During the 2003 Adorno centenary, something remarkable happened in Germany. The entire nation reached out to embrace this renegade Marxist philosopher in ways that were truly surprising. Throughout the country, Adorno “festivals” took place—apotheoses of the public celebrations advocated in Rousseauesque “civil religion.” In Frankfurt-am-Main, where Adorno taught and where he remains something of a legend, there is now an Adorno-Platz that features, instead of the customary bust, his writing desk, bizarrely encased in glass. A plethora of public exhibitions tracing his life and thought were mounted. Concerts featuring his musical compositions—most of which resemble Vienna School pastiches—were widely staged and subsequently released on CD. Documentaries examining his intellectual itinerary and philosophical contributions suffused German television. Radio programs took note of his immense influence on postwar German politics and society. The obligatory postage stamp bearing his likeness appeared, putting him in the company of such luminaries as Immanuel Kant and Hannah Arendt. Major universities hosted ponderous colloquiums, in which professors parsed such Adorno conundrums as “Philosophy is really there to redeem what lies in an animal’s gaze.”
It is curious that Germany took to its bosom a left-leaning, Jewish, émigré philosopher; after his return from exile in 1949, Adorno specialized in telling Germans truths about themselves that they did not especially want to hear. In a timely manner, Adorno retrieved the Freudian trope of “working through the past,” forcing his countrymen and -women to confront uncomfortable facts about their National Socialist allegiances. He tried to show how the nation’s endemic “inability to mourn” had produced an acute and debilitating psychic immobilism, arguing that a people that refuses to confront the depravity of its past remains unable to transcend it. Unmastered, the past persists as trauma and prevents living fully in the present. In a memorable passage in The Tin Drum—one with which Adorno was undoubtedly quite familiar—Günter Grass mocks his countrymen’s postwar emotional constipation by having them engage in elaborate onion-cutting rituals in order to shed tears.
As Detlev Claussen shows in his magisterial biography, Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius (published in German in 2003), the philosopher was widely mocked and scorned for his efforts. Having bravely punctured the sustaining myths of German collective narcissism, he was roundly accused of befouling his own nest. Since, following the war, Adorno had failed to receive a permanent teaching post, fellow Germans derided his position as a lecturer at the University of Frankfurt as the Wiedergutmachung Stuhl,” or the “restitution chair,” insinuating that it was unmerited.
If, during the 1950s, Adorno was unfairly vilified by the German right, during the ’60s he caught it from the opposite direction—the student left. In a classic instance of “acting out,” the German SDS, viewing itself as antifascist and brandishing pirated reprints of Frankfurt School texts, sought belatedly to win the political struggle that the Communists and Social Democrats had lost to Hitler and company in the early 1930s. In a well-known incident from 1969, the SDS occupied the Institute for Social Research building (home of the reincarnated Frankfurt School), and Adorno angrily summoned the police to have them forcibly expelled. Thereafter, all bridges between the students and the critical theorists were effectively burned.
That same year, a group of women students disrupted an Adorno lecture by demonstratively baring their breasts at the podium. Adorno was traumatized by the episode and, reportedly, never recovered. Two months later, he died of a heart attack—on August 6, 1969, to be precise: the twenty-fourth anniversary of the atomic-bomb blast that had leveled Hiroshima and inaugurated the nuclear age. The irony was that the perils of nuclear annihilation stood at the center of Adorno’s mature philosophy of history. An oft-cited passage from Negative Dialectics (1966) declares portentously, “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.”
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. The subtitle of Claussen’s biography alludes to a standard trope in German literary history. Since the days of Goethe, Hölderlin, and Schiller, genius described a Dichter, or poet, who was a conduit of luminous, noumenal insight. As such, works of genius were the result of transcendent intuition or divine inspiration. Thus, to speak of the “rules of genius” would be a misnomer—being a genius meant intentionally violating existing artistic standards or patterns in order to establish an original and unprecedented paradigm of aesthetic excellence. A genius might—and often did—have disciples and imitators, but the secrets of his or her creative capacities were, strictly speaking, incommunicable insofar as they transcended the strictures of rational intelligibility.
The delusions of genius were consummately satirized in Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, the ultimate send-up of the German Kulturmensch. The protagonist, Adrian Leverkühn, was intended to be a stand-in for Schoenberg and Nietzsche (and, as Claussen shows, the lesser-known composer Hugo Wolf). Among Mann’s colorful cast of characters is Breisacher, a self-hating Jew who views the history of culture as little more than a manifestation of decline; the Kridwiss Circle, led by Egon Unruhe, a “philosophical paleozoologist” preoccupied with ancient Germanic sagas, in which an overly sophisticated humanity has, to its detriment, long since ceased to believe; and Daniel zur Höhe, a litterateur whose poetry glorifies military slaughter in the name of Geist, or spirit. Adorno served as the musical adviser for the book, on which the two émigrés labored in the ’40s while languishing in what they referred to as “German California.”
