In 1848, the wave of political uprisings taking place across Europe reached the Frankfurt street where the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was living, comfortably, off money from his father’s shipping business. Schopenhauer thought that every human life was one of misery and suffering. There was no hope for fulfilment from wealth, health, love or politics. A stable life spent in contemplation of good art could provide knowledge and occasional respite, but it changed nothing. Faced with the tumult below, Schopenhauer did the only sensible thing: he invited Austrian troops in so that they could shoot down at the rebels from his windows. The Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács later described Schopenhauer as the first resident of what he mockingly called the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’, a ‘beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.’ By the 1960s, he claimed, Theodor Adorno had also taken a room.
Adorno was a leading representative of the Frankfurt School, the subject of Stuart Jeffries’s new book. The term refers to a loose cluster of Marxist(ish) philosophers, economists, psychoanalysts, sociologists and cultural theorists who produced their most significant work between the 1930s and the 1960s. They were initially associated