Against Fate


[Talk delivered April 20 at the workshop ‘On Justice: Variations on a Theme from Walter Benjamin in 1916 (I)’]

The following remarks are at a slight, but I hope illuminating, tangent from the ‘convolute’ of texts we’ve gathered to discuss. In brief, I want to sketch some thoughts starting from another text of Benjamin’s from 1916, namely the short unpublished reflection on ‘Trauerspiel and Tragedy’, and to do so in part by bringing into relief and into contrast the relation of Benjamin’s early reflections on tragedy to Georg Lukács’s 1910 essay ‘The Metaphysics of Tragedy’ from Soul & Form, a text which, by Scholem’s own recollection, was of considerable significance to his friend. I want to think through how the approach to justice as a concern of tragedy – perhaps as the concern of Attic tragedy, especially in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, an abiding reference for Benjamin – might inflect our considerations of the messianic or political-theological interrogation of justice.

Perhaps the most immediately evident affinity between the metaphysical delineation of the tragic in ‘Trauerspiel and Tragedy’, on the one hand, and Benjamin’s (and Scholem’s) notes on justice, on the other, is the intense preoccupation of the text with temporality, and more specifically how – in a manner that perhaps becomes more subterranean in the book on the Trauerspiel – the very distinction between Tragödie and Trauerspiel is triangulated with a definition of messianic time as fulfilled time. It is the very possibility of such ‘fulfilment’ that oversees the distinction between different orders of temporality, corroborating in its own way Massimiliano Tomba’s formulation, from a recent essay which begins from the notes on justice from 1916, about ‘justice as the true a priori of time’. The very notion of fulfilment also suggests that, in ways that will be further explored in the Trauerspiel book, with its numerous references to the imperative to move from aesthetics and morality to the ‘philosophy of history’, the problem of time and that of history are indeed inseparable. The ‘Trauerspiel and Tragedy’ begins indeed with the suggestion that in thinking of the tragic we attend not just to ‘art’ but to ‘history’.

Schematising an already schematic text, we can say that ‘Trauerspiel and Tragedy’ presents us with five kinds of time: historical time, mechanical time, messianic time, tragic time and the time of the Trauerspiel, mourning time. Historical time, Benjamin writes is ‘infinite in every direction and unfulfilled at every moment. This means we cannot conceive of a single empirical event that bears a necessary relation to the time of its occurrence’ (p. 55). For such events, time is an unfulfilled form: ‘The event does not fulfil the formal nature of the time in which it takes place’ (p. 55). But historical time differs from mechanical time, the time that is ‘merely the measure that record the duration of a mechanical change’, that determines ‘spatial changes’. For mechanical time, is so to speak, ‘beneath’ or ‘before’ the very problem of fulfilment. Though ‘such time is indeed a relatively empty form’, writes Benjamin, ‘to think of its being filled makes no sense’ (p. 55). While he does not specify the distinction between mechanical and historical time further, he does note that the ‘determining force’ of the latter lies beyond ‘any empirical process’, inasmuch as any notion of historical perfection is an idea. There follows the crucial passage in this short text:

This idea of fulfilled time is the dominant historical idea of the Bible: it is the idea of messianic time. Moreover, the idea of a fulfilled historical time is never identical with the idea of an individual time. This feature naturally changes the meaning of fulfilment completely, and it is this that distinguishes tragic time from messianic time. Tragic time is related to the latter in the same way that an individually fulfilled time relates to a divinely fulfilled one. (Selected Writings, Vol.1, pp. 55-6)

The distinction between the historical and the mechanical, which we can conceive as a distinction between the unfulfilled and the unfulfillable, is thus compounded by the distinction between two types of fulfilment, which are in turn distinguished here especially in terms of their individuality or non-individuality. At the beginning of the text, Benjamin had in fact defined the tragic as a historical ‘frontier’ defined precisely in terms of individual fulfilment or ‘greatness’. As he writes: ‘At specific and crucial points in its trajectory, historical time passes over into tragic time; such points occur in the actions of great individuals’ (p. 55; we may note in passing how such a horizon of ‘historical tragedy’ so to speak, is revoked in the contemporaneous note on ‘The Role of Language in Trauerspiel and Tragedy’, where Benjamin emphatically notes that there are no ‘tragic events’ since the tragic is ‘confined exclusively to the realm of dramatic human speech’, p. 59).

