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The Ruins of Walter Benjamin

The Origin of German Tragic Drama

by Walter Benjamin, translated by John Osborne
New Left Books (London), 256 pp., £7.25


But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

The reputation of the German philosopher-critic Walter Benjamin is now secure; paradoxically it has been given its firm basis by the disputes among those who believe they have a claim upon him, and by the widely differing interpretations of his work. The history of the dispersal of his papers and their posthumous publication has been determined by these conflicting and disparate claims.

Just before his death in 1940, some of his manuscripts were confiscated by the Gestapo: these have now turned up in East Germany. Many others were preserved through the war at the Bibliothèque Nationale by the surrealist author Georges Bataille. Benjamin’s great friend Gershom Scholem, professor of Jewish mysticism in Jerusalem, had many copies; most of the rest came from Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, one of the founders of the idiosyncratic version of Marxism called the Frankfurt School. Scholem openly disapproves of the Marxist influence on Benjamin; Marxists in turn generally discount, or attempt to ignore, the theological elements always present in his work.

His publisher in the West is the fashionable and respectable left-wing firm of Suhrkamp. The East Germans publish another edition, and accuse the Western editors of denaturing Benjamin’s late Marxist thought. The two editions show little divergence.

Benjamin’s work has been less an influential force than a quarry: he has been pillaged but not imitated. He provided what seemed most original in Marshall McLuhan’s theories and in André Malraux’s writing on art. The structuralists—whoever they were (no one answers to that name any more)—have claimed him as their own, but then so have mystics, neo-idealists, liberals, and followers of Bertolt Brecht. Frank Kermode has called him the greatest critic of the century, but Kermode’s own work has remained relatively untouched by Benjamin’s methods. Benjamin’s study of what might be called the post-history or the afterlife of works of literature has spurred the recent interest in the “history of reception” among younger critics in Germany—principally Hans Robert Jauss—but they cannot be said to share his philosophy. Only the late Peter Szondi, the most distinguished German literary critic since Benjamin’s death, has shown a genuine affinity for Benjamin’s thought. Most academic work pays him a brief homage, lists his work in the bibliography, and otherwise ignores him.

Plundered without acknowledgment, appropriated without confrontation—his work has met with a degree of misunderstanding that would no doubt have seemed suitable to Benjamin himself, who was thoroughly aware of its esoteric nature. This esoteric quality adds to the work’s prestige, protects its aura.

But if Benjamin’s reputation is secure, access to his work still remains difficult. A full assessment is impossible while publication remains incomplete. The large essay on Goethe commissioned and rejected by the Moscow Encyclopedia is still unprinted. Most important of all, the book on which Benjamin was working for more than twelve years before his death in 1940, Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century, has been doled out piecemeal by the German publishers, and most of it has yet to see the light of print. The collected edition of Suhrkamp has reserved this for the last.

For those who are interested in Benjamin and who do not read German, the situation is gloomy. A small selection called Illuminations has been available for some time in America, with an introduction by Hannah Arendt. Of the major achievements of Benjamin, it contains only “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the introduction to his translation of Baudelaire, and the essay on the stories of Leskov; from his final, unfinished book, there is a chapter of the section on Baudelaire in the injudicious revision that Benjamin made to satisfy Adorno and his colleagues at the Institute for Social Research (although parts of the original version had already appeared posthumously in Germany before the American selection). A translation of both the original and revised versions of the Baudelaire essays has been issued by New Left Books in Great Britain, but there seems to be no plan for similar publication here.

The most important of Benjamin’s literary essays, that on Goethe’s Elective Affinities, was omitted by Hannah Arendt on the questionable grounds that the polemic in it against Friedrich Gundolf’s biography of Goethe would have required too many explanatory notes, since Gundolf is unknown in English-speaking countries. This essay on the Elective Affinities, however, may be found in a larger, two-volume French selection, disfigured by a translation of exceptional ugliness and opacity (such admittedly difficult terms to render as “Einfühlung,” empathy, and “Sachgehalt,” material content, appear barbarously as “Intropathie” and “teneur chosale“).

The largest gap has been filled for the English reader—but not for the American: the one book after his doctoral thesis that Benjamin finished, The Origin of German Tragic Drama (Trauerspiel), on German baroque drama. New Left Books has finally issued a translation of this work in England after many years of announcement and postponement. The holders of the American rights are sitting on them, and appear to have no intention of making the British translation of this work available here. However, rumors rise from time to time of a new selection which will excerpt from the baroque drama book only the “Epistemo-Critical Prologue” (Erkenntniskritische Vorrede).

