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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

I

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].

So defined, the concept of tragedy gives not the general, but the average: it is therefore incapable of aiding us to assess the significance either of the norm itself or of the most characteristic divergences from the norm. Induction can at best help us to discern the outlines of an Idea, but not to validate it. Indeed, Benjamin’s distinction between Trauerspiel and tragedy depends on his refusal to fit the German baroque drama into a generalized concept of tragedy; in Benjamin’s method of describing a genre, no example can be admitted without questioning its right to be there, and this destroys the basis for simple inductive or statistical definitions.

Benjamin’s ponderous idealist terminology (to which I am probably as allergic as the next man) provokes two fundamental questions to which Benjamin gives by no means the traditional idealist answers—his solutions are indeed already in many ways close to materialism. The questions are: how are Ideas to be known? and how are they to be described?

Benjamin starts by denying any form of immediate intuition or perception, mystical or otherwise, of Ideas. They are not to be found as data, as given in the phenomenal world. They are given in language—but in language seen as extending far beyond its function of communication. In Benjamin’s own oracular terms:

The Idea is something linguistic, it is that very moment in the essence of any word in which it becomes a symbol. In empirical understanding, in which the word has disintegrated, it possesses, in addition to its more or less hidden, symbolic aspect, an obvious, profane meaning. It is the task of the philosopher to restore, by representation, the primacy of the symbolic character of the word….” [P. 36, translation altered, my italics]

In what follows this—the theory of the word as “name”—we find the principal locus for Benjamin’s interest in the Kabbala and in mysticism; in spite of his refusal of mystical forms of perception, he found much that was congenial to him in mystical writings, particularly those of the seventeenth century. Nevertheless, the little that Benjamin found in the Kabbala was only what he had already been looking for, and we may say that the words I have set in relief—“by representation”—introduce a new and very different emphasis into mystical theory. The symbolic aspect of the word has not been perceived until its representation has been constructed.4

To understand what Benjamin meant by “representation” we must see that his philosophy of language does not derive directly from any mystical source whatever but from Mallarmé and from the linguist and critic Wilhelm von Humboldt.5 For Humboldt, writing around 1800 at the great moment when comparative linguistics first came into its own, language was less a means of expressing ideas than of discovering them. It was an independent system, a separate world different from the objective world of reality and the subjective world of consciousness: only through language, in fact, do we realize that the subjective and objective worlds are one. On the origin of language (a question discussed by almost every writer of the eighteenth century) Humboldt claimed that language could not come into being element by element but must exist all at once: the use of one word implies the whole system, the structure of the language of which it is only a part.

Benjamin’s attack upon the arbitrary sign-character of language is already explicit in Humboldt:

A word is indeed a sign insofar as it is used to signify a thing or a concept, but in the way it is formed and acts it is a particular and independent being—an individual.

Even more in Benjamin’s style, we find Humboldt writing:

A word reveals itself as an individual with a nature of its own which bears a resemblance to a work of art insofar as it makes possible an idea beyond all Nature with a form borrowed from Nature.

And finally a point that Benjamin was to appropriate in his essay on translation:

To say ‘íppos, equus and horse is not to say thoroughly and completely the same thing.6

Benjamin’s version of this is more developed:

The words Brot and pain [bread] “intend” the same object, but the modes of this intention are not the same. It is owing to these modes that the word Brot means something different to a German than the word pain to a Frenchman, that for them these words are not interchangeable, that in the end they strive to exclude each other.7

By “mode of intention” Benjamin means something more than “connotation”: the words Brot and pain have a range of significance in French and German culture which, when followed to its limits, to the extreme, will mirror the whole civilization and history governed by their languages. That total range of significance, represented objectively, and as a structure of its most distant relationships, is the Idea in Benjamin’s sense.8

The objectivity of the representation, guaranteed by the nature of language, which is a system independent of our subjective intentions, is preserved only by invoking those aspects of language that transcend its use as a tool for communication—its poetic and contemplative functions, and even the ways in which it can transform itself into a sacred text or become petrified as a magic formula.

