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Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School

4.10  ·  Rating details ·  665 ratings  ·  88 reviews
In 1923, a group of young radical German thinkers and intellectuals came together to at Victoria Alle 7, Frankfurt, determined to explain the workings of the modern world. Among the most prominent members of what became the Frankfurt School were the philosophers Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. Not only would they change the way we thin ...more
Hardcover, 440 pages
Published September 6th 2016 by Verso
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4.10  · 
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 ·  665 ratings  ·  88 reviews

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David M
Oct 21, 2016 rated it really liked it
The whole is the false

In a culture that values convenience and pleasure above everything else, one task of the philosopher is to sow dissonance and make us face despair. And just in case you thought you were going to enjoy yourself today, here comes Theodor Adorno to put a damper on that plan.

But then one might also wonder if this despair isn't itself a kind of luxury, a dandified pose. Lucakcs made one of the great intellectual disses of all time when he accused Adorno and his critical theorist
Jay Green
A wonderful read. Doesn't dumb down the ideas of the Frankfurt School excessively while simultaneously making complex arguments accessible to lay readers. I particularly like Jeffries's wry descriptions of the School's personalities and their various idiosyncrasies. Most enlightening!
3.5 stars
Tandem read with Joel, who was quick to question Jeffries' style, a wonky all too clever sort of exposition qua allusion. There were certainly times to grit one's teeth. I agree with others that it is a page-turner, this is a surprise given the thematics. This is an episodic chronicle of the Institute of Social Research a Frankfurt think tank tasked in its inception in 1920 with the query why wasn't the revolution successful in Germany? The book’s title refers to a musing by Lukács tha
Adam Dalva
Intermittently strong, wonderfully researched book with a great thesis (and title), held back by some quirks in the execution. Jeffries seems to be trying to bridge the stylistic chasm between philosophic and pop writing, but the result is a weird mix of chatty and repetitive. The biographical information, particularly Benjamin's, held my interest more than his analysis of the Frankfurt texts, and he produces too wide a web of characters for any besides the core 4 to hold interest. Oddly riddled ...more
Mar 04, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2017
Critical theory's founding question: why did the German working class support fascism rather than socialism is, unfortunately, acutely relevant again.
The book is not an intro to critical theory as such, it's more like a kind of (very accessible) group biography of the core Frankfurt School gang. Starting with the upper middle class Jewish German childhoods of the main cast - Walter Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer - the book focuses on Benjamin in the 1930s, Adorno and Horkheimer in the 1940s and 50
Jan 22, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Frankfurt School is the first 20th-century group of German intellectuals and philosophers, in 1923, who had the interest to look at their culture and define it as the narrative of that world as it happens. Which we know now, a lot has happened. Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, and Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin all played their part in this social circle, that was obsessed with the issues of Marxism, and of course, the Nazi years.

"Grand Hotel Abyss" is an excellent intro
Feb 01, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a truly fun book to read, which is lucky because the subject and conclusions are overall depressing, especially in their relevance to contemporary life. For example, quoting Fukuyama:

The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide idealogical struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the sa
You would not think so from Jeffries' accessible, even goofy on occasion, tone, but Grand Hotel Abyss is a stubbornly ambitious book. Not only is at an attempt at what's always a doomed project, an intellectual biography, which tries to present the lives and the work of some intellect; not only is it a group biography, which tries to explore three generations of shockingly heterogeneous thinkers; but it is a portrait of a group who, as Jeffries acknowledges right away, is thoroughly controversia ...more
A very ambitious group biography of the Frankfurt School Marxist intellectuals, specifically Benjamin, Marcuse, Adorno and Horkheimer. These were a group of strange and sometimes brilliant German-Jewish thinkers whose cloistered and privileged lives were thrown into anarchy by the rise of the Third Reich. They were completely aloof from the common people whom they (theoretically at least) sought to liberate. But from a distance, these men were able to offer cutting critiques of the degraded mass ...more
Mar 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
Fair introduction to the oft-maligned or misunderstood thinkers of the Frankfurt School, with biographical portraits and expositions of their philosophies. While some chapters are suspect (the earliest one tying their philosophy to childhood behavior, for example), much of the book is enough of a primer that the reader would want more.
Aug 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy, politics
This is a lively and sometimes amusing history, examining the work of the Frankfurt School in each decade from 1900 to the late 1960s and beyond that to recent times, the internet, Facebook and Twitter. It is quietly critical, sometimes reprimanding, sometimes mocking, but often also supporting the school against its rivals and mockers. It has a lot that is perfectly relevant today.

