially for a group of scholars who had long been concerned about calling too much attention to their Marxian roots.

adorno_pianoThose risks became clearer on May 30 when B. H. Haggin — taking his point of departure from the discussion in Thomson’s February 8th column of the three chapters in Paul Lazarsfeld and Frank Stanton’s Radio Research 1941 that had to do with musical matters — devoted his music column in The Nation to a review of Duncan MacDougald’s account of song “plugging”, Edward Suchman’s study of the efforts of WYNC to attract new listeners, and Adorno’s analysis of the “radio symphony.”6 Haggin, it seems, had a number of axes to grind.  In addition to his column for The Nation, he wrote a radio column for the Herald Tribune and his relationship with Thomson does not appear to have been a happy one. Thomson solved the problem in 1949 by eliminating Haggin’s position.7

Haggin had little to say about MacDougald’s chapter. He criticized Suchman’s “poorly ordered progression of thought”, his “imprecise writing”, and his reliance on “the jargon with which a social scientist achieves his scientific precision.” But his chief target was Adorno (and, in passing, Thomson):

I find it difficult to write temperately of the motivation, the method, the results of the Adorno performance — of the pretentiousness, the ostentation, the aggressive awareness of his own “brilliance” that leap out at once from this German philosophy professor’s tortuous and occasionally ferocious thinking and jargon, from his musico-socio-psychological schematizations – which yield the lurid conclusions that Mr. Thomson welcomes “with cries of joy.”

A series of quotations from Adorno’s text followed — intended, of course, to convey something of the dreadful prose of this “German philosophy professor.” Haggin closed his column by turning the embattled Adorno into an evil genius whose ability to control the minds of others approached that of Fritz Lang’s Doctor Mabuse:

The alarming thing is that the matter goes further than this chapter. It isn’t only Mr. Thomson who utters cries of welcome; Adorno’s tripe is the sort of thing that social science research institutes, foundations, and journals go for. He is, we are told, “associated with the Institute for Social Research at Columbia University” and “has been in charge of the music research at the Office of Radio Research”; his influence in this research, his status and power are attested by the other writers’ genuflections to his suggestions, ideas, and writings: even MacDougald cannot mention the song publisher’s dictation to the song writer without a “Cf. T. W. Adorno, ‘The Fetish Character of Music and the Retrogression of Listening,’ Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, Vol. 7, 1938, p. 336.”

And the matter goes further than Adorno. But that will have to wait.

The final paragraph’s implied threat that further secrets would be revealed proved more than enough to drive the ever-vigilant Horkheimer over the edge. “Who is Mr. Haggin anyway?”, he asked Lowenthal. Desperately searching for ways of dealing with this unknown enemy, he suggested

If I am right in supposing that [Max] Lerner once was the editor of the NATION, [Franz] Neumann could perhaps inquire about that gentleman and induce him to tell them the truth about his stupid attack. I say this only because the article contains a hidden threat which might not only be aimed at Teddie but at the Institute as well.8

Eleven days earlier, Adorno — in a letter that began by praising Thomson’s attack on Toscanini (Adorno was probably unaware that Haggin was an ardent defender of the maestro) — asked Thomson the same question that Horkheimer would ask Lowenthal:

The article of B. H. Haggin in the Nation of May 30, p. 638 is very significant in this respect and I am proud and happy to be attacked together with you. Who is the man and which [sic] is the background of the whole affair? I think something ought to be done about it but I do not want to take any step without having your opinion.

Thomson — insouciant as ever and perhaps puzzled by his correspondent’s anxieties – responded by advising Adorno that the best course of action would be simply to ignore Haggin.

The attack, which I’ve only seen today, turns out to be a quite clear outline of your thesis. I am delighted. I recommend doing nothing at all about it. The less you say, the stronger your position will be, because Mr. Haggin will be obliged to make further exposition of your thesis in the process of attacking it.9

We do not know what Adorno might have made of Thomson’s suggestion that —  at least in contests such as this one —  the smartest move was not to play. But it is possible that it was beginning to dawn on him that Thomson might be a better guide than Horkheimer in the strange world in which he had found refuge.10

The Pitch

After revealing more about Adorno’s “present work and existence” than its recipient probably expected, Adorno’s letter of October 21 took an unexpected turn. Noting that the Institute’s funds were limited and that he was faced with the need “to think, in the long run, of making some money,” Adorno suggests

The right thing to do appears to me to look for a function which safeguards what we understand by intellectual integrity while allowing for a living and bringing me closer to the actualities of American cultural life. Since you are about the only person whom I know who has created for himself a position which actually combines those desiderata, and also the only one to advise and help me, I come to you once more. I think of working once again as a music critic.

After noting that academic positions “are rare and getting rarer” (a familiar lament), he points out that he has had “more than twenty years” experience as a music critic. He concedes that, despite his past service as co-editor of the journal Anbruch and his stints at the Frankfurter Zeitung and the Vossische Zeitung, “there still remains the problem of language.” But, he continues, “since you were so kind as to encourage my English writings, I cannot believe that this problem will be insuperable, and with the help of a good secretary I think I should be capable of managing the linguistic difficulties.”

Pressing onward, Adorno at last makes his pitch:

Do you know of any opportunity? What I should like most, of course, would be to collaborate with you, but I do not know whether there is any such chance. At any rate, I should be most grateful for your advice and possible help. Please do not misunderstand me. There is no hurry, no immediate need of pressure. I actually thought of some time next year. On the other hand, if something promising should turn up earlier I certainly should not like to miss it in case your own opinion is positive.

We can only wonder how long Adorno hesitated over this paragraph, weighing his words, calculating their implications, adjusting his tone and, sadly, still managing to produce a sentence — “There is no hurry, no immediate need of pressure” — that betrays a vision of a world in which nothing happens unless the requisite “pressure” is applied (after all, in a society dominated by rackets, it helps to have a button man).

Adorno’s pitch is followed by two shorter paragraphs. The first informs Thomson of Dagobert Runes’ decision not to publish his article on Schoenberg and the unresolved status of his lengthy study of Walter Damrosch’s musical appreciation program. The second reads as follows:

Please forgive my bothering you with my problems: it is only due to your kindness that I am becoming such a nuisance. I wish I could see you soon.

A month later (and we can only wonder how carefully Thomson calculated how long to wait before responding), Thomson sent a brief note that read:

It was a month ago I had your letter and very welcome it was. Musical life here is unchanged by the war. I do hope you will be back among us before too many years.

 LA 1940s

Contingency and Invention

Admittedly, the prospect of Theodor Adorno leaving Los Angeles, returning to New York, and beginning a career as a music critic for the New York Herald Tribune is only slightly less implausible than the likelihood of Virgil Thomson’s concluding — at the moment when the Herald Tribune was reducing its music coverage and shrinking his columns — that it would make sense to supplement his stable of reviewers with a German academic who required a secretary to police his prose. And its utter implausibility would seem to be confirmed by its not having happened. But, perhaps, our faith in The Way Things Turned Out is precisely what we need to question if we are to have any hope of understanding the experiences of Adorno and his fellow exiles.

As Tim Page points out, Thomson — who had no use for anyone “not trained in music” — sought out articles from such composers as Arthur Berger, Paul Bowles, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Peggy Granville-Hicks, and Lou Harrison.11 If Adorno was not in the same league, he was at least playing the same game. In any case, it is only in retrospect that the prospect of Adorno working at the Herald Tribune seems less plausible than his having abandoned his studies in philosophy to begin a career as a music critic in Vienna or his leaving a bewildered Schoenberg in order to return to Frankfurt to resume his academic career and defend a Habilitation that would be published on the exact date of Hitler’s assumption of power. Nor does it seem particularly plausible that, after having been dismissed from his post at Frankfurt in the first round of Nazi purges of Jews from academic positions, he would opt to remain in Germany writing music criticism, or that — when it gradually dawned on him that the new regime was not about to collapse — he would wind up at Oxford pursuing a second doctorate with Gilbert Ryle, rubbing shoulders with A. J. Ayer, Maurice Bowra, and Isaiah Berlin before eventually reestablishing contact with Horkheimer.

The career of an exile is ruled by contingencies. Walter Benjamin showed up on the Spanish border on the day that the police started turning back refugees; Adorno continued to make visits to Germany for far longer than prudence would dictate. Survival hinges on luck and the capacity of self-invention. In 1942 the odds of Adorno’s winding up as the co-author of The Authoritarian Personality — that classic contribution to American social science — may not have been significantly greater than the odds of his winding up as an occasional contributor to the music pages of the Herald Tribune. And whatever the odds might have been, neither Adorno — nor for that matter, we — know how to calculate them.

At the close of Minima Moralia Adorno observed that the only way to practice philosophy responsibly was “to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption” and, by doing so, find the means to “displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in messianic light.” One of the more pressing tasks facing those of us who deal, not with the Last Things, but instead with what Adorno’s earliest mentor Siegfried Kracauer termed “the last things before the last”, is to find a way to retrieve a past that is still contingent, still pregnant with an uncertain future, a past that could have turned out differently. The gap between the way things wound up and the way things might have been is one of the places where, however briefly, we can catch a glimpse of that peculiar contingency that lies at the heart of our history and ourselves.

Interrupted Conversations

We know from Adorno’s letter of April 14, 1943 (which I discussed at the close of my second post) that his correspondence with Thomson continued did not end with his peculiar letter of October 21, 1942. But Thomson’s brief note to Adorno from November 1942 is that last letter from Thomson to Adorno in the Thomson papers other than a short letter that dates from October 18, 1957. By then, Adorno had secured a career in Germany and Thomson had retired from his career as a critic. It reads

It was a great pleasure to see you in Berlin, though I regretted the briefness of our visit. I do hope there will be another soon, when we can talk at length.

Please give my compliments to your charming wife and remember me as ever your friend and admirer.

In contrast to the formality that marked Thomson’s earlier letters — which were always addressed to “T. W. Adorno, Esq.” and always carried the salutation “Dear Mr. Adorno” — the salutation on this letter reads “Cher ami.”

