Walter Benjamin: History and TimeWalter Benjamin was a German Marxist literary critic, essayist, translator, and philosopher. He was at times associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory and was also greatly inspired by the Marxism of Bertolt Brecht and Jewish mysticism as presented by Gershom Scholem. As a sociological and cultural critic, Benjamin combined ideas of historical materialism, German idealism, and Jewish mysticism in a body of work which was an entirely novel contribution to western philosophy, Marxism, and aesthetic theory. As a literary scholar, he translated Charles Baudelaire's Tableaux Parisiens and Marcel Proust's famous novel, In Search of Lost Time.
His work is widely cited in academic and literary studies, in particular his essays The Task of the Translator and The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Benjamin's most lengthy completed work is his Habilitation dissertation, The Origin of German Tragic Drama. In this study, at once forbiddingly theoretical and painstakingly empirical, Benjamin analyses Reformation-era German politics and culture through the Trauerspiel genre of the 16th-17th century. For Benjamin, the idea of “nature” meant the idea of an original state of things, of whatever appeared to be pregiven as fate.
In this sense, it was opposed to the idea of “history”, which was the constantly changing sphere of action, the stream of becoming. Benjamin points out that the “historical” often petrifies into nature—into a frozen image of timelessness. Whatever appears to be “natural”, however, always contains traces which reveal it to be transient and historical. The project begins with a lengthy "Epistemo-Critical Prologue" in which Benjamin sets out the philosophical stakes of his work: the combination and elaboration of parts of the Platonic theory of ideas, the Hegelian historical sublation, and the Leibnizian monad.
Encapsulating the one within the other, Benjamin gives the Platonic form a historical instantiation, but only in the sense that it is monadic. Within aesthetic objects of study, there is contained the monad of its historical development, and when this monad is placed within a constellation of other objects, it reveals to the scholar the historical development of the idea. Thus, in the Trauerspiel itself, what appears to be a historical accumulation of fragments is instead already in some sense historical. Within the main text itself, there are two main divisions: first, a distinction between tragedy and Trauerspiel, where Benjamin clears away the interpretations that precede his work, and second, a lengthy discussion of the relation of allegory to symbolism and the way in which allegory might open onto his modified platonic notion of the idea.
In the first section, Benjamin notes that tragedy and Trauerspiel differ in their conception of time: the tragedy is eschatological insofar as its plot leads to a defined end-point, where characters and stories reach a fatalistic resolution; whereas the Trauerspiel takes place only in space, time stretches out forever towards the promised but undisclosed Last Judgment, so characters are therefore paralysed from all action and can only wait—thus there is no resolution and no sense of time passing.
In short, in Trauerspiel, time is spatialized. Part of what makes Trauerspiele so inscrutable is that their relationship to history is only ever allegorical, in the sense that the play presents fragments and broken shards of history without narrativizing them, as we are accustomed to seeing in most plays.
These fragments, when placed on the stage, rather than maintaining a denotative relationship to history, where history is told, the spatial constellation of these fragments reveals a true idea of history.