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Walter Benjamin is widely acknowledged as amongst the greatest literary critics of this century, and The Origin of German Tragic Drama is his most sustained and original work. Indeed, Georg Lukacs—one of the most trenchant opponents of Benjamin’s aesthetics—singled out this work as one of the main sources of literary modernism in the twentieth century. The Origin of German Walter Benjamin is widely acknowledged as amongst the greatest literary critics of this century, and The Origin of German Tragic Drama is his most sustained and original work. Indeed, Georg Lukacs—one of the most trenchant opponents of Benjamin’s aesthetics—singled out this work as one of the main sources of literary modernism in the twentieth century. The Origin of German Tragic Drama begins with a general theoretical introduction on the nature of the baroque art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, concentrating on the peculiar stage-form of the royal martyr dramas called Trauerspiel. Benjamin also comments on the engravings of Durer, and the theatre of Shakespeare and Calderon. Baroque tragedy, he argues, was distinguished from classical tragedy by its shift from myth into history. The characteristic atmosphere of the Trauerspiel was consequently ‘melancholy’. The emblems of baroque allegory point to the extinct values of a classical world that they can never attain or repeat. Their suggestive power, however, remains to haunt subsequent cultures, down to this century.


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Walter Benjamin is widely acknowledged as amongst the greatest literary critics of this century, and The Origin of German Tragic Drama is his most sustained and original work. Indeed, Georg Lukacs—one of the most trenchant opponents of Benjamin’s aesthetics—singled out this work as one of the main sources of literary modernism in the twentieth century. The Origin of German Walter Benjamin is widely acknowledged as amongst the greatest literary critics of this century, and The Origin of German Tragic Drama is his most sustained and original work. Indeed, Georg Lukacs—one of the most trenchant opponents of Benjamin’s aesthetics—singled out this work as one of the main sources of literary modernism in the twentieth century. The Origin of German Tragic Drama begins with a general theoretical introduction on the nature of the baroque art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, concentrating on the peculiar stage-form of the royal martyr dramas called Trauerspiel. Benjamin also comments on the engravings of Durer, and the theatre of Shakespeare and Calderon. Baroque tragedy, he argues, was distinguished from classical tragedy by its shift from myth into history. The characteristic atmosphere of the Trauerspiel was consequently ‘melancholy’. The emblems of baroque allegory point to the extinct values of a classical world that they can never attain or repeat. Their suggestive power, however, remains to haunt subsequent cultures, down to this century.

30 review for The Origin of German Tragic Drama

  1. 4 out of 5

    Christian Haines

    This is a difficult work even by Benjamin's standards. If one is willing to reread, it is well worth the effort. It sets out Benjamin's notion of truth (something like a platonic materialism) and coordinates it with a theory of genre and a theory of history. Benjamin doesn't just produce an exposition of these topics, however. He (as Martin Heidegger might put it) sets truth to work - he tries to enact truth through literary criticism, to, as he puts it, burn away the husk of the work in order t This is a difficult work even by Benjamin's standards. If one is willing to reread, it is well worth the effort. It sets out Benjamin's notion of truth (something like a platonic materialism) and coordinates it with a theory of genre and a theory of history. Benjamin doesn't just produce an exposition of these topics, however. He (as Martin Heidegger might put it) sets truth to work - he tries to enact truth through literary criticism, to, as he puts it, burn away the husk of the work in order to reveal its truth, the potency of its history. Benjamin may, at times, seem as if he is rambling (he alludes to this himself by considering his work a treatise founded on digression), but there is a nonetheless the consistency of a well-thought out work. Reading this work besides Carl Schmitt's Political Theology (Benjamin actually sent a copy of this book to Schmitt) and Benjamin's essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities is quite helpful.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Eero

    ok, so i didn’t really “read” this; i just read the intro and epistemo-critical prologue, but i’m moving it from my “want-to-read shelf” to my “read shelf” for the dopamine

  3. 5 out of 5

    Emannuel K.