Benjamin will distinguish tragedy and trauerspiel in terms of their respective relations to historical time, but we can also say that inasmuch as history is haunted by the (messianic) idea of fulfilment, they are also distinguished in terms of two relations to messianic time. Tragic time is defined by the death of the tragic here: ‘In tragedy the hero dies because no one can live in fulfilled time’. This is what Benjamin refers to as the ‘ironic immortality’ of the hero’s death, which is in turn the origin of ‘tragic irony’. Crucially the nexus of guilt – so critical to all of Benjamin’s reflections of justice – is itself temporally determined. The roots of such guilt in tragedy are to be found in ‘the tragic hero’s own, individually fulfilled time’, the ‘magic circle’ that ‘describes all his deeds and his entire existence’. In the hero’s individually fulfilled time, every contingency, unspoken word, or misstep is ‘a function of that time’. In a remarkable image, Benjamin defines this tragic temporal fulfilment, the fulfilment of silence and of death, as follows: ‘It is almost a paradox that this becomes manifest in all its clarity at the moment when the hero is completely passive, when the tragic time bursts open, so to speak, like a flower whose calyx emits the astringent power of irony’ (p. 56). Dramatically, Benjamin continues, ‘the meaning of the fulfilled time of a tragic fate emerges in the great moments of passivity: in the tragic decision, the retarding point of action, and in the catastrophe’ (p. 56). In this focus on the link between passivity and fulfilment we can see how Benjamin was ready to welcome Franz Rosenzweig’s remarks on the centrality of silence to Attic tragedy, published in the 1920 book The Star of Redemption, and discussed by Benjamin inin the section on ‘Tragedy and Trauerspiel’ of the Ursprung book.[1] Fulfilment here takes the baleful figure of ‘overdetermination’. The immortality bequeathed by tragic death is ironic ‘from an excess of determinacy. The tragic death is overdetermined – that is the actual expression of the hero’s guilt. Hebbel may have been on the right track’, Benjamin continues, ‘when he said that individuation was original sin. … Everything hinges on the offense given by individuation. This is the point that enables us to inquire into the connection between history and tragedy (p. 56)’.

The fallenness and transience marking the mourning play or Trauerspiel is marked by its difference from tragic time. In the Trauerspiel we have no conclusive finality, no certainty of higher existence, no irony. The spatial and temporal closure of tragedy is undone, and we enter a domain of repetition: ‘The time of the mourning play is not fulfilled, but it is nevertheless finite. It is nonindividual but without historical universality. The mourning play is in every respect a hybrid form. The universality of its time is spectral not mythic’ (p. 57). Guilt in the Trauerspiel is not defined or over-determined, but is expanded and extended in repetition, loosening the tragic tie between individual guilt and individual greatness. The temporal shape, or rhythm, of Trauerspiel marked by repetition means it cannot acquire the ‘unified form’ that so defines tragedy (it is also what opens the Trauerspiel up to the ‘sixth’ kind of time deal with in the piece, which I won’t deal with here, ‘musical time’, on which Benjamin also concludes ‘The Role of Language in Trauerspiel and Tragedy’).

