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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.1

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 whose sacred character we accept: is the speaker mistaken? is he sincere?—or indeed any question designed to test the validity of what is said by an appeal to experience. The sacred text is characterized, in short, by its autonomy. Its meaning is independent of all human contingency; the divine is not contingent.

Since the sixteenth century, if not before, some of the forbidden questions have been asked of Scripture; it has been considered subject to contingency, losing its sacred character. It has become literature, which is not sacred, but which has always tended to usurp the place of religion. Literature—at least ever since Homer—has appropriated and exploited the functions of a sacred text. For an essential part of our experience of them, the texts of literature demand to be taken as objective, as given for contemplation, for meditation, incantation, for a form of understanding that evades intention, author’s as well as reader’s. Literature aspires not so much to attain as to return to the condition of music, which is, in Romantic mythology, the original form of speech.

These noncommunicative aspects of language exist in everyday usage (the slogan, for example, works partly like a magic formula), but they are either hidden by the overwhelming needs of communication or pushed aside as reprehensibly primitive. A work of literature, however, not only preserves them but would lose all its power without them. That is what Valéry meant by saying that a work of literature lasts just so long as it is able to appear other than as its author conceived it.

The illusion of autonomy enables the work to operate effectively: it stops the reader from taking it simply as a form of communication and so allows the other aspects of language to press forward. The autonomy is an illusion, of course, because a work of literature is subject to history, created by an author, its words and even its form comprehensible only if one starts from a specific culture (even if, in the end, the work is not restricted to that culture). The illusion can neither be simply dispelled nor maintained.

No critic saw this as clearly as Benjamin. The formalist critic respects the autonomy of the work, but rejects whole areas of meaning and thereby impoverishes the form itself. The biographical and historical critic denies the autonomy and freezes the work into a fixed mold of interpretation, limiting its range of meaning as constrictingly as the formalist.

The difficulty, the esoteric quality of Benjamin’s writing, arises from his attempt to give full weight to both sides of the dual nature of literature. The insights of critics often come in spite of their systems. In Benjamin’s case, I believe, his success is directly related to his radical methodology, a compound of early Romantic aesthetics, Symbolist theory, and much that is wholly new. It is worth examining this system above all in order to see briefly how it applies to criticism in our own day.

Benjamin’s sporadic attacks on academic criticism in all its forms are phrased with an intransigence that was to cost him any chance for a position in a German university.2 It was essential for him decisively to cut off what he was doing from the procedures of most of his contemporaries—and most of ours as well. His arguments have not lost their immediacy.

Where Benjamin’s convictions depart most trenchantly from those of other critics is, first, in his attack on what he called “inductive” methods of analysis—that is, his preference for studying the extreme, the exceptional in place of the average, the normative, in the belief that the extremes give the most accurate picture of a style; second, in his insistence on the autonomy of the work of art as opposed to the autonomy of “literature” or “art”; and, above all, in his affirmation that words are not signs, that they only degenerate into signs (that is, into things that arbitrarily stand for something other than themselves—necessary substitutes for what they refer to): or, in idealist terminology, that words degenerate from Ideas into concepts.

This latter point is the most radical, the one in which Benjamin opposes himself to most forms of contemporary philosophy, linguistics, and criticism. The word, for Benjamin, was not a substitute for something else; it had a value of its own, and was the name of an Idea.

In spite of his explicit appeal to the authority of Plato and the implicit references to Kantian terminology, Benjamin’s use of “Idea” is in large part original. It derives most immediately from the aesthetics of the early Romantics, above all, that of Schlegel and Novalis. The word names an Idea, the work of art is a metaphor for an Idea. A quotation from the notebooks of Novalis clarifies the notion of “Idea” that Benjamin was drawing upon (in what follows, “novel” [Roman] is to be understood as any work of art of some substance—for example, a play by Shakespeare was called a Roman around 1800 by these young German critics):

The novel, as such, contains no defined result—it is not the picture or the factual reality of a proposition (nicht Bild und Faktum eines Satzes). It is the graphic carryingout—the realization—of an Idea. But an Idea cannot be seized by a proposition. An Idea is an infinite series of propositions—an irrational quantity—untranslatable (musical)—incommensurable. (Should not all irrationality be relative?) What can be set down, however, is the law of its development [Ausführung, i.e., the rule for deriving the infinite series]—and a novel should be criticized from this standpoint.3

The distinction between concept and Idea is partially derived from Kant and is the one still employed by Benjamin: a concept may be defined by a simple sentence, or proposition, an Idea cannot.

This makes an Idea much grander than a concept (which is why I have conserved its initial capital) but not, according to Novalis, vaguer. It is precise and definable, but not as a sign—that is, not as a simple relationship between two sets of words in which the definition may be substituted for the original expression. The definition of an Idea is not an exhaustible process.

Novalis uses the infinite series as a metaphor for the process of describing the Idea. Benjamin accepts the distinction between concept and Idea, and like Novalis he, too, draws philosophy and art together. His description of Ideas, however, is not that of Novalis, and he substitutes very different metaphors: configuration and constellation.

…the representation of Ideas takes place through the medium of empirical reality. For Ideas are not represented in themselves, but solely and exclusively as an arrangement of real, concrete elements in the concepts. And indeed as the configuration of these elements…. The staff of concepts which serves as the representation of an Idea realizes it as such a configuration…. Ideas are to things as constellations are to stars. This means, in the first place, that they are neither their concepts nor their laws…. [P. 34, translation altered]

The distinction in Benjamin between concept and Idea may be roughly summarized; the concept defines a class of phenomena, the Idea determines the relation of the phenomena in the different classes to each other. Tragedy as a concept defines a certain number of plays: Tragedy as an Idea figures the relation of these plays to history in the widest sense.

Here we come to the root of Benjamin’s attack on the academic history of literature: its reliance on classification. “Tragedy,” for example, as a concept is ordinarily defined by “induction,” that is, taking a large number of examples and then analyzing what they have in common. This blurs more than it reveals. When one puts modern

plays by Holz or Halbe alongside dramas by Aeschylus or Euripides, without so much as asking whether the tragic is a form which can be realized at all at the present time, or whether it is not a historically limited form, then, as far as the tragic is concerned, the effect of such widely divergent material is not one of an overarching conception, but of sheer incongruity. When facts are amassed in this way…, the less obvious original qualities are soon obscured by the chaos of more immediately appealing modern ones. [P. 39, translation altered].

  1. 1

    This does not mean that communication is ever completely absent: even when its force is at its lowest point in literature, we find substituted for it a mimicry of its procedures.

  2. 2

    Benjamin’s intransigence was reserved for critics. On the other hand, he wrote about such contemporaries as Hofmannsthal, Gide, Valéry, Brecht, Kraus, and Rilke with open respect and admiration, although he differed radically from all of these both philosophically and politically. His taste in contemporary literature was very sure.

  3. 3

    Novalis, Schriften, edited by Kluckhorn and Samuel (1960), vol. 2, p. 570. Benjamin’s doctoral thesis on the concept of the criticism of art of the early German Romantics was written from 1917 to 1919 and based on the fragments of Schlegel and Novalis. This fragment of Novalis was first published in 1901, and Benjamin must therefore have known it.

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