“Adorno’s Guilt” By Gian Carla Agbisit

I waited.

There was nothing I could do. I knew that. But I wished their eyes got me against the wall, and that their questions punched the air out of my lungs. I wished they squeezed me dry of answers I never really had, that they asked me questions that compounds all the doubts I have.

It was my thesis defense and for the first time, I was unprepared. I haven’t had a good sleep in months. My puffy eyes are laser red, scanning the professors I used to fear. Now, it seemed that they are the ones scared of me. My laser eyes detect fear, detect pity. I see my reflection in their eyes and I see precarious, not pretty. It was my thesis defense and all they asked me was about the format that I used. “What was your personal reason for choosing this topic?” asked one of the panel members, as if in the academe the personal matters. I was talking about Theodor Adorno’s theory. It was interesting. How could one look for personal reasons? My heart was palpitating, protesting, against my rib cage. No one was taking me seriously. I was sure they were listening to my heartbeats, but they did not recognize the music. They were responding to the wrong melody.

I might have been unprepared, but I wanted to fight.

So when they gathered around me like hypocritical leeches saying “Congratulations, you did it,” I just had to get out of there and throw up. Fake hugs and fake kisses and fake handshakes from phony people. I had to run to the bathroom. I had to cough out all unnecessary pleasantries I didn’t deserve.

When Sister Elena found me, she pulled me in her arms. I could feel the rosary around her neck, the beads pressing against my collar bone. She kept saying “you did good, it’s over, you did good,” over and over, like an exorcism ritual. Nuns and their flair for drama.

“I understand,” she whispered. I pushed her. But she was still nodding her head—was that for assurance? Her veil is a blanket statement that attempts to cover up every nuance. “There is light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “I understand.”

She does not. I am not in the tunnel. I am in the light.


At night, when I closed my eyes, I was dying.  I would be in my deathbed. I would feel the last spark of life escaping my fingertips, the last breath intake, and the butterflies in my stomach.

But when I opened my eyes, I would still be here. Nothing ever happened to me. My story was this one boring machine whir going on and on and on until it kicked and spluttered because it needed fixing. And then everything would go back to where it started. A story was supposed to move, and to move in an unimaginable direction. But my life was a straight, flat line, a pre-packaged success story, unremarkable in its similarity with everybody else. It was pointed towards finishing a degree and going off to work and probably having kids and raising a family and growing old and having a happily ever after. Those were the only things that could ever happen to me. It was all a smooth predestined drive to death. Everything was already codified, patterns, once traced and catalogued, bridged all spontaneous leaps. I needed my accident, my war, my metamorphosis, my end of the world.

There was this one unimaginable, eternal, infinite life, and it was changing us, prodding us towards the next step, but the changes never changed. Life was a bureaucratic application process, I could not go anywhere and that was it. For people like me who were not born special, life is a cassette tape stuck at side B.

There were people who fell in love, and falling in love became their story. There were people who broke hearts, or got their hearts broken, and being broken became their story. There were people who made things happen, or not happen, and those became their stories. And then, there were people like me. People like me were witnesses to all the other stories. Witnessing stories was my story. I was forever the listener of people’s troubles, and my voice, what I say, was always the unheard whisper as the background music took over. I was always the blurry figure as the camera zoomed out or zoomed in to focus on someone else.

When I was young, I spent most of my life waiting. I spent my life in hospitals’ waiting rooms, waiting for Anca’s results, or waiting for the doctor, or waiting to hear that Anca could finally play with me. In between those moments, when Mom would be too busy worrying over something she knew she could never fix, Dad and I would play a game. We would look around and take turns making up stories about the people we see. The woman, that woman, across the room would suddenly become a character. Dad and I would invent a beautiful story, and the woman would suddenly play the part of a middle-aged grandmother, whose daughter got married too soon, and the baby she was holding would turn out to be a hero of a battle sometime in the future. And we would map out her wrinkles: that one there was the time her landlord kept knocking on their door, asking for rent; and that one there was the time her son ran away and never came back; and oh oh oh that one there was the time she found out that her son killed somebody, now locked up in jail. And we would go on and on, Dad and I taking turns to add new twists in our made-up story until the doctor arrived to tell us: “Anca is well,” or “Anca is not well,” and Anca’s story would continue.

Funny. I was not born special, but my twin was.

Anca was born special. So far, she had had two operations and one chemotherapy on her list of life events. She had had a boyfriend who broke her heart twice, before she could even finish college. She got into the best university in the country, and she was prepping up for Med School. She played the best Beethoven, and she painted beautiful pictures, and she gave the warmest hugs. And her laugh was beautiful, like a thousand wind chimes on a windy day. I would say, “Anca, play something,” and she would take out her violin, and it would be beautiful as I’d go around the room figure skating in my bedroom slippers. I’d go sweep swoop swoop and swish swish swish and braaag kablam and she would just explode like a million little ice crystals. She was smart and pretty, and I wasn’t saying the last bit because we were twins. She was really pretty and it had to do with aura. She was really, really pretty. And the only time I was the prettier twin was when chemotherapy stole her hair, every single strand, rolled into a ball in the bathroom floor. And even then, she smiled and rocked the bonnet. And I could not look because I could only remember the hair rolled into a ball in the bathroom floor.