For Benjamin, the failure to consider these aspects and the attempts to deny their existence and their power account for the weakness of most contemporary criticism and philosophy. It is communication—language used for an individual purpose, the Ideas reduced to concepts—which is subjective. Language is not arbitrary, present at the moment of speaking without reason or justification, but given by tradition and history; it is the repository of experience, including the experience that no one will ever have again. Benjamin had thoroughly absorbed the criticism of Kant by Hamann, the eighteenth-century philosopher of the Sturm und Drang, who attacked Kant’s “pure reason” as an unwitting attempt to get behind language. Hamann demonstrated that the ideas of philosophy were embedded in language: even Descartes’s project of starting afresh, provisionally wiping away all of experience and reconstructing it, entailed the absurdity of doing away with language, which cannot be separated from experience and tradition.

The objectivity of language, its independence, its momentum, was perhaps stated best by Friedrich Schlegel, when he said that words generally understood each other better than the people who used them. The exhibition of this independence, or, better, its symbolic reconstruction in art and through history is the critic’s job.

II

Verbindet die Extreme, so habt ihr die wahre Mitte.

[Unite the extremes, then you have the true mean.]

—Friedrich Schlegel, Ideen, no. 74

Benjamin’s attack upon the contemporary practice of criticism was deeply rooted in an attempt to reformulate the relations of literature, philosophy, language, and history. In this he anticipated many of the solutions that were to be offered years later, and even answered in advance the objections that are now put forth against positions similar to his. It is evident that Idea, in his sense, undefinable in any simple way but representable, is allied to the theory of “open concepts” that has recently developed9 as well as to Wittgenstein’s concept of meaning as a “family,” in which the various meanings of a word are conceived as a loose assemblage. Arthur O. Lovejoy, for example, in his influential essay of 1948, “On the Discrimination of Romanticism,” called attention to the existence of such a family: the word “romantic” is used with a variety of meanings, some so far apart as to appear to exclude each other.

Against theories of this kind, however, Benjamin posits the coherence of relationships among the various meanings of a word.10 He retains the openness but insists that the relationships are neither loose nor inchoate. They form a pattern—a configuration—which it is the business of the critic to reconstruct. The configuration of “romantic,” for example, when applied to landscape, starts in the eighteenth century with the meaning of “picturesque”; by the early nineteenth century it indicates the landscape painting of artists to whom the “picturesque” is anathema—John Constable, Caspar David Friedrich, and many others. To trace the historical pattern of this radical change of meaning in its relation to European culture as a whole is to represent the “romantic” as an Idea in Benjamin’s terms, to investigate two of its extremes.

Applied to terms of period style—like “baroque,” “romantic,” “classic”—Benjamin’s philosophy of language and history presupposes the coherence of the period, assumes that the critic may work with the arts, sciences, theology, and politics of a given age and with the assurance he will not find himself with disparate, unrelated strands that he cannot weave together.

The method of weaving, however, is crucial: when, for example, the art historian John Shearman recently related some aspects of sixteenth-century music to his etiolated version of “mannerist” style in painting, the result was not encouraging (particularly as the same tendencies in music could be found centuries before and after). Benjamin had a word for such strategies which his translator renders excellently as “analogy-mongering.” Benjamin’s method requires the exploration of the most contradictory aspects of a period, an investigation of extremes, not the limitation of the research to the normative aspects. It is not as concepts “which make the similar identical” that Benjamin advised employing terms like “Renaissance” or “baroque,” but as Ideas.11 “When an Idea takes up a sequence of historical formulations, it does not do so in order to construct a unity out of them, let alone to abstract something common to them all” (p. 46, translation altered).