The documentation in the Yale Music Library of the peculiar relationship between Theodor Adorno and Virgil Thomson contains two additional items: a printed card from Margarete Adorno announcing, “in deepest sorrow”, that Theodor W. Adorno “ist am 6. August 1969 sanft entschlafen” and a handwritten draft of Thomson’s letter of condolence. After conveying his “deepest sympathy” he recalled,

He and I had been in touch regarding matters musical since 1940. And although in later years we did [not] meet often, our minds were always attuned and ready to take up any conversation where last we had left off.12

Revising his draft, Thomson crossed out the word “last.” Ever the Missouri gentleman, perhaps he thought that the word’s finality would be out of place in a letter to a grieving widow. Or the gesture may have betrayed a wish to leave his conversations with Adorno suspended, rather than terminated.

MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University.

MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University.

  1. Martin Jay, ed., An Unmastered Past : The Autobiographical Reflections of Leo Lowenthal (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987) 184.
  2. MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University.  A slightly edited version of the letter can be found in Virgil Thomson, Selected Letters of Virgil Thomson, ed. Tim Page and Vanessa Weeks Page (New York: Summit Books, 1988) 181-182.
  3. MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University.
  4. Thomson, letter to Adorno of June 12, 1942, MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University.
  5. See my “The ‘Eclipse of Reason’ and the End of the Frankfurt School in America,” New German Critique, no. 100 (2007): 47–76.
  6. B. H. Haggin, “Music,” The Nation, May 30, 1942.
  7. Thomson’s letter of September 20, 1949 informing Haggin that his services were no longer needed could well serve as a model of how this sort of thing should be done. See Selected Letters of Virgil Thomson, ed. Tim Page and Vanessa Weeks Page (New York: Summit Books, 1988) 237-238. Haggin would later respond with “Virgil Thomson as Critic,” The Nation, September 22, 1951 and, at greater length, with “The Imagined World of Virgil Thomson,” The Hudson Review 20:4 (1967): 625–35. Thomson was content to ignore him, explaining in a typically laconic response to an inquiring reader, “I happen not to have read Mr. Haggin’s remarks about me. Sometimes he approves of me and sometimes he doesn’t. I have long considered that the criticism of criticism was fruitless. Still less do I care to engage in polemics with any critic on the subject of myself”,  Selected Letters 274.
  8. Letter to Leo Lowenthal of June 18, 1942.
  9. Letter to Adorno of June 12, 1942,  MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University.
  10. It might be noted that, around this same time, Thomson was dealing with what was a potentially much more threatening problem involving unwelcome publicity. On March 14 he had been arrested in a raid on a “gay bordello” near the Brooklyn naval base.  The establishment was suspected of having been infiltrated by Nazi spies who attemptedto gain information about naval movements from the sailors who frequented it. Two months later the columnist Walter Winchell, apparently relishing the chance to marry his longstanding opposition to Nazism with his penchant for gay bashing, reported, “The ad-libbers are having fun with the yarn about Brooklyn’s spy nest, also known as the swastika swishery. … The musician mentioned in the Brooklyn house will embarrass his employers. He’s got many gunning for him, and this will give them a very loud haw-haw.” See Anthony Tommasini, Virgil Thomson : Composer on the Aisle (New York: W W Norton, 1997) 355-360.
  11. Virgil Thomson, Music Chronicles 1940-1954, ed. Tim Page (New York, NY: The Library of America, 2014) 1005.
  12. I have inserted the word “not”; without it the letter doesn’t quite make sense.
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Theodor Adorno, Dagobert Runes, and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism: The Curious Relationship of Theodor Adorno and Virgil Thomson (Part III)

On Saturday, November 15, 1941, Theodor Adorno began his journey westward to join Max Horkheimer in Los Angeles and begin the collaboration that would produce Dialectic of Enlightenment. His final days in New York were busy ones, capped by the meeting with Dwight Macdonald that provided the impetus for my trip to Yale in March. While there I spent some time examining the “lost” manuscript of Adorno’s translation of his Philosophie der neuen Musik, which turns out to have been one of the manuscripts that he sent to the composer/critic Virgil Thomson.

The first post in this series discussed the manuscript itself and the second explored the unlikely relationship between Thomson and Adorno. This post will raise some questions about the genesis of the translation and Adorno’s efforts to have it published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. A final post, which will be available shortly, will discuss the strangest aspect of Adorno’s relationship with Thomson: Adorno’s attempt to become a music critic for the New York Herald Tribune.

Dagobert David Runes, Philosophical Entrepreneur

About six weeks before leaving for Los Angeles, Adorno sent Horkheimer the following telegram:


The “Journal of Esthetics” was, in fact, the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (hereafter JAAC). It was founded by Dagobert D. Runes in the spring of 1941 and would go on to become the official organ of the American Society for Aesthetics (hereafter ASA), which had been established in 1939 by Felix M. Gatz.2

Ganz was an émigré philosopher and musicologist who had studied with Georg Simmel in Berlin and established a reputation in Europe as a champion of the music of Anton Bruckner.3 He came to the United States in 1934, where he became director of the music department at the University of Scranton. Runes was born in Romania, trained at the University of Vienna, and came to the United States in 1926, where he embarked on a long, successful, and now largely forgotten career as an editor and publisher of philosophical texts.4 The most successful of his ventures was The Philosophical Library, a still extant publishing house that he founded in 1941. It served as publisher of the Journal of Aesthetics until 1945, when Runes surrendered editorial control to a committee composed of members of the American Society for Aesthetics.5

Dagobert D. Runes

Dagobert D. Runes

Adorno first came into contact with Runes in May 1941, when Runes solicited an article from him on popular music for a projected “Dictionary of the Arts”.6 Shortly thereafter, he invited Adorno to assume editorial responsibilities for all of the dictionary’s musical articles. A letter from Adorno to Horkheimer written in early June indicates that Adorno was more impressed by Runes’ list of potential contributors — which included the American philosopher and art historian Thomas Munro, the philosopher and theologian Theodore M. Greene, and the architect Walter Gropius — than he was by Runes himself, who Adorno described as “an entrepreneurial Eastern Jew who has the advantage of not even pretending to have any knowledge of the subject [einen geschäftigen Ostjuden, der den Vorzug hat, keinerlei Sachkenntnis zu prätendieren].7 After consulting with Horkheimer to confirm that accepting Runes’ invitation would not interfere with his work for the Institute, Adorno agreed to write a total of nineteen articles on musical topics for Runes’ dictionary.

It is unclear when Adorno submitted the manuscript of his “Philosophy of Advanced Music” to the JAAC, though it appears that he did so with Runes’ encouragement. The manuscript begins with a “Preface” — dated “September 1941” and not contained in the original German manuscript — that explains

This treatise has been written without any thought of publication. It aimed solely at self-understanding … within the framework of the Institute of Social Research at Columbia University. The basic considerations appertain to the joint work with Max Horkheimer. The initiative to the present publication is due to the editor of the Journal of Aesthetics, Dr. Dagobert Runes.

It is all the more seemly to the author to thank for this initiative [sic] since he is only too well conscious of the provocative features of his attempt.

The telegram Horkheimer sent in response to Adorno’s report on the article’s acceptance indicates that he was under the impression that Adorno’s text still required translation:


In his October 7 letter to Horkheimer Adorno explained that the journal had agreed to proof “my rough translation of the music article” and that he expected that the article would appear in the Spring-Summer issue of 1942.9

A letter to his parents dating from January 1942 provides further information about the progress of the translation. It reports that, at that point, Adorno had completed the nineteen articles he had promised to write for Runes’ dictionary (which he dubbed “the 19-teat pig”) and went on to explain that these articles were “unrelated to the translation of Philosophie der neuen Musik,” which he describes  as having been completed in December.10

On the basis of these scattered reports, it seems likely that Adorno and Runes discussed the possibility of publishing a translation of Adorno’s Philosophie der neuen Musik in the course of their negotiations regarding Adorno’s contributions to Runes’ proposed dictionary. An initial version of the translation (presumably the basis for the annotated manuscript in the Thomson Papers) was submitted sometime it the journal sometime after September 1941. This translation was then subjected to further proofing and (perhaps) editing after its acceptance, a process that was completed — assuming Adorno’s letter to his parents is correct — in December 1941.

 Philosophy of Advanced Music (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Miscellaneous Writings by Others, Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.

Philosophy of Advanced Music (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.

This chronology, however, raises a number of questions. If it is reasonably accurate, it casts some doubts as to when (and by whom) the extensive annotations were made on the copy that Adorno sent to Thomson. Some of them (e.g., minor corrections and rewordings on the first page of the Preface) might conceivably have been made by the JAAC’s copy-editors. But others (e.g., the removal of certain passages and extensive reformulations that one finds on page 64) must have been made by Adorno himself. The resolution of these issues is best left to those with more expertise in the interpretation and archiving of Adorno’s papers than I possess. But the condition and size of the manuscript prompts a more troubling question: is it even remotely plausible that a text of this sort could actually have been accepted by the JAAC?

 Philosophy of Advanced Music (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Miscellaneous Writings by Others, Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.

Philosophy of Advanced Music (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A.  Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.

An Entrepreneur Cuts His Losses

Adorno closed his lengthy letter to Thomson of October 21, 1942 with the unpleasant news that

Mr. Runes withdrew from his obligation to publish my ‘Philosophy of Advanced Music’ in an almost incredibly rude and ill-bred manner.”11

It is, perhaps, worth noting that Adorno describes what has transpired not as the rejection of an article by a journal but instead as a violation of an individual obligation. He appears to have assumed that Runes had made — and could deliver on — a promise he had made to publish Adorno’s article in what — at least in the Spring of 1941 — still appeared to be Runes’  journal.

