The Challenge of Surrealism: The Correspondence of Theodor W. Adorno and Elisabeth Lenk ed. by Susan H. Gillespie (review)
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THE CHALLENGE OF SURREALISM: THE CORRESPONDENCE OF THEODOR W. ADORNO AND ELISABETH LENK edited and translated by Susan H. Gillespie. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis MN, 2015. 248 pp. Trade, paper. ISBN: 978-0-8166-5616-5; ISBN: 978-0-8166-5617-2.

inline graphic Theodor Adorno's lecture during the Berlin student protests of 1967 proved something of a flashpoint for those attending. The lofty theme on the relevance of Goethe's Ipheginie, claiming for the play a parallel with the social unrest currently triggering demonstrations at universities in France and Germany, seemed provocative and irrelevant. The ensuing protests signaled a decline in his ability to influence radical debate, and his reluctance to exploit tensions over the death of a student in police operations during the Shah of Iran's visit only served to make matters worse. His determination to continue as planned may have contributed to the fracas that followed, but in the circumstances, it was surely the rubric of this formal lecture—any formal lecture—sending its message of business as usual within elite surroundings that so inflamed the already volatile audience. Later Elisabeth Lenk noted that "Adorno found himself in the situation of someone who has shown the way but, to the students' disappointment, isn't marching in the direction he points toward." Lenk was Adorno's doctoral student, his political acolyte and his committed student of critical theory, and her recollection comes with the hindsight of an established position after almost 50 years. However, in 1967 she was behind schedule with her thesis, having provisionally abandoned it in favor of political activism, which was for her a fairly typical trajectory of on and off and on again within the arc of her studies during these days with Adorno in Frankfurt and then Paris. Bridging these two was her developing interest in militant surrealism upon joining the movement soon after arriving in Paris in 1962. She was by now attending meetings and had become one of André Breton's trusted associates, sharing his opposition to French colonial rule and the war in Algeria. She soon changed her thesis to a topic that took in the social pointers of surrealism and in particular the lead given to it by its charismatic founder. As her supervisor, Adorno raised no objections, either to the shift in location or subject matter, which was now removed from his more immediate frame of reference. Nor did he seem to object to the level of militant activity she engaged with in spite of its effect on her academic progress. Maybe it was not in his power, perhaps even his nature, to intervene, and so it is a moot point as to whose shadow bore more influentially on Lenk's intellectual purpose at this time—his own in Frankfurt or André Breton's in Paris.

The significant pages dealing with Adorno's influence in The Challenge of Surrealism: The Correspondence of Theodor W. Adorno and Elisabeth Lenk demonstrate a close relationship between student and supervisor and much common ground between them. As might be expected from the title, the letters occupy the central and longest section of the book, on either side of which is a selection of essays establishing the links between critical theory and surrealism, although an early essay by Walter Benjamin, written in 1929, predates the emergence of the Frankfurt School as an influential force in this area. The remaining contributions by Adorno, Rita Bischoff and Lenk herself were written from the mid-fifties onward and provide a view of how the two movements might be seen to run in tandem. After the central section of correspondence come two substantial essays also by Lenk. The first is the 1969 accompaniment to the German-language translation of Louis Aragon's Paris Peasant, and the [End Page 211] second and longer essay is the 1966 introduction to the German translation of Charles Fourier's The Theory of the Four Movements and the General Destinies. Finally, there is a set of vignettes written in collaboration between Adorno and Carl Dreyfus, which Adorno sent to Lenk (p. 80) as Surrealist Readings. These are texts that he suggested might have some tangential relationship with...