The most visible and distinguished attacks today on the coherence of period styles come from Sir Ernst Gombrich, who sees the specter of Hegelianism wherever a unified stylistic field-theory rears its head. Gombrich’s critical intelligence is powerful, his imagination limited: armed with the blinkered positivism of his friend Sir Karl Popper, he has made out a formidable case against Hegelian historical theory without ever being able to account for its seductions. The trouble with getting rid of these ideas of period and style, as many besides Gombrich have proposed, is that they slink back disguised even from the author and out of his control: a reviewer of Gombrich’s recent biography of Aby Warburg commented acidly that for someone so opposed to Hegelian theories of style, Gombrich used the expression “period-flavor” surprisingly often. In any case, Benjamin does not attempt to construct a unity out of his picture of the seventeenth century in The Origin of German Trauerspiel, and Gombrich’s arguments against theories of period style are harmless if applied to Benjamin’s work.

An alternative to coherence is the loosely organized “family” of meanings, the treatment of a period that allows the different tendencies to jostle each other uncomprehendingly in an attempt to give the illusion of vitality that comes from disorder. The emphasis on variety often arrives at a radical distortion of reality in the interests of the critic’s convenience. If, to follow a recent suggestion, we treat late eighteenth-century style in music as a loosely organized set of procedures, and abandon the idea of coherence, one crucially important phenomenon remains unexplained and generally unexamined: when one of the stylistic procedures (like treatment of melody) is radically altered, it creates a complementary alteration in at least some of the others (harmonic structure, phrase, rhythm).12 Nor could a composer like Mozart or Clementi borrow Haydn’s technique of thematic fragmentation without being influenced by his large structures and his harmonic rhythm.

In short, these procedures are not independent and not a genuine collection, not a “family” with the loose acceptance of incoherence that that implies. A period style, like baroque, or even a personal style, like Clementi’s, is not a collection of procedures and tendencies, but the interrelationships of these procedures. Each time we try to discover these interrelationships, we are postulating a configuration which is the object of our research. It is evident that Benjamin’s methodology, or some variant of it, is essential in historical criticism.

It is also evident that the interrelationships among stylistic procedures are best discovered when one of the procedures is used in particularly outrageous fashion, provoking a reaction in others. That is why the extreme case gives more information than the average. At any rate, the average cannot give one the range of a style—only the extremes can do that, and they alone can endow the average with its true sense. We may say that the extremes give the outline of the style, and the average gives its center of gravity. A middle-point has no significance until we know what it stands between.

In his picture of seventeenth-century German drama, Benjamin explores the opposing aspects of the figures of the tyrant and the martyr in the plays, the contrast between legal, bureaucratic terminology and pastoral style, the transformation of the Trauerspiel both into opera and the later marionette parodies of the plays. This is Benjamin’s synthesis of extremes, a dialectical method, but not a Hegelian one. It does not resolve the contradictions in a false unity but represents their relationship as part of a much larger, total pattern.

The technique of representation is derived from Symbolism: Benjamin arranges his extraordinary quotations in an order that seems both to isolate them—to allow for a moment, with a shock, their alien nature to appear unmediated—and to resonate with their context, by forcing the reader to reassess their meaning.

Even his own sentences in their discontinuous arrangement and their aphoristic density seem like quotations. This procedure was defined for poetry by Mallarmé=or, better, evoked by him. From it Benjamin created a poetry of philology.

Here, in Mallarmé’s dense prose (next to which Benjamin’s style has the limpidity of John Dryden’s), is his formulation of Symbolist technique and its relation to a philosophy of language:

Speaking only refers commercially to the reality of things: in literature, it is sufficient to make an allusion to them or to abstract their quality which will be embodied by some idea.

On this condition, the song bounds forth, a joy unburdened.

This aim I call Transposition—another I call Structure.

