- A Project in Its Context:Walter Benjamin on Comedy
'O Rosalind, these trees shall be my books,
And in their barks my thoughts I'll character,
That every eye which in this forest looks,
Shall see thy virtue witness'd everywhere.
Run, run Orlando, carve on every tree
The fair, the chaste, and unexpressive she.'—Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act III, Sc. 2
The attempt to assess Walter Benjamin's writings on comedy may seem a risky enterprise indeed, given the fact that he never completed any extensive body of work on this topic. The few fragments surviving from this enterprise are scattered among his published works and writings unpublished during his lifetime. Sometimes they are part of longer developments in well-known books and essays, which are translated into several languages and form the core of the critical reception of Benjamin's writings in German, English, or French. Such is the case of several passages on comedy from the Trauerspiel book and the essay on Fate and Character. Some of the fragments on comedy are just sketches gathered under the editors' general heading Ästhetische Fragmente, available only in the original. Given these circumstances, the visibility of the project and its significance are easily overlooked. Yet, these passages and fragments, neither numerous nor fully expanded, probably the remains of an account of classical French comedy Benjamin mentions in a curriculum vitae from early 1928, contain important clarifications on the relevance of art forms to the history of philosophy and on the task of criticism he was to formulate subsequently. Presented as a further development of the critical path set out in the [End Page 1041] dissertation on the mourning plays, this project was important enough for Benjamin to envisage it as a companion piece to his treatment of German Baroque drama.1 It is in the context of this previous study and of its achievements that I propose to begin the evaluation of the fragments on comedy.
Trauerspiel and Allegory
Finished in 1925, the book on Trauerspiel introduced and shaped a form of critique unfamiliar to both the philosophical studies and literary criticism of the time. Its originality rested on the attempt to render works of art, through the process of interpretation, equivalent to recognised forms of knowledge, to which particular sites of truth may correspond. If works of art are to provide original forms of knowledge, which only they can produce and spell out, then their study must benefit both history of philosophy and literary history. The study of Protestant theatre identified this integration under the form of allegory and specified the task of criticism as an interpretation enabling art works to sustain such a construction.
Benjamin's proposed approach, which guided both his investigations of German Baroque drama and classical French comedy, came at a time when works of art and their forms were not usually called upon as examples by theories of knowledge. Left outside the vast systems of knowledge that the nineteenth century had produced, the work of art was either confined to aesthetic judgment and the empirical theory of faculties, or imprisoned inside the theory of particular artistic forms. In the first instance, its evaluation was limited to the judgment of taste, in the second to aesthetic categorisations of genre (tragedy, comedy, novel) or to impressionistic approaches to the media presenting them (literature, painting, music). Within this context, as the example of the scholarly studies on the Trauerspiel quoted by Benjamin showed, the interpretation of art forms was meant either to illustrate an aesthetic classification, namely tragedy, or to allow for several undirected remarks about Baroque tendencies identified in the field and with the help of visual arts.
It is against this doctrine of the territorial character of art that Benjamin writes the last section of the book on Trauerspiel, while at the same time proposing a new synthesis between poles of knowledge usually kept apart. The process of this new synthesis was implied by the study of allegory, a canonical expression familiar to the baroque age through the books of emblems. In borrowing this form from the [End Page 1042] iconologies of Alciat, Ripa, Menestrier, and others, Benjamin reconstructs its meaning...