Tag Archives: Hofmannsthal

Jargon of Authenticity, Day 6

Adorno was just listing terms that belong to “the jargon” — and also remarking that many of them are ordinary German words, not immediately recognizable as jargon if cited out of context. He goes on:

The point, then, is not to compile an Index Verborum Prohibitorum of fast-selling noble nouns, but to ponder the linguistic function of such terms in the jargon.

A reader might be wondering here about the phrase “noble nouns.” That’s a single, compound word in the original, which Adorno has formed by attaching the prefix Edel- to the word for “noun.” It is, as best I can tell, Adorno’s coinage, though it follows an established pattern in German. English, like German, refers to helium and neon and the like as “noble gases,” but Germans extend that formulation to many other things, in a way that English speakers don’t, often marking out the high-grade or special members of some class by attaching to it the prefix Edel-. A German gem is a “noble-stone.” Stainless steel is “noble-steel.” That said, we won’t want to overlook the soft oxymoron that Adorno has generated around his coinage: The terms in question are noble, sure, but they are also good business — “fast-selling.” Their very nobility has been diluted or indeed hucksterized, hawked by journalists and pundits, on the lips of every pretender.

     The Latin phrase, meanwhile, is Adorno’s riff on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books, for which he has substituted “Index of Forbidden Words,” the idea being, of course, that he is repudiating the role of censor. He wants us to keep track of the jargon, but he’s not going to tell anyone to delete its terms from their vocabulary.

      He continues:

Its lexicon consists of rather more than noble nouns anyway. At times it even seizes upon [otherwise] banal words, holds them aloft and then bronzes them in the fascist manner, which wisely commingles the plebeian with the elite.

The first thing to notice about these two sentences is that they give one good reason to forgo censorship. The jargon, Adorno says for a second time, features many ordinary German words — one is tempted to say “common nouns,” in juxtaposition to those nobles one — and it would be downright silly to interdict basic and everyday terms from the German vocabulary. A contemporary American professor could just about instruct his students to stop using (and mostly misusing) the word “ontology,” but he’s hardly going to tell them to stop using the word “body.”

But this passage is, of course, more alarming than that, since Adorno is beginning to elaborate now on his big point — that something about how educated Germans spoke, as late as the 1960s, still sounded kind of fascist. And this particular observation about fascism’s verbal style — that it employed a mixed idiom that oscillated promiscuously between the demotic and the high-flown — could easily remind the reader of a second book, one that preceded Adorno’s by some sixteen years: This would be Viktor Klemperer’s LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii, or “Language of the Third Reich,” a set of reflections on the idiosyncrasies of Nazi German, compiled in notebook-form during the ’30s and ’40s by a Jewish-at-birth literature professor and published to great acclaim in 1947. Adorno, in other words, had a model.

        But the writers he is about to name are neither of them Klemperer. Once you know who he’s talking about, in fact, the next sentence is downright alarming:

The neo-romantic poets who drank their fill of the choicest vintages, like [Stefan] George and [Hugo von] Hofmannsthal, by no means wrote their prose in the jargon; many of their intermediaries, however, did — [Friedrich] Gundolf, for instance.

To remark now that Stefan George is usually regarded as the most important German modernist poet — and that Hofmannsthal was his Austrian twin, his sometime collaborator and lifelong frenemy, is not yet to say nearly enough. The most important thing to know about George is that he started his career as a junior member of the Mallarmé circle in Paris, slurring his name to Shorsh in place of the crisply Germanic Gay-yor-guh, and that he ended his career as the official poet of Germany’s hard Right and indeed of the Nazis. He thus enters cultural history as the intermediate step between the queer aestheticism of the 1890s and National Socialism; he was the guy who, while writing poems that typically remind English speakers of Eliot or Pound or Yeats, also helped publish numerous volumes of literary history with swastikas in their front matter and titles like The Poet as Führer. This is explainable: George and his followers — he was famous for having followers — united around a stalwart program to dismantle the institutions of the modern world. They wanted to roll back a whole range of depersonalized social forms: capitalism, large cities, rule-based organizations of any kind, industrialism and its technologies, mass media, mass politics. We should be careful here, since this was at one point a fairly common program and came in lots of different versions, not all of which landed on the political Right. The Rousseauvian Left could still sign onto that platform. So could the Jeffersonian republicans, on the understanding that to be a true American is not to be European, is not to be civilized; to be American is to remake yourself for the better in conditions of relative hardship (away from big cities and settled institutions &c). What made the George Circle distinctive, then, was twofold: First, it championed poetry as the alternative to (over)civilization — poetry and not, say, the frontier. The poet-prophet would play the role that Americans more typically assign to the cowboy or the Nebraska pioneer. Poetry would keep open the possibility of a life lived beyond the industrialized anonymity of mass society. That’s the first distinctive point. The second distinctive point is that the George Circle thought that fascism would make the world safe for aesthetes and queer people — if not the Nazis, then at least some hypothetical other fascism that at least some of them, for a time, mistook for really existing National Socialism.

