(The Origin of German Tragic Drama), 1925

by Walter Benjamin 

Walter Benjamin’s Ursprung des deutschenTrauerspiels utilized a thought floated by Marx, that all art would become “allegorical” as a result of commodification and of its transformation into a fetishistic object. In this notoriously difficult book, Benjamin foregrounded allegory as the structural underpinning of the Baroque épistemé.  Originally intended as his Habilitationsschrift, or an academic manuscript, submitted to the faculty of a German university as the necessary prelude for being accepted as a Privatdozent.  Once accepted into the university fold, the Privatdozent has the right to lecture on whatever topic s/he desires.  On the surface, the submission was exemplary.  Benjamin had made all the right moves: he found a long neglected area of culture to investigate—German Baroque tragic drama—-and analyzed this obscure topic with exemplary and labyrinthine thoroughness.

However, after being passed among departments, this complex tome was summarily rejected by the traditional academics at the university in Frankfurt.  The Ursprung was an uneasy but innovative work—ahead of its time in its willingness to combine exacting research with poetical interpretation.  The major complaint against this book from its main reader was that it is impossible to study the spirit of an age, but forty years later, Michel Foucault would do just that in his Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) when he studied the notion that each era had its own system or theory of knowledge.

But beyond the question of how or whether “knowledge” was a social construct, there were larger problems with the Ursprung.  In resurrecting an almost forgotten art form, Benjamin actually challenged the prevailing belief that the “Classical” was superior to the “Baroque.”  It seems clear that he had read or was familiar with the work of the art historian, Heinrich Wölfflin: Renaissance und Barock (Renaissance and Baroque) (1888), and Die klassische Kunst (Classic Art) (1898, and Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe (Principles of Art History) (1915). Wölfflin treated the Baroque as a co-equal of Classical, as simply another style and not as a “decline” from the Classical.  However, as the prompt rejection of Benjamin’s thought experiment on the Baroque would suggest, the ideas of Wölfflin were still not accepted among those favoring classicism as the epitome of any form of art.

For a century, Germans had preferred the “classical”, that which the poet Göethe had called “healthy” to the Baroque or the early version of the Romantic which was therefore “unhealthy.”  The Baroque had long been considered to be a decadent version of the pure Classical and its obscure manifestations in Germany were of little interest to anyone, but Benjamin, who revisited this manifestation for his Habilitationsschrift.  In a time when academics worked within disciplinary confines that were strictly limited and patrolled, Benjamin was writing an interdisciplinary work, crashing through the room divides between studies of German culture, art history and aesthetics. The writer looked through a prism that incorporated Jewish mysticism from the Kabbalah.

Of course art history is in many ways a Jewish discipline, a life-long Yeshiva school, where art is endlessly rewritten and debated.  However, art history, like any other religion or belief system, has its rules and its areas of conventional wisdom.  In his excellent introduction to the Ursprung, George Steiner noted that Benjamin’s manuscript found its way into the hands of Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), author of Studies in Iconology in 1939. According to Steiner, Panofsky did not view Benjamin’s work favorably. Steiner posited that Benjamin could have found a home with the group of scholars in Hamburg, Panofsky and Ernst Cassirer, Neo-Kantians, and Aby Warburg, the cultural historian in what became the Warburg Institute.

But Benjamin was probably too eclectic in his methodology even for this group and the moment passed and Warburg was dead by 1929 and Panofsky in America by 1933.  Benjamin gave up on academics and spent the rest of his life as a free lance writer and radio broadcaster.  Here, in short articles and lectures on the radio, Benjamin could roam free, indulging his wide range of interests as a literary and cultural critic. “Criticism,” he said, “should do nothing else than uncover the secret predisposition of the work itself, complete its hidden intentions…”

For Benjamin, the power of interpretation was the power of the idea and he sought a synthesis between philosophical abstraction and aesthetic concreteness.  Using the idea of the dialectic, he thought that the universal would be revealed through that which was particular or in comparing the overall structure to the insignificant detail.  Benjamin sought the detail, an element thought unworthy of intellectual effort.  In contrasting the Classical to the Baroque, Benjamin is able to isolate certain defining characteristics: the symbol is the characteristic property of the Classical mind and the allegory is the characteristic property of the Baroque way of thinking.

