Comedia and Trauerspiel: On Benjamin and Calderón


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Nowhere but in Calderón could the perfect baroque Trauerspiel be studied. Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin's Ursprung des Deutschen Trauerspiels (The Origin of German Tragic Drama) is a dense and difficult book. "Conceived," as its dedication evasively states, in 1916, written in 1925, and published three years later, the work is the single full-length book by a critic whom Frank Kermode could hail as "matchless in intuitive power."1 Benjamin specialized in aphorisms, essays, and, as one translated collection calls itself, "reflections." These are widely known to a broad segment of readers. His essays on Proust and Baudelaire are masterpieces of lyrical prose; his study on Karl Kraus is a trenchant analysis of modern narrative. His essays on photography, as all his work, are marked by a deep vein of philosophic concern. Indeed, none are marked by a deep vein of philosophic concern. Indeed, none was as philosophical as the Ursprung, a book Benjamin submitted as his University Habilitationsschrift, the rough equivalent of a dissertation. Rejected by various departments as inappropriate or incomprehensible, the text remains among the lesser-known of Benjamin's writings. On the one hand, it deals with relatively arcane materials, with the Trauerspiel (the term is significant) of the German Baroque-the work of Gryphius, Opitz, Sigmund von Birken-with late seventeenth-century collections of heraldic emblems, with occultist tracts and odd word lists; on the other, it is grounded in a philosophy strongly flavored by German Romanticism (there are major debts to Schopenhauer, Novalis, Nietzsche), yet directly anticipating the dialectical materialism of the so-called Frankfurt School to which Benjamin would later be tangentially related. It was, in fact, the opening section of the Ursprung that proved seminal in the development of Theodor Adorno's thought.

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