2021, issue 2
Adorno on the Dialectics of Love and Sex
Stefano Marino
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Krisis 41 (2): 112-115.
1122021, issue 2
Adorno on the Dialectics of Love and Sex
Stefano Marino
“Love is the power to see similarity in the dissimilar”.
“Love you will nd only where you may show yourself weak
without provoking strength”.
“There is no love that is not an echo”.
(§ 122; § 139).
“Sexuality is the strongest force in human beings, claims Joe, the main character (por-
trayed by Charlotte Gainsbourg) in Lars von Trier’s famous and much discussed 2013
lm Nymphomaniac. And “love is strange: how can something so wonderful bring such
great pain?”, asks Murphy of himself, the main character (portrayed by Karl Glusman)
in Gaspar Noé’s controversial lm Love from 2015, thus pointing out what we may call
the antinomical character of the experience of romantic love, oscillating as it is between
the greatest of all joys and sometimes the greatest of all suerings; (as Nick Cave sings:
“Well, I’ve been bound and gagged and I’ve been terrorized / And I’ve been castrated
and I’ve been lobotomized / But never has my tormentor come in such a cunning
disguise / I let love in”). Although one could surely put this primacy into question and
wonder whether love and sex are really the strongest forces in humanity, as claimed by the
protagonist of Nymphomaniac, it is anyway impossible to negate their being at least some
of the strongest forces in our lives.
When one thinks of philosophies of love and sex, certain names may come
easily to mind, beginning with Plato’s conception of eros and arriving at Kierkegaard’s
intense meditation on the role of love in the aesthetic, ethical, and religious dimensions
of human life; and, more recently, coming to Foucault’s inuential work on the history
of sexuality. Scholars of philosophy and the history of ideas such as Anders Nygren
and Clive S. Lewis, in turn, have investigated the nature of love and paid attention to
such dierentiations as those between eros and agape, or between aection, friendship,
eros and charity (I thank my colleague and friend Donato Ferdori for these references).
Broadening the picture beyond the limits of the Western tradition, in his recent book
Ars Erotica. Sex and Somaesthetics in the Classical Arts of Love Richard Shusterman has
investigated this topic by focusing not only on the Greco-Roman context and on
Medieval/Renaissance Europe, but also on Chinese, Indian, Islamic and Japanese
theories of erotic pleasure, politics, culture, religious beliefs, and habits. Thinkers belong-
ing to other traditions in contemporary philosophy have also sometimes paid great
attention to these questions, and in this context it can be worth noting the Frankfurt
School’s attempt to emphasize the relation of sexuality with domination in the unrecon-
ciled and administered world and, at the same time, its relation to potential emancipation
and freedom in the perspective of a future reconciled condition.
In reecting on the Frankfurt School and the role played by the dimension of
eros in the history of human civilization, most readers will probably spontaneously, and
understandably, think of Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization. However, Horkheimer and
Adorno also emphatically suggested in Dialectic of Enlightenment that “sexuality is the
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body unreduced”, “it is expression”, and, as such, it bears the trace of a potential trans-
formation to promote human liberation. It is especially in Minima Moralia that Adorno
oered signicant observations on love and sex. Among the penetrating, and sometimes
truly illuminating, meditations on love in Minima Moralia, we can nd, for example:
Someone who has been oended, slighted, has an illumination as vivid as when
agonizing pain lights up one’s own body. He becomes aware that in the inner-
most blindness of love, that must remain oblivious, lives a demand not to be
blinded. He was wronged; from this he deduces a claim to right and must at the
same time reject it, for what he desires can only be given in freedom. […] [H]e
who has lost love knows himself deserted by all, and this is why he scorns con-
solation. In the senselessness of his deprivation he is made to feel the untruth
of all merely individual fullment. But he thereby awakens to the paradoxical
consciousness of generality: of the inalienable and unindictable human right to
be loved by the beloved (§ 104).
