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Bourgeois Radical

Lorenz Jäger’s biography of Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) is a useful study of an unpleasant but influential figure. From the 1920s until his death, Adorno was the prime mover behind the aggregation of cultural and social iconoclasts known as the Frankfurt School. Together with his more down-to-earth co-organizer Max Horkheimer, who contributed family wealth to their enterprise, Adorno took his socially radical think tank, the Institute for Social Research, in 1934 from its interwar home in Frankfurt to New York and later Los Angeles.In 1949, at the urging of Horkheimer, who was then rector at the University of Frankfurt, he returned to his native city to resume their research activities uncovering the bourgeois sources of “fascist” and “pseudo-democratic” pathologies. During their American wartime stay, the two friends also collaborated in the compilation of a bulky anthology of disquisitions dealing with the allegedly fascist mentality of the American population. This work, The Authoritarian Personality (1950), had far-ranging consequences for American educators and social reformers despite its turgid and preachy prose and the dubious proofs extracted by the authors from primitive interview techniques.

The Adorno depicted by Jäger was a man of many parts—a philosopher, a sociologist, a talented pianist, and an enlightening commentator on 12-tone music. His social radicalism took shape after the First World War but not for the reasons that his interpreters sometimes mechanically provide. Despite having a Jewish father—whose name, Wiesengrund, he exchanged for his mother’s maiden name, Adorno—it is hard to find evidence of the writer’s exposure to anti-Jewish discrimination before suffering dismissal as a university instructor by the Nazis. Adorno was raised in a wealthy home as a Catholic and during his youth was deeply drawn to the religion of his French mother. Despite a professional setback under the Nazis, he was not personally harmed and freely left and then returned to Germany before deciding to immigrate to the United States. This fact should be duly noted in view of the unceasing references in Adorno’s work, and in that of his colleagues and disciples, to an omnipresent Nazi danger, which they imagined to be well established in the United States.

After the war, Adorno praised the Soviet Union and the governments that it set up in Eastern Europe as an “anti-fascist necessity.” Nonetheless, he made no effort to move to an “anti-fascist” place of refuge, and when he left his adopted country, which he scolded for its anti-Communist hysteria, he did so with documented reluctance. Moreover, notwithstanding his supposed loathing for bourgeois privilege, Adorno lived sumptuously to whatever extent his circumstances permitted. His “untimely death” (as his passing is described in Yale Book News) occurred while he was away from his wainscoted offices on a periodic visit to a resort near the Matterhorn. And for all his talk about the oppression of women in late capitalism, and despite his frumpy appearance (as revealed by the photo on the covers of both the German and English editions of this book), this feminist champion cheated persistently on his wife of many years, Gretel, who, if truth be known, looked less plain than he did.

Jäger’s biography is the fairest and most accessible study known to me of this complex, obnoxious thinker. His German prose, which in the original text contrasts favorably to Adorno’s, is a pleasure to read, and the English rendering is solid. As in his cultural commentaries, which appear in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Jäger here shows considerable knowledge of music, an interest he shares with Adorno and one that might have drawn him to his subject. And though he goes through Adorno’s major works of social criticism and correspondence with his soulmates, much of Jäger’s work is on the aesthetic side of Adorno’s life, which is least familiar to the radical scholar’s American votaries.

As the dust jacket to the German edition explains, Adorno lives on as the social commentator who created the term and criticized the phenomenon of the “culture industry.” He was among the first to have grasped as a social-historical critic the destructive power of consumerism in trivializing genuine literary and artistic accomplishments. Jäger shows with abundant quotations how Adorno came to view culture in his own time in much the same way that literary modernist Ezra Pound had, as an industrial commodity or consumer product. He also lets us know Adorno’s shocked reaction upon returning to live in his native city of Frankfurt to the destruction wrought by Allied bombing. Jäger quotes his subject’s dismay when he discovers that the church in which he had been confirmed, St. Catherine’s, has been devastated, together with other local places of worship.