    Gosto do Benjamin e estou buscando estudar mais sobre alegoria, então ler o livro no qual ele desenvolve sua teoria desse conceito parece uma ótima ideia. Mas a realidade não foi bem assim. A parte de que a teoria de alegoria exposta nesse livro é a do Benjamin é particularmente importante. Ela não dialoga com a maior parte daquilo que entendemos por alegoria, seja como concebida desde o Renascimento com Dante, por exemplo, e também não dos diz muito hoje. Na verdade, o que o autor chama de aleg Gosto do Benjamin e estou buscando estudar mais sobre alegoria, então ler o livro no qual ele desenvolve sua teoria desse conceito parece uma ótima ideia. Mas a realidade não foi bem assim. A parte de que a teoria de alegoria exposta nesse livro é a do Benjamin é particularmente importante. Ela não dialoga com a maior parte daquilo que entendemos por alegoria, seja como concebida desde o Renascimento com Dante, por exemplo, e também não dos diz muito hoje. Na verdade, o que o autor chama de alegoria parece se aproximar mais de símbolo ou emblema. Pode, portanto, ser mais útil a pessoas que estudam história da arte do que literatura. Talvez. Algumas passagens são bem interessantes, é verdade, mas mesmo estas estão bem distantes da genialidade dos ensaios célebres que fizeram dele um intelectual de grande impacto em diversas áreas das humanidades. Um dos fatores determinantes pode ser o fato dessa ser uma obra da juventude de Benjamin. Talvez a tradução não tenha ajudado (comecei a leitura pela edição brasileira, mas não era tão bem organizada), mas não muda o fato de que ficou abaixo das expectativas, seja como leitura ou como fonte de pesquisa.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Ashley

    r o u g h

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    Having made sure to finish this before marking it read, I don’t feel qualified to give it a rating. I’m between two and three stars, but making the distinction calls for insight I don’t have into the Baroque cultural tradition. I mention the Baroque inclusively, despite Benjamin’s ostensible focus on the German Trauerspiel, because this text ventures into English and Spanish drama and triangulates a seventeenth-century zeitgeist with pit stops in politics, history, philosophy, and sociology (sel Having made sure to finish this before marking it read, I don’t feel qualified to give it a rating. I’m between two and three stars, but making the distinction calls for insight I don’t have into the Baroque cultural tradition. I mention the Baroque inclusively, despite Benjamin’s ostensible focus on the German Trauerspiel, because this text ventures into English and Spanish drama and triangulates a seventeenth-century zeitgeist with pit stops in politics, history, philosophy, and sociology (selectively). I’d have to know the period thoroughly well in order to respond to Benjamin’s claims, and I’m not sure, either, how critically prescient this text was in the 1920s; Benjamin’s interest in allegory and the symbol, for instance, resonates with strains of literary scholarship, but I can’t tell how path-breaking his ideas might have been (had this received wider circulation earlier, that is). That said, though, I doubt I would have admired Benjamin’s analysis even were I more familiar with his topic, because I don’t agree with this sort of interpretive mash-up and the kind of sociological master statement it derives. It’s not surprising that this – the equivalent of Benjamin’s dissertation – was passed between the literature and art history departments; I’d say it best resembles cultural studies or metaphysical philosophy, but the perfect disciplinary fit hasn’t been invented yet. Neither is it hard to believe that this text was ultimately rejected: try telling your dissertation advisors that the “value of fragments of thought is all the greater the less direct their relationship to the underlying idea,” or that the “absence of an uninterrupted purposeful structure” is the hallmark of the treatise, which has a “very real affinity” with the mosaic. Were I to take my cue from Verso and shelve this as literary criticism, it would receive a firm two stars for its arbitrary organization and poor accessibility. I did learn from Benjamin’s Origin – but I would have gathered more from a better written text, for starters.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Elias Dourado

    Para mim, estudioso da lógica matemática, este livro de Benjamin apresenta de forma bastante erudita o impressionante valor da filosofia para além da analítica. "O conceito de sistema, do século XIX, ignora a alternativa à forma filosófica, representada pelos conceitos da doutrina e do ensaio esotérico. Na medida em que a filosofia é determinada por esse conceito de sistema, ela corre o perigo de acomodar-se num sincretismo que tenta capturar a verdade numa rede estendida entre vários tipos de conhec Para mim, estudioso da lógica matemática, este livro de Benjamin apresenta de forma bastante erudita o impressionante valor da filosofia para além da analítica. "O conceito de sistema, do século XIX, ignora a alternativa à forma filosófica, representada pelos conceitos da doutrina e do ensaio esotérico. Na medida em que a filosofia é determinada por esse conceito de sistema, ela corre o perigo de acomodar-se num sincretismo que tenta capturar a verdade numa rede estendida entre vários tipos de conhecimento, como se a verdade voasse de fora para dentro. Mas o universalismo assim adquirido por essa filosofia não consegue alcançar a autoridade didática da doutrina. Se a filosofia quiser perma- necer fiel à lei de sua forma, como representação da verdade e não como guia para o conhecimento, deve-se atribuir impor- tância ao exercício dessa forma, e não à sua antecipação, como sistema. "

