Theodor Adorno: Reflections on damaged life and the diminishing of morality

If “Minima Moralia” were a person, I would be in love with him forever

Apart from having one of the best titles in the history of literature, Minima Moralia is one of those books that I have underlined so many times during various stages of my life that it makes me look insane.

That some parts of this book have remained free of my crazy underlining is only because doing that would defeat the whole purpose of underlining in general. But the desire remains and resurfaces each time I read it. It is written in a beautiful language that seems cold and technical only initially, later transforming into something almost musical. Adorno was a talented pianist and, I think, the English translation is a great reflection of the [German] language in its original form.

The beauty of this book is not that at different ages or life-stages you seek and discover different things but that you have that desire – no, need – to revisit it, repeatedly, each time attempting to confirm to yourself you have fully understood, each time discovering some meaning you have overlooked. Each passage has a beautifully appropriate title which sends you into infinite tangential searches into your knowledge and literary database. That is quite a challenge and can be tiring if taken on, but worth it. For all its cynicism and general seriousness, there are magical moments of humor.

My curiosity never wanes. If “Minima Moralia” were a person, I would be in love with him forever.

Perhaps Adorno’s close friend, Thomas Mann (an established novelist and 30 years his senior) best described the experience of reading this book: “For days on end I was magnetically glued to the book, every day, anew, it is fascinating reading.”

On the relationship between Adorno and Mann read this interesting paper

Sevaral of my favorite passages on the consequence of life in a culture of mass production and pragmatism:

On loss of identity, the diminishing of impulses and instincts, and consequences of psycho-analysis:

What is true of the instinctual life is no less of the intellectual; the painter or composer forbidding himself as trite this or that combination of colors or chords, the writer wincing at banal or pedantic verbal configurations, reacts so violently because layers of himself are drawn to them.

Now that depth-psychology, with the help of films, soap operas and Horney, has delved into the deepest recesses, people’s last possibility of experiencing themselves has been cut off by organized culture. […] Terror before the abyss of the self is removed by the consciousness of being concerned with nothing so very different from arthritis or sinus trouble.

Fidelity to one’s own state of consciousness and experience is forever in temptation of lapsing into infidelity, by denying the insight that transcends the individual and calls his substance by its name.

There is no relationship that is not seen as a “connection”, no impulse not first censored as to whether it deviates from the acceptable.

On the private sphere, relationships, marriage, and divorce:

When the division between professional and private life still existed, anyone who pursued practical aims in the private sphere was eyed mistrustfully as an uncouth interloper. Today it is seen as arrogant, alien, and improper to engage in private activity without any evident ulterior motive. Not to be “after” something is almost suspect.

The entire private domain is being engulfed by a mysterious activity that bears all the features of commercial life without there being actually any business to transact.

The eye for possible advantages is the mortal enemy of all human relationships; from these solidarity and loyalty can ensue, but never from thoughts of practical ends.

We shudder at the brutalization of life, but lacking any objectively binding morality we are forced at every step into actions or words, into calculations that are by humane standards barbaric, and even by the dubious values of good society, tactless.

The only decent marriage would be one allowing each partner to lead an independent life, in which, instead of a fusion derived from an enforced community of economic interests, both freely accepted mutual responsibility.

Intimacy between people is forbearance, tolerance, refuge for idiosyncrasies. If dragged into the open, it reveals the moment of weakness in it.

The Scream
"The Scream" by Edvard Munch, 1893

On the modern banality of – already banal – lies and stinginess, on loss of passion:

Among today’s adept practitioners [of lying], the lie has long since lost its honest function of misrepresenting reality. Nobody believes anybody, everyone is in the know.

The miser of our time is the man who considers nothing too expensive for himself, and everything for others. He thinks in equivalents, subjecting his whole private life to the law that one gives less than one receives in return, yet enough to ensure that one receives something. […] This type are most surely revealed by the haste with which they “avenge” kindness received, unwilling to tolerate, in the chain of exchange acts whereby expenses are recovered, a single missing link. […] The sordid mania of stinginess had the redeeming feature that the gold in the cash box necessarily attracted thieves, indeed, that its passion was stilled only in the sacrifice and loss, as is the erotic desire for possession in self-abandonment. The new misers, however, indulge their asceticism no longer as a vice but with prudence. They are insured.

What in the days of art nouveau was known as the beautiful death has shrunk to the wish to curtail the infinite abasement of living and the infinite torment of dying, in a world where there are far worse things to fear than death.

If people were no longer possessions, they could no longer be exchanged. True affection would be one that speaks specifically to the other, and becomes attached to the beloved features and not to the idol of personality, the reflected image of possession.

He who offers for sale something unique that no one wants to buy, represents, even against his will, freedom from exchange.

On ignorance, false happiness and how to live in this world:

Only when sated with false pleasure, disgusted with the goods offered, dimly aware of the inadequacy of happiness even when it is that, can men gain an idea of what experience might be. […] It is part of the mechanisms of domination to forbid recognition of the suffering it produces and there is a straight line of development between the gospel of happiness and the construction of camps of extermination so far off in Poland that each of our own countrymen can convince himself that he cannot hear the screams of pain. That is the model of an unhampered capacity for happiness.

There is no remedy but steadfast diagnosis of oneself and others, the attempt, through awareness, if not to escape doom, at least to rob it of its dreadful violence, that of blindness.

Yet, a gaze averted from the beaten track, a hatred of brutality, a search for fresh concepts not yet encompassed by the general pattern, is the last hope for thought.

If a life fulfilled its vocation directly, it would miss it.