Philosophy and Melancholy: Benjamin's Early Reflections on Theater and Language

Philosophy and Melancholy: Benjamin's Early Reflections on Theater and Language

Philosophy and Melancholy: Benjamin's Early Reflections on Theater and Language

Philosophy and Melancholy: Benjamin's Early Reflections on Theater and Language

Synopsis

This book traces the concept of melancholy in Walter Benjamin's early writings. Rather than focusing on the overtly melancholic subject matter of Benjamin's work or the unhappy circumstances of his own fate, Ferber considers the concept's implications for his philosophy. Informed by Heidegger's discussion of moods and their importance for philosophical thought, she contends that a melancholic mood is the organizing principle or structure of Benjamin's early metaphysics and ontology. Her novel analysis of Benjamin's arguments about theater and language features a discussion of the Trauerspiel book that is amongst the first in English to scrutinize the baroque plays themselves. Philosophy and Melancholy also contributes to the history of philosophy by establishing a strong relationship between Benjamin and other philosophers, including Leibniz, Kant, Husserl, and Heidegger.

Excerpt

The Idea of Melancholy

In the prologue to his book on the German sorrow-plays, the Trauerspiel, Walter Benjamin argues for the inherent relation between truth and language. One interesting example of his claim appears when he describes the vocation of philosophy as a struggle for the presentation of words: “Philosophy is—and rightly so—a struggle for the presentation [Darstellung] of a limited number of words which always remain the same—a struggle for the presentation of ideas” (TS, 37).

Ignoring the history of accepted philosophical terminologies for the purpose of their refinement inherently implies disregard of the burden of memory and the load of meaning they have so far carried. Yet what does Benjamin intend by the use of the word struggle in this quest? In what way is Benjamin aiming toward a practice different from that of Nietzsche’s antiquarian, who, while knowledgeable of the art of preserving the past, fails to master the generation of new life? Benjamin’s suggestion here is not permeated with the antiquarian’s passion for nostalgia or with any type of conservativeness; its perception of the past is not meaningful for its own sake, nor does it originate in any kind of romantic homesickness. His suggestion is, rather, directed at our grasping the past’s “afterlife” together with the present’s experience of that past.

Following Benjamin’s description of the vocation of philosophy, I take “philosophy’s struggle” to be a linguistic undertaking involving the . . .

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