The pure work implies the elocutory disappearance of the poet: he yields the initiative to the words, mobilized by the shock of their disparity; they light up with reciprocal reflections like a virtual trail of fire on precious stones: replacing the perceptible respiration of the old lyric afflatus or the enthusiastic personal direction of the sentence.13

The direct reference of ordinary everyday language attempts to seize reality “commercially,” that is, to possess it. Literature transposes it, turns it into structure, by indirection. The pure work of literature is based not on the poet’s voice but on the nature of language, considered objectively. The idea must appear to arise solely from the juxtaposition of words as they reflect each other—this implies that more than one facet of the meaning of each word is used to create these reflections. The minute attentiveness to words replaces the coercive rhythm of older poetic styles or the coercive direction of a personal style. The independent initiative of the words is ensured by systematically weakening the linear movement, the flow of the sentence, traditionally cultivated in literary style. The Symbolist poet renounces communication for presentation.

If the words are to exhibit their multifaceted meaning, they must seem to be isolated within the text. By this isolation, they become names. In Mallarmé’s words:

Je dis: une fleur! et, hors de l’oubli où ma voix relègue aucun contour, en tant que quelque chose d’autre que les calices sus, musicalement se lève, idée même et suave, l’absente de tous bouquets….

Le vers qui de plusieurs vocables refait un mot total, neuf, étranger à la langue et comme incantatoire, achève cet isolement de la parole; niant, d’un trait souverain, le hasard demeuré, aux termes malgré l’artifice de leur retrempe alternée en le sens et la sonorité, et vous cause cette surprise de n’avoir ouï jamais tel fragment ordinaire d’élocution, en même temps que la réminiscence de l’objet nommé baigne dans une neuve atmosphère.

[I say: A flower! and out of the oblivion where my voice consigns a certain contour, as something other than the known calyxes rises musically—itself an idea and sweet—the flower absent from all bouquets….

The verse which, from several terms, remakes a word—total, new, strange to the language and like an incantation—accomplishes this isolation of the word: denying with a sovereign gesture the inessential that remains in the terms in spite of the artifice of retempering them by dipping them alternately into sense and sonority, it causes you that surprise which comes from never having heard this particular ordinary fragment of elocution, at the same time that the reminiscence of the object named bathes in a novel atmosphere.]14

Benjamin’s distinction between symbolic and profane meaning comes directly from Mallarmé’s contrast of poetic and everyday language, and the technique of Symbolist poetry gave him his method of representing the Ideas—justly, as Symbolist theory asserts the independence of language and its emancipation from communication, and it is in language so emancipated that Benjamin placed the Ideas.

He was the last great Symbolist critic—and the first, too, in a way—certainly the first to apply the poetic theory to historical criticism. As Mallarmé treats words, Benjamin treats ideas: he names them, juxtaposes them, and lets them reflect one off the other. Renouncing directed argument, he relies upon the ideas through language to produce their own cross-meanings: his arrangements are material for contemplation, they force the reader himself to draw the meaning from the resonances of the ideas, from the perspectives created by the order of sentences.

Like Mallarmé’s poetry, Benjamin’s criticism is allusive, not coercive: it does not impose its interpretation on literature, but takes the form of a meditation on the texts that are quoted. Where it goes beyond Symbolism is in the more modern surrealist use of shock. This is particularly evident in his later essays on Baudelaire, inspired by Baudelaire’s own fascination with the technique of shock, the yoking-together of incongruities. In Benjamin’s “synthesis of extremes,” however, the effect of shock is already a latent power, and the Symbolist procedure of allowing language to speak for itself, of “giving the initiative to the words,” does the rest. The extremes are juxtaposed with little or no mediating comment, and the Idea arises in the silence between them.

III

L’armature intellectuelle du poème se dissimule et a lieu—tient—dans l’espace qui isole les strophes et parmi le blanc du papier; significatif silence qu’il n’est pas moins beau de composer que les vers.

[The intellectual armature of the poem conceals itself, and takes place—stands—in the space that isolates the stanzas and amidst the white of the paper; significant silence that is no less beautiful to compose than verse.]

