Walking near the Metropolitan Museum not long ago, I saw a young man, about the right age for a graduate student, wearing a T-shirt that declared "I ♥ Adorno." I'm not sure how ironically the slogan was intended, but it perfectly captures the ambiguity that still surrounds Theodor Adorno's name, nearly 40 years after his death. On the one hand, he is the kind of intellectual who has not just readers but fans, who define themselves in part by their allegiance to him. The breadth and absolutism of his judgments, the way he seems to peer down on all of culture and history from the heights of theory, inspire a cultish devotion that more modest thinkers neither attract nor desire.
Adorno's critical theory, which allows its wielder to discover the stigmata of history in even the most trivial products of culture, is especially attractive in our post-ideological age, when Marxist cultural analysis is more plausible than Marxist economics. (For examples, see any issue of the magazine n+1, where Adorno is a tutelary spirit.) Even the famous difficulty of Adorno's prose, which retains in English the auratic abstractness of German, helps to increase his allure. As with the guru who sits at the top of a mountain, his teaching is made more seductive by the hardships the seeker encounters along the way.
Yet at the same time, that Tshirt demonstrates — dialectically, as Adorno would have it — the self-canceling nature of his celebrity. To elevate his name to a slogan is simultaneously to reduce it to a brand, one of the interchangeable markers by which the consumer constructs his illusory identity. It is a textbook example of what Adorno called "reification," the reduction of a vital subjective experience to a mere dead thing. The almost unbearable demands of Adorno's thought — which is punishingly consistent in its suspicion of pleasure, its refusal of consolation, its longing for an unattainable utopia — are silenced and betrayed by the kitschy heart symbol.
No. Adorno, who wrote that "even the blossoming tree lies the moment its bloom is seen without the shadow of terror," would certainly not want to be "hearted." At best, he would take a grim pleasure in seeing this confirmation of the power of what he named the Culture Industry, which neuters even the most powerful challenges to its domination. And perhaps, it is only fair to add, his vanity would be pleased. For as the wife of Max Horkheimer, his Frankfurt School colleague, once observed, "Teddie is the most monstrous narcissist to be found in either the Old World or the New."
The bluntness of that judgment makes it an exception among the many views of Adorno quoted in "Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius" (Harvard University Press, 440 pages, $35), but the sentiment is not an isolated one. Detlev Claussen's fascinating study is not quite a biography; it does not lay out the events of Adorno's life in chronological order, preferring to skip thematically through the decades, and it assumes a good deal of prior knowledge of his work and milieu. It might best be described as the biography of Adorno's friendships — or better still, his relationships, since even his friends tended to go through phases of disliking him.
Mr. Claussen, who had the chance to study with Adorno, writes as a disciple, always taking his teacher's side against the malicious criticism he often inspired. But what bound Adorno to the brilliant figures that populate this book — from famous artists like Alban Berg, Fritz Lang, and Thomas Mann to idiosyncratic thinkers like Siegfried Kracauer, Ernst Bloch, and Walter Benjamin — was something more powerful than affection. It was history, the history of Germany and German Jewry in the 20th century, which hurled Adorno from Frankfurt to Los Angeles and back again, and turned his life's work into a sustained meditation on disaster.
"The recent past always presents itself as if destroyed by catastrophes," Adorno wrote in "Minima Moralia," the collection of aphorisms that he produced during World War II. To feel the force of this maxim, one has to understand the course of Adorno's own life. He was born in Frankfurt in 1903, the son of Oscar Wiesengrund, a Jewish wine merchant, and Maria Calvelli-Adorno, a professional singer from an Italian Catholic family. (His decision to swap his father's recognizably Jewish name for his mother's, while a refugee in America during the war, is weakly defended by Mr. Claussen, but it still appears dishonorable.) An only child, "Teddie" was doted on by parents who considered him a prodigy. To the end of his life, he dwelled on the sharp contrast he experienced between the family home — secure, loving, free — and the world of school, where he was mocked and bullied.
