Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius
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He was famously hostile to biography as a literary form. And yet this life of Adorno by one of his last students is far more than literary in its accomplishments, giving us our first clear look at how the man and his moment met to create “critical theory.” An intimate picture of the quintessential twentieth-century transatlantic intellectual, the book is also a window on the cultural ferment of Adorno’s day―and its ongoing importance in our own.
The biography begins at the shining moment of the German bourgeoisie, in a world dominated by liberals willing to extend citizenship to refugees fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. Detlev Claussen follows Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno (1903–1969) from his privileged life as a beloved prodigy to his intellectual coming of age in Weimar Germany and Vienna; from his exile during the Nazi years, first to England, then to the United States, to his emergence as the Adorno we know now in the perhaps not-so-unlikely setting of Los Angeles. There in 1943 with his collaborator Max Horkheimer, Adorno developed critical theory, whose key insight―that to be entertained is to give one’s consent―helped define the intellectual landscape of the twentieth century.
In capturing the man in his complex relationships with some of the century’s finest minds―including, among others, Arnold Schoenberg, Walter Benjamin, Thomas Mann, Siegfried Kracauer, Georg Lukács, Hannah Arendt, and Bertolt Brecht―Claussen reveals how much we have yet to learn from Theodor Adorno, and how much his life can tell us about ourselves and our time.
reason that Adorno starts out in Minima Moralia with reﬂections on origins and professions. This collection of aphorisms is not merely dedicated to his older friend Max Horkheimer: it ﬁts him like a glove. Comparisons with like and unlike are initiated with the very ﬁrst aphorism, the one titled “For Marcel Proust,” to which the preceding “Dedication” leads up: it represents “the attempt to present aspects of our shared philosophy from the standpoint of subjective experience.”64 This process of
noted in his Journals: At horkheimer’s with eisler for lunch. afterwards eisler suggests a plot for the tui novel: the story of the frankfurt sociological institute. a rich old man (weil, the speculator in wheat) dies, disturbed at the poverty in the world. In his will he leaves a large sum to set up an institute which will do research on the source of this poverty, which is, of course, himself. the activities of the institute take place at a time when the emperor too would like to see a name
and Form, published in both German and Hungarian, opens with a letter to his friend Leo Popper, “On the Nature and Form of the Essay.” The ﬁrst essay in Adorno’s Notes to Literature bears the title “The Essay as Form.” Although the texts are separated by forty years, Adorno’s reﬂections follow from those of Lukács. Teddie’s readings with Kracauer in Seeheimerstrasse had not been conﬁned to Kant. They also read Lukács’s Theory of the Novel, which had been creating a furor at the time. A motif
Frankfurt, leading a dandiﬁed life and going to Carnival parties costumed as Napoleon alongside employees from I. G. Farben, who had dressed up as Nazis as a joke before becoming Nazis in earnest after 1933. Together with Carl Dreyfuss, a high-society playboy, Adorno wrote surrealist sketches for the Frankfurter Zeitung under the pseudonym “Castor Zwieback.” But in general, Kracauer, having advanced to the position of editor, made sure that he wrote as little as possible for the paper. Love
somewhat afraid of the scholarly atmosphere and feel more comfortable with the movie rabble in Hollywood,” he wrote to his son Klaus on 12 May 1938.33 Friedrich Pollock reports that Adorno, of all people, dreamed of a life as a private scholar in California. With America’s entry into the war in 1941, the tendency among the émigrés to adopt American citizenship increased. The identiﬁcation with the America of the New Deal was reﬂected in the way the immigrants followed the example of President