—Mallarmé, Le “Livre”

A final assessment of Benjamin’s Marxist period from his “conversion” in the late 1920s until his death must await publication of a large part of the material—in particular the Goethe essay written for the Moscow Encyclopedia but refused, like the Trauerspiel book, and the mass of notes for his last book, Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century. His new allegiance to a more openly activist philosophy made for an improvement, even a purification, of his style. With the partial disappearance of the idealist terminology went some of the mannerism: the writing is less visibly worked over. The long essay on Leskov, “The Storyteller,” which contains a historical theory of narration, is perhaps the most accessible and the most beautiful of his works.

When the evidence is in, however, I doubt if we shall find that Benjamin had considerably altered his old opinions. In the 1930s he turned openly to the sociology of literature and language, above all in his essays on Brecht and in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” but this interest had been implicit in his early work. He never, as Lukács did, retracted or betrayed his earlier insights, and he never ceased to get himself into trouble with those who could have helped and protected him.

The talk he gave at a communist congress in 1934, “The Author as Producer,”15 was such an open provocation. It was tactless and imprudent to tell a group of communist writers that they ought not to judge a work by its Tendenz, by its ideological content, that there was no sense in writing bourgeois novels with communist ideals. His obvious interest in avant-garde art would have found a welcome response in the breasts of the many surrealist artists then in the party, but most of them had learned to temper their surrealist enthusiasm by 1934. Benjamin’s efforts to champion Brecht also had a certain bravado, as Brecht was not in the best odor in Moscow. What must have been especially outrageous to the French communists was Benjamin’s praise of the interesting experimental movement in Russia which tried to abolish the distinction between reader and writer, and allowed the workers to write their own newspaper: this would have taken some of the press out of state control, and the movement was under heavy attack in Stalinist Russia.

Shortly afterward the movement was suppressed, and then Benjamin repeated his praise of it in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” This was evidently going too far, and Adorno and his friends who published it cut out the offending phrases.

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is the most influential of Benjamin’s writings: it proposes the theory of the aura, the traces of history that guarantee the authenticity and uniqueness, the autonomy, in fact, of the traditional work of art. In this essay Benjamin envisages the possibility that art and culture as we know them will disappear, that they will be destroyed by the technology of the new mass arts; he thought that the shock of information relayed by the newspapers was killing the sense of the wisdom conveyed by the oral tradition of the storyteller.

Benjamin was a lover of rare books, with a splendid collection of children’s books. He was tied emotionally in many ways to the old forms of culture. He knew, however, how much the conception of the single, isolated work of art, authentic and unrepeatable, owed to religion, which gave it its sacred radiance, and then later, in a secularized form, how much it owed to a system of private property which gave it its value. He knew the dependence of culture upon a world and a society that he felt—with the intensity of an alien Jew in Paris in the 1930s—to be unjust and even indecent.

It may be that Benjamin exaggerated, and certainly he misstated, the complicity of art and culture in the injustice of history. In any case, he could not bring himself to condemn the possible—and even, he hoped, eventual—disappearance of the society he knew, although he understood that much of what he considered art would disappear with it—not only by the destruction of objects, but by the death of the aura, the sense of art which was already losing its power.

He was perhaps the only critic who would neither rejoice at the prospect of the death of art nor—in spite of the deep nostalgia his essay expresses—allow himself to mourn its passing. His dispassionate tone is aristocratic. Perhaps to understand the tragic irony of this famous essay we should need to have the text of the unpublished discussion in which Benjamin, according to Scholem,16 defended in Marxist terms the thesis that art is meant for connoisseurs of art.

In the end, it was probably this aristocratic manner that made the difficulty between Benjamin and the editors of the Zeitschrift für Sozial Forschung, the one review where, by 1938, Benjamin could still place a substantial essay. The refusal to publish some of his finest work, the three essays on Baudelaire now grouped together as Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire, delayed their appearance until the years 1967-1971.

The ostensible reason for the rejection, as expounded in Adorno’s letters, was Benjamin’s faulty Marxism, his pragmatic placing of details from the “superstructure” directly against traits drawn from the “substructure” without the mediation of theory. For example, Benjamin set the stanzas of Baudelaire’s The Ragpicker’s Wine directly alongside a description of the wine tax, without comment. Adorno objected to his “open-eyed wonder in the presentation of the facts” as un-Marxist. There is no doubt, as Habermas has said, that Adorno was the better Marxist of the two—although he, too, was peculiar enough in his own way; what upset him was what he called Benjamin’s “ascetic” withholding of theory.