"In a real sense," he wrote in 1935, I ought to be able to deduce fascism from the memories of my childhood. As a conqueror dispatches envoys to the remotest provinces, fascism had sent its advance guard there long before it marched in: my schoolfellows.... The five patriots who set upon a single schoolfellow, thrashed him, and when he complained to the teacher, defamed him as a traitor to the class — are they not the same as those [Nazis] who tortured prisoners to refute claims by foreigners that prisoners were tortured?
Mr. Claussen confirms what should already be plain enough: that the boy who was thrashed by his classmates was Adorno himself. He was the victim of a group of five boys who constituted the so-called "Harmless Club," and who would set upon their classmate with anti-Semitic cries: "Greetings to Father Abraham!" The Manichean complexion of his childhood — the utopia of love assailed by the world's cruelty and lust for domination — survives in Adorno's mature thought. Even after receiving a doctorate at the exceptionally young age of 21, Adorno hoped that his future would lie in music, in keeping with his mother's family's traditions. He went to Vienna to study the most up-to-date techniques of atonal composition, becoming a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg's disciple, Berg. But as Mr. Claussen shows, Adorno was overshadowed in the intensely competitive milieu of the Second Viennese School by Hanns Eisler, who would become his lifelong friend.
Eventually, Adorno's ambitions turned away from composition to music criticism. (It is odd, and a pity, that the 1930s, in many ways the pivotal years in Adorno's life, are almost completely neglected by Mr. Claussen.) But his writings on music were informed from the beginning by his interest in society and politics. In time, music in particular and culture in general would provide Adorno the perfect vantage point from which to criticize what he saw as the alienation and false consciousness of bourgeois society. This was especially the case once Adorno reached Los Angeles, in the 1940s, where he could observe the radio and film industries firsthand.
Yet even Mr. Claussen is embarrassed by Adorno's ignorant and snobbish dismissal of American popular music, all of which he lumped together as "jazz." This "seems to be a blind spot in his work," Mr. Claussen acknowledges; but in fact it is more than that. Adorno's contempt for jazz and those who listen to it, his belief that popular music is simply the tool of the Culture Industry for colonizing the consciousness of the masses, is suggestive of the arrogant absolutism that characterizes his thought in general.
Because he viewed music as a Hegelian progress from Beethoven to Schoenberg, keeping pace with the inexorable alienation of bourgeois society, Adorno viewed any 20th-century music that was less alienated than Schoenberg's as a cowardly retreat, a refusal of difficult knowledge. (This applied to Stravinsky's neoclassicism as much as to the Andrews Sisters.) In an analogous way, critical theory attempts to explain all of contemporary history as the inevitable working-out of a historical dialectic that culminates in Nazism. Adorno is upside-down Hegel: instead of trying to prove that history is driven by the cunning of reason, he tries to show that it is marching in lockstep toward mindlessness. In "Minima Moralia," he rewrote Hegel's dictum "the true is the whole" as "the whole is the false."
Yet for all the intellectual dexterity Adorno expended in this effort, and all the undoubted insights he gained into history and culture, it is precisely the totalizing nature of his thought that renders it so questionable. With the subtlety of a schoolman, Adorno tried to show how every aspect of 20th-century life was implicated in the same process of alienation, exploitation, and suffering. "Wrong life cannot be lived rightly," he decreed, and it followed that anyone who believed he was living rightly, or enjoying the "false pleasures" of bourgeois culture, was miserably deluded. Adorno effectively denies the possibility of spontaneity and pluralism, of freedom and new beginnings — in other words, all the human capacities that make genuine humanism possible.
Only on the other side of redemption, in the utopia Adorno vaguely envisioned, would there be once more a place for happiness. He could write very movingly about that utopia, often drawing on images from childhood, as when he suggests that children's love of animals has to do with their indifference to human profit and loss. "In existing without any purpose recognizable to men," he writes, "animals hold out, as if for expression, their own names, utterly impossible to exchange." The best thing about Mr. Claussen's book is the way it helps us to understand the extremities of Adorno's experience, which gave rise to such hope and such despair.