High Class Adorno Comix!

Note: click on any picture to see it more clearly and even magnify details!

Edward G. Nilges, “High Class Adorno Comics”, pencil and pen Sep 2011


1. I acknowledge Art Spiegelman’s use of the cat and mouse to represent the relationship of Nazis and Jews in his magnificent work of graphic art, Maus (and the exhausting labor of such work, which Spiegelman wrote about, is also acknowledged). But I won’t credit Art with the idea since Adorno was probably the first to notice how cartoonish predatory violence long concealed the reality of the Holocaust.

2. Words and pictures conceal as well as reveal. Ernest Heppner, in a memoir of the Shanghai semi-ghetto during WWII, “Shanghai Refuge”, writes that the press concealed a mediaeval pogrom after the events in Germany of 9 Nov 1938 (the so-called “night of broken glass”). A comic strip is at some level of remove a picture of pictures, of pictures. It represents the pre-existing contents of its audience’s heads in a rather pandering, flattering, way, using the same sort of catch-phrasing as does popular music (or did in Adorno’s era).

A comic strip originally an artifact of a deadline and exchange value. The crudity of “classic” comics was not some sort of demotic Modernism that either consciously or unconsciously reacted to high Modernism.

Instead, high Modernism in turn authorized the crudity and lack of finish, which meant that more comics could be churned-out (again, Art Spiegelman emphasises that “art” comics, “graphic novels” and so on, are labor-intensive, and they are even with digital tools).

Crudity and lack of polish are in no apriori way some sort of statement as to a proletarian identity. Dressing like Bertolt Brecht meant “real proletarian” in 1930 only by convention. Today, many of the super-rich dress down at their exclusive resorts and cultivate a sour brutality, and today, it means that “I’m rich and can get away with this”.

Conversely, a South African friend’s father under Apartheid went to a working class job every day of his working life in a dignified coat and tie which in a working man, prior to changing into the necessary working uniform as truck driver or railway locomotive repairman, means “I am a serious man with a family and dignity”. Equally by convention.

For Adorno, comics were predatorily elitist when they celebrated “cat and mouse” and communicated the very idea that the mouse could turn the tables, or survive his ordeal.

3. The staff of the Sydney (Australia) Jewish museum emphasized to me, during my visit last week, that Judaism, as opposed to the more Reform Judaism of Adorno’s time, has returned to the definition of Judaism as passing through the mother. But this means that Adorno was, for a modern and religious Jew, not “quite” Jewish “enough”. Which perhaps why his, and Horkheimer’s, relationship with the B’Nai Brith and the Anti-Defamation League were conflicted, and why Adorno didn’t realize what terrible danger he was in in 1933…he delayed his exit until receiving a visit from the Gestapo.

It is a paradox, but not amusing, that Judaism’s tribal remnants create the far more brutal, primitive and tribal reaction of anti-Semitism. Edward Said writes that to many listeners, “Siegfried’s Funeral Music”, by Wagner, is much more violent and nasty than the second movement of Beethoven’s Eroica. The Funeral is so loud, in its dramatic initial chords, that it’s protesting too much, and saying, “ha! You Jews are so clannish and you exclude me! I vill show you! Suck on zis! A Cherman myth where before 1815 there vas no Chermany, just a bunch of small kingdoms!”

Comparative religion teaches us to separate concerns and ask questions. It doesn’t give us answers.

Adorno, just possibly, was weakly defended, unpromoted and at times attacked by the New York Jewish intelligentsia for two reasons. One was its increasing conservatism commencing in the 1980s with Irving and Bill Kristol. The other was some sense that Adorno was not in the Inner Ring, not a “real” Jew owing to having a Catholic mother and not being observant. Yet during the Six Day War, Adorno was completely pro-Israel, and felt that the Arab countries were Fascist regimes. He might have changed his mind later based on the decline of Israel’s moral seriousness.

“Define your terms”. Sometimes the only way to define a historical concept is by way of acknowledging suffering. As far as I can determine, a “white” man (who can be a remarkable variety of genomes) is someone who screwed the man of color, or whose ancestors did, starting with Portuguese raids in 1516 for Chinese children to sell into slavery…from the very district in which I teach.

You’re a “Jew” if they beat you, for being a Jew. I guess I’m an honorary Homo, second class, because I innocently emerged from the water at the Oak Street beach in Chicago in 1995, a drunk guy jumped me for “wearing Speedos like a homo”. Suffering is the origin of consciousness and the very ability to get away from that sort of intellectual flaccidity and cynicism as to the ability to know characteristic of the comfortable in the West.

Adorno was victimized, big time, and overcame adversity in a way that needs to be more generally known, in the German way…for the German (and in my own family experience, the German American) way is to never put on a happy face or back up your troubles in your old kit bag. It’s to piss and moan and cuss and swear but pull through and do what has to be done, with a grim thoroughness: whereas most American settlers on the Minnesota frontier simply plowed around large tree stumps, a Nilges family legend is of an ancestor who spent weeks grimly uprooting an enormous tree.


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