But, as Lydia Goehr has documented, the relationship between the JAAC and the ASA wasScreenshot 2015-05-19 09.22.23 complicated, troubled, and would only be resolved in 1945 when Runes finally surrendered control of the journal to the ASA.  The inaugural issue of the JAAC had listed Runes as Editor, with Thomas Munro, the émigré art critic Lionello Venturi, the historian Adrienne Koch, and the philosopher George Boas as Associate Editors. At this point Gatz — who had difficulties getting along with both Munro and Runes (who accused Gatz of exercising dictatorial control over the society) — was still president of the ASA. But in April 1942 Gatz was replaced by Munro, who now found himself faced with the problem of resolving the relationship of the ASA to a journal that remained under Runes’ control.13

Goehr’s examination of documents in the ASA and JAAC archives indicates that Munro was “perplexed and worried” by the society’s relationship with the journal and that his colleagues regarded Runes as “a complete mystery” who might, at best, be “useful” for the society but whose management of the journal left much to be desired.14 Shortly after taking over the presidency of the association, Munro wrote to a colleague that

our relation to Runes and the Journal of Aesthetics presents a difficult problem. I am anxious as you are to see that the Society neither is nor seems to be dominated by Runes or his special circle of friends.(Goehr 104)

Munro’s problems with Runes would finally be resolved in 1945, when he replaced Runes as editor and responsibility for the printing and distribution of the journal was shifted to Waverly Press.12  But the difficulties that plagued Runes’ brief tenure as both editor and publisher of the JAAC may not be irrelevant to the fate of Adorno’s article.

There are good reasons for doubting whether Adorno’s article had, in fact, ever been formally accepted for publication. The copy in the Thomson papers is 109 pages long. The longest article appearing in the first volume of the Journal of Aesthetics runs 23 pages and the average length of the articles is 11 pages. It is difficult to see how Runes’ fellow editors could have agreed to the publication of Adorno’s article without requesting substantial cuts. Further, the translation itself contains various lacunae that remain unfilled (e.g., spaces have been left to insert the translation for German words that remain in the typescript). Even if we ignore the difficulties that Adorno’s argument would have posed to reviewers, it is inconceivable that a manuscript in this condition could have been accepted by an American academic journal.

But at this point the JAAC was not a normal academic journal. Its peculiar status granted its editor/proprietor a latitude in dealing with contributors that subsequent editors would not possess. Runes’ interest in publishing Adorno’s manuscript on “advanced music” was likely bound up with his plan to have Adorno contribute articles on music to his projected dictionary of the arts. And while Runes may, as Adorno’s Preface indicates, have encouraged the translation of the Philosophie der neuen Musik during their May discussions, it could hardly have escaped Runes that it would be difficult to find a place in the JAAC for the manuscript he received in September.

It would, of course, help to know how Runes — in his “incredibly rude and ill-bred manner” — delivered the news to Adorno that the JAAC had decided against publishing the “Philosophy of Advanced Music.” But we do know that the decision not to publish Adorno’s article had ramifications for the “19-teat pig” as well. When the Philosophical Library published the Encyclopedia of the Arts in 1946, the only article it contained by Adorno was an entry on jazz.

Upon assuming editorship of the journal, Murno offered the following advice to potential contributors:

To the potential author with a vague idea for an article taking shape in the back of his head, the Editor counsels, “Write it now! Make it brief! Send it in promptly!” Notices of acceptance or rejection will be sent as speedily as possible.15

The notice conveying this advice carried a title with that made it clear to both Dagobert Runes, philosophical entrepreneur, and Theodor Adorno, student of the culture industry, the transformation that had taken place: “The Journal under New Management.”

A Last Try

As late as the spring of 1949 Adorno still had hopes of publishing an English version of his Philosophie der neuen Musik. In a letter to Horkheimer he reported that he had met with an editor at the New York publisher Duel, Sloan, and Pearce (the publisher of Lazarsfeld’s Radio Research volumes) and discussed the following projects:

  1. A book based on his various writings on radio, i.e., something along the lines of the book he had tried unsuccessfully to place with Oxford and, with the aid of Thomson, at William Morrow.
  2. A translation of Dialectic of Enlightenment, which would be undertaken by Heinz Norden, a fellow émigré who had just completed a translation of Alexander Mitscherlich and Fred Mielke’s Doctors of Infamy, an account of Nazi medical experiments.
  3. The English translation of Philosophie der neuen Musik
  4. A collectively written book on anti-Semitism, which would draw on the Studies in Prejudice series that the Institute was publishing with Harper and Row.16

Nothing came these plans and, by the end of the year, Horkheimer had decided that Institute should return to Frankfurt.

Adorno, of course, would return as well. Among the documents he left behind was the edited version of the Philosophy of Advanced Music that he had sent to Thomson, apparently with the hope that he might make use of it or, perhaps, aid Adorno in finding a home for it. Abandoned as well was one of the most unlikely of Adorno’s American projects: his attempt to carve out a new career as a music reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune.

To be continued

  1. Adorno, Telegram to Max Horkheimer of October 2, 1941 in Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Briefwechsel, 1927-1969, ed. Christoph Gödde and Henri Lonitz (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003) 251.
  2. For an exhaustive account of the complex relationship between the ASA and the JAAC, see Lydia Goehr, “The Institutionalization of a Discipline: A Retrospective of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism and the American Society for Aesthetics, 1939-1992,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51:2 (1993): 99–121.
  3. For tributes to his services on behalf of Bruckner, see the collection of documents available on the Bruckner Society of America site.
  4. A WorldCat search produces 278 hits for Dagobert Runes as author (which includes various edited volumes) but none for Dagobert Runes as subject. His papers have not been archived, though some materials related to his career as an editor may remain in the possession of the Philosophical Library.
  5. The change was announced in the September 1945 issue; see The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism II:1 (1945) 1-2.
  6. Runes’ interest in Adorno may have been stimulated by Adorno’s article (co-authored with George Simpson), “On Popular Music,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science IX:1 (1941): 17–48. As discussed in a previous post, Adorno sent a copy of the issue to Thomson on April 24.
  7. Letter to Horkheimer of June 4, 1941, in Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Briefwechsel, 1927-1969, ed. Christoph Gödde and Henri Lonitz, (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003 II:132-3.
  8. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Briefwechsel, 1927-1969, II:251.
  9. Adorno Letter to Horkheimer of October 7, 1941, Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Briefwechsel, 1927-1969 262.
  10. Adorno, Letter to his Parents of January 22, 1942 in Theodor W. Adorno, Letters to His Parents: 1939-1951, ed. Christoph Gödde and Henri Lonitz, trans. Wieland Hoban (Polity, 2006) 83. The letter also mentions that Adorno had also “translated one of my longer past essays for Virgil Thomson”. This essay (which is described as “unknown” by Adorno’s editors) must have been his essay on Sibelius, which accompanied his letter to Thomson of December 19, 1941.
  11. Letter from Theodor Adorno to Virgil Thomson of October 21, 1942 in MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University. 
  12. These changes were announced by Munro his “Editor’s Comment: The Journal under New Management,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 4:1 (1945): 1–2.
  13. Goehr 104
  14. Goehr 105. As one example of problems in the production of the journal, Goehr notes that the inaugural issue of the journal listed an article in its table of contents that never appeared in the journal itself (104)
  15. T. M., “Editor’s Comment: The Journal under New Management,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 4:1 (1945): 1.
  16. Adorno letter to Horkheimer of April 12, 1949 in Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Briefwechsel, 1927-1969 243.
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Unbottled Manuscripts: On the Curious Relationship of Theodor Adorno and Virgil Thomson


Virgil Thomson & Gertrude Stein

At first glance, the American composer Virgil Thomson would seem an unlikely recipient of what may be the only surviving copy of Theodor Adorno’s revised translation of the Philosophie der neuen Musik. There is an understandable tendency to see them as inhabiting different musical universes. Like Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Paul Bowles, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, and Robert Russell Bennett, Thomson was one of those Americans, born a decade before or after 1900, who journeyed to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger.1 He made his name thanks to a series of collaborations with Gertrude Stein, the famous of which was his 1934 opera Four Saints in Three Acts. While Thomson’s “modernism” revolved around Stein and Satie, what Adorno saw as “neuen Musik” was defined by the work of the Second Vienna School.2 He studied composition with Alban Berg and championed Schoenberg’s work in the pages of Anbruch. As far as I can tell (the indexing in Adorno’s Gesammelte Schriften is not friendly to casual readers) Adorno never discussed Thomson’s music and one will search in vain for any mention of Adorno in Tim Page’s comprehensive collection of Thompson’s musical criticism from the 1940s and early 1950s.3

But a few scattered clues that complicate this picture have long been available. Adorno turns up twice in the 1988 edition of Thomson’s Selected Letters: once in a June 25, 1941 letter to a third party (which I will discuss below) and again in a July 29, 1942 letter from Thomson to Adorno (discussed by Alex Ross in The Rest is Noise) advising Adorno against publishing an attack on Sibelius because its tone was “more likely to create antagonism towards yourself than toward Sibelius.”4 But beyond their shared dislike of Sibelius, it has been hard to see what else they might have had in common.

The “Bright Little Man” and the Music Critic

Their relationship becomes somewhat clearer once we realize that a few pieces of the puzzle have been missing. If we look more closely at the only one of Thomson’s letters to Adorno that has been published,  a few questions begin to emerge:

I find on clearing out my desk of the season’s unanswered mail that I have never done anything about your Sibelius article. I am sending it back to you, partly because our Sunday musical space has been so cut down that I would not have room to do much about it anyway, and partly because I don’t really like it very much. The article has good ideas and good phrases in it, but there is too much indignation. The tone is an aggravated one more likely to create antagonism towards yourself than toward Sibelius (181-182).

Perhaps because the last sentence jibes so well with the received image of Adorno — a critic of tonal music whose furious critiques were more likely do more damage to him than to their targets — we tend to gloss over the obvious question: prior to concluding that he didn’t really like the article all that much (and, in any case, no longer had the room “to do much about it”) just what was Thomson planning on doing with it?

The other letter included in the Selected Letters casts further light on what seems to have been going on. Responding to a letter from the poet and film critic Parker Tyler, Thomson wrote:

You are wrong in assuming that either the author or myself considers popular music to be wholly different as an art form from the highbrow stuff. Quite the contrary, many of the factors involved, both the psychological and the industrial ones, are identical in the two fields. Certain others, such as the formal esthetics of lengthy symphonic works or the merchandising procedures of radio companies, are utterly different, though the line of demarcation is not always sharply drawn. In any case the symphonic concert business, both on the air and off, is the subject of other studies by the same author and his associates at Columbia University. I hope to publish from time to time excerpts from those because I consider them of very great interest to musicians (167).

