‘Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School’ reviewed by Neal Harris

Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School

Verso, London and New York, 2017. 448pp., £10.99 pb
ISBN 9781784785697

Reviewed by Neal Harris

About the reviewer

Neal Harris is a doctoral tutor at the University of Sussex, a visiting lecturer at the University …


Grand Hotel Abyss offers an accessible, exhilarating history of the Frankfurt School. The cast of characters extends far beyond the central troupe of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin. Jeffries interweaves analysis and anecdotes on thinkers as diverse as Angela Davis and Ian Fleming, Alain Badiou and T.S. Eliot, Marcel Proust and Stanley Fish, and Richard Sorge and Siegfried Kracauer. Grand Hotel Abyss will be of particular interest to scholars of Critical Theory, twentieth-century intellectual history, political theory, international relations, and cultural studies. While Jeffries cites extensively, and this work is a Verso publication, this is not a purely academic text, and (framed most crudely) should be approached as a vivacious group biography of substantial academic merit. This is by no means a criticism, and the read is all the more charming and engaging for Jeffries’ genre and style.

Indeed, perhaps Jeffries’ greatest achievement is the manner in which he humanises some of the most austere, (philosophically) negative, and intellectually intimidating thinkers of the past century. Drawing on innumerable letters, published diaries, biographies, auto-biographies and his own substantial research, Jeffries draws out the intense and evolving relationship between these idiosyncratic theorists and their work, and eloquently illuminates the extent to which crude contingency shaped their philosophies and output. Jeffries succeeds in making this a truly personal, truly human illumination, be it presenting Marcuse’s letters addressing Adorno ‘dear Teddy’ (341), or Adorno signing off his missives to his parents affectionately, with ‘heartiest kisses from your Hippo King’ (212). Jeffries recounts how a young Horkheimer’s illicit romance with a distant cousin has him scandalising his bourgeois family, fleeing a pistol-packing uncle straight into Police custody. Having read Grand Hotel Abyss one cannot help but view these formidable, Appollonian dialecticians in a new, and substantially more personable light.

What is perhaps equally striking is the social circles which the Frankfurt School scholars inhabited. It is a star-studded cast; Adorno plays Verdi at a dinner party in Malibu. Who is providing a parodic mimicry? Charlie Chaplin, of course. After the musical interlude, flustered handshakes with Hollywood stars, perhaps more recitals from Thomas Mann’s Dr Faustus, just head a little East into Pacific Palisades. It is not just Adorno who is presented as an embodied, breathing subject. Jeffries should be credited for showing the sublime excess of talent floating adrift in the interwar and exile years. It is Arthur Koestler fleeing with Walter Benjamin, and on the figurative next page, Ludwig Wittgenstein is attacking Karl Popper with a poker.

But it would be deeply unfair to Jeffries to present Grand Hotel Abyss as built on salacious gossip, as some bloated Heat magazine supplement for the modern-day Frankfurt School acolyte. Throughout, Jeffries is thoroughly immersed in critical and historical theoretical commentary, be it through turns to the established historians of the Frankfurt School, Martin Jay and Thomas Wheatland, or the unorthodox Stephen Schwartz’s commentary on Benjamin’s demise. Ultimately this is a highly engaged portrayal of the Frankfurt School’s output, especially the work of the so called ‘first generation’. Jeffries should be commended for his analysis of both Negative Dialectics and Dialectic of Enlightenment. Both texts are presented with a rare lucidity, making their core submissions accessible to even an unfamiliar reader. This is no small feat. Jeffries’ clear, and impressively detailed account of Erich Fromm’s dispute with Herbert Marcuse, as played out in Dissent, should also be acknowledged. Not only does Jeffries succeed in producing an accessible commentary, he is truly alive to the theoretical and intra-disciplinary nuances at work in what can at first seem more clash of egos than intellectual contretemps.

Jeffries’ engagement with Walter Benjamin is also particularly impressive. Drawing on Proust, Baudelaire, Brecht and Goethe, Jeffries artfully positions Benjamin as ‘The Last European’, a figure who effortlessly elided disciplinary and cultural boundaries. While it is perhaps Adorno who most immediately comes to mind when one considers ‘The Frankfurt School’ in abstraction, Benjamin plays a clearly dominant role in Jeffries’ narrative. It is with an extended analysis of Berlin Childhood Around 1900 that the book commences. It is indeed an ‘exquisitely suggestive memoir’ (29), with its lilting, melancholic submission to transience. It is a fitting and beautiful way to pass through the gates of the Grand Hotel Abyss, entering to the siren call of aesthetic merit, commensurate with its apparent incompatibility with praxis. Benjamin is, of course, endlessly quotable. His aphoristic and eschatological turns are mesmerizing. Indeed, the unenviable task of determining which Benjamin quotations to exclude must have been a painful one. However, Jeffries integrates his quotation and his analysis seamlessly, and is not afraid to quote at length when needed. A case in point is Jeffries’ engagement with Benjamin’s discussion on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus in Theses on the Philosophy of History. Jeffries draws out with beautiful simplicity Benjamin’s argumentation, while retaining the aching pathos of his delivery. Jeffries is perhaps at his very best when he writes about Benjamin.