One problem confronting Adorno’s emulation of the higher ideals of Geist was that by the time he reached maturity in the ’20s and ’30s, the concept of genius, which was integrally related to those ideals, had fallen into crisis by becoming diabolically fused with delusions of German grandeur and conquest. Already during World War I, Geist had turned into an argument for Teutonic cultural superiority and continental hegemony. The French, who excelled at Räsonnement, or reasoned analysis, possessed only a superficial and materialistic Zivilisation. The Germans, conversely, possessed Kultur—and, along with it, privileged insight into the depths of the human soul. If this didn’t confer a right to geopolitical mastery, what did?
Adorno’s countryman Ernst Troeltsch, a theologian and church historian, understood this dilemma only too well. In his 1922 essay “The Idea of Natural Law and Humanity in World Politics,” he lamented that Kultur had come to embody a terrifying mixture of “mysticism and brutality.” Following the Great War, the spirit of German Romanticism had been perversely wedded to the bellicose “Ideas of 1914.” The result, according to Troeltsch, was a demonic attempt to “brutalize romance, and to romanticize cynicism.” Here, Troeltsch was primarily thinking of tendencies that were prominent among the Stefan George Kreis but also among the mandarin intellectuals who, in 1914, had vociferously endorsed German militarism by claiming the war effort was one that poetic genius could plausibly embrace.
When Adorno came of age intellectually, during the interwar period, he found himself in a position analogous to that of the poet Paul Celan following World War II: They had assimilated and wholeheartedly identified with the exalted German traditions of Geist and Kultur. Yet by virtue of the uses to which those traditions had been put by advocates of German nationalism, the entire enterprise had, in their eyes, been irreparably contaminated. (In Celan’s case, this fact helps account for the fragmented syntax and obsessive reliance on neologisms. It was as though the German language had been so thoroughly compromised by Nazism that it had to be rebuilt from the ground up.)
Following World War II, Adorno gave eloquent voice to this dilemma in one of his most celebrated adages, when, in his essay “Cultural Criticism and Society,” he memorably observed, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” For, after the Holocaust and Hiroshima, Dichtung, or poetry, had degenerated into the pretense of humanity amid a generalized and insupportable inhumanity. It was for this reason that Adorno preferred the “dark writers” of the bourgeois era such as Sade and Nietzsche, both of whom figure prominently in the Frankfurt School’s theoretical masterwork, Dialectic of Enlightenment. As writers, Sade and Nietzsche’s virtue lay in the unremitting frankness with which they acknowledged the barbarism that exists beneath bourgeois civilization’s pretense of civility.
Herein lies the reason subtending Adorno’s adherence to “negative dialectics.” Hegel, his precursor in German Idealism, had contended that dialectical argumentation culminates in ever-higher conceptual syntheses, until “reason” and “reality” are reconciled—which, for Hegel, conveniently came to pass with the Restoration-era Prussian state. Adorno’s negative dialectic condemned the premature and misleading equivalence of subject and object that was German Idealism’s trademark. Via another choice maxim, he pilloried Hegel’s “positive dialectics.” Hegel had maintained that “the whole is the true”; Adorno replied, “The whole is the untrue.” “An authentic life cannot be lived amid one that is false,” he pointedly added.
Throughout his productive life, Adorno sought to mobilize the powers of aesthetic negation against the hypocrisies of bourgeois rectitude. In this respect, his studies during the early ’20s with the Vienna School’s Alban Berg proved to be of lasting value. Like his teacher Schoenberg, Berg was an exponent of atonality. In Adorno’s view, dissonance alone, and not pleasing harmony, gave the lie to modern society’s illusions of fulfillment and wholeness. It is no small irony, then, to observe that on his return to Germany, Adorno became a vigorous advocate of Enlightenment. These were the values that, during their twelve-year reign of terror, the Nazis had destroyed. (Goebbels once observed that with Hitler’s accession to power, the year 1789 had been effaced from history.) In pathbreaking essays such as “Education Toward Maturity and Responsibility” and “Education After Auschwitz,” Adorno repeatedly advocated the Kantian precept of moral autonomy. He realized that only by nurturing the values of autonomous citizenship could one effectively guard against the dangers of a totalitarian relapse: “The single genuine power standing against the principle of Auschwitz is autonomy, if I might use the Kantian expression: the power of reflection, of self-determination, of not cooperating.” In his conduct and activities as a critical intellectual, Adorno, to his credit, realized that Nazism’s success in Germany was the result of failed, rather than excessive, Enlightenment. Only by reversing the standpoint of Dialectic of Enlightenment—i.e., the radical Nietzschean critique of Enlightenment that the book embraced—did Adorno succeed during the ’50s and ’60s in becoming a latter-day Melancthon: a Praeceptor Germaniae.
Richard Wolin is Distinguished Professor of History at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the author, most recently, of The Frankfurt School Revisited: And Other Essays on Politics and Society (Routledge, 2006).