The Origins of Walter Benjamin

The Origin of German Tragic Drama

by Walter Benjamin, translated by John Osborne
New Left Books (London), 250 pp., £7.25

Eine klassische Schrift muss nie ganz verstanden werden können. Aber die, welche gebildet sind und sich bilden, müssen immer mehr draus lernen wollen.

[A classical text must never be completely understandable. But those who are educated and who continue to educate themselves must always wish to learn more from it.]

—Friedrich Schlegel, Lyceum Fragment, number 20

The Origin of German Tragic Drama (Trauerspiel) is an esoteric book. That is surely the immediate reason why first the Department of Germanic Studies and then the Department of Philosophy of Art of the University of Frankfurt rejected this study of seventeenth-century dramatists when it was presented to them as a thesis. The publishers of the English translation have enhanced Benjamin’s esotericism by omitting all page numbers from the table of contents, as well as by printing the six separate sections of the book’s two parts with no indication of where one stops and the next one starts. The esotericism is deeply rooted in Benjamin’s style: even where the book is easy to read—by no means necessarily where it is best—the argument is not made explicit, and the connection between ideas is only suggested, never emphasized.

This is what makes his work resist summary and paraphrase, or even quotation, unless one wrenches his sentences as brutally from their contexts as he tore his quotations from theirs. The difficulty of reading his mosaic of quotations and commentary, which demands a pause for reflection after each sentence, is characteristic of his era, an age of great esoteric literature. The Trauerspiel book was finished in 1925; 1921 is the date of Joyce’s Ulysses, 1922 of Eliot’s The Waste Land and Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, while Yeats’s A Vision appeared in 1926. The Origin of German Trauerspiel is a masterly work in that tradition.

The esoteric had a more general value for Benjamin; it revealed something about literature in general. Esoteric journalism is a contradiction in terms: literature, however, is permitted to baffle us. Even more, we might say that all literature which lasts, which remains literature and has not become a document, is baffling.

This well-known phenomenon is generally sentimentalized by saying—about simple lyric poems, for example—that they express the inexpressible, or that every great work has a mysterious quality that can never be reached by analysis but only felt by instinct. Such evasions are unnecessary. The mystery arises because literature invokes aspects of language other than that of communication.

Language cannot be reduced to communication even if its other functions sometimes take second place. Among them is an expressive function: swearing to oneself without the benefit of an audience. There is the sheer pleasure in nonsense syllables that children develop early and that adults never lose. And there is the magic formula and the sacred text.

A sacred text can never be simply described as communication except by metaphor. There are questions necessary to communication that we are forbidden to ask of a text …

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