     What I can add now is that Gundolf was for many years George’s favorite disciple — and the one tasked with translating the Circle’s program into accessible prose. It’s that divvying up of duties that seems to interest Adorno here. We can give the right-wing poets a degree of credit — credit, that is, for not having resorted to a standardized idiom even when writing prose. But it was the literary historian’s job to re-state the tenets of their fascist aestheticism in terms that lent themselves to codification and repetition — to take the rarefied discourse of George’s “Secret Germany” and make it not-so-secret. And what Adorno thinks he has noticed is that the postwar existentialists are still talking in the accents of the fascist-bohemian middlebrow.

      Adorno continues:

Particular words only become jargon through the constellation they deny, through each word’s posing as unique. What the singular word has lost in magic is acquired for it in a dirigiste manner, as though measures had been implemented. 

“What the singular word has lost in magic…” The place to start here is with the observation that words used to have magic but now mostly don’t — that’s clearly a linguistic variant of Weber’s disenchantment thesis. Adorno has omitted an important explanation here that serves as the backdrop to his more targeted comments — namely, that a great many modern intellectuals have regarded poetry as a way to combat disenchantment. Let’s start with one familiar understanding of magic: The sorcerer is the person who can speak something into being, via spell or incantation. Any anti-mimetic theory of literature, then, will ask us to think of poetry as a species of lesser magic. Poets do not merely write down what they see in front of them; they are the inventors of worlds. The fictioner gives ongoing evidence of the mind’s creative powers. But that’s not the end of it. Anyone who subscribes to speech act theory or social constructivism or the doctrine of mind-dependent social kinds is claiming to find this sublunary magic at every turn, IRL, and not just in the library. It turns out that we routinely speak things into being. The word “spell” means both “abracadabra” and “to list in their proper order the letters that make up a word.” At root, the word “incantation” just means “song.” “Grammar” is “grimoire.” A disenchanted language, then, would be one that is unwilling to unleash the powers of alphabet, song, and grammar, content only ever to describe and transcribe and record — a language that makes nothing, backed by a theory of language that sees all words as secondary, as following on from the things they merely designate, a theory that grants language no creative force. To this we need merely add that many modern poets really have tasked poetry with keeping alive the creative force of language — word-magic — in periods when that rival view of language (as so many tokens) has come to prevail; with charming the reader beyond the constraints of analytic understanding; and perhaps even with safeguarding the ancient and esoteric wisdom that mere science has tended to overwrite. For a period, Stefan George belonged to an esoteric circle in Munich that called themselves the Cosmics. W. B. Yeats was a wizard in the Order of the Golden Dawn.

        If you go back now and look at Adorno’s last two sentences, what will jump out is that Adorno is talking still about the jargon and not about poetry. On the basis of this passage alone, we can’t say what Adorno thinks about those properly poetic attempts to restore the magic of language, though in other essays, he does express a guarded admiration for George, and especially for the intransigent, homophile nonconformity of the poète maudit. The point here, however, is that the jargon has its own way of trying to re-enchant language, and that this way is ham-fisted, bullying, and hopeless. The jargon inherits from the poetry to which it is adjacent the project of re-enchanting language, but is really bad at it. I’d go so far as to say that this short passage offers a theory in passing of what makes jargon jargon; it teaches you how to recognize when a word has been annexed to some jargon. The problem with jargon is that it claims to produce the thing that it names — that’s the magic bit — without the speaker having to make any additional effort. Someone speaks the word “identity” and concludes that they have thereby fashioned a stable persona, without having to understand how selves get assembled or pausing to worry about how our ego constructs tend to come unstuck over time. I speak the word “intersectionality” and believe that I have thereby already done the hard work of solidarity. Having been told that networks of oppression typically overlap, I spare myself the labor of figuring out just how they are articulated — here, now — and I find myself with nothing to say about how the matted skein of domination might yet be unraveled. Each term pretends singly to some such power, even though they are all interlinked, tending, in fact, to be defined in terms of one another: “intersectionality” gets defined with reference to “identity”; anyone explaining “identity” asks first if you understand “positionality” and so on. And the terms themselves are rhetorically quite flat. Repetition alone will tend to routinize them and so strip them of their verbal mojo. The jargon will never achieve the insinuating and uncanny character of the well-turned poetic line, that weird cadence that can make verse sound like an improvised hex: “And I will show you something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; / I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” Words like “identity” and “intersectionality” have been assigned their bogus magic by professorial explanation and glossaries compiled on college websites. They are magic only by decree, pedantically enchanted.