Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition

By John McCole | Go to book overview

Chapter Three
Allegorical Destruction

During the first half of the 19205, Benjamin completed two major studies: one was an extended essay on a single work, Goethe's novel Elective "Affinities"; the other, The Origin of German Trauerspiel, was a more formal, scholarly treatise in literary history and philosophical aesthetics, built on an entire genre. In methodological terms, both were exemplary romantic critiques in the sense defined in Benjamin's dissertation. Proceeding from intrinsic, formal properties, he sought to unfold the immanent idea latent in their objects. 1 In the first project he explicated a single work of art from within; in the second, by identifying the content and formal principles uniquely characteristic of Trauerspiel, or German baroque tragic drama, he dispelled classicist prejudices and set a modem genre in its rights. 2 At the same time, however, Benjamin was continuing to pursue his own immanent critique of romanticism itself. In each work, he proceeded against a danger latent in early romanticism, dangers that had emerged from the romantic movement as its decay products: whereas the Goethe study attacked the vitalist cult of symbolic expression and myth, the Trauerspiel study turned its fire against the aesthetics of affirmative idealism. The implicit coordinates of Benjamin's project, in other words, were still set by the constellation that had guided his break with the youth movement. Behind the immanent criticism of the works themselves stood an immanent

____________________
1
Benjamin now referred to the idea in this sense as the philosophical truth content of a work, for reasons examined below; above all, he wished to avoid the implications of the idealist conception of the symbol as the appearance of an idea in a work of art.
2
In keeping with common practice, I retain the German term Trauerspiel as a reminder of the distinction. The alternative is "tragic drama," but that invites confusion with "tragedy." In the published English translation, oddly enough, while Trauerspiel is used throughout the text, the title is rendered The Origin of German Tragic Drama.

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