This “asceticism” was central to Benjamin’s philosophy. He seized on Adorno’s phrase about his “open-eyed wonder”:

When you speak of “open-eyed wonder in the presentation of facts,” you characterize the true philological attitude…. Philology is the close inspection of a text, moving forward by details, that fixes the reader’s attention magically onto it….

In your Kierkegaard criticism you say that this wonder gives “the deepest insight into the relation of dialectic, myth and image”…. This ought to read: “the wonder should be a prominent object of such an insight”….

If you think back on other works of mine, you will find that a criticism of the philological attitude has been close to me for a long time—and is at its core identical with my criticism of myth. At times this criticism provokes the philological activity itself. It presses, to use the language of the Elective Affinities, towards a display of the material content in which the truth content is historically enfolded.17

Benjamin was unregenerate. Necessarily so, as what he called philology was at the heart of his style. Philology is the “display of the material content” of a work of literature, the elucidation, element by element, of its historical significance. Theory, however, could only be presented indirectly, unless it was doctrine—that is, unless it was sanctified by tradition, given the authority of “historical codification,” as Benjamin put it.18

The form of indirect presentation—that, in fact, of Symbolist poetry—Benjamin called the “tractatus.” In it the appearance of a mathematical demonstration, of a rigorously ordered chain of reasoning, had to be abandoned.

Presentation as detour—that is the methodical character of the tractatus. Renunciation of the uninterrupted course of intention is its principal mark of distinction. Perseveringly thought begins always afresh, ceremoniously it goes back to the thing itself. This unremitting respiration is the most characteristic existential form of contemplation. [P. 28, my translation]

This is the rhythm of Benjamin’s style. Basically, this respiration was his innocent idea of dialectic. Between every sentence there is a moment of silence; as he said, he deliberately renounced the use of all those stylistic equivalents of the manual gestures and the directed glance by which we normally carry over from one sentence to the next when we speak, and which the writer can mimic by rhythm and syntax. This renunciation accounts for Adorno’s confusion: he thought that Benjamin was implying a causal connection between the facts of social and economic history and the lines of Baudelaire juxtaposed to them. No such connection exists in Benjamin’s text. Adorno had not heard the silences.

IV

Die wahre Aesthetik ist die Kabbala.”

[The true aesthetic is the Kabbala.]

—Friedrich Schlegel, Literary Notebooks 1797-1801, Fragment 1989

The Romanticism of the end of the eighteenth century—of Novalis, Schlegel, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Senancour, Chateaubriand—is often presented as a religious revival. That is to stand things on their heads. It was a profoundly secularizing movement, an attempt to appropriate what was left of a moribund religious culture and to reinstate it in secular form, most often to replace religion with art. The fact that by 1810 many of these figures had lost their revolutionary fervor and fled into the arms of the Church meant only a temporary setback: the task was larger than one had initially imagined. It has continued. Most of the institutional aspects of religion had already become secularized by the American and French revolutions: the pretense at transcendence within the Church after that time has largely been fraudulent. What had remained almost untouched were the mystical strains in religious thought. It was to the preservation of these mystical elements, giving them a secular form, that Blake, Novalis, and the others addressed themselves, sometimes inventing new mythologies to liberate mysticism from its religious mold, sometimes merely giving it an aesthetic expression that made it once again available.

In this return to early Romantic philosophy and criticism, Walter Benjamin continued that tradition—he was its greatest representative in our century along with Yeats and André Breton. The preservation of mystical forms of thought meant for him not their resurrection but their transformation—just as, in the seventeenth century, allegorical technique preserved the pagan deities by transforming them into emblematic fragments, presenting them as ruins. Philology, the painstaking study of the fragmentary documents of the past, was an act of transforming memory, of translation.