This preface is composed with a density so unrelenting that the author himself suggested it should be read at the end of the book instead of the beginning: it sketches a theory of criticism as part of a theory of knowledge, and attempts a reformulation of so many of the fundamental problems of epistemology that Benjamin gaily characterized it in a letter to his friend Gershom Scholem as “an immeasurable chutzpah.” I cannot imagine why a publisher would suppose this preface to be more interesting to the average reader than the rest of the work, which deals not only with the German baroque drama but extensively with Romantic symbolism, Greek tragedy, the Spanish baroque theater, Shakespeare (above all, the figure of Hamlet), the nature of allegory, and the emblematic concept of melancholy during the Counter Reformation. This book makes more explicit than any other work by Benjamin his critical principles and his idiosyncratic views of art, language, and history.


The goal I had proposed to myself is not yet fully realized, but finally I am very close. It is to be considered as the principal critic of German literature. The difficulty is that, for more than fifty years, literary criticism in Germany has no longer been considered as a serious genre. To make oneself a place in criticism means, basically, to recreate it as a genre….

—Walter Benjamin to Gershom Scholem, Paris, January 20, 1930 (written
in French), Briefe II, p. 505.

Benjamin’s training was in philosophy, his work in literary criticism. Yet his essays are not often purely literary, or purely philosophical. They map out an important area between the two. The major essays exhibit both criticism and a philosophy of criticism. This tactic was, for Benjamin, a heritage from early Romantic German thought. George Steiner was right to affirm that Benjamin never abandoned the principles of Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis that he expounded in his first thesis, “The German Romantic Concept of Art Criticism.”1

Criticism was central to Schlegel’s view of art—at least, the art of his contemporaries. In a well-known opposition that he derived basically from Schiller, he defined modern Romantic art as self-conscious and critical, in contrast to the naïve, immediate, and natural classical art of antiquity. This polarity was eventually to receive strange treatment at Schlegel’s hands, including an expansion of Romantic art to include even the plays of Sophocles; but it placed the critical act at the center of the work of art. In 1798 Schlegel introduced the book reviews of the Athenäum (which he edited for two years with his brother) by declaring: “Great works of art criticize themselves. The work of criticism is therefore superfluous unless it is itself a work of art as independent of the work it criticizes as that work is independent of the material that went into it.” The critical essays of Benjamin aim at this status and this independence.

Placing criticism at the heart of literature (or, for that matter, music and the visual arts) was an inevitable step for the early Romantic generation in Germany, those poets and writers whose youth had coincided with the French Revolution. Their exaltation of the critical process was necessary to their rejection of earlier standards, to their invention of “modernism.”

As early as 1770, Herder and Goethe had insisted that a new art should not be judged by rules derived from antiquity; each civilization, each folk, each nation created its own standards. For Schlegel and Novalis this had become true for each artist and even each work of art. It is only from within a work that one could derive the principles by which it was to be judged. Criticism was, therefore, immanent in the work itself. Essentially this was, with one stroke, to turn criticism from an act of judgment into an act of understanding. Although the theoretical problems it provoked are not to be underestimated, this new approach guaranteed both the individuality of the artist and the integrity of the work. But by making works of art incommensurable one with another, it also seemed to destroy the possibility of a history of art.

Benjamin was, in fact, to deny the existence of the history of art for this reason, as well as on other and more complex grounds. He had no taste for Hegel’s attempt to restore history to Romantic aesthetics by envisaging the relations among the arts as a historical process, from the supremacy of sculpture in the antique world to the ascendance of music in the Romantic period, and finally to the eventual disappearance of all the arts—or rather their absorption into philosophy. Hegel’s system of aesthetics fell into ruins almost within a few years of its erection, but something like his more general conception of history reappeared much later in art history, in 1901, with a book to which Benjamin ascribed the greatest influence on his thought: Alois Riegl’s Late Roman Industrial Art.

Riegl drew the final consequences from early Romantic aesthetics and from what has been called Hegelian “expressionism”—the view that at any point in history all social institutions and all human activity as well as art, philosophy, and religion are expressions of a certain state in the development of history. Riegl saw that if the criteria for understanding any given style or period in the development of art were to be drawn from within the style itself, then the concept of decadence was not tenable. Each style was an expression of its period, an answer to its needs, a realization of its will. His book was a justification and a validation of what had seemed the least attractive artistic period in Western history—the Western European art of the fourth to the eighth centuries AD—a period which deliberately rejected both the serene beauty of classical art and the lively energy of the unclassical, Hellenistic style. Riegl claimed an expressive value not only for the products of the high arts of painting, architecture, and sculpture, but also for the industrial artifacts and the decorative motifs of the age.

  1. 1

    TLS, October 25, 1974, p. 1198. Review of Gesammelte Schriften, Volume I. At the opening of his thesis on Schlegel and Novalis, Benjamin claims that a Messianic vision of history lies at the heart of their criticism, but he does not mention this further. The same thing may be said of his own criticism.

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