Grand Hotel Abyss is mix of biographical vignettes, sorties into philosophical and historical explanations, and a skeptical overview of the entire arc of the Frankfurt School, all written in the tone and style of either a newspaper article or Wikipedia.
I should mention that I wrote my master’s dissertation on a member of the Frankfurt School, Franz Neumann (who comes across quite well in this book), and am therefore prone to be a bit defensive about these very important and impressive thinkers. Jeffries is prone to gambol in the foibles, hypocrisies, egos, and little tantrums of the Frankfurt School luminaries. And that grates a little. Walter Benjamin, Adorno, Marcuse, and Horkheimer – where, yes, human – but they where also brilliant men navigating the treacherous waters of fascism, communism and capitalism and pouring out a brilliant school of thought.
The Frankfurt School was a creature of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s but remained high profile through Marcuse and Habermas into the 60’s and 70’s. Composed mostly of German Jews (assimilated) from either comfortable or plush backgrounds, Jefferies never ceases to to draw parallels between their relationships with their (often wealthy) parents. Perhaps the sweetest irony is that the organisation itself owes its existences to a wealthy donor achieved through grain imports. This sense of generation irony and tension remains a theme through the book.
Starting out as an institute to study Marxism (and explain why the German Revolution of 1918-20 failed), the Institute for Social Research quickly found a trajectory that would take them very far away from strict “Marxism” or even “Leninism.” By mixing Freudian insights with the Hegelian understanding of dialectics, the Frankfurt School was both the hottest thing going intellectual and the implicit enemy of all the major blocs battling for control of the world at the time. The Frankfurt thinkers valued independence and purest truth over “picking a side” when everyone was screaming for them to pick a side. Thus much light has been made about ivory tower intellectuals or the irony of calling the USA totalitarian even while it was at war with the Nazis.
Such criticism is valid, but largely misses the point of what the Frankfurt School was trying to do. It’s a little like making fun of Trump because of his hair: ultimately this is beside the point. The Frankfurters where making fundamental insights into the nature of human psychology and the very functioning of our societies. No school of thought has been more vindicated then with the emergence of the internet in a surreal, fake enslaver of the mind. Put another way, if these guys where alive today they would simply say “I told you so.” And they would be completely right.
There is a seriousness of the Frankfurt School that I think people miss. They asked Big Questions and gave Big Answers. And both are even more relevant now then ever.