the arrow of time
An enlightened voyage: ‘The Vessel of the Constitution
steered clear of the Rock of Democracy,
and the Whirlpool of Arbitrary Power’
From antiquity to fascism, Homer has been criticised for garrulousness – both in the hero and in the narrator.
– Theodor Adorno
(Dialectic of Englightenment:
‘Excursus 1: Odysseus or Myth and Enlightenment’, p. 53)
Nestor, as you will recall, was a bit of a windbag; very much the elder statesman, he offered good advice wrapped in so much reminiscence and waffle it’s a wonder the Trojan war didn’t last another ten years while the Achaeans sat on the shore listening. When I first started reading The Dialectic of Enlightenment, it struck me as rather Nestorian: there are good ideas and observations, interred in turgid prose and preposterous waffle. You will recall, of course, the main good idea: progress, civilization, and ‘enlightenment’1 do not lead to progressive, civilized, or enlightened behavior; in fact, cultural and technological ‘progress’ contain the seeds of the most oppressive, regressive, brutal dehumanization at all social levels.2 The equivocation will follow.
I’d been having difficulty with The Dialectic of Enlightenment from the very first. Initially, I worried that I needed to be in a suitably attentive frame of mind in order to understand it fully: it was a thinking book and I needed to be a thinking reader.3 Paying attention while reading can be so tiresome, especially if one has been reading detective stories like they were being banned tomorrow. A week or so ago, I tried The Dialectic again, read a little faster, and got on a little better. Until I got to the ‘excursus’ on the Odyssey, which vexed me.
I’ve read the ‘excursus’ three times now, which is probably more than it deserves.4 The first time I was very angry; the second time I was incensed. What sort of nonsensical literary interpretation refers to Odysseus’ bed as:
durable amateur handiwork: as a prototypical bourgeois he is smart enough to have a hobby […] a resumption of the craft work from which, within the framework of differentiated property relations, he has long since been exempted (58).
Makes it sound like he ran down to Home Depot after reading the last three issues of Dwell and put ‘wood-working’ on his CV under ‘interests’.5 Worse still, Odysseus himself is reduced to ‘the prototype of the bourgeois individual, whose concept originates in the unwavering self-assertion of which the protagonist driven to wander the earth is the primeval model’ (35) and:
Odysseus’s athletic accomplishments are those of the gentleman who, free of practical cares, can train himself in lordly self-mastery (44).
So obviously he’s a fan of protein powder smoothies and the weights circuit at the local gym.6 These interpretations are so silly and the tone so ardently patronizing, that I would have given the book up as a bad job had I not already read Minima Moralia and known that Adorno was cleverer than he was letting on in this intellectual stroll down the garden path.7
As I said, it vexed me the first two times I read it; since Adorno seemed pretty vexed, too, I didn’t take it personally.8 No, that’s a lie. I took it very personally. When one reads a work of criticism about a particular cultural artifact, one expects the essay or article or excursus to be about that artifact – as though the author were there in the room talking about his (or her) clever notions about the thing at hand, without distraction. That is not the case here. Adorno was not talking to me, the reader – I felt that instantly; there was someone (something) else in the room. Even now I cannot quite decide what (or who) that presence is: it could be Hegel, or Marx, or Nietzsche, or the Nazis, or the Holocaust, or everything all together.9
The third time I read the excursus, however, I set aside some of my irritation and noticed something odd: Adorno discusses the Odyssey solely in terms of subsequent developments. Odysseus is bourgeois; the book itself is ‘closer in form to the picaresque novel’ than the Iliad (38);10 ‘ the Odyssey is already a Robinsonade’ (48). The flowering of adventure and individuality and violence in the Odyssey are for Adorno necessarily precursors of things to come; because Odysseus slaughters the suitors and blinds Polyphemus, the Holocaust is the necessary consequence. Adorno is a determinist, poor soul, and wants to use words to turn back the arrow of time. If he could unravel the Odyssey not on its own terms, but in terms of everything that came after, then everything that came after might be … different – explicable perhaps. Realizing this, I felt very sad, and lost interest in fighting with the injustice of his interpretations. There are greater injustices after all, and this was and is not a ‘thinking’ book: it is a sophisticated, shattered call to arms for a battle already lost and unwinnable.
History is too massive a knot for one person to untangle – or even a whole raft of historians and specialists and weary souls who’ve given their lives to libraries and universities in exchange for cheap wine, stale canapés, and an illusory security.11 It takes a hero to do that; and heroes don’t play the game honestly: they never did. Only a fool would imagine that the game isn’t rigged, that life is fair, that good will conquer in the end. These are moral ideas, moral categories – mere human invention; existence is amoral: it is, without qualification.12 And there aren’t any heroes anymore, anyhow, to cut through the Gordian knot of the past and turn it into sense even for a moment. There never were, I suppose.
- Capitalized or not, as you prefer. [↩]
- A bit of an over-simplification, but there you have it. [↩]
- That I would need to take up thinking as a middle-aged middle-manager takes up again on weekends the racquetball at which he excelled in his youth. [↩]
- This coyness, Teddie, were no crime… but there are other books to read, and probably better ones, too. [↩]
- Why is his father out farming if the royal family is free from work? Or is the old man just pottering about with ornamental espaliers instead of producing essential household foodstuffs? [↩]
- Which is obviously why Telemachus is also able to string the bow: he’s free of practical cares. I am not even going to begin on Adorno’s comparisons of Odysseus to ‘oriental merchants’. [↩]
- The inversion of expectations of female behavior, i.e. Calypso and Circe acting in a way like bourgeois housewives and Penelope acting like a ‘harlot’ looked like a more interesting avenue for thought, but is reduced to an aside (54–8). [↩]
- I’m going along with the notion that Adorno wrote this particular chapter, however much Horkheimer may have added to it during the process of revision; the excursus on the Odyssey is the second chapter in the book, so I didn’t get very far. [↩]
- An alarming prospect. [↩]
- Not to be developed for a few centuries, but a valid enough observation. [↩]
- Okay, so I’m not immune to addressing someone ‘not in the room’, as it were. [↩]
- Which in some ways seems like quite a big enough limb to be going out on without worrying about turning human civilization into some bathetic vampire story, ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’ &c.: a sickly and, dare I say, rather bourgeois way to look at it. [↩]