The Frankfurt School is not just a body of ideas or writers, as I expected, but an autonomous academic institution
Wendy Liu
Aug 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
My interest in Frankfurt School theory is quite recent--the result of an only marginally older enthusiasm for writers like Wolfgang Streeck and Slavoj Žižek--and so the foundations of my knowledge are quite weak, consisting as they do of a meagre build-up of scattered references by authors who assume the reader is as well-educated as they are. Accordingly, this book was perfect for me. Written in a highly accessible and almost colloquial manner, it nonetheless offers a deep and detailed look at ...more
Aug 27, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
My copy is an uncorrected proof, yet despite the errors the book read really easily and worked really well both as biography, historical narrative, and as a way into understanding the personalities that drove the Frankfurt School and the personal contexts informing the analysis each of the most significant players contributed. I highly recommend it if you happen to be a philosophy and history nerd, said the reader while searching for his pocket-protector and pens.
Nov 28, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Grand Hotel Abyss recounts the efforts of several social theorists--Germans and in the main Jews--to use Marx and, to a lesser extent Freud, to think their way though the collapse of the Weimar Republic, the rise of Hitler, the Holocaust, Stalinism, the Cold War and the global domination of capitalism. Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erik Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and, latterly, Juergen Habermas were the tangential or direct beneficiaries of a rich grain merchant's desire to pleas ...more
Joe Bambridge
Apr 11, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Jeffries does a remarkable job introducing these challenging thinkers and their work. His chronological, quasi-biographical approach weaves between the thought of the Frankfurt School thinkers and their lives and keeps what could have been a dense and painful book enjoyable and readable. As for the subjects of the book, Jeffries does a good job of trying to explain the emergence, inspiration, and circumstances behind the development of their ideas as well as how the various thinkers differed. Pe ...more
Peter Mcloughlin
This is a Well-written book on a collection of scholars whose influence has been overblown. As witnesses to the madness of the 30s and 40s, they are of interest. However with the exceptions of some points by Adorno and Benjamin their ideas are not. It is a combination of two now defunct strains of thought Marxism and Freudianism both have lost much of their luster as the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first. Frankly except for some radical chic influence during the sixties and maybe a ...more
For anyone who knows a little about the Frankfurt School and want a balanced view of everything that is good, bad and ugly about them, then this is the book to read. It also simply tells a wonderful story of academics fleeing fascism, uncomfortably settling in the USA, and the final schisms that tear the group to pieces. There is the drama of the school's escape from Nazi Germany, the tragedy of Adorno's "patricide" at the hands of the younger Marcuse and the student movement, and even a coda on ...more
Oct 06, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This well-written and well researched book tells the story of The Institute for Social Research, or the Frankfurt School as it came to be known. The group of thinkers, philosophers and intellectuals who came together to form it included such well-known names as Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse amongst many others, and author Stuart Jeffries has done a terrific job in making their ideas and philosophies, usually known as critical thinking, reasonably accessible for the uninitia ...more
Sep 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A clearly written and very informative history of the Frankfurt School and its thinkers. Most of my exposure to the Frankfurt School authors has been through the writings of Walter Benjamin, but Grand Hotel Abyss provides a head start in understanding the writings and theories of the other players. Very much recommended if you are interested in this fascinating slice of history, especially since so much of what the Frankfurt writers had to contend with politically at the time is now, in 2017, so ...more
Reading about the Frankfurt school shouldn't be this fun (though maybe reading about Marcuse should). This is really the first time I've found reading anything about Habermas has been entertaining.

There are some basic, boring simplifications of other philosophers or simple mistakes: Hegel was an apologist for the Prussian state [see Pinkard's biography of Hegel, the chapter on Hegel's time in Berlin, for a corrective] (p.147); The Sorrows of Young Werther sparked a "spate of copycat suicides" (
Jan 12, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
We hear much talk of the Frankfurt School lately, and I think an accessible book on the subject was more than warranted. Stretching over most of the XXth century, and from Leninist orthodoxy to public-sphere liberalism, the twists and turns of this current nearly preclude talks of a ‘school’.
The first half of the book leaves much room for Benjamin, whose Frankfurtness is debatable. This makes for a thrilling read, since his short but intense life has understandably inspired many novels, but lea
Oct 09, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, philosophy
"A mini-boom in popularising critical theory books - including graphic guides, dictionaries, perhaps even this book - is one perverse consequence of the global capitalist crisis..."

