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COMPAEATIYE drama 1 Volume 16 Spring 1982 Number 1 Comedia and Trauerspiel: On Benjamin and Calderon Anthony J. Cascardi Nowhere but in Calderon could the perfect baroque Trauerspiel be studied. Walter Benjamin Walter Benjamin’s Ursprung des Deutschen Trauerspiels (The Origin of German Tragic Drama) is a dense and difficult book. “Conceived,” as its dedication evasively states, in 1916, written in 1925, and published three years later, the work is the single full-length book by a critic whom Frank Kermode could hail as “matchless in intuitive power.”l Benjamin specialized in aphorisms, essays, and, as one translated collection calls itself, “reflections.” These are widely known to a broad segment of readers. His essays on Proust and Baudelaire are masterpieces of lyrical prose; his study of Karl Kraus is a trenchant analysis of modem narrative. His essays on photography, as all his work, are marked by a deep vein of philosophic concern. Indeed, none was as philosophical as the Ursprung, a book Benjamin sub­ mitted as his University Habilitationsschrift, the rough equivalent ANTHONY J. CASCARDI is Assistant Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. 1 2 Comparative Drama of a dissertation. Rejected by various departments as inappro­ priate or incomprehensible, the text remains among the lesserknown of Benjamin’s writings. On the one hand, it deals with relatively arcane materials, with the Trauerspiel (the term is significant) of the German Baroque—the work of Gryphius, Opitz, Sigmund von Birken—with late seventeenth-century collections of heraldic emblems, with occultist tracts and odd word lists; on the other, it is grounded in a philosophy strongly flavored by German Romanticism (there are major debts to Schopenhauer, Novalis, Nietzsche), yet directly anticipating the dialectical materialism of the so-called Frankfurt School to which Benjamin would later be tangentially related. It was, in fact, the opening section of the Ursprung that proved seminal in the development of Theodor Adorno’s thought. Walter Benjamin is also a thinker in a long line of Germans with a profound admiration for and interest in the Spanish comedia. On these grounds, Benjamin warrants comparison to Schlegel, Goethe, and Tieck. The Ursprung is to be sure not the only text in which he trained his powers of thought on the Spanish Baroque theatre. The essay “ ‘El mayor monstruo, los celos’ von Calderón und ‘Herodes und Mariamne’ von Hebbel” is a characteristic investigation of what Benjamin called the “melodrama of fate,” the Schicksalsdrama. As in the Trauerspiel book, Benjamin focuses intensely on the privileged function of objects and on the workings of fate in the Herod plays. Through­ out his work, he finds that the German plays are particularly poignant, but circumscribed in their range of sadness and melancholia. In comparison, the Spanish court and martyr plays of Lope, Tirso, and Calderón are superior in sheer poetic effect, in delicacy of motive, in intricacy of execution. Stylistic features like these are worth noting because Benjamin is a staunchly aesthetic thinker; convinced that there is a significance to the inner hollowness of the Baroque world, he turns consistently to what seem superficial aspects of style. But in addition, Ben­ jamin’s own style is of a density and syntactic weld that could only be matched by the supremely ordered verse of a Calderón. In Susan Sontag’s words, Benjamin’s style of thinking and writing is like “freeze-frame baroque. . . . It was as if each sentence had to say everything, before the inward gaze of total concentration dissolved the subject before his eyes.”2 Why the concern with Trauerspiel and not tragedy? The Anthony J. Cascardi 3 distinction is crucial to an understanding of whatever special variations on the tragic pattern of feeling that the Spanish comedia and late Renaissance and Baroque drama may, on the whole, contain. The first distinctions are categorical. Tragedy deals with myth. Its metaphysical foundation is that of ritualistic and heroic sacrifice. It is transcendental in thrust. Not so the Trauerspiel. As its name signifies, the Trauerspiel opens onto a realm of sadness and mourning rather than to the devastating wretchedness of painful destruction felt in ancient tragedy. Its action works in and through history, not myth (“The...


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