  7. 5 out of 5

    Anya Ciccone

    It's fine but honestly life is too short

  8. 4 out of 5

    Tomas

    Horrifying.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    There are some books in which the richness of the text creates for the reader a fireworks display. Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama is one such book for me. Entry into Benjamin’s study felt like a post-structuralist examination of the Baroque in which the Trauerspiel was both the occasion for and development of the constellation of literary, historical, religious and economic structures that informed the construction of both the Trauerspiel and Benjamin’s philosophical odyssey There are some books in which the richness of the text creates for the reader a fireworks display. Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama is one such book for me. Entry into Benjamin’s study felt like a post-structuralist examination of the Baroque in which the Trauerspiel was both the occasion for and development of the constellation of literary, historical, religious and economic structures that informed the construction of both the Trauerspiel and Benjamin’s philosophical odyssey. The study starts with the epistomo-critical prologue in which Benjamin lays out his theoretical framework for an approach to literary criticism in general and the German Trauerspiel in particular. The examination of the philosophical, philological and classicist literature that informs Benjamin’s examination provides a primer on the recurring conceptual images that he will develop within his philosophical and literary essays throughout the rest of his career. The study then breaks down into two main parts: 1) the literary history of the Trauerspiel in relation to tragedy and 2) the Trauerspiel and allegory. The first part in particular felt like a text Foucault could have written. Benjamin presents an archeology of the Trauerspiel as a product of its time that speaks across its time to the literary and artistic constructs of its past (the Christian heritage of a de-mythologized world) and the present (the post-Christian world of early twentieth century capital). In it, Benjamin paints a picture of the melancholic hero, a product of a fallen history, engaged in intrigue and martyred either as an active participant in his death or as a passive recipient of her fate (and yes, Benjamin identifies and distinguishes between the tragic ways of dying for men and women). In a fallen world, Benjamin argues, the Trauerspiel presents the essence of human life as a form of suffering in which even stoic acceptance is without meaning. The melancholic hero’s stoic suffering in a world without meaning, lays the groundwork for the investigation into allegory as the driving force of German Trauerspiel. The melancholic experiences the world as disjointed (out of joint) and the source of mourning as the incapacity of joining the sign with meaning, which itself is the essence of allegory. In allegory, history emerges as a series of actions that always standing for something else, as if the result of the Hegelian dialectic of being and nothing didn’t result in becoming, but in allegory. Allegory, Benjamin argues, must therefore be distinguished from the symbolic character of the Greek tragic hero who calls forth the God in a symbolic suffering that reveals totality through the establishment of divine justice. Contrary to the symbolic form of Greek Tragedy, in the German Trauerspiel the hero’s suffering is an allegory in which it always signifies that which is not present, a meaning that is never fully grasped, a justice that cannot be claimed, a disjunction between the sign and the signified. This description does not really do justice to Benjamin’s work. The flashes of insight, the constellation of conceptual ideas, the scholarly distinctions between Greek and Christian tragedy made this book a joy to read.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Oakley Merideth

    This book is so profoundly fragmentary that it does, indeed, enact modernist literary tropes outside the realm of “literature.” Like tromping through Joyce one often surmises that they are simply reading for the intrinsic sake of reading only to be summarily shocked by an insight, an image, a phrase, or an argument that is at once beautiful yet totally unexpected and seemingly out of context. In fact, this is a book that annihilates context, page after page, yet stylistically, eschews all preten This book is so profoundly fragmentary that it does, indeed, enact modernist literary tropes outside the realm of “literature.” Like tromping through Joyce one often surmises that they are simply reading for the intrinsic sake of reading only to be summarily shocked by an insight, an image, a phrase, or an argument that is at once beautiful yet totally unexpected and seemingly out of context. In fact, this is a book that annihilates context, page after page, yet stylistically, eschews all pretenses of scholarly chaos. You don’t “feel” like you are being cast adrift, but intellectually your paddle fell into the swirling depths long ago. Here is a possible “publishing” experiment for the future—release an abridgment of two distinct types. Because, you really could render this book either eminently readable or thoroughly impenetrable with some very simplistic and ham-handed editing. Just keep those numbered sections in...throw these out...and voila! Something that is utterly distinct from the present work! Now, small minded as I am I can truly say that as a “whole”, this text really doesn’t “work.” There is NOT one thesis or even one common matrix of assertions that Benjamin puts forth but merely a common “drive” and “style” sticking the pages to the spine. And while there is plenty to glean from this work (please note the verb—“glean” not “gather”) after the first section the basic cohesion and even coherency of the text truly deteriorates. But, perhaps that is the point???

