A damning indictment: Stuart Jeffries’ Grand Hotel Abyss

This is the kind of book I love, a mix of continental philosophy and biography that covers radical ideas and action around the 1960s. But, though it was well researched and written, the overall judgement of the Frankfurt School by Jeffries just didn’t feel right.

The book primarily covers the four original Frankfurt School figures: Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse. Jeffries covers their radical critiques of capitalism well, traces their origins in Hegel, Marx and Freud, and looks in detail at their lives, and how they were shaped by their upbringing and events, especially the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, from which they and their families fled.

Despite ending the book with the view that we need the analytical approach of critical theory to understand what is going on in our one dimensional, capital-driven society, in fact much of the tone of Grand Hotel Abyss contradicts that.

He regularly offers a quasi-Freudian criticism of the Frankfurt School as rich kids rebelling against their self-made industrialist father’s whilst, at the same time, relying on them for money. This feels like a bit of a cheap attack on some of the most far thinking theorists of the twentieth century.

More significantly, Jeffries presents the Frankfurt School as ivory tower intellectuals who – apart from Marcuse – refused to enter the fray of the political even during the upheavals of 1968.

Adorno in particular comes out badly in the book, not only for his ‘negative dialectics’ but as a fusty reactionary who doesn’t see the radical potential of the student movement to such an extent he opposes it. This may be true to some extent, but nothing is ever that simple and the lives and works of Adorno and the rest of the School are testament to them being engaged intellectuals who developed independent research and a school of thought that challenges capitalism in a way that still resonates.

Walter Benjamin comes out of the book most positively, primarily I think because he died young and therefore did not mellow in the way that the others did, or face a choice in the 1960s.

It’s a shame. I liked the subject matter, the style and many parts of the book, but ultimately it leaves you thinking that the Frankfurt School was a well-meaning but elitist project rather than forward thinking intellectuals offering a critique of capitalist society that gets more relevant by the day.

“Things were not going well. It was August, and my tree from the previous year’s Christmas still lay in a heap of brown, dead pine needles in my dark, unused dining room. I was ashamed to take it out to the trash, not wanting my neighbors to see how far I’d fallen, how utterly paralyzed I’d become by my years of excess. Eventually, my wife and I would make a heroic effort to dispose of the incriminating object – chopping it up like a dead body and stuffing it in plastic bags before lugging it in the dead of night a few floors down and leaving it near a known coke dealer’s doorway. Let him take the rap, we figured.”

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the culinary underbelly

“Becky’s in the front, her legs are crossed tightly, her elbows are tucked into her hips, she’s biting her thumbnail. Her body is taut as a trip wire.”

Kate Tempest, The bricks that built the houses

Both tried to gain authority over their audiences by a two-stage rhetorical process – first, professing their own weakness and thus identifying with the weak recipients of that message; second, stressing their status as one of the chosen few whom their listeners could join if they would only submit to their authority. To be a successful Fuhrer or charismatic radio preacher, Adorno argued, one be what he called the ‘great little man’.

Stuart Jeffries on Theodor Adorno, in Grand Hotel Abyss

Can’t see that approach at work anywhere at all now. Nope, not anywhere.

 

Ian McRay’s Writings on Psychogeography: vol 1

To be frank I’ve never fully understood what psychogeography means, but Ian McRay’s collection of his writings helps.

This small book contains exerts from his books and longer articles. It largely focuses on the areas of East London, especially Dalston, though covers London more widely and branches out to rural New Forest in the final chapter.

Psychogeography is the exploration of the way that geography – the city and buildings in particular – shape the way we think. It comes originally from the ideas and actions of Debord and the Situationists in 1960s Paris. It offers a way to critically analyse the city and a way to get a different perspective on the consumerism and conformism it reinforces.

At the heart of psychogeography is the ‘derive’ – a walk without purpose, spontaneous, that allows you to see things you wouldn’t normally see, defy the consumption and homogenous behaviour the city inspires, and transgress the private property rules that abound.

Some of this book is just history on a super micro level, but it also mixes in the critical theory of Walter Benjamin and extensive discussions of dance culture and how that challenged the norms of work-leisure time and building usage, but struggles to do so know as the mass media and the city appropriate the radicalism of dance and youth culture in order to commodify and control it. In this way it’s sociology, anthropology, history, critical theory and more.

In doing this McRay highlights a range of phenomena I’ve not noticed before, most interestingly I think about Radio 1. He points out that Radio 1 plays a role in containing youth, insofar as it constantly reinforces serious work time – Monday to Friday afternoon – and party time at the weekend, encouraging people to party but only at the right times for the good of social order – a clear contrast with the dance culture of rave.

The book also contains a fantastically erudite put-down (of a work called Transborderline)!

“This is bargain basement radicalism that reveals the paucity of meaningful ideas at the heart of so much contemporary art. As the art critic Peter Fuller once warned, ideas alone do not make great art, and this isn’t even a very good idea.”

Milan Kundera on the value of the novel

“The sole raison d’etre of a novel is to discover what only the novel can discover. A novel that does not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral.”

“[The] common spirit of the mass media, camouflaged by political diversity, is the spirit of our time. And this spirit seems to me contrary to the spirit of the novel.”

The novel’s spirit is the spirit of complexity. Every novel says to the reader: ‘Things are not as simple as you think’. That is the novel’s eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers.”

Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel

Milan Kundera’s assertion of the value of the novel is strong, and, though I’m not sure I’d make a moral judgement on this basis, I agree fully that what sets a novel apart is it’s ability to convey the complexity of life and reveal, in the process, hidden aspects of being.

Everyday surrealism in Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars

There is something captivating about a book of poems that begins with a sperm whale explaining that he is “attracted to the policies of the Green Party on paper but once inside the voting booth my hand is guided by an unseen force”, who has a brother, Jeff, that “owns a camping and outdoor clothing shop in the Lake District” and who notes, simply, “I keep no pets.”

The sperm whale is bluntly accurate, too, in why he was ‘christened’ with this name:

“The first people to open me up thought my head was full of sperm, but they were men, and had lived without women for weeks, and were far from home. Stuff comes blurting out.”

From The Delegates which tells of two Professors skipping the Conference of Advanced Criminology to go shoplifting, to The Experience, in which the narrator Terry finds himself out grave robbing with Richard Dawkins, Seeing Stars is a fantastic book of vignettes, poems, micro stories, none more than two pages long.

What form of writing this is exactly I’m not sure, but it packs a significant punch, making surprising contrasts and surreal yarns in order to reveal the ridiculousness of aspects of life which sometimes go unnoticed or unquestioned.

The inner thoughts of jaded but intelligent animals is not a major device in the book but one that works well. Like this from The Last Panda:

“Unprecedented economic growth in my native country has brought mochaccino and broadband to where there was nothing but misery and disease, yet with the loss of habitat the inevitable consequence; even the glade I was born in is now a thirty-storey apartment block with valet parking and a nail salon.”

The panda, not surprisingly, is nostalgic for better times, like so many others, adds:

“The sixties did it for everyone, I mean EVERYONE, and what people fail to grasp about Chairman Mao was despite the drab-looking suits and systematic violations of basic human rights he liked a good tune as much as the next man.”