Friday, December 29, 2006

The Heresy of Paraphrasing Adorno

This is kind of a belated response to some email I got about an Adorno post many weeks ago, in which I was accused semi-accurately of defiling Adorno's dearest truths by trying to explain a very few of his ideas as clearly as I could, and giving examples in the process. It's true Adorno wouldn't like the kinds of things I attempted, but then again, I don't think we need to treat his desires and beliefs as absolute truths. It might not even be the best way to respect him — as someone once said to me in a bar in Indiana, reading against the grain is the sincerest form of flattery.


We (I am embarrassed to see that I mean "we, the professoriate and/or literati" here, or something similarly mandarin) tend to sneer, nowadays, at Cleanth Brooks' notion of "the heresy of paraphrase": it is, after all, just another New Critical cliche that once hampered the adventurous reader. But we cower before the Inquisitor Adorno when he pronounces the same edict, and labels as heretics those who would say positively what he by negation. One midcentury view of the ineffabilty of the text is treated as outmoded, the other is treated as TRVTH.

But isn't paraphrase like translation? I mean, aren't both of these like the performance of a musical score? They can be well done or poorly (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Solti vs., say, the least-successful youth orchestra you've heard) — but the fact that no performance exhausts the totality of the score's potentials doesn't make it wrong to perform the score in the first place.

Adorno as the deaf Beethoven who hears the music only in his thoughts.

And isn't there an irony in Adorno saying of Heidegger, in The Jargon of Authenticity "he lays about him the taboo that any understanding of him would also be a falsification." (Martin Jay pointed this out in Adorno — though weirdly Jay didn't say anything about the other parallel between Heidegger and Adorno: both came to the conclusion that German was somehow a special language, with unique affinities for philosophy — creepy moment of Deutsche sprache ├╝ber alles).

I know Adorno wants the kind of truth he wants to get at to be transcendent, above any commodification or reification. But I believe in the need to try to incarnate the transcendent — with the proviso that we make it plain to ourselves and others that these attempts will be innacurate — almost as innacurate as reverant silence.