Allegory, like the Baroque, had been considered a decadent form of symbolism.  Symbolism, in its purity, idealized and subdues the material object, totalizes its meaning and signification. The allegory, in contrast, is a sheer hemorrhage of significations that disrupt meaning and coherence.  This surplus of signification called “écriture” by later French writers, contrasted the purity of speech (the Classical) to the impurity of writing (the Baroque).

For the modern reader The Origin of German Tragic Drama is a difficult slog and the best advice one can give to skip over the obscure theatrical productions that languish (deservedly) in obscurity and to seek the fragments of insight from Benjamin.  The writer contrasted the Classical Hero in Greek tragedy who is silent in his suffering, in his tragic and unspeakable fate.  In his inability of speak, this hero become superior to the gods and thus transcends not just the deities but also history itself.  But the Baroque hero is mired in history that is natural and not timeless.  This hero must be noble so that his fall will be from a high place, suggesting that his suffering is more of a social humiliation than a preordained tragedy from a fatal flaw.  The Classical tragic hero wrestles with the inextricable workings of Fate but the Baroque hero is but one character amid a larger cast who—not gods—are his fellow actors.

Therefore, according to Benjamin, “tragic drama” is not “tragedy.” Tragedy is about mourning.  Tragic drama is about melancholy.  as Like Sigmund Freud in a paper, On Mourning and Melancholia, which had been delivered in 1917,  Benjamin separated “mourning”—classical tragedy form “melancholia”—tragic drama.  Indeed, Benjamin identified Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, as melancholy.  If the Classical is that which is timeless and transcendent, then its eternal life must be contrasted to the historicism and decay of the Baroque. If the Classical is that which is whole, complete, and self-sufficient, the Baroque is a mere collection of those  left-behind details, fragments of a melancholy cult of decay.  Benjamin forces the reader to examine these fragments, these “found objects” of the Baroque allegory.

Although Benjamin used the Hegelian notion of the dialectic to study an obscure and devalued topic, Baroque theater in Germany, Benjamin’s thinking was greatly influenced by Surrealist strategies for discovering the “marvelous.”  The marvelous was a mental state that resulted from the isolation of the object, resulting in defamiliarization and the shock of defamiliarity on the part of the now-dazzled viewer.  The frozen object is estranged from context and is freed to take on new meanings.

Like the Marvelous, the allegorical discourse is characterized by doubleness; the object is expressionless and yet possesses unbridled expression.  The object is purged of mystified immanence and is capable of multiple uses.  In its plurality, the frozen object can contain and radiate a bricoulage of elements, and because the allegory lays bare its devices (demystifies), the visual figure defeats symbolism.  Symbolism, by its very nature, “disguises,” as Erwin Panofsky would say, but Allegory ostentatiously displays its construction.  But its meaning is de-centered and refuses to submit to the totality of structure.

Benjamin connected allegory to the death of symbol and to the decline of aura in commodity production.  He linked the atomizing of the objects to Baudelaire’s observation of commodity culture where objects become abstracted and acquire an arbitrary status.  The commodity exists as fragment, ambiguous and ephemeral, and becomes fetish.  The object become overwritten, a palimpsest bearing unconscious traces of its aura and authenticity, neither of which exist, except as trace.  The object is reinvented as an emblem by Renaissance scholars and became the stylistic principle of Baroque art.  Rather than symbol, the emblem is code, pictorial codes or “thing pictures” (dingbilder) or a rebus, as Freud would have expressed it.  The allegorical form, however, is capable of capturing historical experience, which is why Postmodern Critical Theory would be so interested in Allegory.

Art, for the Critical Theorist, must be grounded in history.  Aesthetics attempts to turn an object into radiance and to transform exaltation into transcendence.  This process of aestheticizing the object idealizes the work but in a negative fashion, for the memory or history of the object is transfigured into a “sentimental glow”.  Allegory, in contrast, is not radiant and extinguishes, along with light, the false glow of totality.  Allegory admits that history is ruins and acknowledges the transitory nature of things.  The allegory, lodged in history, is beyond (idealized) beauty.  The allegorical form is petrified and frozen in the landscape of history, destroying aesthetics.  The governing law of aesthetics is not totality but antinomy and the dialectic is used as a mechanism of reversal of extremes.