Benjamin held on to the doctrine of the autonomy of the work of art, because it was only by this autonomy that the work could assume an authority that was once the prerogative of the sacred image or text. The doctrine has been misunderstood: it does not imply that a text does not refer outside itself, or, even more absurdly, that it is intelligible without a knowledge of the universe that surrounds it. It merely guarantees that no elucidation of the text—not even the author’s own exegesis—can ever attach itself permanently to it, or pretend to be an integral or necessary condition of experiencing it (except perhaps for the elucidation of the explicit, public sense of the words in it). No critical theory whatever has a valid and lasting claim upon the work. This autonomy requires that one return to the work itself, and that the interpretation is never in any way a substitute for it, or even, more modestly, its necessary accompaniment.

This doctrine appears hard to some critics. They have labored diligently and long on some work, and they believe that in some sense it is now theirs, that they have earned it honestly like the squatter who has worked a piece of land for many years. That was why Benjamin claimed that knowledge was possession, something one had, but truth was not, and the work belonged to the realm of truth: this means above all that no critical reading can get a permanent hold upon it. The interpretation remains forever and necessarily outside the work. To take a recent example, an interpretation none the less absurd for having been sanctioned by an offhand remark of the author himself: no amount of critical work will ever succeed in turning The Waste Land into a work that says it is about a private grouse of the author. As long as it survives, a philosophical or sociological interpretation of it will remain as cogent as a biographical one—more so, in my opinion.

The autonomy of a work has recently been attacked by many critics, but with the greatest distinction and the most considerable panache by Harold Bloom. In a recent book, he has proclaimed:

Few notions are more difficult to dispel than the “commonsensical” one that a poetic text is self-contained, that it has an ascertainable meaning or meanings without reference to other poetic texts. Something in nearly every reader wants to say: “Here is a poem and there is a meaning, and I am reasonably certain that the two can be brought together.” Unfortunately, poems are not things but only words that refer to other words, and those words refer to still other words, and so on, into the densely overpopulated world of literary language.19

Bloom is incontrovertible as far as he is willing to go, but he makes a disastrous slip which reveals the cloven hoof of the professional. It may be found in the words “literary language”: it is into the whole of language that each work is absorbed. Bloom refuses to isolate the poem, but insists on isolating the literary tradition; he would evidently like to claim that before a poem reaches the larger context of culture as a whole, it must first be integrated into the literary tradition. But although the initial movement of a poem is within a purely literary tradition, long before it can find a secure place in even a part of that tradition it has spilled over into ordinary language. This does not make the teaching of literature any easier.

Bloom himself bears witness to what he refuses to recognize: the self-contained meaning of the poem. As he says, few notions are indeed more difficult to dispel. It is by such a meaning that a poem is supposed to work, it is essential to its function, it is what it has been made for—which is why ordinary and extraordinary readers everywhere find it so hard to give up the idea. In absolute terms, of course, the idea is absurd, but no one holds it on those terms.

For Bloom, “words…refer to other words, and those words refer to still other words,” as indeed they do, but that seems a limited view. In Bloom’s systematic criticism a poem by Wordsworth refers above all to a poem by Milton, transforms and overcomes it. But a poem refers beyond words to the totality of the culture that produced it, and as it moves through time it reveals the capacity to refer to the future as well.

In denying autonomy to the work, Bloom has to find another independent object for study. He relocates autonomy in the “literary language” and he thereby blocks the access of the work of literature to the rest of life. The “literary language” or “literature” itself is a fiction if there ever was one, unless it is an Idea in Benjamin’s sense. Bloom treats literature as if it exists in the real world, the world of phenomena, and so it does—in the university. Bloom is today in this country the most powerful force in literary graduate studies: rightly so, as his systematic criticism is both eminently fascinating and easily teachable.

