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  • Sur l’Eau, or How to Read Adorno: Guy de Maupassant and the Negative Dialectic of Utopia
  • Damien Marwood (bio)

“Once again I would most emphatically draw your attention to Maupassant. His astonishing story ‘La nuit, un cauchemar’ (‘The night, a nightmare’) constitutes a perfect dialectical counterpart to Poe’s ‘Man of the Crowd’ and really cries out for your kind of interpretation.”

—Adorno to Benjamin, June 5, 1935

“I would also like to draw your attention to Maupassant’s ‘La Nuit,’ which seems to me to be the dialectical capstone to Poe’s ‘Man of the Crowd’ as cornerstone.”

—Adorno to Benjamin, August 2–4, 1935

“Since you asked about Maupassant’s story ‘La Nuit’: I have read this important piece extremely carefully. There is a fragment of my ‘Baudelaire’ which deals with it, and you will certainly get to see it some day.”

—Benjamin to Adorno, May 7, 19401

It is doubtful that Theodor Adorno ever saw the results of his appeals to Walter Benjamin to read Guy de Maupassant’s “La nuit. Cauchemar” (1887). With Benjamin’s death in September of 1940 the revision of the Baudelaire essay mentioned above was not published until well after Adorno had also passed away.2 Five years after Benjamin’s final letter, however, Maupassant makes an appearance in one of Adorno’s own works, Minima Moralia (1951), at the conclusion of an aphorism that would itself appear to stand in a dialectical relation to both the solitude of “La nuit” and the crowd and metaphysical “crime” of Edgar Allan Poe’s [End Page 833] “The Man of the Crowd” (1840). Poe’s story begins with an epigraph from Jean de La Bruyère on the impossibility of solitude, “Ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir être seul,” and continues with an obscure quotation in German: “er lasst [sic] sich nicht lesen” (it does not permit itself to be read).3 While the quotation from La Bruyère has an obvious relevance, it is the second, possibly apocryphal, quotation that would appear to summarize not only the current state of affairs surrounding Adorno’s “Sur l’Eau,” given that this aphorism is often either passed over in silence or glossed into non-existence, but also the philosopher’s own interest in the necessity, and impossibility, of expressing a “utopia” that does not permit itself to be written. Yet, as the final entry of the second part of Adorno’s most literary work, “Sur l’Eau,” I would argue, in fact occupies a privileged place in an understanding of his oeuvre. As Adorno writes in his “Dedication,” the “concluding aphorisms of each part lead on thematically also to philosophy, without ever pretending to be complete or definitive: they are all intended to mark out points of attack or to furnish models for a future exertion of thought.”4

If Adorno then encourages us to read “Sur l’Eau” forwards into his later philosophy, he might also be said to restate this sentiment in his monograph on Hegel, only in reverse. Reading Adorno’s “Skoteinos, or How to Read Hegel” in the manner of Beckett’s “Proust,” as a work that reveals as much (if not more) about the author as it does about its ostensible subject, I would suggest that the following passage applies equally to the problem of reading Adorno:

[U]nderstanding of Hegel decomposes into moments that are mediated by one another and yet contradictory. Hegel makes himself inaccessible to anyone who is not familiar with his overall intention. That intention is to be gleaned first and foremost from his critique of earlier philosophies and from his critique of his own times. At every point one must bear in mind, however provisionally, what Hegel is after; one must illuminate him from behind, so to speak.5

Following Adorno’s lead, then, I propose that it is by beginning with his own “Sur l’Eau,” in particular its explicit references to the “utopian” works of Guy de Maupassant and Carl Sternheim, and further by considering this aphorism alongside his writings on Beckett, Kierkegaard, Benjamin, and Kafka, that one can best glean insight into Adorno’s own utopian thought. Maupassant is of...


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