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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.

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

When Benjamin wrote The Origin of German Trauerspiel, between 1919 and 1925, there was already a new interest in Germany in the once-despised literary art of the German seventeenth century. This was in part owing to a revaluation of baroque art strongly influenced by Wölfflin’s publications before the turn of the century. In addition, the rediscovery, or the invention, of the literary baroque of Germany was stimulated by expressionism, just as the expressionist painters of the Blaue Reiter had made El Greco’s cause their own: the exaggeration and the violence of the expressionist poetry and drama of such writers as Georg Trakl and Franz Werfel stimulated an interest (which Benjamin qualified as largely sentimental) in similar manifestations in the works of the seventeenth century. Both styles juxtaposed neologisms and archaisms, delighted in extravagance.

The scholarly treatment of seventeenth-century German literary style before Benjamin remained largely hostile, particularly in its view of the drama, generally condemned as a mistaken, barbarous, and pedantic imitation of Greek tragedy. The plays themselves, by such writers as Andreas Gryphius, Martin Opitz, and Daniel Caspers von Lohenstein, had largely been neglected, were seldom read, and almost never produced. The tentatively positive assessments of these works (by Herbert Cysarz, for example) considered them as primitive but necessary first steps to the classical drama of Goethe and Schiller. It was Benjamin’s task to rehabilitate this style for its own sake, to give its own reason for being, and to justify its existence.

In this, as we have seen, he explicitly followed the example of Riegl’s rehabilitation of late Roman art: common to both projects was the choice of a period whose art violated the fundamental classical canons of aesthetics, an art that was—to most eyes—neither beautiful nor vital, but awkward and lifeless. If expressionism reinforced Benjamin’s project, Riegl’s had been helped and no doubt partly inspired by impressionism and post-impressionism. These changes of taste, fashion, or sensibility may account for the urge to rewrite history but not for the grander project of profoundly altering our conception of the nature of history itself. In this, Benjamin was more radical than Riegl; he explicitly set out to demonstrate a thesis that Riegl had only hinted at, and had held largely in reserve in the back of his mind: that there is no such thing as an independent history of art.

In a curriculum vitae, Benjamin claimed that just as Benedetto Croce had opened a path to the particular concrete work of art by smashing the concept of genre, so his book was intended to clear the way to the work by smashing the doctrine of the independent field of art. As he wrote to a friend while working on the Trauerspiel book:

What occupies me is how works of art are related to historical life. On this point what seems to me certain is that there is no such thing as a history of art…. The explorations of the current history of art always end up only as a history of material or history of form, for which works of art serve only as examples, almost as models: of a history of works themselves there is absolutely no question….

Works of art are, in this respect, like philosophical systems, and the so-called “history” of philosophy is either an uninteresting history of dogmas, or a history of problems, in which case it threatens to lose contact with the temporal extension and to change into timeless, intensive interpretation. The specific historicity of works of art is of a similar kind, which opens not into the history of art but only into interpretation. In the interpretation there arise connections between works of art which are timeless and yet not without historical importance. The same forces which in the revealed world (that is, in history) become explosive and temporally extensive show themselves in the world of silence as intensive.5

Here, with Benjamin’s idiosyncratic theological terminology, is a formulation of his task; to relate the work to history while respecting its essential function of stepping out of the historical time and space in which it was produced. The achievement of Benjamin was to have recognized and exploited this tension, to have developed a way of interpreting the historical significance of a work that does not question its supra-historical integrity.

In The Origin of German Trauerspiel, paradoxically, he does this by resurrecting the concept of genre which he praised Croce for smashing, but in a very different sense. Terms like “tragedy” were not, for Benjamin, either a means of classifying various individual works, or a set of norms by which they could be judged. He states his position in a form so provocative that it was evidently designed to make the hackles of the academic world rise:

For these ideas [of “tragedy” and “comedy”] are not at all embodiments of rules; they are themselves entities [or structures], at the very least equal in substance and reality to any and every drama, without being in any way commensurable. They therefore make no claim to embrace a number of given works of literature on the basis of some feature or other common to them. For even if there were no such thing as the pure tragedy or the pure comedy which can be named after them, these ideas can endure.6

This appears a straightforward affirmation of Platonic realism, but Benjamin’s position, as I shall try to make clear, was a much stranger one.