The “author” to whom Thomson refers is Adorno. He went on to explain to Tyler that

It isn’t that I am invariably in agreement with Adorno. It is rather that in the field of radio research, especially in so far as such research departs from strictly empirical procedures and ventures into the field of esthetics and psychology, it is more important right now that all the possible questions be raised than that they be answered with finality. Naturally, a good many of the conclusions stated in the studies are conclusions that persons like ourselves have arrived at many years ago by private judgment or intuition. I think it is not entirely without interest that such judgment should be given a new form of publicity, not one depending on wit or personal prestige, or one backed up by the sacred mumbo jumbo of scholarly research. At any rate, that is why I printed the excerpts (167-168).

He closed the letter by advising Tyler that, if he found himself in disagreement with Adorno, he should “write to him personally at the Institute for Social Research.”

You will find him a very bright little man indeed. He is both a professional philosopher and a trained composer, and his mind has all the best and the worst Germanic qualities (168).

So, it would seem that the Institute for Social Research’s “bright little man” had been sending the music editor of the Herald Tribune manuscripts since at least the summer of 1941 and that, while Thomson may have concluded that there wasn’t anything to be done with Adorno’s Sibelius article, he had found uses for earlier manuscripts.

The Thomson Papers at Yale contain seventeen letters (and one telegram).5 Nine of the letters (and one telegram) are from Adorno to Thomson, the remaining seven are responses by Thomson or his secretary. All but one of the letters date from the period 1941-1943; the outlier is a letter from Thomson to Adorno dating from 1957. Finally, Thomson’s papers contain two cards that Maragete Adorno sent out announcing Adorno’s death, along with the draft of letter he wrote expressing his condolences.

Much of the early correspondence between Thomson and Adorno has to do with the Sunday columns Thomson wrote shortly after he became the Tribune‘s chief music critic in October 1940. While Thomson incorporated many of his columns — along with reviews and material from other publications — into the three books that he published during his time at the Herald Tribune, only one of the columns drawing on Adorno’s work appeared in these collections.6 The other three were never reprinted. To understand how Thomson used the manuscripts that Adorno sent him, we can begin with a brief look at these columns.

Thomson’s Columns

Between January 1941 and May 1943 Thomson wrote four columns for the Herald Tribune that made use of Adorno’s work.

  1. “The ‘Hit’ Trade,” January 26, 1941.
  2. “How Popular Music Works,” June 15, 1941.
  3. “Radio Examined,” February 8, 1942
  4. “Processed Music,” May 16, 1943

Aside from an introductory paragraph by Thomson, the first and second columns consist of extensive quotations from texts that Adorno produced during the period when he was working on Paul Lazarsfeld’s Radio Research project.7 The first does not mention Adorno

Paul Lazarsfeld

Paul Lazarsfeld

by name but instead assigns credit to “Dr. Paul Lazarsfeld and his assistants” and goes on to quote sixteen paragraphs from Adorno’s 1939 “Plugging Study”.8 The second column quotes ten paragraphs from “On Popular Music,” an article by Adorno (and ”written with the assistance of George Simpson”) that appeared in the Institute for Social Research’s journal in 1941.9 Thomson wrote a brief introduction that cited the article, recommended it “to the serious attention of musicians,” and hailed it as “packed with meaty matter.” The third column is a discussion of Radio Research 1941, a collection of papers from the radio project edited by Lazarsfeld and his co-director Frank Stanton.10 Thomson gave pride of place to Adorno’s chapter on “The Radio Symphony.” He characterized it as “lengthy and recondite” but also criticized it for having skipped “over several matters that, though explicable, are nowhere sufficiently explained.” Ultimately, he was impressed by Adorno’s “terrifying” thesis — “It amounts to saying that the indiscriminate propagation of culture (from whatever noble motives) can operate easily, if not inevitably, toward the destruction of that culture” — and concluded that the “publications of Dr. Lazarsfeld and his associates make more cultural sense than any other writing on the subject I have yet encountered.”

In contrast to the first three columns, the fourth avoided quotation and instead provided a summary of Adorno’s discussion of the limitations of recordings of symphonic works. Though the column (the only one of the four that Thomson included in his collections of writings) does not mention Adorno by name, it does note that “these matters and their implications for culture are discussed in the published reports of Columbia University’s Institute for Social Research.” 11

So much for the published record.  To understand how Thomson learned of Adorno’s work, as well as the relationship that grew out of it,  we must turn to their correspondence.

Adorno’s Letters

The first of the letters from Adorno preserved in the Thomson Papers dates from April 24, 1941 — three months after the appearance of the first column — and was accompanied by a copy of Studies in Philosophy and Social Science — the continuation, in English, of the Institute’s house journal, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung.12 The volume Adorno enclosed was a special issue on mass communication, jointly produced by the Institute and the Office of Radio Research.  It included Adorno’s article on popular music. As Adorno explained,

After the kind interest you took in our study on Plugging I hope you will also be interested in the study on Popular Music which has grown out of the same field of critical thought. Two more studies of mine, one on the changes serious music undergoes by radio and one a critical analysis of the Damrosch Music Appreciation Hour, are going to be published during this year.

Thomson did not respond to Adorno’s letter until two weeks before the publication of his column “How Popular Music Works” (June 4, 1941). His letter thanked Adorno for the copy of the journal, expressed the hope that Adorno would continue to “supply” him with such material, and explained that he would “welcome the occasion to give it, through mention or discussion in Sunday column as wide a dissemination” as he could. He went on to stress that he found “all the musical articles in it of the most absorbing interest” — Adorno would like have found it hard to overlook the fact that his was only “musical article” in the issue.

The day after the publication of “How Popular Music Works” Adorno wrote to thank Thomson “wholeheartedly” for his letter of June 4 and for the prominence Thomson had given his work in his June 15 column.

It goes without saying that your action does not only help considerably, in spreading the ideas I suggest, but it is also very important for the continuation of my studies in this field. I am, of course, most curious to discuss with you some of the problems involved. Would you kindly let me know whether and when I could see you?

At the same time Adorno sent Thomson, under separate cover, a mimeograph copy of a paper he had read “about two years ago” at the Office of Radio Research: “Sketchy as it is, it may give you an idea of the total approach which I pursue in the music study on radio.”13 He informed Thomson that his discussion of “the structural changes serious music undergoes through radio” would be appearing shortly in the volume Radio Research 1941 and that his “extensive critical analysis of the Damrosch Appreciation Hour” was slated to appear in the “the third volume of our Studies in Philosophy of Social Science.” As it turned out, the journal ceased publication in the spring of 1942 and Adorno’s article on Damrosch would not appear until 1994.14 Adorno closed the letter by noting, “Further studies are going to be completed soon and I shall be delighted to let you have any study on music which I regard as tolerably satisfactory.”15

At this point the pace of the correspondence began to accelerate. Adorno wrote Thomson again on June 27 (perhaps in response to points discussed in person) to offer his “little contribution to my campaign against the appreciation racket.” Adorno’s “little contribution” was the copy of his study of the NBC Music Appreciation Hour that has been preserved in the Thomson papers along with Adorno’s translation of the Philosophie der neuen Musik. The letter closes with the first reference to the latter: “Incidentally, what do you think about a little article concerning the problem of 12-tone technique?”

Four days later Adorno wrote Thomson again to inform him that Lazarsfeld would have no objections to Thomson’s using the article on the NBC Music Appreciation Hour in one of his future columns. “I hardly need to stress,” he concluded, “how important it would be for me if you should see any possibility either of publishing some excerpts or of discussing it from your point of view.”

Against the “Appreciation Racket”

There is every reason to think that Thomson would have been a sympathetic reader of Adorno’s work, especially his critique of the NBC Music Appreciation Hour. Prior to assuming his position at the Herald Tribune Thomson had mounted a blistering attack onStateMusic what he dubbed “the Appreciation-racket” in The State of Music, his wide-ranging 1939 account of the “musical profession.”16

Every composer is approached from time to time by representatives of the Appreciation-racket and offered money to lecture or to write books about the so‐called Appreciation of Music. Unless he is already tied up with the pedagogical world, he usually refuses. If he makes his living as a teacher, refusal is difficult. I’ve seen many a private teacher forced out of business for refusing to “co‑operate” with the publishers of Appreciation‐books. Refusal of public‐school credits for private music-study is the usual method of foreclosure. The composer who teaches in any educational institution except a straight conservatory is usually obliged to “co-operate.” The racket muscles in on him. His name will be useful; his professional prestige will give a coloration of respectability to the shady business. He is offered a raise and some security in his job. He usually accepts.(121)

Thomson had nothing against the sort of “digests of useful information” that other professions regularly offered lay readers.

Simplified explanations of the copyright laws, of general medicine for use in the home, of the mathematics of relativity, of how to build a canoe, a radio‐set, or a glider, of home dressmaking, of garden‐lore, of how to acquaint yourself with classical archaeology in ten volumes, and of how to see Paris in ten days — this literature is in every way legitimate. (121-122)

But problem with the “Appreciation-literature” was that it provided “no firm knowledge and describes no real practice.” The closest analogy to it that Thomson could find were 2638653289_0edcc945d0“physical culture” advertisements, which promised to “augment the muscularity and the virile forces of any customer who will buy the book and do what it says for five minutes a day.” Just as “five minutes a day of gymnastics, any kind of gymnastics, with or without a book” might result in a “temporary enlargement of the muscles exercised,” so too a “deliberate listening to music, any kind of music, five minutes a day for a week will sharpen momentarily the musical listening‐ability.”

Had the “Appreciation-racket” presented itself merely as a way of “habituating listeners to musical sounds,” it would have amounted to little more than “a legitimate advertising device, destined, with luck, to swell the number of possible concert-customers” (123). But, in fact, it was nothing less than a fraud.

The basic sales-trick in all these manifestations is the use of the religious technique. Music is neither taught nor defined. It is preached. A certain limited repertory of pieces, ninety per cent of them a hundred years old, is assumed to contain most that the world has to offer of musical beauty and authority. (125).

Like other applications of the “religious technique” the Appreciation-racket excluded any questioning of its basic premises and sought to cultivate in its consumers the conviction that “musical non-consumption is sinful.” And it was ready to supply sinners with a requisite set of penitential rituals, which Thomson summarized as follows:

A. Buy a book.

B. Buy a gramophone.

C. Buy records for it.

D. Buy a radio.

E. Subscribe to the local orchestra, if there is one.

None of these actions, he noted, had anything to do with cultivating an understanding of music: “They are at best therapeutic actions destined to correct the customer’s musical defects without putting him through the labors of musical exercise” (126).

