Adorno, Malcontent

Wkal560_books2_20080417195009Thomas Meaney in the WSJ:

Detlev Claussen’s “Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius” (readably translated from the German by Rodney Livingstone) should be read more as a companion to Adorno’s notoriously difficult writings than as a biography pure and simple. A former student of Adorno’s, Mr. Claussen is on intimate terms with the late master’s work, especially his correspondence with compatriots such as Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin. But if Mr. Claussen excels at giving us a sense of the intellectual hotbed in which Adorno formed his ideas, he is too loyal an acolyte to engage the ideas themselves.

A better subtitle for his book might have been “One Last Marxist.” While Adorno was far from a salon-Bolshevik (he repeatedly scorned Brecht for his Soviet ties), he belonged to the last generation of German thinkers who tried to salvage Marx’s critique of capitalism. Instead of training their sights on the economic base, these Marxists — later known as the Frankfurt School — preferred to concentrate on the cultural realm.

Marxism denounced capitalism for producing poverty, but Adorno and company thought it created and satisfied too many needs, causing us to value nearly everything for its market price and not for itself. Repelled by the vulgarity of the bourgeoisie but unwilling to trust the taste of the proletariat, they hoped for a socialist solution that would somehow preserve a genuinely autonomous culture.