Benjamin’s stress on the centrality of the question of form – and of the form of time – as the sources of the ‘crucial distinction’ between tragedy and Trauerspiel is one of the points in his text which points to an implicit dialogue with Lukács’s earlier ‘The Metaphysics of Tragedy’. A brief discussion of the links between these texts may allow us to further determine the specificity of Benjamin’s proposal as regards tragic time and its resonances with the question of justice. In the ‘Metaphysics’ essay, as in the remainder of Soul & Form, Lukács is concerned with the problem of the possibility of giving form to modern experience, in and beyond art. This demand is also linked to a sense, echoed in Benjamin’s ‘Trauerspiel and Tragedy’ of a world bereft of necessity. As Lukács writes: ‘Our life ordinarily has no real necessity, but only the necessity of being empirically present, of being entangled by a thousand threads in a thousand accidental bonds and relationships. But the basis of the whole network of necessities is accidental and meaningless’ (p. 180). This form is at once aesthetic, ethical and existential. As Lukács writes ‘dramatic tragedy is the form of the high points of existence, its ultimate goals and ultimate limits’. He will speak, in ways echoes by Benjamin of the tragic as a matter of ‘frontiers’, specifying that ‘The double meaning of the frontier is that it is simultaneously a fulfilment and a failure’. Reading the two texts side by side, the permeation of both by this notion of fulfilment – which accompanies an evaluation of the present, and of history, as unfulfilled (‘nothing is ever completely fulfilled in life, nothing ever quite ends’, Lukács will write) – is patent. And yet it is also a starting point for remarking upon their profound difference, notwithstanding Benjamin’s largely laudatory use of ‘The Metaphysics of Tragedy’, alongside Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption, when he returns to the problem of demarcating tragedy from Trauerspiel in the Ursprung book.

For Lukács, the insight into the impossibility of tragedy in the present is the occasion for the project of rethinking it as metaphysics, and for announcing ‘the coming of tragedy – once all the dancing shadows of a friendly order, which our cowardly dreams have cast upon nature to allow us a false sense of security, have entirely disappeared. “Only when we have become completely godless”, says Paul Ernst, “shall we have tragedy once more”’ (p. 177). There is a proud nostalgia for tragedy which is also linked in Lukács to a different temporal imaginary, the imaginary of what we could call, by distinction from Benjamin’s messianic time, a mystical time (the two might then be distinguished from a utopian time, as might transpire from the writings of Bloch, for instnace). It is the distinction between a true, formed life and an ordinary, formless life in tragedy, that Lukács finds ‘the metaphysical reason for the concentration of drama in time’:

It is born of the desire to come as close as possible to the timelessness of this moment which yet is the whole of life. (Unity of place is the natural symbol of such sudden standing still in the midst of the continual change of ordinary life, and is therefore a technically necessary condition of dramatic form-giving.) Tragedy is only a moment: that is the meaning of the unity of time. … “How can one give form to what is without image, or prove what is without evidence?”, asks Suso. Tragic drama has to express the becoming-timeless of time. (Soul & Form, p. 182)

Further demarcating the visions of fulfilled time in Lukács and Benjamin’s is the former’s illustration of the ‘mystical-tragical experience of essentiality’ (p. 183): ‘The tragic experience, then, is a beginning and an end at the same time. Everyone at such a moment is newly born, yet has been dead for a long time; and everyone’s life stands before the Last Judgment’ (p. 182). Contrast here Scholem’s Theses, glosses on Benjamin: ‘Justice is the idea of the historical annihilation of divine judgment. … Messianic is the kingdom that is not followed by a Last Judgment’ (cited in Jacobsen, p. 176). It is Lukács’s effort to revive tragic time which turns, viewed from Benjamin’s writings of 1916, as a perverse attempt to reinvent guilt, juxtaposing tragedy as a ‘privilege’ to an aristocratic, and misogynistic, view of ‘untragic people’. Here one could compare Lukács’s valorisation of guilt to Benjamin’s dissolution of it in the essay ‘Fate and Character’. Lukács writes that through

guilt, a man says “Yes” to everything that has happened to him; by feeling it to be his own action and his own guilt, he conquers it and forms his life, setting his tragedy – which has sprung from his guilt – as the frontier between his life and the All. Greater men draw such frontiers around larger parts of their lives than lesser men do; they leave nothing outside that once belonged to their lives. And that is why tragedy is their privilege. (Soul & Form, p. 189)

We could also fruitfully contrast the young Lukács’s and Benjamin’s problematisations of the relation between tragic and historical time, and their representations, but I wanted to end on the question of Benjamin’s repudiation of the tragic. This has been dealt with very persuasively in the late Gianni Carchia’s book Nome e immagine (Name and Image).