The Origin of German Trauerspiel is a relatively short book of a little over 200 pages, divided into two parts. The first deals specifically with the Trauerspiel, the second with the technique of allegory, intimately related to the drama of the seventeenth century. The Trauerspiel is marked off from classical tragedy; the efforts of contemporary baroque theorists to base their discussions on Aristotle are shown as factitious and misleading, an attempt to give dignity and tradition to radically new work. Benjamin distinguishes tragedy from Trauerspiel as two totally distinct genres:

Historical life, as it was conceived at that time, is the content, the real object [of the Trauerspiel]. In this it is different from tragedy. For the object of the latter is not history, but myth, and the tragic stature of the dramatis personae does not derive from rank—the absolute monarchy—but from the pre-historic epoch of their existence—the past age of heroes.[P. 62]

Tragedy and Trauerspiel are, as genres, bound to time: neither one is possible outside the era in which it originated.

For the seventeenth-century German poet, history was the fall of kings. Benjamin traces in the Trauerspiel the relation of the plays to contemporary theories of sovereignty (“the sovereign represents history. He holds the course of history in his hand like a scepter,” p. 65), as well as to the theological outlook of the German seventeenth century, in particular to the devaluation of everyday life in the Lutheran opposition to the Counter Reformation (most of the German playwrights were Lutheran). As he writes,

The relationship of Lutheranism to the everyday had always been anti-nomic. The rigorous morality of its teaching in respect of civic conduct stood in sharp contrast to its renunciation of “good works.” By denying the latter any special miraculous spiritual effect, making the soul dependent on grace through faith, and making the secular-political sphere a testing ground for a life which was only indirectly religious, being intended for the demonstration of civic virtues, it did, it is true, instill into the people a strict sense of obedience to duty, but in its great men it produced melancholy. [P. 138]

From this melancholy, foreign to Greek tragedy, springs the grief, the Trauer of the Trauerspiel.

Politics and theology are reflected in the psychology of the plays:

The antithesis between the power of the ruler and his capacity to rule led to a feature peculiar to the Trauerspiel which apparently comes from the nature of the genre but which can be illuminated only against the background of the theory of sovereignty. This is the indecisiveness of the tyrant. The prince, who is responsible for making the decision to proclaim the state of emergency, reveals, at the first opportunity, that he is almost incapable of making a decision. Just as compositions with restful lighting are virtually unknown in mannerist painting, so it is that the theatrical figures of this epoch always appear in the harsh light of their changing resolve. What is conspicuous about them is not so much the sovereignty evident in the stoic turns of phrase, as the sheer arbitrariness of a constantly shifting emotional storm in which the figures of Lohenstein especially sway about like torn and flapping banners. [Pp. 70-71]

Benjamin follows this with a series of extraordinary examples of vacillations drawn from the plays, moments of crisis in which the hero hesitates in an agony of indecision. In Lohenstein’s Sophonisbe the hero, about to send Sophonisbe poison to save her from imprisonment by the Romans, cries: “Alas, what terrors weigh upon my tortured heart! Away! Be gone! But no! Stay! Come back! Yes, go! It must be done at last” (p. 71n). Politics and theology together are implicated in the Trauerspiel‘s conception of history as catastrophe.

The enduring fascination of the downfall of the tyrant is rooted in the conflict between the impotence and depravity of his person, on the one hand, and, on the other, the extent to which the age was convinced of the sacrosanct powers of his role. It was therefore quite impossible to derive an easy moral satisfaction…from the tyrant’s end. For if the tyrant falls, not simply in his own name, as an individual, but as a ruler and in the name of mankind and history then his fall is played out as a judgment, and the subject too feels himself implicated in the sentence. [P. 72]

The limits of the genre are revealed by the tyrant-drama and the martyr-drama:

In the baroque the tyrant and the martyr are the Janus-head of the monarch. They are the necessary extreme coinings of the princely essence. [P. 69]

The image is that of the royal medal, and the martyr and tyrant imply each other, are the reverse images of the same form.