Or further:
If love in society is to represent a better one, it cannot do so as a peaceful enclave,
but only by conscious opposition. […] Loving means not letting immediacy
wither under the omnipresent weight of mediation and economics, and in such
delity it becomes itself mediated, as a stubborn counterpressure. He alone loves
who has the strength to hold fast to love. Even though social advantage, sub-
limated, preforms the sexual impulse, using a thousand nuances sanctioned by
the order to make now this, now that person seem spontaneously attractive, an
attachment once formed opposes this by persisting where the force of social
pressure, in advance of all the intrigues that the latter then invariably takes into
its service, does not want it. It is the test of feeling whether it goes beyond feeling
through permanence, even though it be as obsession. The love, however, which
in the guise of unreecting spontaneity and proud of its alleged integrity, relies
exclusively on what it takes to be the voice of the heart, and runs away as soon
as it no longer thinks it can hear that voice, is in this supreme independence
pre cisely the tool of society. Passive without knowing it, it registers whatever
numbers come out in the roulette of interests. In betraying the loved one it betrays
itself. The delity exacted by society is a means to unfreedom, but only through
delity can freedom achieve insubordination to society’s command (§ 110).
Not only romantic love, however, but also sex is signicantly present in Minima Moralia,
Adorno’s collection of “ingenious aphorisms” and “vivid scenes taken from […] appar-
ently unassuming or remote subjects” that, because of its nuanced writing style, “fasci-
nated […] even Thomas Mann” (Müller-Doohm 2005, 344). For example, in critically
discussing some Freudian ideas about eroticism, reason, and society, Adorno establishes
a connection between sexual pleasure, truth, and utopia: here, indeed, the Frankfurt
thinker claims that “he alone who could situate utopia in blind somatic pleasure, which,
satisfying the ultimate intention, is intentionless, has a stable and valid idea of truth”
37). In a sense, Adorno’s aphorism seems to suggest that the “intentionless” nature
1142021, issue 2
and the intensity that characterize the experience of pleasure is able to satisfy the “ulti-
mate intention” of life, namely happiness and the achievement of a non-suocating and
non-coercive but rather liberating unity between dierent human beings. The joy of
lovemaking, with the somehow “blind” character of the somatic pleasure that it brings,
is nonetheless capable of “opening our eyes” (also at a philosophical level) more than
many concepts and argumentations can do, if only we are able to overcome certain
preconceptions and to fully understand the power and signicance of erotic experience
in all its nuanced richness.
For Adorno, the relation between eros and the aesthetic dimension was also a
fundamental and indeed constitutive one. As he claimed in Aesthetic Theory, his great but
unnished masterpiece in the philosophy of art: “[a]esthetic comportment assimilates
itself to [the] other rather than subordinating it. Such a constitutive relation of the
subject to objectivity in aesthetic comportment joins eros and knowledge” (Adorno
2002, 331). A passage from Müller-Doohm’s biography of Adorno is also revealing
about the relation between the aesthetic and the erotic dimensions in the Frankfurt
thinker’s philosophy. In fact, apropos of Adorno’s extramarital aair “with Charlotte
Alexander, the wife of his friend and doctor, Dr Robert Alexander”, Müller-Doohm
quotes a passage of a letter sent by Adorno to Hermann Grab in May 1946, in which
he talked “of his love for Charlotte” and wrote: “The term ‘fornication’, which by the
way refers to something the reverse of contemptible, is a far from adequate description
of what has taken place – terms such as ‘aura’ or ‘magic’ would be more apt. It was as if
the long-forgotten childhood promise of happiness had been unexpectedly, belatedly
fullled” (Müller-Doohm 2005, 61-2). The constellation of the ideas of aura, magic and
promesse du bonheur, that famously play a fundamental role in such works as Dialectic of
Enlightenment and Aesthetic Theory, is fascinatingly connected here to the erotic dimension.
