Adorno on Truth, Survival, Consolation & Freedom of Thought

There is an American saying that there are no atheists in the trenches; the old German proverb that danger teaches us to pray points in the same direction [. . .] This argument is illogical because the situations in which people are forced to think 'positively' simply in order to survive are themselves situations of compulsion, which force people back on pure self-preservation, and on thinking only what they need to in order to survive in such a situation, to a point where the truth content of what they think is hopelessly undermined and utterly destroyed. It is possible that, had Beckett been in a concentration camp, he would not have written The Unnamable or Endgame; but I do not think it possible that this would have made what he wrote better or truer. The idea you will come across again and again in this context, that one has to give people something, has to give them courage—all these things are conditions which restrict the thinking of truth, but which may well bring down on someone who thinks the truth the odium of inhumanity [ . . .] But I also think that this mode of thinking, this demand placed on thought, does an injustice to the people in whose honour it is ostensibly made. Although this demand is seemingly made out of a charitable concern for the victims, in fact it reduces them to the objects of a thinking which manipulates and calculates them, and assumes in advance that it is giving them what they need and want. By the evaluation manifested in such ostentatiously noble injunctions, the people they pretend to serve are in reality debased. They are treated by metaphysics in fundamentally the same way as by the culture industry. And I would say that the criterion to be applied to any metaphysical question today is whether it possesses or does not possess this character of connivance with the culture industry. [ . . . .] If there is any way out of this hellish circle—and I would not wish to exaggerate that possibility, being well aware of the weakness and susceptibility of such consciousness—it is probably the ability of mind to assimilate, to think the last extreme of horror and, in face of this spiritual experience, to gain mastery over it. That is little enough. For, obviously, such an imagination, such an ability to think extreme negativity, is not comparable to what one undergoes if one is oneself caught up in such situations. Nevertheless, I would think that in the ability not to feel manipulated, but to feel that one has gone relentlessly to the furthest extreme, there lies the only respect which is fitting: a respect for the possibility of the mind, despite everything, to raise itself however slightly above that which is. And I think that it really gives more courage (if I can use that formulation) if one is not given courage, and does not feel bamboozled, but has the feeling that even the worst is something which can be thought and, because it falls within reflection, does not confront me as something absolutely alien and different. I imagine that such a thought is probably more comforting than any solace, whereas solace itself is desolate, since it is always attended by its own untruth.

22 July 1965

SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. Metaphysics: Concept and Problems [lecture series, 1965], edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), pp. 124-5.

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