School’s Out

Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School BY Stuart Jeffries. Verso. Hardcover. 26.

The cover of Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School

There’s a scene in Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel The Corrections in which Chip Lambert, the wayward Marxist academic of the family, prepares to bring his cherished book collection to the Strand Book Store for resale. The putative aim is to recoup what little money he can from the piles of books, among them the core writings of the Frankfurt School, which otherwise no longer hold any value for him. “He turned away from their reproachful spines,” writes Franzen, describing Chip’s bitter decision to part with the words of Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and company, “remembering how each one of them had called out in a bookstore with a promise of a radical critique of late-capitalist society.”

Stuart Jeffries alludes to this scene in the final chapter of Grand Hotel Abyss, in which he valiantly attempts to disprove Chip Lambert by showing that the diverse writings of this renowned subset of left-leaning German-Jewish philosophers and critics, mostly born around the turn of the twentieth century, still matter today. A longtime editor and writer at The Guardian, Jeffries moves swiftly across the decades, retracing the jagged paths from the official founding of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt in June 1924, through its years in exile in New York in the ’30s and Los Angeles in the ’40s and its hasty return to Frankfurt in the early postwar years, up to the work of Horkheimer and Adorno’s prized protégé Jürgen Habermas and the Institute’s legacy today.

In addition to rounding up the usual suspects, including Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, and Siegfried Kracauer, Jeffries’s composite portrait introduces readers to lesser-known figures like sociologist Leo Löwenthal, economist Henryk Grossman, and political philosopher Carl Grünberg, who served as the Institute’s first director. Jeffries’s generally lively story adheres in part to the standard histories written by such scholars as Martin Jay (The Dialectical Imagination) and Rolf Wiggershaus (The Frankfurt School). His approach, however, has the distinct advantage of journalistic breeziness, resulting in a more meandering, if occasionally repetitive, tale. Rather than writing a straight chronological account, Jeffries builds his narrative around specific texts, circling back to cover flash points in the movement’s history: the emergence of dialectical thought, the Institute’s work on fascism, and the paternal conflicts first with their own bourgeois fathers and later with their radical sons.

Eager to demonstrate the wider implications of the combined work, Jeffries finds echoes of Erich Fromm in Marcuse’s student Angela Davis, of Benjamin in cinematic master Alfred Hitchcock, and even a faint glimmer of Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in the more profane sensibility of “fellow dialectician Homer Simpson.”

Less bound, perhaps, to the dry, hard facts than a professional historian, Jeffries grants himself license to indulge intermittently in interpretive fantasy. He imagines, for instance, what might have become of Benjamin had he made it across the Atlantic, instead of committing suicide outside the Spanish border town of Portbou in September 1940 when he saw no way out of Nazi-engulfed Europe. As Jeffries has it, Benjamin might have found himself a spokesperson for the New Left; or gotten stoned with Charlie Parker; or even managed to cast Charlie Chaplin to play him in a biopic; or maybe simply retired from a distinguished professorship at Harvard. Later, in a similar vein, Jeffries speculates that if Horkheimer and Adorno, who once branded laughter “a disease which has attacked happiness,” were ever given the chance to try their hand at film programming, they might have come up with a series called “Barbaric Laughter,” featuring classic Hollywood screwball comedies like Howard Hawks’s 1940 classic His Girl Friday.

Jeffries’s account, while largely receptive to the ideas transmitted by these thinkers, does not shy away from addressing their shortcomings, among them Adorno’s misguided, contrarian response to jazz and the Institute’s wider problem of Olympian detachment. This latter issue was especially acute for Adorno and Horkheimer, who returned to Frankfurt soon after the war and famously faced violent confrontations as theory met praxis during the student movement. The title of Jeffries’s book derives from Georg Lukács, the unwavering Marxist who in the early ’60s excoriated Adorno and his ilk for inhabiting the well-appointed rooms of an imaginary luxury hotel. For some critics, starting with Brecht and leading to the student insurgents, the Institute never quite earned its nickname “Café Marx.” Instead, it was a refuge for mandarin intellectuals “working in retreat from a world they could not change and a politics they had no hope of influencing”—the same privileged minds who, taking a cue from the late British philosopher Gillian Rose, might be best understood as “conservative sheep in radical wolf’s clothing.” Such contradictions abound, making the group, however, no less fascinating, and even akin to certain left-leaning intellectuals today: “Marxists without party, socialists dependent on capitalist money, beneficiaries of a society they sniffily disdained and without which they would have had nothing to write about.”

On the surface, it may seem that Chip Lambert was right—these thinkers’ sprawling, hefty tomes have little to offer us today. But the analytic force of the Frankfurt School’s heterodox critique of culture and society does indeed remain relevant. We need only consider the ongoing effects of homogenization and social control by means of taste aggregators, consumer algorithms, and other pernicious forces of mass manipulation. “In such a customized culture,” concludes Jeffries with just a smidgen of hyperbole, “one that abolishes serendipity, makes a mockery of dignity and turns human liberation into a terrifying prospect, the best writings of the Frankfurt School still have much to teach us—not least about the impossibility and the necessity of thinking differently.”

Noah Isenberg’s new book, We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie, is due out from Norton in February 2017.