Moment of Danger for the Last Survivors of Critical Theory at Adorno’s Funeral

Disagreeable situation. The funeral service in the chapel of Frankfurt Cemetery, where Theodor W. Adorno’s coffin was laid out, was thoroughly bungled by Max Horkheimer. He refused to accept his friend’s death as a fact. And as an omen of his own approaching death there was nothing about it that seemed to him worth commemorating. He did not want to give an opinion to what music Adorno would have approved of or considered appropriate.*

Toward the end of the event, the speeches were of undisciplined length and one of the side doors of the chapel was opened. A large group of students could be seen possibly ready to use violence, with the student leader Hans-Jürgen Krahl at their head. They glanced in. Ushers closed the doors. Did the student want to disrupt the funeral? “Kidnap” the coffin as a provocation and appropriate Adorno – as part of a Critical Theory which, in fact, they had never disowned – as a dead man?

The coffin was brought outside on the hand barrow. THE OLD MEN OF CRITICAL THEORY crowded demonstratively around it. Would they have stood a chance against the kidnappers? They didn’t think of that. The crowd of students followed along a parallel path; no one watching them knew, whether their attitude was threatening or whether they wished to show sympathy and respect for the deceased. The group itself hadn’t even fully discussed it.

A thundery downpour surprised the funeral procession when it was halfway. The heads of the SCHOLARLY MEN wet, their clothing, too, soaked. No one from “Critical Theory” had an umbrella. Further lengthy speeches at the graveside. Slow work by the cemetery workers as the coffin was lowered into the grave. There were still handfuls of earth, individual bunches of flowers to be thrown down. The lines to pay respects to the widow. All of this with a wet head.

To save the minds who later made their way to the house of the Suhrkamp publisher Siegfried Unseld, I order large pots of WARM BEER to be prepared. According to Grimms’ Fairy Tales this is a precaution against catching cold. The warmth and the alcohol get the aging blood moving through the veins again. Meanwhile three student assistants are drying the heads of the SCHOLARLY ELDERS with hair dryers from the household. And so they were saved.

For the moment they were saved: not emotionally, but physically. Twenty years later the planet discharged the last of these wise thinkers. The world was never the same again.

* Gretel Adorno, Theodor’s wife, remained apathetic, passive. She was the only person who could have imposed a better program. She blamed herself for his death. For so many years she had watched over the genius in every crisis, and then for one moment this summer, although no one around her confirmed it, she had been inattentive. With the result that this man died.

– Alexander Kluge, The Devil’s Blind Spot: Tales From the New Century. Trans. Martin Chalmers and Michael Hulse (New York: New Directions, 2002), pp.307-8.

During the pre­vious semester, Adorno’s decision to involve the police in clearing student oc­cupiers from the Institute for Social Research (the Frankfurt School’s depart­mental unit at the University of Frankfurt) had caused controversy. While some regarded Adorno’s reliance on the authorities as a betrayal—a siding with the enemy against the common cause of social progress—others tended to agree with Adorno’s assessment of the radical activism of some students as misguided or even, in the words of his former research assistant, Jurgen Habermas, as a form of “left-wing fascism.” …In a patricidal reversal that pitted parts of the Student Protest Movement and the New Left against one of their theoretical fathers, Adorno was sub­jected to a series of institutional and personal attacks at least since 1967. and leaflets proclaiming that “Adorno as an institution is dead” (“Adorno als In­stitution ist tot“) were circulated during his lectures… But the most notorious incident was yet to come. During an April 1969 assault, an instance of “planned tenderness” which has come to be known as the “breast action” (Busenaktion), three female sociology students wearing long leather jackets invaded the lecturer’s podium, sprinkled rose and tulip petals over Adorno’s head, attempted to plant lipstick kisses on his cheeks, ex­posed their naked breasts to him, and provoked him with erotic pantomimes. Adorno, attempting to protect himself with his briefcase, proceeded to exit “Hörsaal V” (“Lecture Hall V”). This attempt to embarrass Adorno publicly was a sign of the larger structure of misunderstanding between Adorno and those student activists who had grown increasingly impatient with their theoretically-minded teacher’s reluctance to engage in street interventions and other forms of political activism.

  • Gerhard Richter, Monatshefte, Vol. 94, No. 1, 2002 

The last surviving member of the first generation of Frankfurt School critical theory, Leo Löwenthal, died on 21st January 1993.

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