Benjamin’s ideas, conveyed by a deliberately discontinuous mosaic of quotation, observation, and metaphor, are difficult to summarize—or even to translate.7 What was, as far as I know, without precedent at that time, except for Georg Lukács’s analysis of the nineteenth-century novel, was Benjamin’s representation of a genre historically—treating the political, theological, and social aspects of the drama as formal elements of the work, examining them exactly as he did the figures of speech, the verse forms, and the grammatical structure of the style. In this way Benjamin avoided both the falsifications of the usual historical approach which reduces and simplifies the work to signifying something outside itself, and the limitations of formalism, which has blinded itself to some of the most characteristic and representative elements of art.


I will! and once more fill a kingdom’s throne.
Spain, I’ll new mould thee: I will have a chair
Made all of dead men’s bones; and the ascents
Shall be the heads of Spaniards set in ranks:
I will have Philip’s head, Hurten- zo’s head,
Mendoza’s head, thy mother’s head, and this—
This head, that is so cross, I’ll have’t.
The scene wants actors; I’ll fetch more and clothe it
In rich cothurnal pomp; a tragedy
Ought to be grave: graves this shall beautify.

—Thomas Dekker, Lust’s Dominion, or the Lascivious Queen, Act V, scene 5

By representing the Trauerspiel through its relations to the politics, religion and philosophy of the society in which it was produced, Benjamin made his work applicable to the contemporary Spanish baroque, and the late Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas. In an early draft of his preface, in fact, Benjamin doubts whether the German Trauerspiel can be adequately described without reference to the drama of Shakespeare and Calderón (the English and Spanish Trauerspiel we might call them). The power of Benjamin’s method may be indicated briefly by extending his observations on theatrical conventions of the time, above all the use of illusion and stage properties.

Theatrical conventions are generally treated as something that the contemporary audience—and we, today, as well—must accept blindly and unquestioningly; the conventions are simply given, and we surrender to them. In a brilliant essay8 Christopher Ricks protests against the slackness of this view and insists that a convention must be justified, its probability vindicated by the dramatist each time, and that the vindication must come from plot and character. Against his opponents Ricks wins easily, but he stops midway in his considerations of convention. A convention is indeed not simply given, but has its own raison d’être: the dramatist uses or abuses the convention. Ricks interprets the use, Benjamin goes one step further to interpret the convention itself.

There is an extreme form of Trauerspiel, in which probability has little relevance: the so-called Tragedy of Fate, in which the action moves mechanically and inexorably toward the catastrophe. In this kind of play—for Benjamin the supreme examples are by Calderón—psychological motivation is often deliberately abandoned. Calderón’s “whole mastery lies in the extreme exactitude with which, in a play like the Herodrama, the violent passion is elevated out of the psychological motivation of the action which the modern reader looks for” (p. 133). This lack of motivation is a sign of man’s total subjection to powers which he cannot control or influence, and it brings with it the fatal role of the stage property—the inorganic object which inexorably involves the characters in their doom.

Unmentioned here by Benjamin but clearly relevant is Othello, the only great example of the Tragedy of Fate in English. The stage property is the handkerchief, and the psychological motivation that Ricks demands is emphatically refused to Iago:

Othello: Will you, I pray, demand that demy-Divell, Why he hath thus ensnar’d my Soule and Body.