While I broadly commend Jeffries for this theoretical engagement, and indeed the praise could perhaps be piled even higher, I raise two areas of the mildest critical consternation.

Firstly, Jeffries’ otherwise impressive analysis does not explicitly engage with what has increasingly been framed as the true ‘explosive charge’ of Critical Theory: the concept of ‘social pathology diagnosis’. Axel Honneth (2004, 2007), current chair of the Institute for Social Research, the symbolic home of the Frankfurt School, has written extensively about the centrality of this heuristic to the potency of the Critical Theoretical project. The precise nature of social pathology diagnosis, and what constitutes a social pathology, is one of the most contested social theoretical debates in contemporary Critical Theoretical scholarship. There is a special issue of The European Journal of Social Theory forthcoming engaging with exactly this discussion. To diagnose social pathologies is to social-theoretically tackle the social ‘wrongs’ which are not immediately accessible within the traditional rubrics of ‘social injustice’ or ‘social illegitimacy’. For the residents of the Grand Hotel Abyss it was the ‘form of life’ that is found-wanting: they were presenting a truly excoriating, at times truly totalising, critique. The theoretical infrastructure of social pathology is increasingly acknowledged as central to their capacity to engage meaningfully in such an endeavour (Freyenhagen, 2015). It would thus have been of real interest to see Jeffries engage with his characteristic clarity on this crucial, and increasingly discussed, aspect of Frankfurt School’s thought.

Secondly, Frankfurt School inspired Critical Theory is currently engaged in a fierce conflict, suffering a profound identity crisis. Michael J. Thompson’s (2016) much discussed The Domestication of Critical Theory presents a damning indictment of recent developments in the interdisciplinary project; narrating the ascendancy of a philosophically unsound, and politically impotent, ‘neo-Idealism’. For Thompson, the dominant Critical Theoretical representatives have lost their way, have become apologists for capitalist modernity. Habermas, Honneth (and to some degree Forst) increasingly imbue intersubjective processes with a transcendent, emancipatory potential, incompatible with the manner in which capitalistic structures were deemed to reify consciousness in the work of earlier Frankfurt School theorists. It is not that Jeffries is entirely silent in this debate, he offers one deep, if oblique, jab at Honneth as presenting ‘a parody of recognition’ (388); yet there is no sustained critique here. Unlike Chip Lambert, one senses Jeffries will not be dethroning his shelves of his Minima Moralia and his Dialectic of Enlightenment. And yet there is frustratingly limited engagement here, perhaps Jeffries, like so many of the characters he depicts, is reticent to engage in the rough and tumble of praxis. The final pages, symbolically (or not) see the author returning to the aesthetic dimension, there is no elegiac call to arms. In true Frankfurt School style, rather, there is a call to cognition. Jeffries leaves us pondering on the impossibility of, and necessity to, think differently; to think critically. Such an injunction would be well directed to the latest developments in Frankfurt School Critical Theory.

But perhaps that is being too harsh on Jeffries. In a little under 400 pages he has walked us through over a hundred years of world history and philosophy. And it is a spritely sojourn. Grand Hotel Abyss is at its best when it sticks to its strengths: offering detailed, located and immensely human engagement with the ‘first generation’ of Frankfurt School scholars. Jeffries’ text would be an ideal accompaniment to Martin Jay’s (1973) The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research and Thomas Wheatland’s (2009) The Frankfurt School in Exile.

26 February 2018


  1. I’m surprised your reviewer didn’t catch a serious mistake on Jeffries’ part: on p. 332 (Verso pb) he refers to Vernunft and Verstand (significant concepts of Hegel’s dialectic) as standing respectively for the use of reason as “means” only and Reason to determine the “ends” themselves. I’m pretty sure it is actually the reverse of that. Objective Reason is the rational pursuit of the ends (one of the objectives of Vernunft) themselves as a matter for consideration. Subjective reason deals with the means of fulfilling already agreed upon ends. I lost my copy of The Eclipse of Reason (Horkheimer) when I moved last year and am not absolutely sure of this but, since the Critical Theorists were in large part based on their reading of Hegel, I recall that Vernunft is the overarching meaning of Reason and much the highest form of it – the comprehension of the whole – Verstand being the mere use of reason as Understanding. Didn’t Horkheimer see it this way, too, but using Objective Reason and Subjective Reason as his dialectic? I’ll end here because I could be wrong.