Allegory depends upon conventions, which may be cheapened and degraded.  Allegory is a gathering, a collection of things, a combination of references that are assembled through a law that combines scatteredness and collectedness.  The arrangement of these collections is slack.  The most important allegorical figure is the fragment, which is imaged by an architectural ruin, ravaged by time.  For Benjamin, it was important to acknowledge that history was a ruin, in a state of decay, for history could be appropriated and idealized or aestheticized.

The Origin of German Tragic Drama brings together a number of tendencies in Germany at the early stages of the Twentieth Century.  Benjamin noted that Göethe, the Classicist, rejected allegory.  In his epic essay, On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, German poet, Friedrich Schiller was correct in understanding his friend, Göethe, as being “naïve” in that the older poet was immune from history and created art from an internal force.  The “sentimental” artist, however, is more akin to Benjamin’s allegorical maker, who makes it very clear that an allegorical object is being put together through an act of bricolage.

It is important to note that the mechanics of the allegory are not concealed or, as Brecht would have it, “naturalized”.  The assemblage that is allegory is always grounded in the truth.  Schiller’s sentimental artist may have mourned the loss of innocence and may have suffered from alienation but this artist is deeply connected to the history of his/her period.  Karl Marx pointed out that in an era of commodification, it would be the fate of art to become allegory.  That is, art, in becoming commodified would loose its “halo” and in its unsacred condition could be appropriated and turned into a fetish.

Art as allegory is alienated art.  The allegorist is thus both elegiac and satirical, but Benjamin foregrounds the condition of mourning and melancholy, pictured in ruins.  And yet, like Charles Baudelaire, Benjamin is torn.  He mourns the loss of the Old Paris, but like a Baudelarian flâneur, strolls through time and collects fragments or “remnants” and recombines them into an excess of writing.  Benjamin’s writings were very metaphorical, as though he turned to the past to express the future.  He understood Baudelaire’s metropolis as a manifestation of space within which new technologies were displayed as spectacle.

In an age of secular spectacle, fashion would be king and anything could be fashion, which is the ultimate form of “false consciousness” and cultural distraction.  Benjamin is fascinated with death and that which is dead, the corpse.  Once the object becomes a fetish and is alienated from social production and social use, it becomes fashion and is worshiped as a commodity.  The fetish is inorganic as opposed the corpse, which is organic.

Feeling that European culture was in a condition of crisis, Benjamin’s gaze is Janus-like.  He understood the past could only exist as ruins and that its fragments would only be displaced into the present as fetishes.  The future was even more bleak and marked by a mourning for the past.  The future could never be authentic; art could only be allegorical; and Baudelaire as the quintessential poet-critic exemplified the only stance of the artist that of an observer of the spectacle, alienated and enlivened only by cynical commentary.  Although we can read his literary action as allegorist in The Arcades Project, the work of Benjamin was re-read by postmodern critics and philosophers as portents of Postmodernism.

The arbitrary and nostalgic piling on of historical traces torn from the fabric of time, decontextualized and overwritten by the present, while retaining the trace of the past would be the prime strategy of postmodernism.  The Frankfurt School philosopher, Theodor Adorno, who survived Benjamin, would complete the setting of the stage for Postmodernism.  Critical Theory would be developed in its contemporary form after the Second World War, in the wake of the Holocaust.  “There is no document of civilization, which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” Walter Benjamin prophetically remarked in his essay On the Concept of History of 1937.

Benjamin’s insight that a dislocated history could be nostalgically fetishized for the Nazi cause, that art would become allegory and could be fetishized as propaganda seemed both prophetic and tragic.  All that he feared came true. Towards the end of what would turn out to be his only book, Walter Benjamin wrote,

Allegory goes away empty-handed. Evil as such, which it cherished as enduring profundity, exists only in allegory, is nothing other than allegory, and means something different from what it is.  It means precisely the non-existence of what it presents.  The absolute vices, as exemplified by tyrants and intriguers, are allegories.  They are not real and that which they represent, they possess only in the subjective view of melancholy; they are this view, which is destroyed by its own offspring because they only signify its blindness.

And then he concluded,

In the ruins of great buildings the idea of the plan speaks more impressively than in lesser buildings…Others may shine resplendently as on the first day; this form preserves the image of beauty to the very last.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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