Gentle Irresistibility: Adorno on the Promises of Happiness and Truth in Walter Benjamin’s Work

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Religion and philosophy are both interested in some form of ultimate good that results in happiness. Aristotle is often noted for saying that all human beings desire to be happy. Much of what we do is for the sake of happiness. For Aristotle, the desire for happiness is built into human nature and is achievable. But for religion happiness is oftentimes promised. For instance, the Talmud tells us that Jews may be happy in this world but such happiness is incomplete. The greatest kind of happiness will come from God in the final redemption of the Jewish people. It is messianic. To be sure, this happiness, like much else in the Torah (and in all Monotheistic religions), is promised.

In one of his descriptions of Walter Benjamin’s work, Theodor Adorno argues that one of the greatest appeals to be found in Benjamin’s work can be found in two promises: the “promise of happiness” and the “promise of truth.” And what makes these promises so appealing, according to Adorno, is the fact that they are couched in a childlike kind of writing that is digressive:

The deliberate digressiveness of his thought is…matched by its gentile irresistibility. (Prisms, 230)

According to Adorno, this “gentile irresistibility” originates in is the “promise of happiness.”   And this is why Benjamin took so much to fairy tales:

Everything that Benjamin said or wrote sounded as if thought, instead of rejecting the promises of fairy tales and children’s books with its usual disgraceful ‘maturity’, took them so literally that real fulfillment itself was now within sight of knowledge.

There is a childishness in Benjamin’s work that is committed to this “promise of happiness” which echo what he loved so much about children’s stories whose promises, as we can see, Adorno thinks Benjamin took literally.   And this childishness and “gentle irresistibility” were infectious.   Adorno likens anyone who was drawn to Benjamin – and his work – to a child taking a peek at a Christmas tree:

Anyone who was drawn to him was bound to feel like the child who catches a glimpse of the lighted Christmas tree through a crack in the closed door.

The promise of gifts makes a child giddy; the same goes for anyone who was drawn to Benjamin and his work. However, there is more than just happiness that is promised. Adorno tells us that truth is also promised in Benjamin’s work, or, as the analogy goes, in the light of the Christmas tree seen through the crack of the door:

But the light, as one of reason, also promised truth itself, not its powerless shadow.

Adorno gives Benjamin’s thought a religious kind of quality. He calls it a “creation ex nihilo” that had the “generosity of abundance.” Like God, it “sought to make good everything, all the pleasure prohibited by adjustment and self-preservation, pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual.” In other words, “Benjamin’s thought” promised to make sensual and intellectual amends for all of the renunciations people make in order to adjust to society and preserve themselves.   These promises and this abundance, argues Adorno, are something Benjamin shared with the famous writer Marcel Proust. Both of them had a “desire for happiness” and both of them desired it by way of the experience of disillusionment. To be sure, Adorno says that the more they were disillusioned, the more they desired happiness and clung to the promise of happiness.

With this in mind, Adorno argues that Kafka’s remark, that “there is infinite hope except for us” – could have “served as the motto for Benjamin’s metaphysics”(231). This is the motto not because it suggests that Benjamin like Kafka gave in to hopelessness and rejected the “promise of happiness.” On the contrary, Adorno suggests that hopelessness only gave him more hope.   The “gentile irresistibility” of Benjamin’s work, like that of Sholem Aleichem’s fiction, is to be found in the fact that despite hopelessness and disillusionment, Benjamin, like a child (with simple faith), continues to believe in the “promise of happiness” and the “promise of truth.” They are, as in religion, always “to come.” Adorno is suggesting that the belief in these promises is fostered by way of reading Benjamin’s work.

Like Adorno, Gershom Scholem recognized, early on, that Benjamin’s work had a moral quality to it and he also saw the relationship of this moral aspect to religion. In Walter Benjamin: A Story of Friendship, Scholem writes:

For me Benjamin’s ideas had a radiant moral aura about them; to the extent that I could intellectually empathize with them, they had a morality of their own, which was bound up with their relationship to the religious sphere that at that time was quite clearly and openly the vanishing point of his thought. 

Perhaps this moral aura had something to do with the “promise of happiness” and the “promise of truth.” But these are promises that Benjamin drew not just from religion and folklore. He also drew them childhood.   And to read Benjamin, as he wished his ideal reader would, one must give in to a childlike kind of desire that believes that, somehow, despite the horrible world we live in – which is filled with deceit and murder – that happiness and truth are still possible.   In his last letters to Gershom Scholem, he calls this hope the wisdom of the fool rather than of the philosopher.   And for an adult to have such hope and to believe in such promises, is not tragic; it is comical. Adorno, it seems, understood this early on since he realized that whenever he was around Benjamin he became like a child.   In many ways, he believed in what Benjamin’s work promised to deliver.   And years later it seems that many people read him in the same way.

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