- Irreconcilable:Ethics and Aesthetics for Hermann Cohen and Walter Benjamin
Over the past thirty years Benjamin scholarship has convincingly shown the importance of Judaism for Benjamin's thought from the early writings on language to the later reflections on history, modernity, and urban life. The same strain is evident in Benjamin's critique of metaphysics, as exemplified in the Christian notion of grace. Benjamin dismisses the notion of the redemption of the individual from history and replaces it with the idea of the redemption of the historical past in a mystical now or punctual present.1 What has received surprisingly little attention is the impact of Judaism on Benjamin's reflections on aesthetics in essays like "Two Poems by Friedrich Hölderlin" and "Goethe's Elective Affinities," in which he grapples with the relation of art to life and the truth, or essence, of semblance (Schein). While Benjamin's thought need not be confined to religious or Judaic concerns, the reluctance of critics to identify Judaic elements in his aesthetic writings has reinforced an existing prejudice. According to this prejudice, Jewish art is based in the prohibition of graven images, [End Page 665] which amounts to saying that Jewish art consists in the dissolution of its images or the negation of its representations. Among the twentieth-century thinkers to adopt this position was Theodor Adorno, who made the biblical injunction against graven images into a defining feature of modern art.2 While Benjamin understood the limits of the aesthetic image, he did so within a broader frame. Art was not to be confused with religion or ethics, lest they both become myth. (I will elaborate on this point later.) In the essay on the Elective Affinities, he distinguishes between art and ethics in a startling way: by invoking the Jewish Day of Atonement (in German, der Versöhnungstag) to oppose the sacrificial logic of Goethe's text.
According to this logic, the novel's heroine Ottilie must die to make up for the rift she causes in Eduard and Charlotte's marriage not through any deed, but her mere presence in the household. Benjamin emphasizes that Ottilie is not guilty of any misdeed, any trespass against the marriage since such conduct would automatically disqualify her death as a sacrifice. Rather she can expiate the sins of others only to the extent that she is not tainted by sin, like the Nazarene Jesus whom Benjamin refers to at the end of the essay.3 Benjamin readily admits that the framing of Ottilie's death as a sacrifice belongs to "the deepest intentions" (GS I: 140) of the novel. At the same time, he insists that there is another religious model at work in the Elective Affinities that requires neither sacrifice nor the negation of one's most ardent wishes. This model comes to the fore in the novella "The Marvelous Young Neighbors" embedded in the main text, which Benjamin [End Page 666] reads not only as an inversion of the novel's plot but also, and more importantly, as an inversion of the logic underlying it.
The novella, like the novel, concerns two lovers who are drawn toward each other, although they have given their hand in marriage to someone else. (In the novel Charlotte and Eduard are married; in the novella the young girl is engaged to an older acquaintance.) But unlike the characters in the novel who passively endure rather than actively challenge their fate, the protagonists in the novella risk everything, including their life, to realize their love in this world instead of the next. They are willing, in other words, to sacrifice themselves, which makes the "wondrous" or "marvelous" outcome of their act of defiance all the more astonishing. Benjamin describes the marvel as follows:
Weil nämlich wahre Versöhnung mit Gott keinem gelingt, der nicht in ihr—soviel an ihm ist—alles vernichtet, um erst vor Gottes versöhntem Antlitz es wieder erstanden zu finden, darum bezeichnet ein todesmutiger Sprung jenen Augenblick, da sie [die Liebenden der Novelle]—ein jeder ganz für sich allein vor Gott—um der Versöhnung willen sich einsetzen. Und in solcher Versöhnungsbereitschaft erst ausgesöhnt...