He was famously hostile to biography as a literary form. And yet this life of Adorno by one of his last students is far more than literary in its accomplishments, giving us our first clear look at how the man and his moment met to create “critical theory.” An intimate picture of the quintessential twentieth-century transatlantic intellectual, the book is also a window on the cultural ferment of Adorno’s day—and its ongoing importance in our own.
The biography begins at the shining moment of the German bourgeoisie, in a world dominated by liberals willing to extend citizenship to refugees fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. Detlev Claussen follows Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno (1903–1969) from his privileged life as a beloved prodigy to his intellectual coming of age in Weimar Germany and Vienna; from his exile during the Nazi years, first to England, then to the United States, to his emergence as the Adorno we know now in the perhaps not-so-unlikely setting of Los Angeles. There in 1943 with his collaborator Max Horkheimer, Adorno developed critical theory, whose key insight—that to be entertained is to give one’s consent—helped define the intellectual landscape of the twentieth century.
In capturing the man in his complex relationships with some of the century’s finest minds—including, among others, Arnold Schoenberg, Walter Benjamin, Thomas Mann, Siegfried Kracauer, Georg Lukács, Hannah Arendt, and Bertolt Brecht—Claussen reveals how much we have yet to learn from Theodor Adorno, and how much his life can tell us about ourselves and our time.
By examining Adorno's life through a circle of modernist companions who ended up dispersed all over the world, Detlev Claussen raises the question of whether biography can be written at all under the broken conditions of modernity. In his descriptions of German-Jewish lives, Claussen shows the complexities of living in the shadow of Auschwitz, and undermines the crude myths and interpretations that have sometimes plagued scholarship of Adorno and his milieu.
Writing as a sympathetic admirer rather than as an outsider or critic, Claussen moves the reader through his narrative the way a good novelist does. He has clearly mastered Adorno's difficult writings and is wonderfully in control of his subject's intellectual and personal milieu. His prose is lively and unburdened by technical jargon. Even for a veteran Adorno observer, this remarkable book contains many new findings and revisions of conventional wisdom.
This elegant translation of Claussen's 2003 biography of his teacher provides the first glimpse of the depth of Adorno's life and thought. In masterful strokes, Claussen traces Adorno's life and work from his middle-class Jewish childhood in Frankfurt and Vienna and his university work on Kierkegaard to his friendships with Walter Benjamin and Thomas Mann, among others, and his later intellectual partnership with Horkheimer. Weaving in colorful excerpts of Adorno's writings, Claussen demonstrates the centrality of music and aesthetics to the philosopher and offers fresh insights into his life. Thanks to its depth and thoroughness, this lovingly crafted study will most certainly become the definitive portrait of Adorno, and it is also a captivating portrait of the incredibly shifting times, from Weimar to the Nazi regime, through which Adorno passed.
Claussen, a student of Adorno's, has written what has been hailed as among the best books on its famously recalcitrant subject.
Claussen is a journalist as well as an academic, and his skill at revealing the narrative story of a life, along with the theoretical underpinnings both influencing and influenced by that life, demonstrates the interweaving possible between his own two disciplines...Claussen chooses to reveal the individual by placing him within a foreground of his intellectual and cultural peers, who included Walter Benjamin, Thomas Mann, Max Horkheimer, and Bertolt Brecht, a cohort forced by the 20th century's political and social upheavals to live peripatetic lives. Richly detailed and elegantly translated.
Fascinating...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.
Detlev Claussen's biography of Adorno is a remarkable achievement. Central to the success of this book is the fact that its author is not solely a biographer but is also a distinguished sociologist and social theorist, and he is able to identify and respond to each of the difficulties that Adorno poses...In its entirety, this is a brilliant book that movingly disentangles and pieces together highly complex relations of personal, historical, and intellectual life. It is difficult to imagine how biography could be more successful in examining theoretical existence or how it could more accurately elucidate thought in so many of its formative dimensions.
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.
[A] magisterial biography...As a student of Adorno's during the '60s, Claussen, who teaches sociology at the University of Hanover, knows his mentor's philosophy, as well as his character, intimately.
Claussen is illuminating on his subject’s politics, cultural heritage, historical context, musicology, intellectual liaisons and reflections on the culture industry...Theodor Adorno: One Last Genius is a strenuously intellectual biography, the only sort the master himself might just have approved, in which the bare facts of his life always come to us interwoven with historical currents and philosophical wrangles.
Claussen superbly examines every aspect of Adorno’s life and career, digging like an investigative reporter into “Teddy’s” relations with Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, and other famous contemporaries and friends, clarifying the Frankfurt School’s evolving ethos, and zeroing in on Adorno’s awkward relation to his Jewishness.
As Detlev Claussen's densely textured biography proves time and again, the conflicts and rapprochements between generations were as essential to Adorno's personal and intellectual development as was his persistent sense of exile.
- 2009, Winner of the Ungar German Translation Award
- 464 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
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