Above all, what is surely remarkable in the context of a discussion on the
dialectics of love and sex in Adorno’s thinking is the fact that in Negative Dialectics, his
main work in theoretical philosophy, he precisely used an erotic metaphor to formulate
what he considered to be the nal aim of philosophizing, saying that “in philosophy
we literally seek to immerse ourselves in things that are heterogeneous to it, without
placing those things in prefabricated categories. We want to adhere […] closely to
the heterogeneous” (Adorno 2004, 13). Pietro Lauro, the Italian translator of Negative
Dialectics, has argued that Adorno, in using the verb sich anschmiegen in this passage
(translated as “adhering to”, and actually indicating a kind of “amalgamating oneself
with the other”, or also a kind of “coming together”, inasmuch as an anschmiegende
Umarmung is an amalgamating embrace, i.e. the union of two or more human beings in
a sexual encounter) aimed to claim that “an erotic metaphor was able to express the fun-
damental question of non-identity” (Lauro 2004, 370). As Lauro writes in his Glossary
to the Italian edition of Negative Dialectics, “just as in sexual intercourse the individuals
are united together but still dierent from each other, without cancelling their individ-
uality”, in a similar way a negative-dialectical form of philosophizing should promote a
form of non-coercive union or fusion with the non-identical, without aiming anymore
to arrive at “a Hegelian form of synthesis” (Lauro 2004, 370-1). Hence sexual inter-
course is not viewed as a one-sided activity, comparable to a boring monologue of an
1152021, issue 2
active subject with a passive recipient, but is rather comparable to a dialectical relation of
simultaneous “entering in” and “being-received in” or “being-welcomed in”, in which
all the partners involved, experimenting an enchanting sense of anity, take part in an
exciting intersubjective dialogue and quite often exchange their roles in a spontaneous
and pleasurable way.
As once noted by Marcuse in The Aesthetic Dimension, art as such “cannot
change the world, but it can contribute to changing the consciousness and drives of
the men and women who could change the world” (Marcuse 1979, 32). Shifting our
discourse from artistic experience to erotic experience, we can perhaps paraphrase and
reformulate Marcuse’s convincing maxim by saying that perhaps a joyful sexuality as
such cannot change the world (in an emphatic meaning of the idea of “changing the
world”), but it can surely oer a glimpse of freedom and reconciliation even in an unfree
and unreconciled world, perhaps pointing to a gradual transformation of existing reality
and human relations starting from our most intimate, delicate, beautiful, communicative
and, for this reason, powerful and sometimes life-changing experiences of unity, fusion,
mutual permeation and interpenetration (or, so to speak, of merging together) with
other human beings. From this point of view, observations like those oered by Adorno
disclose the possibility of conceiving of sexuality in a radically non-reductive way as a
sort of actualization of something that, in the radiant eetingness of an intercourse, also
bears in itself a trace of the utopia of reconciliation between human beings.
Adorno, Theodor W. 2002. Aesthetic Theory. London
and New York: Continuum.
Adorno, Theodor W. 2004. Negative Dialectics.
London and New York: Routledge.
Adorno, Theodor W. 2005. Minima Moralia: Reflections
on a Damaged Life. London and New York: Verso.
Lauro, Pietro. “Glossario. 2004. In Theodor W.
Adorno, Dialettica negativa, 369-82. Torino:
Marcuse, Herbert. 1979. The Aesthetic Dimension:
Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. Boston:
Beacon Press.
Müller-Doohm, Stefan. 2005. Adorno: A Biography.
Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press.
Stefano Marino is Associate Professor of Aesthetics
at the University of Bologna. His main research
interests are focused on critical theory of society,
phenomenology and hermeneutics, neopragmatism
and somaesthetics, philosophy of music, and
aesthetics of fashion. He is the author of several
books on Theodor W. Adorno, Hans-Georg Gadamer,
Martin Heidegger, Radiohead, and Frank Zappa.
He has translated from German into Italian four
books by Adorno and Gadamer, and from English
into Italian a book by Carolyn Korsmeyer. He has
published as co-editor several collections (books
and special issues in journals) on Kant, Nietzsche,
Gadamer, Adorno, deconstruction, popular culture
and social criticism, popular music and romanticism,
aesthetics and affectivity, fashion, and feminism.