Iago: Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:

This lack of motivation disconcerts not only critics but Iago himself, who says earlier that he hates the Moor because of a rumor that “twixt my sheets / He’s done my Office. I know not if’t be true, / But I, for meere suspition in that kinde, / Will do, as if for Surety.” Neither he nor Shakespeare seems to believe it much, and no one else ever has either.9

In 1692 the critic Thomas Rymer, in a famous attack on Othello, made the infamous suggestion that Othello’s jealousy would have been better grounded had the handkerchief been a garter. Ricks replies that this

ignores the fact that from one point of view such an item as a garter would be too incriminating, might hint a frame-up. The great thing, the fatal thing, about the handkerchief is precisely that it is a trifle.10

Ricks does not appreciate his own insight in the last sentence, because he is, for the moment, too concerned with propriety of motivation—from that point of view Rymer is, after all, surely right, a garter would be more convincing. But it would not be a trifle.

Benjamin’s method, extended to Jacobean drama, tells us, as Ricks cannot, why the garter will not do—it would have too much of the life of Desdemona about it, it is not sufficiently neutral, dead. Benjamin is not concerned, like the scholars that Ricks attacks, with merely confirming the existence of a convention, or, like Ricks, only with its use: he wants to force out its meaning.

He therefore enables us to discover something in Othello that Ricks does not: that the blindness of Othello’s passion, jealousy, is expressed, not motivated, by something as insignificant as the handkerchief. The disparity between the cause of his jealousy and its fury is essential. As Benjamin writes about the German Tragedy of Fate:

For once human life has sunk into the merely natural, even the life of apparently dead objects secures power over it. The effectiveness of the object where guilt has been incurred is a sign of the approach of death. The passionate stirrings of natural life in man—in a word, passion itself—bring the fatal property into action. It is nothing other than the seismographic needle which registers its vibrations. [P. 132]

For Benjamin, the stage property in the Tragedy of Fate, like the absence or presence of psychological motivation, was not merely a convention given to the baroque dramatist, which he could use or abuse: it came to him with ideological strings attached. It had, in short, an inherent expressive function.

The breaking of stage illusion so essential to baroque style was another such convention with an expressive value. It can be understood only in a critical approach as wide as Benjamin’s that reinterprets the past from the perspective of a much later period. Put the following remarks of Ricks against Benjamin’s treatment of illusion:

The scene in Othello (Act 4 scene 1) in which the credulous Othello is snared by Iago into overhearing (and misconstruing) a conversation between Iago and Cassio about Bianca…is no more convincing, no less stagey than [a similar scene in The White Devil by Webster]; the particular convention presents such difficulties, is so intractable, that even Shakespeare here fails to master it….”11

Stagey” is the exact and necessary word; Ricks mistakenly proffers it as a reproach. Benjamin relates the breaking of illusion, the staginess of the Trauerspiel, to the effort to express the “play” character of life itself, which has lost its ultimate seriousness in the despair of Counter-Reformation theology.

In the drama the play element was demonstratively emphasized, and transcendence was allowed its final word only in the worldly disguise of a play within a play. The technique is not always obvious as when the stage itself is set up on the stage, or the auditorium is extended onto the stage area. [P. 82]

The scene in Othello is such a play within a play, staged by Iago for Othello, who becomes a member of the audience, the only one, in fact, to misunderstand what is being played.

This explicit reference to the stage that Benjamin remarks in the German Trauerspiel, moreover, occurs at the moment of crisis of every one of Shakespeare’s major tragedies. King Lear, cast out by his daughters into the storm, stages a mock trial with the footstool as Goneril; Cleopatra, preparing for suicide, does so in order not to be dragged in triumph to Rome and see herself played on the stage by a boy; at the death of his wife before his final disaster, Macbeth compares life to a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage; and, perhaps most movingly, Coriolanus, about to order the sack of Rome, sees his wife and mother come to plead with him and says hopelessly:

Like a dull actor now, I have forgot my part,
And I am out, even to a full Disgrace….

The staginess of these references12 is allegorical: they turn the stage itself into an emblem of illusion. Nowhere is this made more emphatic than in Richard II. Forced to abdicate, Richard calls for a looking glass, and begins to quote Marlowe’s Faustus:

Was this Face the Face
That every day under his household roof
Did keep ten thousand men? Was this the Face
That, like the Sun, did make beholders wink?
Is this the Face that fac’d so many follies
And was at last outfac’d by Boling- broke?