Carchia, relying on ‘Fate and Character’, and linking it back to the 1916 essay on ‘Trauerspiel and Tragedy’ foregrounds a notion deeply inimical to the young (and we could also probably say the later Lukács), ‘happiness’. As he writes:

The notion of happiness is decisive in Benjamin’s speculation. Only it allows, in fact, to overcome the mythical and pagan search for a tragic time as ‘auratic’ moment of human redemption. … No messianic religion knows the form of tragedy. … In effect, the splendours of the messianic state can be gazed upon, without offense, not in the infinitely blinding reflection of an individual fulfilment, but in the opaque mirror of rhythmic temporal flow, in the humble lineaments of historical time. (Carchia, Nome e immagine. Saggio su Walter Benjamin, p. 121)

Bound to the principium individuationis of guilt (to which Benjamin will juxtapose the comic individuation without interiority of ‘character’, disjoined from ‘fate’), the tragic time of the hero, though it may – following the Ursprung essay – be seen as a break from myth,[2] cannot attain the ‘deliverance promised by the blessed transience of historical time’ (here Carchia points to the greater closeness of the nonindividual unfulfilled time of the Trauerspiel to the individual fulfilled time of the tragic): ‘To the extent that happiness is an entirely historical category, unreachable by the sacrifice of the tragic hero, the result of tragedy can never be the sought-after redemption of historical time’ (p. 123).[3] With ‘Fate and Character’ we could perhaps add a seventh kind of time then, comic time, a time of freedom which is perhaps neither fulfilled nor messianic. Contra Lukács’s mystical reading of tragic time, in ‘Fate and Character’ Benjamin stressed the temporal inauthenticity of guilt: ‘The guilt context is temporal in a totally inauthentic way, very different in its kind and measure from the time of redemption, or of music, or of truth’. Against interiority, psychology and we could even say ‘selfhood’ (an obsessive term in Rosenzweig and Lukács’s encounters with the tragic), comic character calls for a different type of individuality. Speaking of Molière’s character, Benjamin writes:

Character develops in them like the sun, in the brilliance of its single trait, which allows no other to remain visible in its proximity. The sublimity of character comedy rests on this anonymity of man and his morality, alongside the utmost development of individuality through its exclusive character trait. While fate brings to light the immense complexity of the guilty person, the complications and bonds of his guilt, character gives this mystical enslavement of the person to the guilt context the answer of genius. Complication becomes simplicity, fate freedom. (Selected Writings, Vol. 1, pp. 205-6)

In these lines we can also grasp Benjamin’s deep appreciation of Brecht, the foremost political poet of the kind of freedom that may be desired and attained by those who Lukács’s loftily dismissed as ‘untragic people’.

[1] ‘By being silent, the hero dismantles the bridges that link him to God and the world, and he tears himself away from the landscapes of personality, which through the spoken word, marks out its limits and individualizes itself in the face of others in order to climb into the icy solitude of the Self. … The hero is mute’ (The Star of Redemption, p. 86).

[2] ‘It was not in law but in tragedy that the head of genius lifted itself for the first time from the mist of guilt, for in tragedy demonic fate is breached’ (p. 203).

[3] See also the following related remarks by Carchia: “The deliverance promised by the blessed transience of historical time is forbidden to the retribution, however proud, of tragic unhappiness. … Tragic time is not capable of opening up a horizon of freedom, an opening of hope in the fatal cycle [of a non-autonomous time]. … Even if tragic time allows a liberatory dimension, the latter does not shine in messianic light, but emerges confounded in the wake of the painful exit from myth. As the Ursprung book will definitively elucidate, the tragic hero, who attempts to subtract himself from the nexus of natural guilt, can never redeem himself in the sense intended by Jewish messianism or Christian eschatology, precisely to the extent that, in the sphere of destiny, unlike in any religious sphere, the verdict is not a consequence of sin, but its condition. In tragedy is only reached the point in which this mythic brutality breaks down’ (Carchia, pp. 122-3); “One must starkly reject the characteristic tendency of the tragic to present itself, due to its supposed resolving and messianic character, as a generically human and meta-historical category” (Carchia, p. 123); “Suspended between myth and utopia, historical time cannot live long in this paradoxical dimension [of tragedy]” (Carchia, p. 126); “[The] irruption of silence is what shows tragic time as mythical in its attempt to defeat the cyclical return of the natural event” (Carchia, p. 127).


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