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The Ruins of Walter Benjamin

The derivation of Benjamin’s work on seventeenth-century German drama from Riegl’s Late Roman Industrial Art is evident; Benjamin himself acknowledged it as his inspiration. Like the art of the fourth to the eighth centuries, German baroque tragedies were generally considered either a decadent form, a weak and imperfect attempt to imitate classical Greek tragedy, or an immature and unsuccessful attempt to move toward a more modern ideal. In Benjamin’s reinterpretation of these works, a surprising and perhaps unconscious adaptation of Riegl may be observed. Where Riegl elucidated the significance of industrial forms (buckles, earrings, spoons, etc.) and the abstract decorative patterns in the late Roman period, Benjamin turned his attention to the structure of figures of speech in German dramatic poetry of the seventeenth century, the use of double titles, the insertion of mottoes into dialogue, and the expressive values in syntactical forms. As long ago as the early 1920s, in fact, Benjamin was studying what Roman Jakobson has since called “the poetry of grammar.”

The Origin of German Trauerspiel^2 was intended as Benjamin’s Habilitations thesis, as the work that would entitle him to a teaching position in a German university. It was turned down by the members of the faculty at the University of Frankfurt, who declared they could not understand a word of it. No doubt. If they had understood it, they would have turned it down anyway. In his work, Benjamin mounted a sustained attack on almost all the forms of criticism and literary study that were practiced in the university—and that are still practiced today.

This put an end to any of Benjamin’s hopes for an academic career. It was, moreover, only one of many such incidents. Benjamin regularly and emphatically marked his critical distance from those who otherwise would have, if not given him aid, at least stood out of his way. He estranged the only other group in Germany that could have helped him to a university position, the avant-garde group around Stefan George, by attacking—in his study of the Elective Affinities—the biography of Goethe written by one of their members, Gundolf.

Later, in the 1930s, after he had become a Marxist, Benjamin deliberately offended the orthodox communists by his rejection of orthodox communist criticism and his public defense of literary movements then being suppressed in Russia. His attacks on liberal center-left figures like Tucholsky may have made access to some of the literary reviews more difficult for him. Finally, he insisted upon defending the virtues of the traditional philological methods so that not only did his friends of the Frankfurt School, now transferred to the New School for Social Research in New York, refuse to publish the original versions of his Baudelaire essays at a crucial moment in his career, but they were to prevent publication for more than twenty-five years after his death.

Hannah Arendt, in her sympathetic essay, puts such mishaps down to monumental bad luck or to bungling on Benjamin’s part. It is difficult to believe, however, that these successive moves were not necessary to Benjamin’s program, to his conception of the work he felt obliged to carry out. Each attack of Benjamin was a strategic move; no doubt he hoped not to have to pay too high a price for each, not to suffer so great a loss. He must, however, have envisaged the possible consequences, realized that the chances of getting the book on the German baroque drama through the examiners were minimal. It is worth examining the operation of Benjamin’s strategy, his successive attempts to define his own methods against those practiced by his contemporaries (and still practiced today). By the ruin of his career he ensured the permanence of his work.


   “M. Mallarmé, ne pleurez-vous
jamais en vers?” “Ni ne me mouche.”

[“Mr. Mallarmé, do you never weep in verse?”

Nor blow my nose.”]

The trail of Benjamin’s misadventures begins with his first important published work, the essay on Goethe’s novella Elective Affinities. It contains an extended polemic against the general practice of biographical criticism, with Gundolf’s biography of Goethe chosen as the exemplary enemy. This long essay by Benjamin (which Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who published it, called “simply incomparable…it has made an epoch in my life”) proclaims, in an esoteric fashion, his continuation of early Romantic criticism. A study of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister had opened Friedrich Schlegel’s career as a Romantic critic, and it was the first attempt at giving a critical essay the status of a work of art as independent as the work it criticized. Like Schlegel, Benjamin also claimed to draw all that can be said of the Elective Affinities from an examination of the work alone.

This declaration of purism and the sustained polemic against Gundolf was an attempt not to remove Goethe’s work from history, but to find the proper relation of the work to the life from which it came and—a point of equal importance to Benjamin—to which it was going. For Benjamin, the significance of the work is not exhausted by the meaning given to it by the author and his contemporaries, and is often not even adequately realized by them. The work is “timeless” in that it is not limited to the moment of its appearance. It transcends history, but this transcendence is only revealed by its projection through history. The transcendence is double: on the one hand the work gradually reveals a meaning accessible without a knowledge of the time in which it arose, and on the other it preserves for posterity some aspect of that time. A symphony of Haydn is meaningful and moving even to those who know little or nothing of Haydn’s contemporaries and of his age, and yet it appears to embody that age for us today. The work detaches itself both from the life that produced it and from the specific cultural milieu within which it was conceived; nevertheless, it keeps a sense of that past life as an effect of distance from us. Commentary and criticism are Benjamin’s names for the two ways of approaching this double nature of literature. Commentary deals with the sense of the past life evoked by the work; criticism with the way the work detaches itself from that life. Commentary is philological in its method: criticism is philosophical. They are interdependent: without commentary, criticism is self-indulgent revery; without criticism, commentary is frivolous information.

