Category: Non-fiction

Detlev Claussen
Theodor W. Adorno. Ein letztes Genie
[Theodor W. Adorno A last genius]

Biography

Review

In the year celebrating Theodor W. Adorno's 100th birthday, there appeared various biographies as well as a staggering amount of articles in German language newspapers and journals. The three most important books on Adorno include the book from Detlev Claussen being discussed here, Stefan Müller-Doohm's nearly 1000 page work, as well as a "political biography" from Lorenz Jäger. In these articles, they are seldom reviewed based on their own merits, but rather compared to one another, weighed against each other, a clear dividing line drawn between each work in order to achieve keener definition.

Claussen, like Müller-Doohm, is a former student of Adorno's, who with his renouncement of a clear narration of biographical events, opens up the possibilities of another way of dealing with life stories and gives priority to "thinking in constellations".

In particular, this methodical characteristic of the essayistic occupation with central thematic complexes gives even the untrained reader access to Adorno's way of thinking. The result is the occasional redundancy that, while reading a piece, may appear to be superfluous but easily allow for each chapter to be read and deciphered individually. Within the chapter devoted to a chronological logic according to Adorno's résumé and life's course, Claussen liberates himself from all of the temporal constrictions posed by the underlying context. He reaches for the most varied threads that, again and again, lead to yet another or new aspect on Adorno's life and thoughts. Claussen himself describes this as the "composition of biographical fragments", from which a complete picture can be drawn, little by little, of the musician, sociologist, and philosopher in his social and intellectual milieu.

The book is divided into seven chapters and one section that contains an unedited poem by Brecht ("To Those Born After"), an original text from Adorno's Minima Moralia ("Out of the Way") as well as excursus on Hanns Eisler and Fritz Lang. After Claussen discusses the obvious problem of a biography of Theodor W. Adorno, the vehement critic of every attempt at "biography-ism", he begins, in the first chapter ("Lovely Outlook: A Childhood in Frankfurt in the year 1910"), with a portrait of Adorno's childhood and adolescence in Frankfurt.

The look back at "the long, bourgeois century", that extends from Goethe by way of Thomas Mann up to the catastrophe of World War I and also happens to include Adorno's childhood years, serves as a point of access. Even the early experiences of future friends and companions such as Benjamin, Kracauer or Horkheimer are considered for their differences and parallels to Adorno's background. The life of German Jews between assimilation and middle-class possibility of advancement shapes the background, in front of which Claussen describes the artistically unconventional environment in the Wiesengrund-Adorno house and the influence of the "two mothers" of young "Teddie", Maria Calvelli Adorno, an opera singer, and her sister Agathe.

The second chapter, "From Teddie Wiesengrund to Dr. Wiesengrund-Adorno", describes his student years in Frankfurt, the move to Vienna, and finally his hesitant abandonment of Germany at the end of the Weimar Democracy. One finds here the first detailed passages on the political biographies of companions, and also the history of the origin of the Institute for Social Research.

"The Non-Identical", the third chapter, includes, above all, the life in exile. To be non-identical, the distance between the individual and the surrounding environment; being different is inherent in Adorno's background, and will be reinforced by his occasional struggle to make ends meet in England and in the United States. His extensive introduction – and here the priority of contents over chronology sharply emerges – is Adorno's support from Thomas Mann on his work on Doktor Faustus. Thomas Mann's quality as the (last) representative of the "long, bourgeois century" serves as a bridge to new developments in the concept of the "culture industry" and with it, developments in the Dialectic of the Enlightenment. Finally, the Minima Moralia emerge under the influence of the information from Auschwitz.

Following the chapter entitled "Transitions", an insertion with texts from Brecht, Adorno, as well as two essays on Hanns Eisler and Fritz Lang Claussen turns to Adornos later periods of life. The chapter "Frankfurt Transfer" discusses the "American experience", as Adorno describes and analyses them among others in the Scientific Experiences of a European Scholar in America published in 1968. The interplay of theoretical reflections and empirical data survey in the social sciences characterizes Adorno's work in the "Princeton Radio Research Project" as well as in the Institute for Social Research.

Claussen devotes a lot of space in the section entitled "The Identical" to the role of music, that allows Adorno his lifelong "moments of extraterritoriality" and at the same time is in the position to create a "doubling of the self". The close connection between happiness and fear is formulated as "the same (...) open-mindedness to experience (...)". The concept of "happiness" is also the subject of the discussion that took place in 1956 between Horkheimer and Adorno and which Claussen refers to numerous times in this chapter. In his resumption of numerous subjects, that were already discussed in 1939 during the time of Adorno's American exile, Claussen reflects on the role of theory and its practical conversion, on the concept of identity in the bourgeois-capitalistic society, and on the possibilities of social change.

Finally, in the last section headed "Palimpsest of life", Claussen once again pursues Adorno's relationship to friends from the earlier years of his life. The detailed description of Adorno's somewhat rocky relationship with Ernst Bloch gives Claussen the opportunity to deal with the most varied confrontations: here we have Bloch's apologetic remarks on the Moskow Trials just as subjects as the hot-tempered and emotional discussions of the works of Walter Benjamin. Even Bertold Brecht and Hanns Eisler, whom Adorno respected as artists but nonetheless viewed their positions towards "party communism" with scepticm, were subjects for reflection. Claussen has absolute mastery over rendering the interplay of theoretical considerations and concrete events intelligible, in that he (as mentioned earlier) once again "gives voice to" Adorno's texts by way of embedding them in the biographical account.

The final series of subjects deals with the tense and much-discussed relationship of Adorno to the student movement of '68 which, in Claussen's estimation, had already prepared him for the "anti-intellectual self-hate" of Bertolt Brecht's "studied vulgar materialism". It was not a surprise to Adorno that, in 1969, the students looked for more and more extreme manifestations of their disapproval, that he thought was rooted in their "own compulsion for publicity".

This book is a study of the intellectual milieu surrounding Adorno, a milieu that has delivered invaluable impulses and contributions and that offers even more to be discovered in the 21st century.
Heike Friesel

By Heike Friesel, 19.01.2004