- German Modernity:From the Baroque to the Present with Walter Benjamin
Walter Benjamin is one of the most popular authors of modernity, and his significance for media studies, comparative literary studies, aesthetics and art history is indisputable. Though many books have been written about him and his work over the past decades, Jane O. Newman and Sigrid Weigel have found new perspectives on his thought and writings. Without a doubt, both studies can be seen as essential contributions to current international research about Benjamin, contextualizing him in the baroque, the work of other modern thinkers, and even current political events.
Newman’s book, Benjamin’s Library: Modernity, Nation and the Baroque, illuminates the interfaces between the available research on Walter Benjamin’s writings and on the baroque. Newman is an internationally recognized scholar in both fields. Accordingly her study, published in 2011, is quite ambitious, detailed and presuppositional.
Central to this research project is Benjamin’s The Origin of the German Tragic Drama,1 published in 1928. In a sense, the history and reception of this book is tragic. Garber calls it the most important study of international baroque. Nevertheless it has been neglected in previous research. It has also taken a while for scholars of Benjamin to recognize the Trauerspiel book as an important part of his work. The text was originally supposed to be Benjamin’s post-doctoral thesis, but ultimately, in 1925, it brought his academic career at Frankfurt University to an end. Newman’s study of the German mourning play in its literary and political context illustrates the disastrous attitudes shown [End Page 369] towards new ways of thinking at German universities in the 1920s (Burkhardt Lindner discusses this in the poignantly named article “About an Academic Mourning Play”2). Among other things, Newman demonstrates Benjamin’s strong influence on 1930s and 1940s research on the German baroque. In the conclusion of her book, she writes about the “curious inclusion of Benjamin’s ideas,” “echoes,” and the “ghostly presence of Benjamin’s ‘Baroque book’” in studies of the best-known theorists and scholars of baroque. Andreas Solbach wrote a review subtitled: “Jane Newman shows us how Benjamin got his ideas.”3 This title may well be extended to read: “… and how other authors got their ideas about the baroque from Benjamin.” Newman’s observations of the uncanny “afterlife of Benjamin’s Baroque” (186) are quite interesting, and, to my knowledge, they have gone completely unnoticed in German research. This is not surprising, considering the reception history of Benjamin’s writings in Germany, which was influenced by, among other factors, the student movement at the end of the 1960s. The students were more interested in Benjamin as a revolutionary and Marxist thinker, rather than as an expert on the German mourning play. Furthermore, his reputation as a “martyred German-Jewish intellectual and academic outsider” (xi) arguably fit in well with the ideas and ideologies coursing through the student movement. Benjamin’s early scholars were predominantly interested in his later writings. It was only in 2010 that Bettine Menke published her study “Das Trauerspiel-Buch. Der Souverän – das Trauerspiel – Konstellationen – Ruinen,”4 which addressed the early work in more depth. Thus Newman is one of the few who have extensively explored Benjamin’s Trauerspiel book and its relation to other intellectual projects.5
Newman relates Benjamin research with studies of baroque and modernity in a most fascinating way. She emphasizes the importance of the specific historical moment and setting that bore Benjamin’s Trauerspiel book. With reference to Lutz Koepnick, she points out that Benjamin “simultaneously reads the baroque through the lenses of Weimar and mirrors Weimar in the baroque” (x).6 Furthermore, through Benjamin, Newman views the baroque “as a moment of national cultural rebirth” (28) and “as the origin of a peculiarly German modernity both before and during the Weimar years” (xi).
Newman’s aim is “to reconstruct...