Thursday, 11 January 2018

Book review: Grand Hotel Abyss, Stuart Jeffries (2016)

This is an ambitious book and its failure is more a problem of style than anything else. The subject matter itself is intrinsically interesting.

Most people at some point in their lives will have come across the names of Theodore Adorno and Walter Benjamin. They might even have heard of the Frankfurt School in the context of discussions of Marxist theory, or at least in terms of the intellectual heritage of the global left. This book is something like a mishmash of biographies of the fairly large group of men – mainly from Jewish, middle-class backgrounds their intellectual endeavours were a rebellion against – who worked at the Institute for Social Research during the 20th century. The blandly-named think-tank is usually referred to as the Frankfurt School.

The institute is still in existence, again in Frankfurt these days, but when the Nazis came to power it had to decamp to the US. It was established in 1923 by Felix Weil using money from his father, Hermann, who had made his dosh in commodities trading. Felix came up with the idea for the institute after the short-lived 1918-19 German Revolution, where socialism failed to take root unlike it had done in the recently successful October Revolution, in Russia in 1917. Wanting to understand why this had been the case, the founders set about studying, teaching and publishing. Other men joined later.

Jeffries’ technique is unfortunately not subtle or fluid enough to cope with the complexity of his subject, however, although from what I could tell he appears to have a solid grasp of it.

Approaching it from its origins, as he does, he takes upon himself a sort of obligation to map out some of the basic outlines of the ideas that the researchers were manipulating and generating, ideas which had their roots in the writings of Karl Marx. Jeffries fails to do even simple things, for example defining the idea of “alienation” (which seems to me, a neophyte, to be a pretty fundamental notion for anyone trying to come to grips with such thinkers’ works). Another idea that he fails to get across is “fetishisation”. Or “reification”. Without understanding such concepts it’s very difficult for the lay reader – who has no knowledge at the outset of Marxist theory – to gain a satisfactory understanding of the book’s broader messages.

You get the idea that the Marxists at the Frankfurt School were working to combat the more toxic aspects of capitalism – which were especially evident in Germany in the 1930s because of the rise of Nazism – but the nuances of thought upon which the narrative stakes its credibility lie constantly beyond the reader’s grasp, like some breed of outlandish animal fleeing hunters riding gunshot on a four-wheel-drive on the veldt. I got to about 30 percent of the way through the book, to about the point where the school has had to move out of Germany because of the rise of Nazism, before throttling down one final time and giving up the chase.

Things that you might think would be simple turn out to be too much for Jeffries, as when he tries to describe the relevance of a novella written in early life by Max Horkheimer.

He goes too fast and assumes that the reader is keeping up with him. By the time he has reached the next idea in his series of ideas, the reader is still struggling with the first one. The sudden shift destabilises the reader, and in the meantime the effective life in memory of the first idea has lapsed. The reader then has to go back and try again. You are constantly, in this book, stopping and retreating to an earlier point in the text in order to comprehend some tangential element of Jeffries’ evolving narrative.

It’s frustrating and exhausting and the rewards are few. Partial notions might endure beyond the boundaries of the sentence you are reading but if you happen upon a series of challenging sentences, your progress is soon hampered by dense thickets of novel ideas. You can perceive something that looks like an animal in your mind’s eye but in your consciousness it remains fuzzy and elusive.

As with a lot of the kind of work that the writers of the Frankfurt School produced, the reader needs more help. Marxist theory is a technical subject. You wouldn’t expect a student to start off at the beginning of his or her first year of study in one of the more esoteric aspects of a technical subject – for example, rocket science – without some of the basic mathematical underpinnings of physics already under his or her belt.

It’s the same thing here. But the author just doesn’t pace his material at the right speed. It’s something that journalists learn to do very early in their careers: make sure the reader stays with them. Knowing how combative intellectuals usually are, it’s more than likely that Jeffries would lay the blame for the failure of communication at the reader’s feet.

But some substantive material does get through in the discussions of the different men’s lives writing critical theory, such as the idea that culture is used to distract the proletariat from the real issue of the class struggle. There is also some discussion at the beginning, where Jeffries is looking at the failed revolution and the later election that brought the Nazis to power, when he talks about how the working-class vote in Germany had been split between two left-wing parties.

There are some hints during the book of the same weakness inherent in Marxist theory that the revolutionaries in Russia had struggled with, where the proletariat waits until the time is right for action based on prevailing conditions. The idea that you just sort of jump on the bus of revolution because the situation becomes suitable for it is something that crops up again and again in these books. (I reviewed a book about the October Revolution in October last year.) It illustrates something about the problems inherent in using a difficult theory that not everyone involved can grasp intuitively, in a flash, as a basis for class action.

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