MINIMA MORALIA: Reflections from the damaged life. By THEODOR ADORNO
PART THREE: 1946-1947. Aphorism #116: And just hear, how evil he was.
Translated by Dennis Redmond
And just hear, how evil he was. – Those who have unexpectedly ended up facing life-threatening dangers, sheer catastrophes, often report that they were to a surprising extent free of fear. The general terror does not turn specifically against them, but strikes them as mere inhabitants of a city, members of a larger association. They adapt to what is accidental, what is inanimate, as it were, as if it didn’t really concern them. The lack of fear has its psychological explanation in the lack of readiness to be afraid vis-à-vis the overpowering blow. The freedom of eyewitnesses has something damaged about it, something related to apathy. The psychic organism, like the body, is compatible with experiences of an order of magnitude similar to itself. If the object of experience is raised out of proportion to the individual [Individuum], then the latter actually doesn’t experience it anymore, but registers the former unmediatedly, through the non-intuitive concept, as something external to itself, something incommensurable, to which the latter relates as coldly as to the catastrophic shock. There is an analogy to this in what is moral. Whoever commits acts, which are egregiously unjust according to acknowledged norms, such as taking revenge on enemies, or refusing to be sympathetic, is scarcely conscious of their guilt and comes to realize this only with painful effort. The doctrine of reasons of state, the separation of ethics [Moral] and politics is not untouched by this state of affairs. Its meaning stems from the extreme opposition between public essence [Wesen] and individual existence. The major crime presents itself to the individual [Individuum] in large part as a mere misdemeanor against convention, not merely because the norms which it injures are themselves something conventional, frozen, unbinding on the living subject, but because their objectification as such, even where they are founded on substance, evades the moral innervation, the realm of the conscience. The thought of specific acts of tactlessness however, the microorganisms of injustice, which perhaps no-one else noticed – that someone sits down too early in company, or put the guests’ name-tags down during tea-time, rather than at dinner, as is customary – such trivialities may fill the delinquent one with irreproachable remorse and a passionately bad conscience, at times with such a burning shame, that they cannot allow themselves to be pardoned by any other human being and preferably not even by themselves. They are therein by no means as noble as all that, for they know, that the society which has no objections against inhumanity, objects all the more strongly to misconduct, and that a man who sends away his lover and vouches for himself as an upright man, can be sure of social approval, while the man who respectfully kisses the hand of an overly young girl from a good family, earns himself ridicule. However these luxuriously narcissistic concerns afford a second aspect: that of the refuge of experience, which rebounds from the objectified social order. The subject reaches into the smallest features of what is correct or incorrect and is capable of vouching for itself therein as acting rightly or wrongly; its indifference towards moral guilt, however, is tinged with the consciousness that the powerlessness of one’s own decision grows with the dimension of their object. If one established in retrospect, that by failing to call one’s girlfriend after an ugly quarrel, this in fact ended the relationship, then there is something faintly comic in the conception of this; it sounds like the mute girl in Portici [character in Daniel Auber’s 1828 opera The Mute Girl of Portici]. “Murder,” goes an Ellery Queen detective novel, “is so… newspapery. It doesn’t happen to you. You read about it in a paper, or in a detective story, and it makes you wriggle with disgust, or sympathy. But it doesn’t mean anything.” [Quote in English in original] That is why authors like Thomas Mann have described the catastrophes broadcast in the newspapers, ranging from train accidents to crimes of passion, grotesquely – ensorceling, as it were, the irresistible laughter which the solemn pomp of a burial would otherwise provoke, by making it the affair [Sache] of the poetic subject. In contrast to this, minimal violations are for that reason relevant, because we can see good and evil in them, without smiling, even if our earnestness is a bit delusory. In them we learn to deal with what is ethical [Moralischen], feeling it in our skin – as blushing – making it the subject’s own, the subject which glances as helplessly at the gigantic moral-law in itself as at the star-studded heavens, which the former is badly modeled after. That these occurrences would be amoral in themselves, while nevertheless spontaneously good impulses, human sympathy without the pathos of maxims, also occurs, does not devalue the infatuation in what is proper. For by expressing the generality straightaway, without bothering about alienation, the good impulse easily enough permits the subject to appear as something alienated from itself, as a mere agent of commandments, with which that subject imagines itself to be as one: as a splendid human being. Conversely, those whose ethical impulse is oriented to what is external, fetishistic convention, is capable of grasping the generality, in the suffering of the unsurpassable divergence of inner and outer – indeed by holding fast to this divergence in its hardening – without sacrificing themselves and the truth of their experience to such. Their over-voltage [Überspannung] of all distance intends reconciliation. That is why the behavior of monomaniacs is not without some justification in the object. In the sphere of daily interactions, on which they insist, all aporias of the false life return, and what their blind alley has to do with the whole, is that only there can they carry out the paradigmatic conflict in strictness and freedom, which otherwise escapes their reach. In contrast, whoever conforms in their mode of reaction with social reality, finds their private life conducting itself as formlessly, as the estimation of power-relations which compels its form on them. They have the inclination, wherever they escape the supervision of the external world, wherever they feel at home in the expanded realm in their own ego, to reveal themselves to be inconsiderate and brutal. They revenge themselves on those who are near to them, for all the discipline and all the renunciation of the immediate expression of aggression, which was imposed on the former from a distance. They behave politely and with courtesy on the outside, towards objective enemies, but with coldness and hostility in friendly circles. Where civilization as self-preservation does not compel them towards humanity, they give free reign to their rage against such and rebut their own ideology of home, family and community. It is against this which ethics [Moral], however micrologically deluded, is aimed. It detects in the relaxed familiarity, in what is formless, the mere pretext for violence, the appeal to be good to each other, in order to be as malevolent as one wants to be. It subjugates what is intimate to the critical claim, because intimacies alienate, grope towards the inconceivably fine aura of the other, which first crowns them to a subject. Solely the acknowledgment of distance in who or what is most near [Nächste] mitigates foreignness: accepted into consciousness. However the claim of undiminished, already achieved nearness, the flat denial of foreignness, does the utmost injustice to the other, virtually negating them as particular human beings and thereby what is human in them, “adds them up,” incorporates them into the inventory of property. Wherever what is unmediated posits and ensconces itself, the bad mediacy of society is thereby insidiously affirmed. The issue [Sache] of immediacy can be taken up only by the most cautious of reflections. The test of this is made in the smallest of all things.