  11. 4 out of 5

    Lysergius

    The subject matter, Trauerspiel, German tragic drama does not really interest, but this is Benjamin in full flow, ideas, references, and quotations just bounce off the page. Once started it is hard to put down, though rest one must, to digest what one has just read. A wonderful book.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Greg

    Two stars for writing. Three stars for content. Benjamin is one of those left-wing icons from the Weimar Republic. He is also one of those writers who is considered profound because his writing is so bad. This book was originally meant as his Habilitationsschrift. Habilitation is the production of another book-length work after the dissertation for PhD that in Germany is required to join the faculty of a university. It was rejected. One can see why. The book itself is a mess with approximately t Two stars for writing. Three stars for content. Benjamin is one of those left-wing icons from the Weimar Republic. He is also one of those writers who is considered profound because his writing is so bad. This book was originally meant as his Habilitationsschrift. Habilitation is the production of another book-length work after the dissertation for PhD that in Germany is required to join the faculty of a university. It was rejected. One can see why. The book itself is a mess with approximately three different threads of thought in a tangle. Is it a book of aesthetics? Somewhat. Is it a book of literary criticism? Somewhat. Is it theological commentary? Somewhat. There is no denying that Benjamin is widely read, but his thought is extremely confused and couched in impenetrable academic German that the translator obviously has trouble making sense of. (In a way similar to Rosenzweig's Star of Redemption.) Anyone studying tragedy will have to read this book, because it is considered important (and it does make an important contribution establishing German Trauerspiel as something other than tragedy--animated by melancholy, not the tragic spirit).

  13. 5 out of 5

    Nepo

    The reason this book is difficult is because Benjamin was trying to articulate an art form and a period that was not yet seen in his time as constituting a distinct realm of its own: Mannerism. If you have troubles getting through, I therefore recommend reading this along with Wylie Sypher's "Four Stages of Renaissance Style: Transformations in Art and Literature, 1400-1700," and Arnold Hauser's "Mannerism: The Crisis of the Renaissance and the Origin of Modern Art."

  14. 5 out of 5

    Bahar Beizaei

    Impenetrable text. Demands multiple readings. Seems to be inexhaustible in its capacity to yield truly astonishing insights about modernity, secularization, and counter-reformation theology. Unfortunately the majority of studies and commentaries written on it seem to focus (one-sidedly) on certain aspects instead of a thoroughgoing analysis of its other moments (i.e., Agamben obsesses over sovereignty, Pensky over melancholia).

  15. 4 out of 5

    Nathan

    Only read the Epistemo-Critical-Prologue for a paper I'm writing...and it was awesome. Especially pgs 47-48. My brain was buzzing and I heard bells ringing and whistles blowing. Any book that does that is instant 5 stars.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Margaret

    This one is rough going, but I like Benjamin in general. Illuminations is much more my speed.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    A very difficult read, but interesting and influential. Also good for trying to re-teach yourself German.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Peter

    ah, back to school. didn't quite finish it.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Owen

    this book is actually about mannerism rather than baroque per se.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Sebastian Baere

    "There is strictly speaking only a single book that deserves to be called critical..."

  21. 5 out of 5

    Shubhakiyarti

    Tragic is the Truth...Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

  22. 4 out of 5

    Tom

    Hooray for insightful, philosophical critics who are actually good writers!

  23. 5 out of 5

    Julianne

    Actually a very disturbing book. Early Benjamin is terrifying.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Rmprouty

  25. 5 out of 5

    Neso

  26. 4 out of 5

    litherland

  27. 5 out of 5

    Erol Balkan

  28. 5 out of 5

    Peyman

  29. 5 out of 5

    Kimberley Radmacher

  30. 4 out of 5

    Milani

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