A brief summary of the articles of the faith that readers were likely to find in the typical “Appreciation-book” followed, once again in list form:

A. That the music discussed is nearly all symphonic. Chamber-music (except string‐quartets) and the opera are equally neglected.

B. That the examples quoted are virtually the same in all the books.

C. That they are quoted from a small number of musical authors.

D. That 90% of them were written between 1775 and 1875 and are called Symphony Number Something‑or‐Other. (126-127)

Though the diatribe Thomson offered differed dramatically in style from the account Adorno provided in his studies, the two accounts had much in common, beginning with their affection for the term “racket.”

By the early 1940s, the term had begun to crop up in various internal documents produced by the Institute as a way of characterizing the way class relations had been changed with the advent of monopoly capitalism.17 In a manuscript dating from 1941 Adorno summarized the transformation this way:

In the image of the latest economic phase, history is the history of monopolies. In the image of the manifest act of usurpation that is practiced nowadays by the leaders of capital and labor acting in consort, it is the history of gang wars and rackets.18

Like Adorno, Thomson situated his critique of the “Appreciation-racket” within the context of the increasingly active role that large corporations played in the production and dissemination of cultural goods.

The impresario business has begun recently, both in Europe and in America, to follow the big-business pattern of interlocking directorates and mergers. Ninety‐nine percent , at least, of concert engagements in the United States now take place under the direction either of the Columbia Concerts Corporation, an affiliate of the Columbia Broadcasting Service, or of the N.B.C. Artists’ Service, an affiliate of the National Broadcasting Corporation, which in turn is financed by the same sources as the Radio Corporation of America and as Radio‑Keith‐Orpheum, a cinema‐producing‐and‐exhibiting consortium operating under patents controlled by the General Electric Company (State of Music 66).

All that was lacking in Thomson’s discussion was the term that Horkheimer and Adorno would eventually coin to designate this strange new creature: Kulturindustrie.

Promoting Adorno

It is likely that Adorno’s interest in sharing the fruits of his labors at the Radio Research project had something to do with the fact that — after protracted difficulties in reconciling his approaches with those of Lazarsfeld and in the face of Stanton’s opposition Screenshot 2015-04-22 14.36.30to his continued presence on the staff — funding for Adorno’s portion of the project had been terminated in the spring of 1940. With the Institute’s finances in considerable disarray because of questionable investments, the future prospects of its associates were by no means certain. At this point Horkheimer had already left New York for Los Angeles, where he was beginning work with Herbert Marcuse on his long-planned book on “dialectics.” While there were plans for Adorno to come west as well, the question of who would wind up where would not be resolved until the autumn of 1941. All of this may have been more than enough to provide an incentive for Adorno — whose time at the radio project had taught him something about how the game was played — to look for ways to raise his profile.

Thomson’s role went beyond publishing portions of Adorno’s work in his columns. During the spring of 1940 Adorno had cobbled together the work he had been doing on the radio project into a book manuscript entitled Current of Music and unsuccessfully attempted to publish it with Oxford University Press.19  Adorno’s letter of June 27, 1941 indicates that — presumably acting on a suggestion Thomson had made — he met with Frances Phillips, an editor at Thomson’s publisher William Morrow.20

She was exceedingly nice and seemed to be seriously interested in the matter, but, of course, she could not make any decision before having gone through the material.

The “material” Phillips examined was the manuscript that Adorno had attempted to place with Oxford.

His efforts at William Morrow proved to be no more successful. On July 8 he wrote to Thomson and informed him that “Miss Phillips has declined to publish my book.” He enclosed a copy of the letter Phillips had sent him the previous day:

I have read a good deal of the material you left with me, and I have discussed it with my associates, and I am sorry to tell you that I do not think this is a book for our list. For one thing, this is hard reading for the layman. In talking to you the points came out clearly but in reading this (I am speaking now of On a Social Critique of Radio Music) I had to work hard to make out the meaning. I rather suspect this is the fault of your collaborator, who has an academic style — at least, you do not talk that way. But in this I may be quite wrong.

But even if the excellent ideas expressed quite often in the manuscript were put into livelier and more readable English I do not think there would be a large enough audience for this book to satisfy you as author or justify us as publishers. It would be a valuable book, and in times less grim than these a publisher might feel he could indulge in it.

Thomson also attempted to find a place for Adorno’s study of the NBC Music Appreciation hour. In a letter to Adorno dated October 29, 1941 he informed Adorno that he had spoken with Minna Lederman, the editor of Modern Music (the quarterly journal of the League of Composers) and reported, “She seems to be not unfavorably disposed.”21  He mentioned that he had also “interested the editors of a magazine called Tomorrow who think they might like to publish it serially.”

Between 1941 and 1951 Tomorrow was a monthly magazine of literary and public affairs, published and edited by Eileen Lyttle Garrett, a spiritualist and medium who, in the years after 1951, recast the publication as a quarterly journal of psychic research (the mind boggles at the prospect of an article by the author of “The Stars Down to Earth” appearing in what would soon become a journal trading in matters parapsychological). Thomson’s links to the journal seemed to run through Harold Vursell (their paths may have crossed in Paris), who would later go on to have a distinguished career at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Thomson urged Adorno to provide Vursell with a copy of the music appreciation article, explaining that he had sent his copy of the article (in what may have been yet another attempt to call attention to Adorno’s work) to Mina Kirstein Curtiss, a member of the English faculty at Smith College, who Thomson may have met through his connections with Orson Wells’ Mercury Theater of the Air (the finding aid for Curtiss’ papers at Smith indicate that she may have played a role in 1938 “The War of the Worlds” broadcast).22

It was not until December 19 that Adorno — now settled in Los Angeles and finally at work with Horkheimer on what would become Dialectic of Enlightenment — got around to responding to Thomson’s October letter. He reported that Ledermann had expressed “her utmost interest” in the musical appreciation article and was “pretty confident” that “a separate publication in Modern Music” could be worked out with the Office of Radio Research. He enclosed a “rough draft of an English version of my little article on Sibelius which, as perhaps you remember, appeared in our periodical three years ago” and — in keeping with what had now becoming their established routine — advised him, “If you think it worthwhile, do with it whatever you please. I know the matter could be in no better hands than yours.”23

Once again conforming to their settled routine, Adorno responded to the publication of Thomson’s “Radio Examined” with the following telegram:

Screenshot 2015-04-22 14.03.08

MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University

In contrast, the publication of “Processed Music” in May 1943 passed without comment. Their correspondence, however, continued.

“A Little Article Concerning the Problem of 12-tone Technique”

I will have more to say about Adorno’s California correspondence with Thomson in the sequel to this post. For now it may be enough to try to pin down the date when Adorno sent Thomson his draft translation of “The Philosophy of Modern Music” and to speculate on what Thomson made of it.

As noted above, Adorno first broached the possibility of “a little article concerning the problem of 12-tone technique” at the close of his June 27, 1941 letter to Thomson. On July 2 Thomson responded, “An article about the problem of 12-tone technique might be interesting or not. I can’t tell in advance, Why don’t you try?” The article does not turn up again until October 21, 1942 when Adorno closed a lengthy letter to Thomson (about which I will have much more to say next time) by noting,

It may interest you to know that Mr. Runes withdrew from his obligation to publish my “Philosophy of Advanced Music” in an almost incredibly rude and ill-bred manner. Mr. Damrosch still rests, too. 24

With the prospect of publication in Runes’ journal now foreclosed, Adorno forwarded his corrected copy to Thomson. While it is uncertain when he sent it, Thomson must have had the manuscript in his possession by the summer of 1943. On August 14, 1943, Adorno — who, from the letterhead, seems to have been vacationing at the Casa Loma Inn in the Poconos (Note to self: write a post on where the members of the Frankfurt School took their summer vacations!) — wrote Thomson that,

I am happy that you like my study and it will give me great pleasure if you quote from it. I have to ask you only one favor. It concerns Schoenberg. My personal relations to him are rather strained while he, at the same time, is lonely, isolated and in not too great a situation. I do not want to hurt the old man. Would you, therefore, select passages which you regard as not offensive, and make it clear that I regard his work, notwithstanding my criticism, as the world-shaking musical achievement of our time. I should be most grateful if you could put the emphasis in such a way that A. S. does not react antagonistically. Many thanks for the trouble you take, once more, with my tiresome writings.

On September 10, 1944 — three days before Arnold Schoenberg’s seventieth birthday — Virgil Thomson offered an assessment of Schoenberg’s work in his column for the Tribune.25 It is hard to tell whether there was anything in it that might have offended the notoriously prickly Schoenberg and it is even harder to determine what it might have owed to the manuscript that Adorno had sent him. But while Adorno’s name is never mentioned in Thomson’s brief discussion, there are passages — for example, “This preponderance of methodology over objective is what gives to Schönberg’s work, in fact, its irreducible modernity” — that, perhaps, would not have been out of place in the “manuscript in a bottle” that has been resting for the last several decades in Thomson’s papers.

