Grand Hotel Abyss: by Stuart Jeffries

Stuart Jeffries. 2016

Just beginning this already fascinating group biography of the Frankfurt School. The author, Stuart Jeffries, is sketching out the foundation for this group portrait, primarily through a concentration on one generation’s battle with the previous generation — mostly set in Berlin. I imagine that further reading will see this expand greatly, and that he won’t remain there, in “anxiety of influence” territory. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it would be reductive to base the amazing work of Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and the rest of the critical theorists in this “school” solely on the clash of values between fathers and sons. I don’t think that’s what Jeffries is trying to do, and that he’s really just setting the context for more detailed exploration, but some authors might be seduced into such a formula. 

(BTW, I respect Bloom’s work greatly, so this is no knock on his scholarship. I’m a fan.)

Regardless, it is important to note how pervasive and spontaneous this was, especially for many Jewish intellectuals at the time — late 19th through the early 20th century, until the rise of Hitler. Much of Kafka’s work falls into this deep and desperate rebellion against the father, and against that father’s “values.” In most cases, it was a rebellion for a second or third generation of assimilated Jews, who thought their parents had assimilated a bit too much. That they had chosen wealth and prosperity through business over other possible ways of life, be it keeping faith with their faith, or faith in the Arts. And this seemed to be primarily a phenomenon of Mittel Europa overall, not just Germany. Austria, Bohemia and much of the Austro-Hungarian empire, though as Jeffries reminds us, there were divisions here as well. It was common, for instance, for some Jews in Mittel Europa to see Jewish exiles from Eastern Europe as “the Other.” Joseph Roth, in my pantheon of greatest novelists, was one of the most astute chroniclers of this divide.

What makes this rebellion, this break with the fathers especially interesting, even profound, is that they took their critique beyond the individual actions themselves. It became the foundation for a much larger critique of the entire capitalist system, which is something novelists like Kafka only hinted at, indirectly. The men of the Frankfurt School were interested in showing how the economic system in place created mass conformity, compliance, and commodified human beings. So their criticism went far beyond a revolt against their parents’ assimilation as Jews. One’s religion, ethnicity, gender or any other group identity wasn’t really the issue for them. It was the power of the capitalist system to seduce, make people forget, make people lose their individuality in a mass culture without realizing this had happened to them.

Am looking forward to the rest of this study, which is presented (mostly) in chronological order. I’m just under way in Part I: 1900-1920.


Grand Hotel Abyss: by Stuart Jeffries
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