(each phrase approaching more and more closely to the famous lines on Helen “Is this the face that launch’d a thousand ships?”). This reference to the stage at the climax of the tragedy is not a poet’s game, an irrelevant frivolity. Richard with his looking glass, like Hamlet with the skull of Yorick, or Lear judging the footstool, is a figure of allegory, frozen for a moment into an emblematic stiffness. “The shadow of your Sorrow,” Bolingbroke says when Richard smashes the looking glass, “hath destroyed the shadow of your Face.” The references to the stage, the looking glass, the death’s head, are all emblems of illusion and premonitions of death. This is why the catastrophe in Jacobean drama arrives so often as a play within a play, a game of chess, or even a dance.

As Benjamin says, the allegorical technique is central to the view that life is an illusion which, when dissipated, reveals nothing. The essential characteristic of seventeenth-century allegory (the only kind with which Benjamin is basically concerned) is discontinuity, an unresolvable discrepancy between a visual sign or image and its meaning, “a dualism of signification and reality” (p. 194). Allegories are never understood easily and naturally, but decoded: they require effort, which takes time, so sign and meaning are never simultaneous, never fused.

When John Donne, in the famous lines of “A Valediction: forbidding mourning,” compares the departing lover and his love that stays behind to “stiff twin compasses” (i.e., the two legs of a drawing compass)—

Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other doe.

And though it in the center sit, Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leanes, and hearkens after it, And growes erect, as that comes home.

—the discrepancy between image and meaning is audacious. The inanimate scientific sign of the compass arrests and stiffens the vital meaning and reveals the kinship of such an emblematic figure with the fatal stage property that seems to have a life of its own and brings death. The dead image of the compass controls the living souls of which it is the sign, and the poem, indeed, starts with a scene of death:

As virtuous men passe mildly away, And whisper to their soules, to goe,
Whilest some of their sad friends doe say The breath goes now, and some say, no:

So let us melt, and make no noise….

an image both of death and of the act of love which changes—imperceptibly—to the image of absence and love figured by the compass.

Benjamin was by no means the first critic to find allegorical elements in baroque drama, but he was, I think, the first to insist on their importance for the works as a whole, not merely for the occasional detail or character; he did not conceive allegory merely as a survival of an archaic technique within a more developed style. He was also a pioneer—as George Steiner has remarked13—in the study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century emblem books, and the way that their figures appear in the drama. Other English examples of such emblems abound, and it is easy to add to Benjamin’s German ones. The Duke in The Traitor by James Shirley dies with a series of images drawn from the emblem books on his lips:

For thee, inhuman murderer, expect
My blood shall fly to heaven, and there inflam’d,
Hang a prodigious meteor all thy life,
And when by some as bloody hand as thine
Thy soul is ebbing forth, it shall descend
In flaming drops upon thee: oh, I faint!—
Thou flattering world, farewell! let princes gather
My dust into a glass, and learn to spend
Their hour of state, that’s all they have; for when
That’s out, Time never turns the glass agen.

This magnificent collection of bric-a-brac—meteor, burning shower of blood, hourglass, all familiar from emblem books—illustrates what Benjamin called the arbitrary grouping of elements within the allegory. He wrote:

It is perfectly clear that this fragmentation in the graphic aspects is a principle of the allegorical approach. In the baroque, especially, the allegorical personification can be seen to give way in favor of the emblems, which mostly offer themselves to view in desolate, sorrowful dispersal…. It is as something incomplete and imperfect that the objects stare out from the allegorical structure. [P. 186]

In allegory the observer is confronted with the pallor of death, the ‘Hippocratic countenance’ of history as a petrified, primordial landscape,” as Benjamin writes (p. 166). Earlier, he observes that the Trauerspiel gives us “the transposition of the originally temporal data into a figurative spatial form” (p. 81)—as the Duke’s dying speech in The Traitor freezes the movement of the sovereign’s life into the image of the hourglass.

