the unlikely friendship of Theodor Adorno and Gershom Scholem

Adorno-Scholem-CoverPeter E. Gordon at The Nation:

Unlikely as their friendship may seem, Scholem and Adorno had one thing in common: They had both been friends of the literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, though at first this connection did little to awaken warm feelings between the two. Scholem had known Benjamin since their Berlin days in the Youth Movement during World War I, and he feared that Adorno would lead his friend astray—from Judaism and toward Marxism. He also had little patience for the elaborations of Adorno’s dialectic. On reading Adorno’s early study of Kierkegaard, Scholem wrote to Benjamin that it “combines a sublime plagiarism of your thought with an uncommon chutzpah.”

Despite this initial chill, the mutual suspicion between the two men soon gave way to a shared concern for the fate of their friend. After the Nazi invasion of France, Scholem and Adorno exchanged details on Benjamin’s flight southward from Paris and eventually to Portbou, the town on the Spanish border where he committed suicide. The awful event is reported in a letter dated October 8, 1940, sent by Adorno (then in New York) to Scholem (in Jerusalem). It stands among the earliest letters in their correspondence. Whatever their ideological differences, the tragedy of Benjamin’s death would loom over their friendship for the next three decades, and the bond between them would be forged from the shared experience of mourning. As Asaf Angermann notes in his editor’s afterword, the publication of this volume closes the circuit of correspondence among three of the most esteemed European intellectuals of the 20th century. The letters between Scholem and Benjamin span the years 1932 to 1940; those between Benjamin and Adorno, 1928 to 1940. Those between Adorno and Scholem cover a full three decades, from 1939 to 1969, and are the most extensive of the three collections—a dialogue between survivors.

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