Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Lydia Goehr
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.
Martin Jay
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.
Bookforum - Brian Sholis
Claussen, a student of Adorno's, has written what has been hailed as among the best books on its famously recalcitrant subject.
New York Sun - Adam Kirsch
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.
Times Higher Education Supplement - Chris Thornhill
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.
Wall Street Journal - Thomas Meaney
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.
Bookforum - Richard Wolin
[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.
London Review of Books - Terry Eagleton
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.
Chronicle of Higher Education - Carlin Romano
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.
Irish Times - Brian Dillon
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.
Publishers Weekly

Most people first encounter Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) as one of the leading lights of the Marxist philosophers known as the Frankfurt School and as the collaborator with Max Horkheimer on Dialectic of Enlightenment, which argued that the Enlightenment emphasis on reason gave rise to Nazi politics and genocide. Yet Adorno's writings ranged widely from aesthetics and music to ethics and literature. 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. 19 b&w photos. (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Bookforum

[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.
— Richard Wolin

New York Sun

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.
— Adam Kirsch

Times Higher Education Supplement

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.
— Chris Thornhill

Wall Street Journal

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.
— Thomas Meaney

London Review of Books

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.
— Terry Eagleton

Chronicle of Higher Education

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.
— Carlin Romano

Irish Times

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.
— Brian Dillon

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674026186
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 464
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Detlev Claussen is a journalist and a Professor of Social Theory, Culture, and Sociology at the University of Hanover.

Rodney Livingstone is Professor Emeritus in German Studies at the University of Southampton. He is well known as a translator of books by Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno, and Max Weber, among others.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

How to Read This Book

1. Instead of an Overture: No Heirs

2. The House in Schoene Aussicht: A Frankfurt Childhood around 1910

3. From Teddie Wiesengrund to Dr. Wiesengrund-Adorno

4. Adorno as "Non-identical" Man

5. Transitions

Bertolt Brecht: "To Those Who Come after Us"

Theodor W. Adorno: "Out of the Firing Line"

Hanns Eisler, the Non-identical Brother

Fritz Lang, the American Friend

6. Frankfurt Transfer

7. Adorno as "Identical" Man

8. The Palimpsest of Life

Appendix: Letters

Theodor W. Adorno to Ernst Bloch, 26 July 1962

Max Horkheimer to Theodor W. Adorno, 27 September 1958

Theodor W. Adorno to Max Horkheimer, 14 February 1965

Theodor W. Adorno to Claus Behncke, 21 February 1964

Max Horkheimer to Otto O. Herz, 1 September 1969

Notes

Sources

Acknowledgments

Index

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