Philosophy and Melancholy: Benjamin’s Early Reflections on Theater and Language by Ilit Ferber (review)
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Philosophy and Melancholy: Benjamin’s Early Reflections on Theater and Language.
By Ilit Ferber. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013. x + 241 pages. $85.00.

In recent years there has been a considerable shift in criticism on Walter Benjamin, refocusing attention from his later materialist analysis of metropolitan culture—especially Paris as the capital of nineteenth-century high capitalism—and the concomitant media of technological reproduction, to his early literary criticism and philosophical reflections, which are informed by a strongly speculative and metaphysical desire. Even though various stages of Benjamin’s thinking do not succeed one another linearly but intersect through echoes, revisions, and re-visitations, this earlier work forms a significant achievement in its own right, one that sheds light on the intellectual [End Page 717] pursuits of Benjamin’s contemporaries as much as it resonates with philosophical directions of our time.

Ilit Ferber’s meticulous reconstruction of the role of melancholy in Benjamin’s Origin of the German Trauerspiel (I support her decision not to translate this unique term either as “mourning play” or—entirely wrongly—as “tragic drama”), participates in this scholarly return to Benjamin’s philosophical beginnings. She situates Benjamin’s understanding of melancholy in the context of Freud’s influential distinction between mourning, which successfully works through the traumatic loss of the love-object to regain reality and libidinal desire, and melancholy, which remains self-destructively attached to the lost object, making it part of the subject’s obsessed ego, thus only exacerbating the initial trauma (20). The main trajectory of Ferber’s argument, however, aims at showing that for Benjamin, melancholy is not primarily a subjective, psychological, or pathological state of mind. Rather, through Heidegger’s concept of “mood” (Stimmung) as the ground of Dasein’s being in the world beyond the classical subject-object split, Ferber focuses on the melancholic mood as an inherently structural feature both of Benjamin’s metaphysics and of the literary content of the Trauerspiel as a key genre of the German Baroque. Melancholy in this sense encompasses “loss, commitment, absence of intentionality, work, and the transgression between inside and outside, between life and death” (10). A further indication of the objective, structural nature of melancholy is Benjamin’s complex linkage of this concept to his early philosophy of language: “Deeply saturated with melancholy and loss, language [ . . . ] functions both as an expression of loss and as a site for its recuperation” (120).

Much as I agree with Ferber’s decisively non-subjective and non-psychological definition of Benjamin’s re-thinking of melancholy, subjectivity slips again into her argument (perhaps unintentionally), when she ascribes to the melancholic allegorist, so central to the Trauerspiel, a “subjective interpretation” of the dispersed and mortified objects upon which his gaze imposes arbitrary and unstable meanings, turning them into emblems and writing (86). Benjamin himself, however, insists that this anti-hermeneutic matter of fact (Sachverhalt) is “nicht psychologisch sondern ontologisch” (Gesammelte Schriften I.1, Frankfurt am Main 1974, 359). Thus, it seems to me, the allegorist is, ultimately, not a subject, but a textualizing medium—the Baroque counterpart to the modernist flâneur reading the disparate details of the modern metropolis in a less melancholic, but equally non-subjective, emblematic fashion. In a somewhat strained but suggestive way, Ferber elaborates on Benjamin’s claim that his notion of the idea is identical with Leibniz’s concept of the windowless monad. The monad is essential to Benjamin’s thought, according to Ferber, because it addresses the “correspondence between the phenomenal and the idea” as well as the “connection between philosophical truth and melancholy” (168). As she claims: “Like the melancholic’s lost object, no longer accessible in the form of external subject-object relations of love, the monad’s world can only ‘live’ within it” (172). Not everyone may agree with such short-circuit reasoning. More convincing seems her detailed analysis of the monad in connection with Benjamin’s definitions of meaning, reference, and truth. The mosaic and the constellation, figures central to Benjamin’s thinking, arrange the material aspects of phenomena and the ideas, as the virtual complement of the phenomena, into a totality of truth, in which the...