Primitive Renaissance: Rethinking German Expressionism

By David Pan | Go to book overview
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Walter Benjamin criticizes Nietzsche's aesthetic vision of the world as a regression to a mythic consciousness in which humans are at the mercy of unknown and uncontrollable forces. Dismissing as ludicrous Nietzsche's description of humans as, themselves, aesthetic phenomena rather than originators of art, Benjamin argues that Nietzsche's metaphysics of art subjects humans to an aestheticization of life in which humanity is sacrificed for the sake of metaphysical beauty: “Where art so firmly occupies the centre of existence as to make man one of its manifestations instead of recognizing him above all as its basis—not in the sense of being its creator, but in the sense that his existence is the eternal theme of its formations—then all sane reflection is at an end.”1 In opposing Nietzsche's aesthetics of myth, Benjamin first accepts his reading of Greek tragedy as constituting an episode in a continuing conflict between knowledge and sacrifice, human achievement and divine power. But he then historicizes this conflict by interpreting tragedy as a form that marks the transition from the mythic world of demons to the world of humankind: “for in tragedy the hold of demonic fate is broken.”2 Seeing in tragedy an historical contradiction between an old, mythic, religious system of morality and a new, humanistic one, Benjamin reads tragedy redemptively as a historical moment in an emancipatory development away from the inhumanity of myth.3 Prefiguring Jürgen Habermas's approach, Benjamin transforms the opposition between science and myth into an alternative opposition between civilization and barbarism, thus demonizing the mythic conception of the world that Nietzsche seeks to vindicate.4


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Primitive Renaissance: Rethinking German Expressionism


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