The Challenge of Surrealism: The Correspondence of Theodor W. Adorno and Elisabeth Lenk
by Susan H Gillespie, Editor and Translator
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis MN, 2015
248 pp. Trade, $96.00; paper, $27.50
ISBN: 978-0-8166-5616-5; ISBN: 978-0-8166-5617-2.
Reviewed by Kieran Lyons
Theodor Adorno's lecture during the Berlin student protests of 1967 proved something of a flashpoint for those attending. The lofty theme on the relevance of Goethe's Ipheginie claiming for the play a parallel with the social unrest currently triggering demonstrations at universities in France and Germany seemed provocative and irrelevant. The ensuing protests signaled a decline in his ability to influence radical debate and his reluctance to exploit tensions over the death of a student in police operations during the Shah of Iran's visit only served to make matters worse. His determination to continue as planned may have contributed to the fracas that followed but in the circumstances, it was surely the rubric of this formal lecture-any formal lecture-sending its message of business-as-usual within elite surroundings that so inflamed the already volatile audience. Later Elisabeth Lenk would note that: "Adorno found himself in the situation of someone who has shown the way but, to the students' disappointment, isn't marching in the direction he points toward." Lenk was Adorno's doctoral student, his political acolyte and his committed student of critical theory, and her recollection comes with the hindsight of an established position after almost 50 years. However, in 1967 she was behind schedule with her thesis, having provisionally abandoned it in favour of political activism, which was for her a fairly typical trajectory of-on and off and on again-within the arc of her studies during these days with Adorno in both Frankfurt and then Paris. Bridging these two was her developing interest in militant surrealism, having joined the movement soon after arriving in Paris in 1962. She was by now attending meetings, and had become one of Andre Breton's trusted associates, sharing his opposition to French colonial rule and the war in Algeria. She soon changed her thesis to a topic that took in the social pointers of surrealism and in particular the lead given to it by its charismatic founder. As her supervisor, Adorno raised no objections, either to the shift in location or subject matter, which was now removed from his more immediate frame of reference. Nor did he seem to object to the level of militant activity she engaged with in spite of its effect on her academic progress. Maybe it was not in his power, perhaps even his nature, to intervene, and so it is a moot point as to whose shadow bore more influentially on Lenk's intellectual purpose at this time, his own in Frankfurt or AndrÉ Breton's in Paris.
The significant pages dealing with Adorno's influence in The Challenge of Surrealism: The Correspondence of Theodor W. Adorno and Elisabeth Lenk (University of Minesota Press) demonstrates a close relationship between student and supervisor and a lot of common ground between them. As might be expected from the title, the letters occupy the central and longest section of the book, on either side of which is a selection of essays establishing the links between critical theory and surrealism although an early essay by Walter Benjamin, written in 1929, predates the emergence of the Frankfurt School as an influential force in this area. The remaining contributions by Adorno, Rita Bischoff, and Lenk herself were written from the mid-fifties onwards and provide a view of how the two movements might be seen to run in tandem. After the central section of correspondence come two substantial essays by Lenk again. The first one is the 1969 accompaniment to the German language translation of Louis Aragon's Paris Peasant, and the second and longer essay is the 1966 introduction to the German translation of Charles Fourier's The Theory of the Four Movements and the General Destinies. Finally, there is a set of vignettes written in collaboration between Adorno and Carl Dreyfus, which Adorno sent to Lenk (p. 80) as Surrealist Readings. These are texts that he suggested might have some tangential relationship with her subject. Written in 1933 under the pseudonym Castor Zwieback, the 'Surrealist Readings' appear as if an afterthought, and they confirm a creeping suspicion about Adorno's purchase on the methodologies of surrealism and that, had it not been for Elisabeth Lenk, he might well have dismissed its later manifestations altogether.
