Scholem & Adorno

In The Nation, Peter Gordon has a piece on the friendship between historian and ardent Zionist Gershom Scholem and founding Frankfurt School member Theodor Adorno, two ethnocentric Jews whose Judaic impulses fused with their leftist utopianism.

The undercurrent of the piece is the… Jewishness… of their beliefs, careers, and personal correspondence. There are passages like this:

Men of extraordinary erudition and critical acumen, Scholem and Adorno could never truly overcome their philosophical and political differences, though in retrospect it’s clear that both men epitomized a shared style of Central European intelligence, fusing irony with utopian conviction…

Representative of their passages of youth:

Unlikely as their friendship may seem, Scholem and Adorno had one thing in common: They had both been friends of the literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, though at first this connection did little to awaken warm feelings between the two. Scholem had known Benjamin since their Berlin days in the Youth Movement during World War I, and he feared that Adorno would lead his friend astray—from Judaism and toward Marxism.

Marxism as secularized Judaism is a longstanding gentile critique of Jewish collective behavior, which sheds light on passages like this:

This counterintuitive suggestion—that materialism and theology might somehow converge—helps to explain why Adorno found a sympathetic reader in Scholem. In his studies of the Kabbalah, Scholem, too, joined the theological and secular categories in an unlikely union. It was the great conceit of his scholarship that messianism, the most volatile force in all of Jewish history, had never vanished but instead constantly reasserted itself in new and unfamiliar forms…

The messianic impulse cloaked itself in secular garments only to burst out at pivotal moments of history, first in the antinomian violence of the French Revolution, and, much later, risked a political-theological explosion in secular Zionism itself. This was a boldly revisionist and rather romantic vision of the Jewish past; Scholem ignored the tradition of legal-rationalism that arguably lies at Judaism’s core. But it clearly held a philosophical and personal meaning for him that breached the rules of conventional historiography, as is evident in his “Ten Ahistorical Theses on the Kabbalah” (1958), in which he entertained the idea that his own historical research contributed to a hidden stream of “nihilistic messianism” coursing through Jewish history. In a confessional moment, he wrote to Adorno: “I am anything but an atheist.”

Of Scholem’s passion for Zionism:

The truth is that Adorno always bristled at communalism. Half-Jewish and half-Catholic by birth, he understood the poisonous consequences of anti-Semitic prejudice; but for that very reason, he couldn’t attach himself to any tribe narrower in circumference than all of humanity, and he extended his moral sympathies to nonhuman animals as well. Like so many refugee intellectuals of his generation who had personally experienced the sting of anti-Semitism, he sided instinctively with the State of Israel against its perceived enemies. In a letter written during the 1956 Suez crisis, he conveyed to Scholem his hopes for Israel’s safety. But it is perhaps no accident that he always found himself too tasked with academic responsibilities in Germany to accept Scholem’s invitations to Jerusalem. Whatever its historical longevity or political utility, ethnonationalism was for Adorno a surrender to the instincts of the horde, not a future ideal.

We also have the eternal Jewish paranoia towards Christians:

Adorno and Scholem had the good humor to see through the pretensions of scholarly life. Yet even this exchange bears further scrutiny. The reference to a “Jewish Christmas-present” permits Scholem a playful rejoinder to a passage from Adorno’s 1955 essay on Benjamin, in which Adorno observed that the reader of Benjamin’s work was “bound to feel like the child who catches a glimpse of the lighted Christmas tree through a crack in the closed door.” Scholem, though well acquainted with Christmas trees from his own Berlin childhood, may have resented Adorno’s readiness to adopt a simile that robbed Benjamin’s work of its distinctively Jewish character.

Articles such as this, making observations like this, are only allowed in liberal publications like The Nation, where, ultimately, the author writes approvingly of the subjects.

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