  2. Thank you for your comment, you may be entirely correct: I shall research further!

    That said, as I suggest in my review, you may perhaps be reading Jeffries with too keen an eye.

    This is a work which provides a lively group biography designed to accommodate a non-specialist audience. One could subject the text to a much closer, philosophically minded critical analysis, but that would, to my mind, not be in keeping with the spirit of the book.

    While you be might be entirely accurate in your critique of Jeffries’ grasp of the finer points of Hegel, I believe the merits of this text, as the author clearly intends, lie elsewhere.

  3. “Verstand” refers to Reason but in the sense of the capacity to think clearly, the capacity to understand or comprehend, and the capacity make inferences, i.e. to distinguish, generalize and organize ideas, to apply rules or to apply common sense etc. (mental faculties). In English, one can say “have you lost your mind?” and in German you say “have you lost your Verstand?”.

    “Vernunft” refers also to Reason, but in the sense of intelligent thinking, reflective thinking, self-critical thinking, transcendental reasoning, or meta-reasoning. This represents a higher level of Reason, insofar as it already assumes your Verstand but fathoms wider implications and consequences, ultimate goals and rationales etc. It has the evaluative connotation of “really making sense of things” so that one knows the right thing to do. If something is “vernunftig”, it is means it is intelligently or thoughtfully done, sensible, prudent, judicious etc.

    It takes “Verstand” to know the meaning of a rule, concept or principle, and how to apply it correctly, but it takes “Vernunft” to know why the given rule, concept or principle is the correct one, why it is good, why it should be followed (or not).

    This Verstand/Vernunft distinction is perhaps somewhat analogous to Max Weber’s distinction between “instrumental mean-ends rationality” and the rationality of goals in themselves, except that Weber is primarily concerned with goal-directed thinking, while the Verstand/Vernunft distinction connotes qualitatively different levels of comprehension as such.

    In an occupational hierarchy, the lower-level worker supposedly mainly requires Verstand to be able to carry out tasks, but the academically or polytechnic educated manager requires especially Vernunft. Often university students imagine, that their own Vernunft is far superior than what they take to be the Verstand of the “plebs” or the “chavs”, but when the students have to achieve some task in practice, it often turns out they lack Verstand, and need to learn a lot of new things, before they can actually do the task.

    They thought initially that they could very quickly cream off the pinnacle of knowledge in lecture halls and academic networks, but subsequently discover that the “understanding” they have is more in the nature of a petitio principii, and doesn’t get the job done. And the plebs turn out to have a Vernunft of their own, which does get the job done.

    In reality, both Verstand and Vernunft are usually required at all levels of the organization – point is that different kinds of knowledges are valued more than others (than is a matter of the state of the market, and social biases). Some knowledges are finely articulated and verbalized, but other knowledges consist of practical insight and capability, acquired through experience, which are more difficult to put into words – and it is difficult to prove that you have that insight and capability, other than by showing that you have produced products or results which presuppose that insight and capability.

    The great attraction of the Frankfurt School is, that its thinkers “surfed” on the high road of bourgeois culture, and the pinnacles of social theory – they therefore seemed to give access to a (maybe esoteric) higher level of knowledge and consciousness, via an elaborate apparatus of special concepts and categories. But what is important to ask is: “if the Frankfurt School is the answer, what is the question?”.

    Often the Frankfurters tried to adapt the latest concepts, fads and ideas in the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities to “enrich” and “update” historical materialism, but that exercise was often not very successful, since the borrowed ideas were originally created for a very different purpose, within a different theoretical framework, and had a very different intention.

    So rather than really “radicalizing” bourgeois ideas, or “enriching” historical materialism, supporters of the Frankfurt School were often more assimilated and domesticated into conventional academic disciplines.

    They imagined themselves to be very radical, innovative and profound, but often they were pretty tame, eclectic and unoriginal – even conservative. They imagined themselves to be in the intellectual vanguard, whereas they were only reacting – at a highly abstract level of thought – to the intellectual repercussions of what was happening in the real world.

    They became original, when they did some real research about the world themselves. But much of what they did, was only theoretical, derivative and meta-theoretical. It often had more to do with philosophy, ideology and moralism, than with science.

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