The allegorical structures of the baroque age are better represented by the German Trauerspiel than by its more successful relatives in Spain and England—just because of their greater artistic success: the vitality of Spanish baroque drama comes from its playful brilliance, that of the English from the fusion of comedy with Trauerspiel. The elemental power of Shakespeare, as Benjamin says, rendered the equally important allegorical character of the plays almost unrecognizable for Romantic critics. Precisely because such artistic power was denied it, the German Trauerspiel can reveal the beauty of the genre and of the allegorical structure that underlies it.

For allegory is not just an artistic technique but also, as Benjamin points out, a corrective to art. By its discontinuity of image and meaning it rejects the false appearance of artistic unity, the fusion of meaning in the symbol, and presents itself as a fragment, a ruin. The German Trauerspiel, too, is just such a ruin. It has been eroded by time. The critical action of time is a well-worn cliché: it is time that separates the masterpieces from the second-rate, the great artist from the small fry. For Benjamin time had a different function: the passage of time not only decided the success of a work, but—more importantly—separated the essential from the inessential in it, distinguished between the elements which were immediately appealing to contemporaries and those which had a more lasting interest. That is why the post-history of a work, the tradition it created, is as indispensable to the critic as its pre-history, its sources and the tradition it came from.

The Origin of German Trauerspiel has an esoteric secret, nowhere stated directly although implied at many points and inescapable from a close reading. Benjamin believed that every work of art in order to retain its essential nature had to become a ruin. This could—and generally does—happen in its history, but it is a potential of all works and discoverable to the critic. Every authentic work of literature, for Benjamin, was a metaphorical embodiment of philosophical ideas. Every critical reading should move toward that moment when the work appears to exist for the sake of the philosophical truth within it: it no longer exists for itself, and it therefore loses its charms. It reaches the condition of the inexpressive. As a ruin, the Trauerspiel is an allegory of art in general.

The business of the critic, for Benjamin, is not to resuscitate the dead, or to reconstitute the original which now stands before us fragmented, but to understand the work as a ruin, and in so doing paradoxically to awaken the beauty present in it as a ruin. But to achieve this Benjamin had to invent a methodology for criticism, based on an idiosyncratic and esoteric philosophy of language, and a radical theory of knowledge and history.

(This is the first of two essays on Walter Benjamin.)


The Play’s the Thing January 26, 1978

  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.

  2. 3

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

  3. 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.)

  4. 5

    Letter to Christian Florens Rang, December 9, 1923. Briefe I, p. 321-322.

  5. 6

    The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p. 44 (slightly altered—I have preferred to translate Inbegriff as “embodiment” instead of “sum total.” I have altered the translation of most of the quotations from Benjamin in this review).

  6. 7

    The present translation by John Osborne is, paradoxically, good—it was made with a real sensitivity to Benjamin’s thought and style, and it contains major errors, many of them disastrous, on almost every page.

  7. 8

    The Tragedies of Webster, Tourneur and Middleton: Symbols, Imagery and Convention” in English Drama to 1710, edited by Christopher Ricks (Sphere Books Limited, London, 1971).

  8. 9

    The silence of Iago after the crime is a convention, too, going back to Prince Hieronimo’s words in The Spanish Tragedy after the final murders: “But never shalt thou force me to reveale / The thing which I have vowd inviolate,” after which he bites out his tongue. It signifies the irrelevance of motivation against the power of fate.

  9. 10

    Ricks, op. cit., p. 349.

  10. 11

    Ricks, op. cit., p. 309.

  11. 12

    See also, among many other examples from other dramatists, the final scene of Middleton’s The Changeling.

    Almero: I’ll be your pander now;

    rehearse again

    Your scene of lust, that you may be


    When you shall come to act it to

    the black audience,

    Where howls and gnashings shall be

    music to you.

    Clip your adulteress freely, tis the


    Will guide you to the mor-


    Where you shall sink to fathoms


  12. 13

    TLS, October 25, 1974, p. 1198.

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