The messianic critique of tragedy*

The rejection of the covenant of assimilation by twentieth-century Messianism was an integral part of the pre-1914 pan-European critique of modernity and “romantic anti-capitalism” (Lukács). “In the years approaching the First World War, the self-confidence and security of German Jewry was challenged by a new Jewish sensibility that can be described as at once radical, secular and Messianic in both tone and content. What this new Jewish ethos refused to accept was above all the optimism of the generation of German Jews nurtured on the concept of Bildung as the German Jewish mystique. … For German Jews of that earlier generation the ‘Bildungsideal’ of Kant, Goethe and Schiller assured them of an indissoluble bond between Enlightenment, universal ethics, autonomous art and monotheism (stripped of any particularist ‘Jewish’ characteristics).” (Anson Rabinbach: “Between Enlightenment and Apocalypse: Benjamin, Bloch and Modern German Jewish Messianism,” New German Critique 34, Winter 1985, 78).

A large number of these thinkers were preoccupied with both the ancient meaning and the modern possibility of tragedy. Interest in it “was common among several literary, political and theologically oriented German-speaking Jews in the period preceding and following the First World War” (Jacobson: Metaphysics of the Profane, 2003, 38). The list is impressively long and includes (in rough chronological order) Freud, Cohen, Simmel, Lukács, Mannheim, Scheler, Rosenzweig, Shestov, Bloch, Benjamin, Cassirer, Arendt, Weil, and Goldmann. They were among the several artists, writers, critics, and philosophers who, in the early twentieth century, responded to Nietzsche’s call for a rejuvenation of tragedy through a recovery of its origins and fundamentals. But their response was thoroughly affected by Georg Simmel’s pessimistic verdict on culture.

The contradictions of modern culture represent an intense dramatization of the constitutive conflict between life process and generated forms. This is what Simmel called “tragedy of culture:”  “The great enterprise of the spirit succeeds innumerable times in overcoming the object as such by making an object of itself, returning to itself enriched by its creation. But the spirit has to pay for this self-perfection with the tragic potential that a logic and dynamic is inevitably created by the unique laws of its own world which increasingly separates the contents of culture from its essential meaning and value” (Simmel: “Concept & Tragedy of Culture” [1911], 1968, 46).

Messianism often negotiated its cultural orientation by questioning tragic thought and theater. Simmel’s students (such as Lukács, Mannheim, Bloch and Benjamin) and other avid readers talked about tragedy among themselves, debating philosophical ideas and planning theatrical projects.  More than anyone of his contemporaries, Benjamin was determined to discredit both the theory and the writing of tragedy: If Nietzsche’s God was dead, his God did not die – he only forsook the world to test people’s messianic faith.  “An incomplete secularization, the indirect yield of Lutheranism, had left the world with a vacuum from which tragic freedom and tragic grandeur could no longer emerge. The theater of this vacuum, its ennui, its irrational and cruel passions, is that of deus absconditus, the theater of the hidden god” (Heller & Fehér: The Grandeur and Twilight of Radical Universalism, 1991: 311). Caught between ethnic nostalgia and religious anticipation, Benjamin, together with several other people of his generation, aimed to give the godforsaken world of modernity an alternative, messianic vision, with the “angel of history” providing hope, utopia, and redemption to those who might identify with the opening line of Rilke’s 1st Duino Elegy (written in 1912, publ. 1923): “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic orders?” That historical predicament was melancholic, not tragic, as mortals still looked forward to the Day of Judgment.

Benjamin’s systematic endeavor to replace tragedy with the Traurspiel as a modern ideal of theater and thought lasted for some ten years, and represented his life’s major project of combined philosophical inquiry and stylistic study.  Later, in the 1930s, he also supported Brecht’s anti-Aristotelian “epic theater.”  “Benjamin remained faithful to the program of the Trauerspiel essay. As far as the theory of drama was concerned, his attempt to create a blueprint for untragic drama, the drama proper to modernity, remained his principal lifelong concern” (314).

March 19, 2018

* This post is the opening of my lecture announced in the poster above.  The entire lecture has been posted on my website under Pirandello’s Enrico IV.

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