Arguably superficial, but thoroughly engaging and accessible look at the lives and (often notoriously abstruse) ideas of all the key members of the Frankfurt School from the Institute's beginnings to its contemporary incarnation. Traces the lineage of the group's work (e.g. through Hegel, Marx, Freud, Benjamin, etc.),
Aug 03, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2018
A good book, but one that perhaps suffers from drifting a bit between the two things it might have been: a hard, theory-dense sketch of nearly 100 years of the Frankfurt School's engagement with altering this disastrous course of human existence or a chatty, even almost gossipy, group biography of the men involved. (What a sad missed opportunity that they are almost all men.)

What we have, though, is still a good read. You have some gossipy bits, you have some good quick sketches of the thinking
Karl Hallbjörnsson
A great read — very fun and informative, as well as enlightening on the lives of these strange men. Recommended for anyone interested in the Frankfurt School, especially for those prejudiced against their thought.
Madison Santos

jeffries approach here is to give biographical information through understanding the frankfurt school's development of theories and debates, which makes for an interesting primer of critical theory instead of just a point A to point B biography. critical theory junkies are sure to find it fun (especially the attention given to Benjamin) and the curious but uninitiated will find it thorough and helpful in distilling the canon of the curmudgeons.
Jun 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is a very easy to access narrative about the principle members of the Frankfurt School from just before the formation of the Institute for Social Research to the current institute's approach and projects. The book is very easy to read, very accessible, and has a great narrative style to it. It was pretty obviously written by someone who is used to telling stories.

For those who are researchers or know a lot about the Frankfurt School, this book might not be that valuable. The stories ar
Dan Hamilton
Jan 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
Despite some innate conceptual shortcomings, I appreciate what Jeffries is doing here. He is at his best in this volume in his discussion of Marcuse, and he does a commendable job of bringing Adorno’s Negative Dialectics down to a comprehensible level. I would have liked to see him do more with his section on Habermas, but that is likely due to my own academic focus on Habermas’ work.

Although it is a difficult and not necessarily advisable task to attempt to decipher the work of the Frankfurt Sc
Tony Gualtieri
Mar 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A good popular summary of the guiding lights of the Frankfurt School. There are passages of excellent summary, such as exergeceses on Walter Benjamin's work, that are interspersed with longueurs that use biography to explain philosophy. For all that, I can't think of a better entry point into the thought and contradictions of this group.
Andrew Tang
Jul 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
beautifully written. The book confirmed my thought that the arcane, confusing, sometimes marxist, sometimes conservative Frankfurt School crew are interesting, but not to be emulated. The history and intellectual traditions they embody, however, are definitely worth understanding.
Peter Harrison
Oct 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: marx, philosophy
I've not really paid much attention previously to the Frankfurt School and the development of critical theory after having covered them briefly during my University course and taking against the complexity, obfuscation, and negativity of their thought. This probably wasn't helped by their entries in Leszek Kolakowski's "Main Currents of Marxism" (the standard work covering all the main Marxist thinkers from Marx through to the 1970s). Kolakowski's section on the Frankfurt School includes one of ...more
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Stuart Jeffries worked for the Guardian for twenty years and has written for many media outlets including the Financial Times and Psychologies. He is based in London.
“We no longer live in a world where nations and nationalism are of key significance, but in a globalised market where we are, ostensibly, free to choose – but, if the Frankfurt School’s diagnosis is right, free only to choose what is always the same, free only to choose what spiritually diminishes us, keeps us obligingly submissive to an oppressive system.” 1 likes
“John Dewey. ‘The serious threat to our democracy is not the existence of foreign totalitarian states. It is the existence within our own personal attitudes and within our own institutions of conditions which have given a victory to external authority, discipline, uniformity and dependence upon The Leader in foreign countries. The battlefield is also” 0 likes
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