To be continued …

MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University

MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University


  1. A full list of students is available at http://www.nadiaboulanger.org
  2. For a sketch of the various influences on Thomson, see Peter Dickinson, “Stein Satie Cummings Thomson Berners Cage: Toward a Context for the Music of Virgil Thomson,” The Musical Quarterly 72:3 (January 1986): 394–409. A 1941 article in the Herald Tribune drew a parallel between the “the three German B’s—Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms” and the “three S’s of modern music—in descending order of significance, Satie, Schönberg, and Stravinsky”, Virgil Thomson : Music Chronicles 1940-1954, ed. Tim Page, (New York, NY: The Library of America, 2014) 126.
  3. Adorno is also absent from Thomson’s State of Music, (New York, W. Morrow and Company, 1939), an important text that falls outside the period covered by the Musical Chronicles collection.
  4. Virgil Thomson, Selected Letters of Virgil Thomson, ed. Tim Page and Vanessa Weeks Page (New York: Summit Books, 1988) 167-8, 181-2; for Ross’ discussion see The Rest Is Noise : Listening to the Twentieth Century, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007) 173-74 and, more recently, “The Happy Infamy of Virgil Thomson.” 
  5. Thomson’s correspondence with Adorno can be found in MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University. 
  6. “Processed Music” , initially published on May 16, 1943 was subsequently incorporated into The Music Scene (1945). It is now available in Music Chronicles  249-252.
  7. For a brief overview of the project and Adorno’s role in it, see Thomas Y. Levin and Michael von der Linn, “Elements of a Radio Theory: Adorno and the Princeton Radio Research Project,” The Musical Quarterly 78:2 (July 1994): 316–24. Other useful discussions include Robert W. Witkin, Adorno on Popular Culture (New York & London: Routledge, 2003) 116-134 and David Jenemann, Adorno in America (University of Minnesota Press, 2007) 47-104. Some of this work is now available in Theodor W. Adorno, Current of Music:  Elements of a Radio Theory, ed. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Cambridge: Polity, 2009).
  8. Since Adorno’s first letter to Thomson was written several months after the publication of the column, it is unclear whether there is an earlier letter from Adorno that was not preserved or whether Thomson received the publication from another source.
  9. Theodor W Adorno and George Simpson, “On Popular Music,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science IX, no. 1 (1941): 17–48. In his introduction to Current of Music, Robert Hullot-Kentor calls attention to Thomson’s use of Adorno’s article
  10. Radio Research 1941 (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941).
  11. It appeared in The Music Scene (1945) and is now available in Music Chronicles.
  12. Horkheimer’s Preface to the journal is dated April 1941, which suggests that Adorno may have delayed writing Thomson until the issue was available.
  13. It would appear that Adorno was referring to “A Social Critique of Radio Music,” which was presented in 1939 and later published in Kenyon Review 7:2 (Spring 1945): 208–17.
  14. The Institute ceased publication of Studies in Philosophy and Social Science with Volume IX and the study of Damrosch did not appear until 1994 — see Theodor W. Adorno, “Analytical Study of the NBC ‘Music Appreciation Hour,’” The Musical Quarterly 78:2.
  15. Scribbled on the letter — perhaps by either Thomson or his secretary — were several telephone numbers, presumably the numbers at which Adorno could be reached (the main Institute number was on the letterhead).
  16. Virgil Thomson, The State of Music. (New York, William Morrow and Company, 1939). There is, to be the best of my knowledge, no evidence that Adorno was aware of the book.
  17. I have more to say about this in a discussion of Horkheimer’s essay “On the Sociology of Class Relations” that will be allegedly appear on Nonsite.org (or, if all else fails,  here).
  18. Theodor W. Adorno, Can One Live after Auschwitz? : A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2003) 100.
  19. For a discussion, see Hullot-Kentor’s introduction to Theodor W. Adorno, Current of Music 30-34.
  20. I have not yet had the opportunity to examine Thomson’s correspondence with Phillips.
  21. Prior to coming to the United States, two of Adorno’s articles had appeared in the journal: a review of George Antheil’s opera Transatlantic (Modern Music VII, no. 4 (July 1930): 38–31) and “Berg and Webern — Schönberg’s Heirs,” Modern Music VIII, no. 2 (February 1931): 29–38.
  22. There is a brief appreciation of Curtiss on the Smithipedia.
  23. The article in question was a review of Bengt Törne’s Sibelius: a Close Up that appeared in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 7:3 (!938) 460-463. To the best of my knowledge, Adorno’s translation has not been preserved.
  24. As noted in my previous post, Adorno had begun his translation of Zur Philosophie der neuen Musik (a German manuscript dating from 1940-1941 that corresponds to the Schoenberg chapter of Adorno’s 1949 book Philosophie der neuen Musik) in response to a solicitation from Dagobert Runes, the editor of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.
  25. Thomson, Music Chronicles 470-472.
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“The True Manuscript in a Bottle” — or, How I Found Theodor Adorno’s “Lost” Translation of the Philosophie der neuen Musik

In the introduction to his 2006 translation of Adorno’s Philosophie der neuen Musik, Robert Hullot-Kentor notes that the book (or, more accurately, the first part of it) had been translated into English twice before: in 1973 by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster and in 1941 by Adorno himself, who prepared an English version of the Schoenberg portion of the manuscript (which, at that point, was the only part of the text that had been completed). Hullot-Kentor explains that the translation was prepared at the instigation of Dagobert Runes, for publication in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. But, in the end, Runes opted not to publish the text and the manuscript itself seems to have been lost.

Hullot-Kentor finds its disappearance

exceptional since from early on Adorno saved drafts of almost every page he wrote. But if that draft is somewhere, it is not be found in Frankfurt (xxi).

Based on Adorno’s description of the manuscript in a letter to Lowenthal — “I’ve translated the music essay into pidgin English and so fundamentally castrated it that Schoenberg will not be able to be mad about it …” — Hullot-Kentor concludes,

The unrevised draft, then, was a substantially compromised manuscript and it may be just as well that it disappeared, accidentally or not, for its vanishing plausibly spared unavailing arguments over authenticity and precedence of translated statement. But still one would like to know at least how Adorno translated the title. For its translation is, in fact, not obvious ….

But, for better or worse, it turns out that the manuscript was not lost: it has been hiding in New Haven. And Adorno translated the title as Philosophy of Advanced Music.

 Philosophy of Advanced Music (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Miscellaneous Writings by Others, Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.

Philosophy of Advanced Music (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Miscellaneous Writings by Others, Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.

This post will discuss the path that led me to my encounter with this supposedly lost manuscript and say a few things about it. A subsequent post will say more about why it wound up in New Haven.

Of Finding Aids and Photographs

In October 2012 I spent some time looking at the Norbert Guterman’s papers at Columbia, in hopes of shedding some light on what had become of another allegedly lost manuscript: the article that Max Horkheimer wrote in response to the “New Failure of Nerve” exchanges in Partisan Review.1 I’d been interested in Guterman for quite some time. Along with Henri Lefebvre, he had been active in various Parisian circles that brought surrealists and Marxists together during the 1920s and had been friends with Max Jacob, André Breton, André Malraux, and Francis Steegmuller. He came to the United States around 1930 and began a career as a translator (which is how I first became aware of him: when I was in graduate school, it seemed that he’d translated a fair number of the books that interested me the most). By the 1940s he was working for the Institute for Social Research where, among other things, he was responsible for putting the Horkheimer lectures that eventually became The Eclipse of Reason into passable English.

I found nothing about Horkheimer’s response to the Partisan Review exchanges in Guterman’s papers, but I did find a handwritten letter from Adorno, dated September 14, 1946 (to the causal reader, it might appear that the year is 1940, but it is written on stationary that gives Adorno’s address as 316 So. Kenter Avenue and Adorno did not leave New York for California until November of 1941.) Since Adorno’s handwriting was sometimes difficult to decipher — and, in any case, I was looking for something else — I was content to skim the letter and jot down a few notes. Fortunately, I also photographed it.

Norbert Guterman Papers, Columbia University, Box 2

Norbert Guterman Papers, Columbia University, Box 2

Here’s the note I took at the time (it consists of extracts from the text along with a few comments in square brackets):

From Adorno (in LA), September 14, 1946

I add the German original of the “Philosophy of the Modern Music” (1940-1941), together with my rough [rough is underlined] (and possibly [word unclear]) draft of a translation. The English, of course, is abominable … If the publication of my essay were being [word unclear], I should like to make some modifications, especially on Stravinsky.

I didn’t get around to looking at the letter again until a few weeks ago, when I was reviewing the notes I took on the Guterman papers.  I began to wonder whether the allegedly lost manuscript might have wound up in Box 7 of Guterman’s papers, which carry the laconic designation “Manuscripts — Translations by Guterman.”

It was only at this point that I took another look at my photograph of the letter and realized that it contained a postscript, which I’d skimmed, but not fully understood (there is a lesson here: the past is a foreign country and when you visit it you should take lots of snapshots; you’re likely to miss things):

P.S. I just find that the most recent copy of the English translation of the “Philosophy of Advanced Music” is left [sic]. The only one which I corrected is in the possession of Mr. Virgil Thomson, music editor of the Herald Tribune. In case a positive decision has been reached with regard to publication, you could certainly obtain this copy from him, by explaining to him the situation. Please forgive the mess.  The copy of the manuscript which I enclose is entirely uncorrected and I do not know whether you can use it at all.

Norbert Guterman Papers, Columbia University, Box 2

Norbert Guterman Papers, Columbia University, Box 2

The letter suggests that there might be at least two surviving copies of Adorno’s translation, though it was conceivable that neither of them would have been in Adorno’s possession when he packed up his papers and returned to Frankfurt. He sent an unrevised version of the text to Guterman in September 1946, which might still be residing in Box 7 of Guterman’s papers at Columbia (if anyone wants to wander over there and take a look, let me know what you find). But since this was an unrevised version of the manuscript, Adorno might not have had a great deal of interest in getting it back. The more significant version would be the revised draft that he sent to the composer and critic Virgil Thomson. So, might the “lost” copy of Adorno’s translation have remained with Thomson?

A quick search revealed that not only had Virgil Thomson’s papers been archived in the Yale Music Library, but that there was an exhaustive online finding aid available. It indicated that a manuscript by Theodor Adorno carrying the title “Philosophy of Advanced Music” resided in Box 191, Folder 1.2

The Text Itself

What, in honor of the institution that has sheltered it for these many years, might be designated as the “Yale Manuscript” is a 108 page typescript, with extensive annotations. Most pages contain corrections, alternate formulations of passages, queries, and requests to (or, perhaps, from?) unknown parties — e.g., “please check against the German” (100) and “please check with English translation of Faust I” (103). There are also a few deletions (some of which involve entire paragraphs) and some additions.

The German text from which Adorno worked appears to have been the version of Philosophie der neuen Musik that he circulated among friends and colleagues in the early 1940s, including Rudolf Kolisch (a typescript of a German version can be found among Kolisch’s papers at Harvard) and Max Horkheimer (who responded enthusiastically to the manuscript when he read it in the summer of 1941).3 This was also the text that Thomas Mann read while working on Doctor Faustus.4 With minor alterations, the German original became the first part (i.e., the section “Schoenberg and Progress”) of the book that — with the addition of a second section on “Stravinsky and the Restoration” — was published as Philosophie der neuen Musik in 1949.

