One Last Genius

The biographies of philosophers rarely make engrossing reading.  The life of the mind may be rich in ideas but poor in narrative action. One of the more dramatic moments of a philosopher’s life tends to be   his first appointment to a university teaching appointment. Here the life of Theodor Adorno fits the mold: his Habilitationsschrift, in which he tried to make Kierkegaard sit down with Marx, was rejected by the faculty of the University of Frankfurt, now known as the Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität. (Walter Benjamin’s Habilitationsschrift was rejected by the same faculty a few years later. He eventually published it as The Origin of German Tragic Drama.) But Adorno’s formidable networking skills served him well, and he eventually landed a job at Frankfurt. 

Although Adorno’s comfortable world soon collapsed around him, he did enjoy a collegial lifestyle pretty much no matter where he lived. His friendships were the central dramas of his life. They contrasted with his writings–magisterial, uncompromising, rigorous, and lugubrious in the extreme. This is why Detlev Claussen focused more on the former than the latter in his Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius. Claussen treats biographical chronology like Adorno treated tonality: rejecting it as a false totality, a residue from an earlier, more violent time. Instead, Claussen tracks Adorno’s life through his friendships. Adorno was precocious and self-confident in everything he did, including forming friendships. An early tutor was Siegfried Kracauer. Soon after reading Ernst Bloch, then one of the German-speaking world’s best-known thinkers, Adorno tracked him down and introduced himself. He did the same for Alban Berg and, even more aggressively, for Arnold Schoenberg.

Adorno’s most famous friendship was with Walter Benjamin; the friendship was also representative of what it was like to be Adorno’s friend. Eleven years Benjamin’s junior, Adorno swooned over Benjamin when they met in 1923. By the 1930s, when Benjamin was struggling to make something out of the Arcades Project under the pressure of isolation, poverty, and impending war, Adorno was safely ensconced in New York after lingering in Nazi Germany for an unseemly length of time.  Adorno arranged for what little financial support Benjamin had, but he also caustically rejected Benjamin’s early drafts of his Baudelaire essays and his ruminations on the philosophy of history. Adorno had few encouraging words to say about Benjamin’s most enduring work, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."  Benjamin sunk into despair with each letter from New York bearing Adorno’s unforgiving and absolute judgment. Adorno’s early admiration for Benjamin’s paralogical thought gave way to a ruthless self-certainty.   The wife of Max Horkheimer, Adorno’s most consistent friend, once declared, "Teddie is the most monstrous narcissist to be found in either the Old World or the New."

Everyone disappointed Adorno–Kafka, Proust, Schoenberg, the Western world.  His epochal gloom can reach almost comical depths, such as when he was moved to write, "even the blossoming tree lies the moment its bloom is seen without the shadow of terror." For all the scrupulous subtlety of his thought, he could be crudely fixated on an idea, such as his animus against identity. In Negative Dialectics he defined ideology as "the hunger of the lion for the antelope." Then he leaves it pretty much at that.

However, one can’t read Adorno without soaking up at least some of his more powerful ideas. If you can get past the nagging feeling that he wouldn’t approve of you, either, you can learn a lot. One of my guiding principals about modern art and architecture comes straight out of Adorno: one can’t build a building or paint a painting as if the twentieth century never happened. One of his most potent ideas is that aesthetic form is itself political. One doesn’t have to side with the workers to produce valid art. For Adorno, the freedom of the artwork mocks the unfreedom of life in a bureaucratized society. One of his ideas still has widespread currency: his concept of the culture industry. Adorno was the first to point out that leisure was really just the flip side of work, and that even the most homespun cultural objects were saturated with mass market ideas.

We now roll our eyes at Adorno’s fussy absolutism. It’s possible, we’ve learned, to watch America’s Funniest Home Videos without paving the way for fascism. But when you feel a pang of conscience while watching the audience howl as some hapless performer gets booted off the stage on American Idol, Adorno says from the grave, "Now you know what I was talking about."

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