Theodor W. Adorno

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Detlev Claussen has designed the biography Theodor W. Adorno so that each chapter stands on its own, and he views Theodor Adorno’s work as a “palimpsest” of overlapping ideas. He begins his account of Adorno’s life and work by immediately introducing the name of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, an “exemplary genius” to whom he compares Adorno, the One Last Genius of the subtitle. The precocious Adorno was born on September 11, 1903, in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. His father, Oscar Alexander Wiesengrund, was a prosperous wine merchant, and his mother, Maria Barbara, born Calvelli-Adorno, was a talented musician. His father was an assimilated Jew, and his mother was a Catholic. In 1933 Adorno was expelled by the Nazis.

Adorno’s comfortable bourgeois childhood was spent on the Frankfurt street known as Schöne Aussicht (beautiful prospect). In his teens, Adorno became close to Siegfried Kracauer, fourteen years his senior and from a lower-middle-class background that, Claussen surmises, must have “disconcerted” the “adored prodigy” Adorno. Claussen stresses the importance for Adorno’s early years of the poet Heinrich Heine, who as a successful Jew represented a “social metaphor” for the aspiring Jewish middle classes but whose memory was desecrated by the Nazis. The main themes of Dialektik der Aufklärung (1944; Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1972), Adorno’s major work, written with Max Horkheimer, are foreshadowed in Heine, Claussen says, referring to “the idea of the inexorable advance of a modern, enlightened culture that liberates self-destructive forces.”

Felix Weil, born in 1898, was to play an important role in the lives of both Adorno and Horkheimer. He was heir to millions from his family’s huge trade in grain, and in 1918 he joined the short-lived Workers and Soldiers Council in Frankfurt. This experience eventually led him to financing in 1923 the Institute for Social Research, “the product of the spirit of practical socialism” and the professional home for many years of Adorno and the other Critical Theorists, especially Horkheimer, who became its director in 1930. The ideology of the Institute for Social Research soon became clear with the declaration of the First Marxist Work Week, an event that brought the Hungarian aristocrat György Lukács into prominence. Adorno and Kracauer had already read Lukács’s early Die Théorie des Romans (1920; The Theory of the Novel, 1971), an indictment of science for its influence on thought that was followed in 1923 by Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein (History and Class Consciousness, 1971), an idealizing version of communism.

Adorno earned a doctorate from Frankfurt University in 1924, and in 1925 he went to Vienna to study musical composition with Alban Berg, an admirer of the brilliant composer Arnold Schoenberg. The brief sojourn in Vienna did not work out well for the immature Adorno, but it proved a turning point in his life, and it was at this time that he met Lukács.

Lukács’s influence can be seen in Adorno’s Habilitationsschrift (dissertation) in 1931 on Søren Kierkegaard, in which he rejects idealism as the prime bourgeois ideology, a theme that was to appear repeatedly in Negative Dialektik (1966; Negative Dialectics, 1973) and other works. The failure of the bourgeois class to change the world made social critics of Adorno, Kracauer, and Lukács, as well as of Adorno’s new friend Walter Benjamin, and for them “Marxism” meant the exhaustion of bourgeois society. It was a nervous Marxism, however, for, as Claussen notes of Benjamin, he closer he came to orthodox communism, the more he felt repelled by what it meant in practice.

After three years in New York, Adorno became Thomas Mann’s neighbor in Los Angeles, and Claussen devotes a whole chapter to Adorno’s contribution to the composition of Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus (1947; Doctor Faustus, 1948), the story of a composer, Adrian Leverkün, whose musical inventions “in reality” belong to Schoenberg. The relationship, however, was not without some clash of egos, with Mann’s daughter, Erika Mann, faulting Adorno for his account in 1962 of their working routines. Mann and Adorno both knew that Doctor Faustus would be “the last bourgeois novel in the German tradition,” as Claussen calls it. Adorno thus speaks of his being “non-identical,” a younger man than Mann and a different one. He was different in a further sense, for in 1942 he had dropped the surname Wiesengrund and become...

(The entire section is 1889 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Library Journal 133, no. 4 (March 1, 2008): 84-85.

London Review of Books 30, no. 12 (June 19, 2008): 9-10.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 6 (February 11, 2008): 64.

The Wall Street Journal 251, no. 91 (April 18, 2008): W5.