Adorno’s English translation also includes a two-page preface, dated “New York City, September 1941,” which provides a brief account of the genesis of the work, along with an acknowledgement of Adorno’s ongoing collaboration with Horkheimer and of the role that Dagobert Runes played in providing the impetus for publication of a work that had, as Adorno explained, “been written without any thought of publication.” The expression of thanks to Runes, however muted, suggests that, at this point, the text had yet to be rejected. Adorno went on to note, that it was all “the more seemly” for him to acknowledge Runes’ “initiative” in soliciting the manuscript since the author,

is only too well conscious of the provocative features of his attempt. Not only does he enter circumstantially into the most esoteric questions of the technique of composing in a situation in which it must appear almost cynical to devote any time to matters of that kind, he also treats these questions thus as if they were identical with reality in spite of their isolation and exclusiveness.5 Yet perhaps this very absurdity may justify the undertaking. This is only music. What must a world be like in which even questions of contrapunct [sic] give evidence of unbearable contradictions. How thoroughly disturbed must the existence of man be, if impasse and deadlock are still reflected by a realm so far aloof from the sphere of immediate experience, a realm the function of which is supposed just to take away men from the sphere of immediate experience.

Perhaps because Adorno was unable, in English, to do what he was capable of doing in German, his explanation of the aim of this peculiar text is uncharacteristically candid: looking at matters that involve “only music”, he sought to grasp the “unbearable contradictions” that defined an entire social order.

One Passage, Three Translations

In the introduction to his translation Robert Hullot-Kentor observes that Adorno was likely “well aware that his recently acquired English was still inadequate to the task” of translating the German text. I suspect that a close examination of the Yale manuscript (which, I hasten to add, I have neither attempted nor am likely to carry out) will confirm this judgment. Even a limited reading makes it clear that the manuscript that Adorno sent to Virgil Thomson was very much still a work in progress.

For the moment, it may suffice to compare the closing sentences of the German original with the translations by Adorno, Mitchell and Blomster, and Hullot-Kentor.

First, Adorno’s German:

Die Schocks des Unverständlichen, welche die künstlerische Technik im Zeitalter ihrer Sinnlosigkeit austeilt, schlagen um. Sie erhellen die sinnlose Welt. Dem opfert sich die neue Musik. Alle Dunkelheit und Schuld der Welt hat sie auf sich genommen. All ihr Glück hat sie daran, das Unglück zu erkennen; all ihre Schönheit, dem Schein des Schönen sich zu versagen. Keiner will mit ihr etwas zu tun haben, die Individuellen so wenig wie die Kollektiven. Sie verhallt ungehört, ohne Echo. Schießt um die gehörte Musik die Zeit zum strahlenden Kristall zusammen, so fällt die ungehörte in die leere Zeit gleich einer verderblichen Kugel. Auf diese letzte Erfahrung hin, die mechanische Musik stündlich durchmacht, ist die neue Musik spontan angelegt, auf das absolute Vergessensein. Sie ist die wahre Flaschenpost.6

Adorno’s translation:

The shocks of being ununderstandable dealt by artistic technique during the age of their senselessness tilt over. They enlighten the senseless world. Advanced music sacrifices itself for this purpose. It has all its happiness in gaining the cognition of unhappiness. It has all its beauty in renouncing the illusion of beauty. It is liked by nobody, by individualists as little as by collectivists. It resounds [dies away, lingers] (verhallt) unheard, without an echo. If time gleamingly (strahlend) crystallizes around music that has been heard, unheard music falls into the empty time like a pernicious ball (globe) (Kugel). Advanced music aims spontaneously though unconsciously at this last experience which is made hour by hour by mechanical music, the experience of being totally forgotten. Its hope lies with the doom of the world. It is the true manuscript in the bottle.7

 *Philosophy of Advanced Music* (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Miscellaneous Writings by Others, Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.

*Philosophy of Advanced Music* (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Miscellaneous Writings by Others, Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.

Mitchell and Blomster:

The shocks of incomprehension, emitted by artistic technique in the age of its meaninglessness, undergo a sudden change. They illuminate the meaningless world. Modern music sacrifices itself to this effort. It has taken upon itself all the darkness and guilt of the world. Its fortune lies in the perception of misfortune; all of its beauty is in denying itself the illusion of beauty. No one wishes to become involved with art — individuals as little as collectives. It dies away unheard, without even an echo. If time crystallizes around that music which has been heard, revealing its radiant quintessence, music which has not been heard falls into empty time like an impotent bullet. Modern music spontaneously aims towards this last experience, experienced hourly in mechanical music. Modern music sees absolute oblivion as its goal. It is the surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked.8

Finally, Hullot-Kentor:

The shocks of the incomprehensible — which artistic technique in the age of its meaninglessness dispenses — reverse. They illuminate the meaningless world. New music sacrifices itself to this. It has taken all the darkness and guilt of the world on itself. All its happiness is in the knowledge of unhappiness; all its beauty is in the denial of the semblance of the beautiful. No one, neither individuals nor groups, wants to have anything to do with it. It dies away unheard, without an echo. Around music as it is heard, time springs together in a radiant crystal, while unheard tumbles perniciously through empty time. Towards this latter experience, which mechanical music undergoes hour by hour, new music is spontaneously aimed: towards absolute oblivion. It is the true message in the bottle.9

What is perhaps most immediately obvious is how little help Adorno can provide in the text’s most difficult passages: his solutions are generally no more successful than those who followed him.

His rendering of the verb at the close of the first sentence does manage to capture something that the other translations don’t quite get — the sense that an entire order is being overthrown. Yet “tilt over” misses the violence implicit in umschlagen — but then, so does Mitchell and Blomster’s “undergo a sudden change” and Hullot-Kentor’s concise “reverse.”

There is almost complete unanimity on what to do with second sentence — “Sie erhellen die sinnlose Welt”. The only difference is that where his Anglophone translators — perhaps sensing that “enlighten” has to be reserved for “aufklären” or “erleuchten” — do not follow Adorno in having the shock of the incomprehensible serve the cause of enlightenment (for reasons that should be obvious to readers of this blog, I rather like Adorno’s use of “enlighten” here).

Hullot-Kentor doesn’t clutter “Dem opfert sich die neue Musik” with unnecessary words and translates it as “New music sacrifices itself to this” (one of the many strengths of his translation is that it conveys something of the concision of Adorno’s German). Mitchell and Blomster’s translation echoes Adorno’s in wanting to find a noun to put in place of “this”. And here we also see the diverging ideas about what to do with “neuen Musik”: “advanced music” (Adorno), “modern music” (Mitchell and Blomster, or “new music” (Hullot-Kentor).

The remarkable sentence “Schießt um die gehörte Musik die Zeit zum strahlenden Kristall zusammen, so fällt die ungehörte in die leere Zeit gleich einer verderblichen Kugel” appears (understandably) to have stumped everyone. Hullot-Kentor succeeds in coming up with a sentence that resembles English while preserving something of the otherworldly character of the German: “Around music as it is heard, time springs together in a radiant crystal, while unheard tumbles perniciously through empty time.” But “as it is heard” plays down the contrast between “heard music” and “unheard music” by framing the distinction as temporal — and, perhaps, temporary (i.e., music as it is being heard vs. music that is not now being heard). Might this be a place to steal a trick from Keats and use “heard music”?

The rest of the sentence — “fällt die ungehörte in die leere Zeit gleich einer verderblichen Kugel” — is the sort of thing that drives translators to despair. To begin at the end: every Anglophone reader must struggle (in vain, I suspect) to banish the image of a baked pudding falling through empty time and try to figure out which of the many other things that Kugel designates Adorno might have had in mind [Update: shortly after this post was published, Lesley Chamberlain came up with a convincing account of what Adorno was doing in the sentence — see her comment below]. They can take some solace in the fact that Adorno wasn’t quite sure either: he initially went with “ball”, then added “globe” in parentheses and — apparently to remind himself that there was still work to be done — put the German in as well. Mitchell and Blomster’s “bullet” is an intriguing choice, though it might have been better to use “spent” in place of “impotent.” Like Adorno, Hullot-Kentor concludes that verderblichen can only be “pernicious”, but — having (sensibly) banished Kugel from the text — he is forced to attach the word to the action of tumbling, rather than to whatever it is (ball, globe, bullet, or pudding) that falls through empty time. The problem with “while unheard tumbles perniciously through empty time” is that it sounds uncomfortably close to Chomsky’s “colorless green ideas sleep furiously”: grammatically correct but (depending on one’s taste) either semantically nonsensical, poetic, or metaphysical. Faced with a phrase like this, all translators can do is resist the urge to put a bullet through their own heads.

Unless I’ve missed it, there is nothing in the published German text that corresponds to Adorno’s penultimate sentence, which suggests that either there was a sentence in the text of the original German manuscript that was subsequently cut or that this was one of the additions to the English text.

And finally we come to the last sentence, which contains the now familiar word Flaschenpost. As heirs to a tradition of reading Horkheimer and Adorno, Mitchell and Blomster and Hullot-Kentor know that Adorno is, of course, conjuring up the famous “message in bottle.” But Adorno, at sea in a language that was not yet (and probably could never fully be) his own, translates Post as “manuscript”, leaving the reader with the peculiar image of a “manuscript” stuffed into a bottle and set adrift. But, while strange, the image is strangely appropriate — at least for the peculiar manuscript that closes with it: for here is a manuscript cast off in the closing years of Adorno’s exile in Los Angeles that, somehow or other, washed up among the papers of an American composer and music critic.

I’ll have more to say in a subsequent post about why Adorno sent the manuscript to Virgil Thomson. But readers are on their own in dealing with that tumbling Kugel.