What for me is most remarkable about this biography is the measured way in which its author approaches his subject. Someone whose conservative Catholic convictions and revulsion for political correctness are evident in his other writings, Jäger could not possibly share Adorno’s demonstrable contempt for bourgeois Christian society. Indeed, it is hard to read this work without noticing the prevalence of such contempt in Adorno’s correspondence with other members of the Frankfurt School. The correspondents express their hostilities, which in some cases seem to stem from an ostentatious sense of Jewish marginality, in a variety of desperate radical positions, from hating their own country long before the Nazis rose to power to pouring affection on communist dictatorships.

Jäger also relates Adorno’s involvement in a project undertaken for the U.S. High Commission soon after his return to Frankfurt, a series of group surveys intended to ascertain the “fascist sympathies” of Germans then undergoing American-led re-education. Adorno’s chosen assistants, some of whom themselves had shady pasts in the Third Reich, blurred the distinction between Nazi sympathies and certain well-founded observations about the recent past. Germans who complained about the Allied bombing of civilian populations during the war or about vindictive American treatment afterwards, or who noted the harsh provisions of the Treaty of Versailles ending the First World War, were presumed to be sympathetic to Hitler or else mentally troubled German nationalists. But these damning observations were defensible, as Jäger makes clear, and were fully shared by former anti-Nazis, e.g., German Social Democratic leader Kurt Schumacher, who had spent the war years in a Nazi concentration camp. In his search for enemies on the Right, Adorno had become the shrillest voice of the American victors at the same time as he was defending Stalinist aggression in Eastern Europe.

But Jäger also documents that Adorno expressed the same attitudes and emotions that he condemned in his fellow Germans. He too was disturbed by the amount of rubble that the Allied bombing left behind. Moreover, he exhibited profoundly bourgeois taste in literature and art, an unfashionable aversion to Negro jazz, and a 19th-century sensibility that kept creeping into his aesthetic judgments. Jäger depicts in his subject a cultivated man of learning who was at war with himself and whose internal conflict had a fateful impact on the lives of others. In the late ’60s, in a crisis that might have caused his physical deterioration and led to his death, Adorno was targeted by the student Left at the University of Frankfurt, who broke into and disrupted his classes. Like other revolutionaries before and since, this aging academic was accused of harboring reactionary impulses and of not sincerely opposing sexism. In an orgy of confused symbolism, female protesters bared their breasts in Adorno’s sight while waving pages torn from his tract Negative Dialectics. Adorno had apparently not done enough to explore the dialectical possibility of shocking German burghers. Significantly, Jäger shifts away from this student unrest to a view of the Matterhorn as seen from the French Swiss region of Valais, a view that he, Goethe, and Adorno all enjoyed. By electing to end on this note, he is making a statement about what Adorno should be remembered for, namely, his appreciation of natural and artistic beauty.

But this really won’t wash. What has been called “cultural Marxism” (inaccurately, given its lack of Marxist substance), and which flourishes in Europe and to a lesser extent here as political correctness, would be unthinkable without Adorno and the Frankfurt School. Thanks largely, albeit not exclusively, to their activities, bourgeois normality, belief in God, and patriotism have come to be linked in academic culture and among social reformers to a slippery slope leading to fascism. Marxism, which had previously been primarily concerned with economic revolution, was transformed through Frankfurt School guidance into an unrelenting war against patriarchy, Christianity, and traditional community. By means of their translated writings and the infusion of their attitudes and grievances into American professional psychology in the 1930s and into pop social science thereafter, Adorno and his circle made themselves dramatically felt in the New World. (Since this reception was far more enthusiastic than American conservatives would like to believe, one may have to speak here of a natural fit rather than a deception.) In any case, it is hard to recall Adorno at this point in Western political life mostly for his learned essays on Beethoven and Arnold Schoenberg. Would that musicology were all he wrote!


Paul Gottfried is a professor of humanities at Elizabethtown College and the author of Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt.

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