Re-reading 'Impossibility' and 'Barbarism'

Adorno and Post-Holocaust Poetics

in Critical Survey
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‘Poetry is impossible after Auschwitz.’ This (supposed) statement by Theodor Adorno has become one of the most famous in twentiethcentury philosophy. It has been popularised in verbal academic discourse, which has lead to its inclusion in, for example, numerous module outlines on post-war literature. However, such appropriations have ignored the fact that the phrase is a misquotation of the standard translation by the Webers in Prisms. Moreover, within the passage from which the misquotation originates, there are linguistic ambiguities embedded in the original German which make the essay ‘Cultural Criticism and Society’ difficult to interpret. In turn, this initiates a struggle to formulate a coherent English translation. These problems are elided by critics who, even if they quote the Webers’ translation accurately, do not consider the ramifications of the original German prose. In this essay, I engage with these elisions, and contend that Adorno’s text does not argue that ‘poetry is impossible after Auschwitz.’ In fact, the passage predicates its existence, a contention which has serious repercussions for discussions of post-war writing conducted in the context of the philosopher’s work.