Benjamin cannot be taught. His criticism imposes nothing. His metaphors for the most part glance at and then fall back from the work of literature: when they appear to be absorbed into it, it is only because they are derived directly from it. His interpretations do not give meaning to, but strip meaning from, the work, allowing the inessential to drop off and the work to appear in its own light. He does not place the work historically but reveals its integrity: history in his account finds its way to the work. As he himself said, he appeared to be writing cultural history, but it was not meant as such: the beauty and the distinction of his achievement came about because it was conceived as philosophical criticism.

(This is the second part of a two-part essay on Walter Benjamin.)

  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.

  4. 4

    It is this emphasis on representation that distinguishes Benjamin’s philosophy of language from Heidegger’s; it was elaborated before Heidegger had published any of his major works. Benjamin unfortunately never wrote his projected demolition of Heidegger, whose work he once characterized as a model of how not to do it.

  5. 5

    Humboldt’s anticipation of many aspects of modern linguistics has been celebrated by Chomsky. In one of his curricula vitae Benjamin avowed that his interest in the philosophy of language started with a reading of Humboldt, and continued with Mallarmé.

  6. 6

    All the quotations of Humboldt are from the end of his essay “Latium und Hellas.” I have used here (with some changes) the translation by Marianne Cowan on p. 248 of Humanist Without Portfolio (Wayne State University Press, 1963).

  7. 7

    The Task of the Translator,” in Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968; Schocken Books, 1969), p. 74.

  8. 8

    Peter Szondi in “L’ Herméneutique de Schleiermacher” (Poésie et poetique de l’idéalisme allemand, Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1975) defines Idea “in Benjamin’s sense” as “the figure of the unity of the diverse semantic nuances of a word.” That gets rid of the mysticism, but also of the required objectivity.

  9. 9

    See particularly Morris Weitz, “Genre and Style,” from Perspectives in Education, Religion and the Arts, vol. 3 of Contemporary Philosophic Thought (State University of New York Press, Albany, New York, 1970), in which concepts of period, style, and some genre concepts are considered as “open,” i.e., perpetually debatable.

  10. 10

    The mechanism of these relationships was to be demonstrated many years later by William Empson in The Structure of Complex Words.

  11. 11

    He accepted with strong reservations the positivistic arguments of Konrad Burdach against treating terms like “Renaissance” or “Humanism” as if they were living individuals with a life of their own: they were, according to Burdach, only convenient fictions, abstract concepts invented “as a consequence of our innate need for systematization” which help us “to come to grips with an infinite series of varied spiritual manifestations and widely differing personalities.” While Benjamin, however, agreed on the danger of personifying general concepts, he commented that Burdach’s “arguments constitute a private mental reservation, not a methodological defence” (Origin, pp. 40-41).

  12. 12

    An inordinately short recapitulation section in a sonata movement by Haydn after 1770, for example, implies a development section in which part of the second half of the exposition reappears very exceptionally in the tonic.

  13. 13

    Parler n’a trait à la réalité des choses que commercialement: en littérature, cela se contente d’y faire une allusion ou de distraire leur qualité qu’incorporera quelque idée.

    A cette condition s’élance le chant, qu’une joie allégée.

    Cette visée, je la dis Transposition—Structure, une autre.

    L’oeuvre pure implique la disparition élocutoire du poète, qui cède l’initiative aux mots, par le heurt de leur inégalité mobilisés; ils s’allument de reflets réciproques comme une virtuelle traîée de feux sur depierreries, remplaçant la respiration perceptible en l’ancien souffle lyrique ou la direction personnelle enthousiaste de la phrase.

    —Mallarmé, “Crise de vers,” in Oeuvres Complètes

    (Edition de la Pléiade), p. 366

  14. 14

    Ibid., p. 368.

  15. 15

    This text will appear in a new selection of Benjamin’s writings to be published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich next year.

  16. 16

    On Jews and Judaism in Crisis (Schocken Books, 1976), p. 221.

  17. 17

    Letter to Adorno, December 9, 1938.

  18. 18

    The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p. 27.

  19. 19

    Poetry and Repression (Yale University Press, 1976), pp. 2-3.

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