And now, she’s dying in a hospital bed while I wasted my time defending a worthless argument on Adorno and Auschwitz. Actually, it could have been really interesting, see. Adorno kept saying that “poetry is no longer possible after Auschwitz,” that the stench of death lingered and it suffocated us into inaction. Poetry, art, literature: all impossible. All are shocked out of our systems. Of course I had to agree with Adorno. In the presence of Professor Grille who even named his son after Adorno, I couldn’t possibly disagree. To disagree with Adorno is to have my own personal Auschwitz. But really, didn’t poetry exist to ease the pain? Didn’t those stories about fictional violence exist to change actual memories? Didn’t we sing odes to the monsters to make our hate large and whole? Didn’t we resort to art for epiphanies and closures and do-overs, things real life couldn’t give because real life was boring?

So okay, I get it. I knew. Adorno was talking about these unaffected people who got on with their lives—I am a surrealist so I keep doing these dreamy shapes and landscapes, or I am a linguist so I keep understanding Levi-Strauss, or I am a postmodernist so I keep on parodying the serious, or I am a metaphysical poet so I suck it up—while the horrors continued. But that was something Adorno didn’t get. He was probably thinking that everybody could do something about something to anybody. But sometimes, you couldn’t do anything, and life was just unfair like that. Sometimes, all you could do was to wait. “Didn’t you see, Adorno? You were a Jew and you just couldn’t do anything about it!”

And all Adorno was able to do was to escape to America and write about capitalism and the violence in Donald Duck and Jazz, while Anne Frank cowers and dies somewhere, and my mother cried and cried. “Anne Frank was too young,” she said, and she wouldn’t hear it when I told her that Anne Frank’s Diary was probably a fiction because really, my mother was crying about someone else.

I wanted to hold my mom, to tell her “I’m here, I’ll do everything, Mom…nothing will happen.” But I couldn’t. You can’t just promise one thing, and let another happen. You don’t just say things like that. Not in real life, not ever.

So I didn’t have the guts, and I never did. And I told Professor Grille: “I agree with Adorno, Professor. He was really brilliant. I think I will do my thesis on him. Really, really interesting.” Nod, nod, vigorous nod. And he nodded saying, “Of course he’s brilliant.” And I nodded some more. My head will soon come off. Because that was life and once in a while, you had to nod and kiss ass. So I wrote on Adorno. I wrote on Adorno and I wrote badly and I got a great grade. I was angry. I could kiss ass; that was fine. But kissing ass is different from taking pity. It was just not polite to give someone something they never really asked for.

Pretentious people, these intellectuals. They kept on quoting other dead people, reducing wisdom to bite-sized sentences, like “I think, therefore I am,” and everybody would agree and would observe a thoughtful silence. Or “The only thing I know is that I know nothing,” and everybody would go around repeating that, claiming wisdom. And when my best friend learned that Nietzsche died a madman, he went about saying “I think I’m going crazy, man. I kinda hear voices in my head, you know what I mean?” He grew a beard, and every chance he got, he’d say “God is dead.”

“Good morning, great day! God is dead.”

“Thank you, God is dead.”

“I’ll have coffee, black, God is dead.”

“How are you, Anca? God is dead.” Anca would laugh, and I would laugh, and Dad would laugh, and my mother would scowl.

He’s my best friend and I loved him, but it was sort of stupid to keep repeating it to people who are very much aware of this absence.


Sister Elena hugged me, and patted me, and she said she was so proud of me for being so strong through it all. I felt the beads of her rosary. It was kind of sad the way she believed in someone who has been dead for centuries now. What an extremely missed point! She wore warm costumes in warm afternoons waiting to be the wife of a God who has been awfully quiet for so long. Did she know what she was waiting for?

“It’s going to be okay,” she droned.

“It is all part of God’s plan.” And I didn’t like that one bit.

Anca was spending her life dying, and I was spending my life waiting. We were twins, but life was unfair like that.

Everybody knew there was nothing to be done but to wait. Everybody knew; everybody, the pretentious intellectuals and pious nuns who follow you in bathrooms to make you forget. They were all phony people. Them, godly holy saintly shit always saying the same thing, like “It is God’s plan” when gods have been useless, or “I understand” when they really don’t. And they go blabbering about predestined fuck-ups in life and the light at the end of the tunnel, it is all good; I am not in the tunnel, Sister Elena, and it is not all good. I didn’t get the tunnel. I got the light. And my sister got the tunnel and she is dying somewhere, and it is not all good.

Gian Carla Agbisit is a philosophy student in University of Santo Tomas, Manila, Philippines. She believes that academic writing, creative and/or experimental writing better articulates philosophical ideas and their effects.

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