Walter Benjamin′s Unacknowledged Romanticism

  • Published : 2002.10.01


In Origin of the German Mourning Play(1928), the critic Waltre Benjamin strongly criticized the German Romantic concept of the symbol, according to which the universal and ideal can be represented wholly in the particular and empirical by virtue of an ontological connection between them. Yet this criticism did not prevent Benjamin, in his epistemological preface to the book, from availing himself of the same monadological model (derived from Leibniz and Goethe) on which the Romantics had relied. Although he specifically rejected their insistence on the fusion of the phenomenal and the ideal in the symbol, his own theory of Ideas and their presentation in criticism nonetheless requires just such a fusion. This is not immediately apparent for two reasons: first, Benjamin proposes, in contrast to Platonic and Romantic theory, that Ideas themselves are subject to historical change, and therefore not capable of manifesting themselves fully in any given historical phenomenon; and second, he proposes that Ideas rather than phenomena are monads, individually representing the whole of the world in which they participate. The task of the critic, which Benjamin calls Darstellung("presentation"), consists in revealing Ideas by reducing historical phenomena to their constituent elements and reassembling those elements in what amounts to a mosaic of quotations. But this task is possible only if the critic has a preconception of the Idea he is trying to reveal-a possibility that Benjamin′s theory of knowledge does not allow for at all- or if he can discern the Ideas in the individual phenomenal fragments from which he creates his mosaic, in which case phenomena and Ideas must be related monadologically after all. Benjamin seems to admit the latter possibility in a cryptic sentence in the manuscript draft of his preface to the Origin, but he does not do so in the final printed version. Thus he effectively deprived the critic of an epistemological basis for the presentation of Ideas.