  1. The editors of Horkheimer’s collected works note that parts of the manuscript were later inserted into Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason, but have been unable to locate the manuscript itself. At this point, I’m inclined to think that the reason why the manuscript is missing is that it became the second chapter of the Eclipse of Reason. (In other words, the second chapter is the “Hook Paper.” But I won’t try to defend this conclusion here.
  2. For the full citation, see below. The same folder also contains a copy of the Analytical Study of the NBC Musical Appreciation Hour.
  3. See Horkheimer’s letter to Adorno of August 28, 1941 in Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften XVII:146-152.
  4. I’ve discussed this in some detail in “Mephistopheles in Hollywood: Adorno, Mann, and Schoenberg,” in The Cambridge Companion to Adorno, ed. Thomas Huhn (Cambridge University Press, 2004), 148–80.
  5. In the typescript, in place of the word “reality” Adorno had written “in a world which takes as little notice of them as they do of it” — which is enough to suggest that not all of his modifications were for the better.
  6. Theodor Adorno, Philosophie der neuen Musik, in Rolf Tiedemann, ed., Theodor W. Adorno Gesammelte Schriften 12:126.
  7. T. W. Adorno, Philosophy of Advanced Music (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Miscellaneous Writings by Others, Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.
  8. Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music translated by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster (New York: Seabury, 1973) 133.
  9. Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, translated, edited, and with an Introduction by Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006) 102.
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Cassirer on Enlightenment in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences – Part III: Into the Archive

Last week was spring break at my university and, breaking with my usual custom of trying to find a warm climate in which to do research, I decided to stay home and make some headway on the pile of overdue articles and reviews that have been accumulating. I did, however, book one trip to the past (which, I hear, is a different country where they do things differently) and managed to spend several hours in the Dwight Macdonald papers at Yale University. My hope was to try to see if I could find out more about Macdonald’s November 1940 meeting with Theodor Adorno — the focus of a conference paper that I hope, at some point to turn into an article. There turned out to be quite a bit of material that helped to flesh out the antagonisms that were developing within the editorial board of Partisan Review at around the time that Macdonald informed Adorno that he would be willing to publish whatever Adorno could give him. Nothing resulted from the meeting and Adorno, in keeping with the Institute’s policy of keeping a low profile, demurred and headed off to Los Angeles to write Dialectic of Enlightenment. I’d hoped that I might be able to find out who accompanied Macdonald to the meeting (Adorno’s letter to Horkheimer reporting on the meeting mentions that Macdonald was accompanied by an “associate” but does not give his name), but — as it turned out — there were no smoking guns to be found.1

There were a couple of hours left between the close of Manuscripts and Archives (which houses the Macdonald papers) and the departure of the train that would take me back to the land of the bean and the cod. Because Yale libraries have different closing times, I was able to pay a brief visit to the Beinecke, which houses Ernst Cassirer’s papers and, during my time there, I was able to examine the holograph of his article on the Enlightenment for the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, a text that I’ve discussed in two earlier posts.2 As I mentioned in the first of those posts, Hampshire College holds the papers for the Encyclopedia itself, including some of the correspondence files with authors. But the likelihood of learning much about Cassirer’s article has been diminished by a lacuna in the files that included correspondence with anyone whose last name begins with C. So, at least until I have some time to spend some time in the lovely Pioneer Valley (is this a great job or what?), the Yale holograph looked like my best chance to learn something more about this odd little text.

As was the case with the Macdonald papers, there were no earth-shattering discoveries here (e.g., no marginalia denouncing Heidegger as a “bootlicking Nazi swine”), but a cursory reading of the scans that I made during my frantic hour or so in the archive did help to narrow down the when the manuscript was written and also contained one surprise about Cassirer’s familiarity with the literature on the Enlightenment.

Regarding the Manuscript

Readers with long memories for arcane facts will recall that my interest in the article stems from the fact that it was completed not only prior to the publication of Cassirer’s Philosophy of the Enlightenment, but also — as far as I could determine — prior to the summer that he spent in Paris doing research on the Enlightenment in the Bibliothèque Nationale. This means that his article in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences was not a précis of the book that he would publish in 1933 on the Enlightenment, but instead was written prior to immersion in French texts from the period. In the second of my two posts, I argued that the relatively early date of composition was reflected in the contrasting treatment of the philosophes in the two works: in contrast to Philosophy of the Enlightenment, French thinkers are noticeably absent from the Encyclopedia article. The Enlightenment presented in the Encyclopedia is largely an English and German affair and it appears to have taken place chiefly in the 17th and early 18th century. The Enlightenment that appears in the Philosophy of the Enlightenment is a Franco-German venture, though the English and Dutch play significant roles as well.

Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706

Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706

The manuscript in the Beinecke appears to have been Cassirer’s final draft, submitted to the editors for translation, copy-editing, and typesetting and then returned to him when they were finished with it (the volume itself appeared in the fall). There are a few minor corrections in the text itself, presumably made before Cassirer sent the text off, and they — like the rest of the manuscript are written in Cassirer’s clear and legible handwriting (here, clearly, is a world we have lost: my handwriting looks like the scrawls of a child, minus the charm). This appears to be the only copy of the work among the Cassirer papers. We can assume that he reviewed the copyedited version and, perhaps, corrected the final proofs. One hopes that he was compensated for his labors with a copy of the Encyclopedia itself, but this is the only copy of the text that is preserved in his papers. It is not unique in that regard. Box 37 also contains holographs of a number of his more famous articles. It would appear that the copies of his writings that he preserved were the ones that were written in his own hand.

An cursory comparison of the German holograph and the English text indicates that there were some changes made in the text during the editing process. Cassirer’s manuscript provided topic headers for the different sections of the article, a practice that the Encyclopedia adopted in certain of its longer articles, but did not follow here. The introductory section of the text also appears to have been pared down a bit. It is possible that other cuts were made, but — since I have other things that need to be done — I’m not inclined to do the work necessary to find out. But a causal reading didn’t turn up any significant changes: the editors seem to have been satisfied with what they got.

The Date of its Composition

I was able to shed some light on my chief concern — the date of the composition of the manuscript — even before looking at the manuscript. Cassirer kept the envelope that was used to return the manuscript to him and that envelope was preserved by the archivists who processed his papers after his death. The envelope, which was sent from the Encyclopedia‘s office in Fayerweather Hall at Columbia University, was postmarked “July 3, 1931” and mailed to Cassirer at the “Chalet Palü” in the Alpine resort of Pontresina, Switzerland, where it would appear the Cassirers were — as they said in a more leisurely age — “summering.”3


Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706

Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706

While the envelope tells us when the editors returned Cassirer’s manuscript to him, it still leaves us in the dark as to when he sent it off to them.  It seems reasonable, though, to conjecture that — since it would have to have been translated into English prior to copy-editing — it is unlikely that Cassirer could have sent it off to New York any later than May or June of 1931. Of course, there’s nothing to rule out his having submitted the article considerably earlier than this;  my main interest here is to clarify what was the latest possible date that he could have written the article.   So, even we assume the latest possible submission of the article (and the quickest possible processing of it) this much is certain: Cassirer could only have written the article prior to beginning his work in the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Bibliographical Matters

There was one significant surprise in Cassirer’s text: he was responsible for the bibliography that appears in the printed edition. I’d assumed that it must have been prepared by the editors since it contains a book that I found it unlikely he would have known: John Grier Hibben’s The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1910).

Hibben’s book has intrigued me for some time: it was the first book on the period published in English to include the term “the Enlightenment” in its title and, more generally, the first book in English to treat “the Enlightenment” as something worthy of serious study. Up until that point, English commentators had, for the most part, been content to make unpleasant noises about something called “the Illumination.”

Hibben was a member of the philosophy faculty at Princeton at the time that he wrote the book (he later succeeded Woodrow Wilson as President of the university). He had spent some time studying in Germany and his book was Hegelian in its approach. (So, in a sense was Cassirer’s, though it wore its Hegelianism somewhat less conspicuously). Since it seemed unlikely that Cassirer would have been familiar with an English language study of the Enlightenment by a not particularly famous American philosopher, I assumed that the bibliography for his article was cobbled together by the editors of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, perhaps with some input from Cassirer regarding German sources. That supposition was reinforced by the presence of a number of other English texts in the bibliography.4 But it is clear from the holograph that it was Cassirer who compiled the bibliography, which means that the author of Die Philosophie der Aufklärung was acquainted with The Philosophy of the Enlightenment.

Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706

Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706

While it would have been hard for Cassirer not to be aware of the similarity between the title for the book he went on to write and the title of the book Hibben had already written, we should be cautious about making too much of this. For, while Cassirer initially signed a contract to deliver a book entitled Die Philosophie der Aufklärung, once he began work on it, he began to have second thoughts. As Gerald Harung notes in his helpful introduction to the 1998 reprint of the German text, Cassirer informed the philosopher Fritz Medicus (the editor of the series in which the book would appear) that the proposed title did not quite match up with what he found himself writing, which “was concerned not so much with the evolution of individual philosophical systems as with the general movement of ideas.” As an alternative, he proposed that the book appear as Ideengeschichte der Aufklärungszeit [History of Ideas of the Age of Enlightenment]. But he left the decision about the title up to the publisher Paul Siebeck who, in the interest of maintaining consistency in the titles of books in the series, opted to remain with the contracted title.5


  1. For a general discussion of the relationship of members of the Institute for Social Research with the “New York Intellectuals,” see Thomas Wheatland, The Frankfurt School in Exile (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). 
  2. The manuscript can be found in the Ernst Cassirer Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 98, Box 37, Folder 706.  For my earlier posts discussing the text and its origins, see Part 1 and Part 2.
  3. Something called the Chalet Palü still exists in Pontresina.  The one Kant scholar I know who is also a skier informs me that the chalet was likely named after Piz Palü, a 12,800 foot Alpione peak in the Bernina Range, between Switzerland and Italy.  The Wikipedia informs me that the name “Palü” derives from the Latin palus, or “swamp”, which means that the mountain takes its name from the Alpe Palü, a high pasture 4 km to its east (and, I suppose, yet another place to “research”). My informant also notes that the town of Pontresina (or Puntraschigna, depending on who is occupying the territory at the moment) is “(allegedly) a corruption of Pons Sarasina, referring to the Saracen invasion of the tenth century). Some people know a lot of stuff. It’s good to know them.
  4. In addition to Hibben, the bibliography contains a number of other English texts, including W. E. H. Lecky’s two-volume History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Nationalism in Europe (1910), Kingsley Martin, French Liberal Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1929), Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1902).
  5. Ernst Cassirer, Die Philosophie der Aufklärung, Philosophische Bibliothek ; Bd. 513 (Hamburg: F. Meiner Verlag, 1998) x*.
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