In a letter (p.84), Adorno mentions a recent essay of his that was just about to appear, entitled On Some Relationships between Music and Painting (also translated by Susan H Gillespie although published elsewhere), in which he draws together his analysis of painting and music through a discussion of their opposing characteristics. It is a frustratingly perverse method that nevertheless works well, or at least it might have done so if his approach had extended to using examples in support of his thesis, which when he does he uses so generically that it is more often than not impossible to gauge which group of artists, let alone which artist's work, might be under discussion. The abstract qualities that he adumbrates would seem to have little bearing on the field of surrealism. The 1956 essay Surrealism Reconsidered appearing in this current Minnesota Press collection is under a revised title that was originally Looking Back on Surrealism, and it is difficult to escape the suspicion that for Adorno, at least, the best days of the movement were over.
If we are not persuaded of Adorno's ambivalence towards surrealism on the basis of our reading of his letters and their attendant notes and essays, these 'Surrealist Readings' at the back of the book might well do the trick. It is perhaps Adorno's misfortune to have these early snippets, each with its own coy non-sequitur, following directly after Elisabeth Lenk's weighty assessment of Louis Aragon's Paris Peasant'; that standard of surrealist literature, which in itself predicts the Paris psychogeography of the situationist dÉrive, in its turn a strategy that loops back to surrealist fascinations with effects of chance on location that come from Aragon. Lenk considers the essentials of his term frisson that surfaces and resurfaces throughout Paris Peasant and defines the rapid switch from an aimless and bored progress through a familiar urban situation into an hallucinatory encounter with subjective experience and leading to shocked self awareness where familiarity is turned, not only on its head, but seared into subjectivity as well. No such self-examination is allowed within the quirky frame of the Zweiback stories.
Throughout her correspondence Lenk comes across as an independent figure, gradually gaining a position in the academic and literary world in Paris and Frankfurt, by now the intellectual confidante of two eminent figures who provided a social grounding and to whom she looked for sympathy and attention; of her personal life, of which it might be assumed some sort of indication within the course of the 42 letters (Adorno wrote more than a third as many again) might exist. Emotional sympathy she gets, in spades from Adorno, creating the suspicion that without the constraints of a private secretary through whom all but one or two of his letters was dictated, Adorno might well have compromised his impartiality as her academic adviser and examiner; his close attention does not seem to have bothered Lenk particularly although it might be significant that after a certain date she began to include his wife in her closing salutations. Invariably, she addresses him in formal terms whereas his expressions run more freely within the gamut of possessive adjectives.
Readers who turn to this book for insights into the more febrile workings of the surrealist mind are likely to be disappointed. Lenk is not nostalgic about surrealism, and there is little reference to the tropes of convulsive beauty and almost no recourse to the rich seam of visual art that was sanctioned under its banner. Lenk's interest in the movement is by virtue of its political affiliations. She joined the movement as a thoroughly informed student of leftwing politics but without comparable artistic credentials-or at least ones that were less comparably expressed. A year after Breton's death she did send to Adorno her translations of one of Breton's poems (p.149) and three years before that a symbolist poem of her own (pp.82-83), receiving on both occasions a cursory response that referred back, rather too quickly, to his own literary and academic successes without really committing much scholarly assessment. Perhaps he was more forthcoming at their next meeting in Frankfurt, but if so, nothing is made of it in subsequent correspondence. This underscores one problem for the reader that apart from the inclusion of additional texts such as these poems, the letters function really as administrative signposts to a series of encounters (perhaps even assignations in Adorno's mind) leading, no doubt, to more detailed discussions that for whatever reasons the letter-form arranges but does not develop. Presumably, no other reader was intended, but since the letters have been made available, the material they consider lulls the reader into an idle form of epistolary trainspotting, matching dates and making accommodations for the delays caused by changes of address-until-and this really does come with a frisson of recognition that we are, all of a sudden, caught up in the Évenements of May 1968 and something extraordinary is happening at first hand. Here it is feasible to wonder alongside Lenk whether surrealism and the particular blend of critical theory that she developed through Adorno were not only closely related but were also crucial in the definition of upsetting political action. "Was it not they," she asks at the start of her 1996 lecture Critical Theory and Surreal Practice included in this collection, "ultimately, that unleashed the May events?"