Theodor W. Adorno: Portrait of a Marxist Mandarin

By Traverso, Enzo | Queen's Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Theodor W. Adorno: Portrait of a Marxist Mandarin


Traverso, Enzo, Queen's Quarterly


Last year, Germany celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969). One of the greatest twentieth-century philosophers could hardly be expected to dodge the commemorative wave that has swamped our times, and there has been a flood of books, colloquia, and celebrations. Indeed, there has been attention enough to flatter the ego of a man who knew little modesty, but enough also to irritate a deeply critical mind that would have been horrified to find its legacy transformed into a fetish of the culture industry.

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A successful work of art is not one which resolves contradictions in a
spurious harmony, but one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively
by embodying the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its
innermost structure ...
Theodor Adorno

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

AMID THE PLETHORA of books that have marked the anniversary, two biographies stand out, of which the more ambitious is, in a sense, the "official" one--since it is published by Suhrkamp, the German publisher of Adorno's complete works--and has just appeared in French translation. The other, which is in some respects far more original, is still waiting for a courageous publisher for its French edition. The wave has crossed the Rhine as well, with two works that round off Adorno's French bibliography: the one an anthology of his literary criticism, the other an edition of his correspondence with the Viennese composer Alban Berg.

Both Detlev Claussen's and Stefan Muller-Doohm's books burst with admiration for the Frankfurt master; indeed the former openly bills Adorno under the subtitle--drawn from a phrase of Horkheimer's--"A Last Genius." Their devotion leads them to rub out or minimize some problematic details of Adorno's life and work, but thankfully this does not stifle their critical spirit. Claussen's book is not, strictly speaking, a biography. Rather, it is a human and intellectual portrait; without fretting over rigidly chronological reconstruction, it tries to sketch Adorno's personality by setting him up in new dialogue with some of his erstwhile interlocutors: Kracauer, Horkheimer, Benjamin, Bloch, Brecht, Eisler, Thomas Mann, Fritz Lang. Muller-Doohm's book, on the other hand, is a far more conventional biography, tracing Adorno's life more than his work and founded on a deep plunge into multiple archival collections. Both works are constrained by the censorship imposed by the directors of the Adorno Archive on the philosopher's unpublished correspondence (especially with Kracauer), correspondence which the biographers were able to consult but were barred from quoting.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Like many leftist German intellectuals of his generation, Adorno left his country after Hitler's 1933 rise to power and took refuge in the United States. But unlike most of his friends, Adorno's choice of exile was not immediate. Protected by his status as a half-Jew (his mother, the singer Maria Calvelli-Adorno, was a Catholic of Corsican descent), for a time he entertained the illusion that he could remain in Germany, learning to live with the new situation and awaiting the end of a regime that he thought transitory. This notion proved to be thoroughly deluded, and in 1938 he was obliged to choose to leave Nazi Germany after nearly five years of travel back and forth between Frankfurt and Oxford, where he had won a scholarship. First in New York and then in California, he and Max Horkheimer revived the Institute for Social Research in exile, better known nowadays as "the Frankfurt School."

Created under the Weimar Republic, the school had become one of the main centres of critical Marxism in the period between the world wars, and numbered among its participants such figures as Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse. Strangely enough, at a time when the intellectual world was polarized between communism and fascism, the Institute for Social Research blended its great intellectual originality with an intransigent refusal of any political activism. …

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