In his essays on Proust, Kafka, and Baudelaire, we find that Benjamin never hesitates to refer from the literary work to the life and back again, but always with a tact that is a sign of his respect for the dignity and integrity of both life and work. Tracing the development of a work in the writer’s life was as fascinating to Benjamin as to a professional biographer. What he protested in Gundolf was a form of interpretation which diminishes and restricts the meaning of the work by viewing it as a direct product of the author’s life. Unlike an act, a work does not draw its immediate meaning from the life—if it did, the Elective Affinities would be unintelligible to a reader ignorant of Goethe’s biography. The work is to be understood first of all in a more objective literary, historical, and even philosophical tradition. Underlying Gundolf’s approach, Benjamin felt, was a process of sentimental mythmaking, which turned the life of Goethe into a work of art in order to place it into a correspondence with the novella.

Supporting the myth is a tenacious fallacy, which distorts the life even more than the work, the gratuitous hypothesis that what is most profound, most moving in a work must have a corresponding emotional experience of equal power in the author’s life. For Benjamin, this inevitably and disastrously misrepresented the imaginative process. The artist transforms his experience, but the experience is not simply a source of emotions and motifs that the artist must accept, nor does the experience impose itself on the work. The artist does not sing his emotions, but actively seeks for “occasions” to make into song. By too simply identifying life and art, the biographer has failed to notice the most essential relationship: the artist shapes his life and his experience to make his art possible.

In Benjamin’s essay on Proust, this relationship is given its full weight. A few sentences of Benjamin’s mosaic style show the importance he attached to it:

The doctors were powerless in the face of this malady [asthma]; not so the writer, who very systematically placed it in his service. To begin with the most external aspect, he was a perfect stage director of his sickness…. This asthma became part of his art—if indeed his art did not create it. Proust’s syntax rhythmically and step by step reproduces his fear of suffocating. And his ironic, philosophical, didactic reflections invariably are the deep breath with which he shakes off the weight of memories. On a larger scale, however, the threatening, suffocating crisis was death, which he was constantly aware of, most of all while he was writing….3

Work and life here interpret each other literally and metaphorically, and the work is seen more as creating the experience than as helplessly dependent on it. Proust’s life, unsentimentalized, retains its dignity, and his art is left free to seek meanings beyond the restricted range of the author’s own biography, as the metaphorical cast of Benjamin’s style avoids constraint.4

The refusal of Benjamin to allow a privileged status to the meaning the work may have had for the author is based both on his idiosyncratic view of history and on his philosophy of language. From the beginning, his criticism was a protest against historicism, the view that the past must be viewed as far as possible through the eyes of the past. The theory that the critic’s job is to reconstruct what was in the author’s mind at the moment of writing is only a limited and dubious form of historicism—dubious because it reaches most often behind the text for what is essentially unknowable and unverifiable. Basic to Benjamin’s philosophy of language was an emphasis on the functions of language other than that of communication—functions that were aesthetic and, above all, contemplative: the biographical interpretation reduces the significance of the literary work to that of voluntary or involuntary communication. Benjamin’s philosophy of history and of language is best treated in connection with his next misadventure, the thesis rejected by the University of Frankfurt on German baroque drama.


In Shakespeare’s historical plays, there is throughout a conflict of the poetic and the unpoetic. The common people appear witty and unruly—when the great appear stiff and melancholy, etc. Low life is generally opposed to high—often tragically, often as parody, often for the sake of the contrast. History, what history meant to the poet, was represented in these plays. History dissolved in speech. Exactly the opposite of real history, and nevertheless history as it should be—prophetic and synchronic.

—Novalis, Fragments and Studies of 1799-1800

  1. 3

    The Image of Proust,” in Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn (Schocken Books, 1969), pp. 213-214.

  2. 4

    In an excellent new book, Walter Benjamin—Der Intellektuelle als Kritiker, Berntd Witte has pointed out that Benjamin’s criticism of Goethe’s Elective Affinities is a transformation of the metaphors of the original. By working with the elements of the work itself, Benjamin appears to impose his reinterpretation from within. (I did not come upon Witte’s book until this review was almost finished, and I regret not being able to give it detailed consideration.)

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