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Adorno’s American Dream

“Even the loveliest dream,” Adorno notes in Minima Moralia, “bears like a blemish its difference from reality, the awareness that what it grants is mere illusion.” It is as if, in the moment of waking, one were to experience the way in which the dream is “damaged,” indeed as if there were already something “damaged” in the dream itself. According to Adorno, the “description of the Nature Theater of Oklahoma in Kafka’s Amerika“[1] captures this experience most acutely.

At first glance, Adorno provides a merely literary example, albeit a significant one. In the few lines that comprise his aphorism on dreaming, he also draws an analogy between the knowledge about the dreamer’s inevitable disappointment and the recognition of the absurdity of happy music, which he attributes to Schubert. At second glance, however, Adorno’s reference to the Nature Theater of Oklahoma hints at a twist. The blemish does not have to elicit disappointment, the feeling that one is “cheated of the best.” For elsewhere, in his “Notes on Kafka,” which were written at the same time as Minima Moralia, Adorno speaks of a recovery of what is damaged and cites the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, whose ideal is a world made up of “stale goods.” The following sentence is to be understood literally: “The resurrection of the dead would have to take place in the auto graveyards.”[2]

Adorno discovered his own Nature Theater of Oklahoma in New Jersey, as he observes while recalling his experiences as a scholar in America: “The Princeton Radio Project had its headquarters neither in Princeton nor in New York, but in Newark, New Jersey, and indeed, in a somewhat improvised manner, in a disused brewery. When I traveled there, through the tunnel under the Hudson, I felt a little as if I were in Kafka’s Nature Theater in Oklahoma. Indeed, I was attracted by the lack of inhibition in the choice of a locality that would have been hardly imaginable in European practices.”[3]

In its lack of inhibition, the improvised corresponds to the shabby, because that which is damaged or worn out no longer fulfills its purpose, as if it were free from the compulsion of ends. And it is on the basis of such a lack of inhibition, of such freedom from purposes, that the improvised and the shabby also correspond to the slow-witted and the childish, the anachronistic. As Adorno says in a letter to his parents, written in Los Angeles and sent to New York in 1942: “Nothing happens, we do not get out, hardly see any people. What matters to us is how many new rosebuds there are, that there is a wonderful big brown dog living diagonally opposite us, that due to the cool weather Baldchen Plymouth (our little car) once again refused to start, that the cat caught a gopher (a sort of prairie rat) and dragged it onto the balcony. Poor daft village children that we are, we are naturally ashamed of all our follies before our cosmopolitan parents.”[4]

Adorno is struck by the villa of a friend in Beverly Hills, not only because of the “indescribable view,” but also because “despite the Spanish style” it has “something of a German fairytale castle.”[5] Does the eclectic not belong to the same sphere as the improvised, the shabby, the anachronistic? In order to improvise uninhibitedly, to put aside the damaged, the exhausted, the worn-down, in order to maintain a secondary existence, in order also to acknowledge that which oscillates between the heterogeneous and the incompatible, one needs space, in both a literal and a figurative sense.

At the end of Kafka’s Amerika, the “vastness” of the country expands for Karl Rossmann beyond his train window as he sets out for the Nature Theater of Oklahoma. While Adorno complains about the “shortcoming of the American landscape,”[6] which is “without the mild, soothing, un-angular quality of things that have felt the touch of hands or their immediate implements,” he also praises, almost in the same breath, the beauty of this landscape, which finds its expression in “the immensity of the whole country” and is yet perceptible in “even the smallest of its segments.”[7] The “proportion of mountains to sea” on the Californian coast reminds him of the Riviera; only this landscape is “much more long-lined and open.”[8]

The American Dream, one could conclude, is one of openness, in which being and appearance no longer operate as counter-forces, as illusion and disappointment. Is it a nightmare, or a dream awakened to itself, as it were? Rather than calling for an unequivocal answer, this question alerts us to an ambiguity that pervades the American dream, indeed that generates it, at least in its Adornian guise.

First published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, November 15, 2008, number 268. Trans. by Jason Kavett


1. Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, trans. Edmund Jephcott (London: Verso, 1978), p. 111.

2. Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms, trans. Sam and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), p. 271.

3. Theodor W. Adorno, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), pp. 218-19.

4. Theodor W. Adorno, Letters to his Parents 1939-1951, trans. Wieland Hoban (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2006), p. 91 (trans. modified).

5. Ibid., p. 228.

6. Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 48.

7. Ibid., p. 49.

8. Adorno, Letters to his Parents, p. 70.

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