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A Project in Its Context:

Walter Benjamin on Comedy

A Project in Its Context: Walter Benjamin on Comedy Adriana Bontea 'O Rosalind, these trees shall

Adriana Bontea

'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 The few fragments surviving from this enterprise are scattered among his published works and writings unpublished during his lifetime.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 arejust sketches gathered under the editors ' general heading A sthetische Fragmente, available only in the original. Given these circumstances, the visibility of the proj ect and its significance are easily overlooked. Yet, these passages and fragments, neither numerous nor fully expanded, prob­ ably 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 philoso­ phy and on the task of criticism he was to formulate subsequently. Presented as a further development of the critical path set out in the

MLN121 (2006): 1041-1071 © 2007 by The Johns Hopkins University Press



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.

Trauers p iel 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, equiva­ lent 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

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

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

vast systems

judgment of taste , in the second to aesthetic



iconologies of Alciat, Ripa, Menestrier, and others, Benjamin recon­

structs its meaning in order to identify a level of integration whereby the different aspects of the genre, the action , the language, the music,

and the choreography retrieve their unity-a harmonic unity rather than one based onjudgment or conceptual summary. Each level attests, in its own way, to the scattering of signifiers and signified into pieces, and accounts for the sadness shaping the historical experience of the ti me. The origin of such a fe eling is to be found in the cont emp lation

of a world falling apart. The poetics of the genre is thus constructed

within the formal framework of Baroque emblems , which are them­ selves decomposed old mythological symbols reduced to fragments

and made to accommod ate Chr is tian teac hings. Ta king this formal aspect of allegory as a starting point, Benjamin sees in it more than a

principle able to account for the lack of formal unity of the Baroque

plays. He also enhances its powers of expression by attaching to it political and theological contents presented in the prefaces introduc­ ing this theatre alongside other theoretical writings of the time. The detailed reconstruction of allegory from heterogeneous fragments enables Benjamin to lay bare the content of experience as it was lived by the individual creature of the Baroque age . In front of God's cre­

ation and its fragments, he faces the impossibility of reuniting them and himself with the main purpose of genesis secured by the promise of re dempti on. "Within allegory, it is the facies hippocratica of history which offers itself to the spectator as a primitive petrified landscape . History always had inscribed its violent, painful and imperfect aspects on a human face-nay: on a skull" (GS 1.1 343).2

Two main points convert Baroque allegory into a construction able to rival other recognised philosophical tools . 3 On the one hand, allegory proposes a valid level of integration of both individual and historical experience. On the other it makes manifest the very way the subject of experience is also the subject of knowledge shaping what it experiences. The image of the skull, object of meditation and mute interpellation of an individual biography within the flow of history, articulates this double binding of experience. From the point of view

of the content of experience it points to a historical process, which turns all that is touched by it into ruins. And from the standpoint of the knowing subj ect, it is a foreboding that all that he sees will soon look like the black holes of the skull returning his gaze , a point of intersection where what it is being looked at and the one who looks are j oined together in the same process of degradation. The value of the image rests on its ability to offer a view of history and of its



viewer as both protagonist and contemplator, within the dimensions of a reduced model, encapsulating the philosophical, moral, and theological content of the plays. Similar in its role and explanatory powers to Aristotle's identification of unity of action as a philosophi­

cal instrument disclosing both the epistemological powers of tragedy and the conditions governing its perception by the spectator,4 alle­ gory becomes the repository of history's endless catastrophe, while capturing the sensible position of unredeemable sadness occupied by the viewer. The philosophical significance of allegory consists in

its aptitude to give to the tonality of mourning songs resonating from

physiognomy, while the

the Reyen 5 and dialogues of the Trauerspiel a

primary achievement of the book resides in proj ecting the excessive cruelty and passion of the plays to a level where the obj ec tivity of the

image keeps manifest the subjectivity of the beholder. The image of

the skull provides such a synthesis, allowing the full emergence of the sadness of the individual experiencing his own life as part of a historical process outside a final end. Under such a view, human his­ tory regresses to natural history.

The Task of Criticism

The outcome of Benjamin's study reaches far beyond the particular art form it was set out to clarify. Its consequences, rightly assessed, should be regarded as part of a wider task, the task of a criticism to come, and the study of the mourning plays may be seen as a first attempt to replace the theory of the j udgement of taste by the pri­ macy of the truth content of the work of art. Neither beautiful nor able to produce the total sum of an impression enabling the specta­ tor to resolve "the conflicting emotions into a harmonious tone of

fe eling, " which, according to W. A. Schlege l, was the main task of the

dramatic poet,6 this art form receives in the process of interpretation

a new function, namely that of an organon for the knowledge of his­

tory, including the present time.7 The study of allegory removed the work of art from the realm of aesthetic j udgment and the harmony of beautiful forms, where Kant and the Romantics had placed it, and transformed it into a modality of knowledge according to which the content of what is known is inseparable from the subject that knows it. Furthermore , the art form of the mourning play delivers its content

as an obj ectified product, as a product of nature , which Benjamin's own historical experience and the Expressionist tendencies in con­

temporary art help to formulate. Hence the task of criticism and its

1045 newfound objectivity: an endeavour to reveal the truth content of art forms through t


newfound objectivity: an endeavour to reveal the truth content of art

forms through the consideration of their entire sphere, be it religious, metaphysical, and political, and to capture it within the dimensions of an image, a dialectic image . It is only later that Benjamin will call

this process "dialectics at a standstill" (Dialektik im Stillstand) .8 Its ori­ gins go back to the first attempts to develop a form of criticism that forbids judgment and suspends any theory of faculties, in favour of a critique whose closer relative would be the practice of the old physi­ ognomists. Benjamin, summarising the path he took in the study of German Baroque drama as an attempt to bring about "a process of integration of scholarship-one that will increasingly dismantle the

rigid partitions between the disciplines that typified the concept of the sciences in the nineteenth century," holds this approach "to be a precondition for any physiognomic definition of those aspects of

artworks that make them incomparable and unique" ("Curriculum Vitae" 78). The identification of allegory as a form able to account for the truth content of German plays was also the first step in an

enterprise which set out to establish a physiognomic criticism. Its main function was to acknowledge the ability of art forms to open new insights into the realm of truth and to specify the distinctive part they play in its configuration. The task of Benjamin's criticism was

guided by the convic tion that such an endeavour has to renounce all forms ofjudgement and move beyond both the empirical subject and the object of contemplation presupposed by eighteenth-century aesthetics, which was responsible for severing the study of art from the realm of truth.

The Harmonic Concept of Truth

This radical reconsideration of the role of works of art is the leading thread running through all of Benjamin's projects dealing with the status of art forms. These projects are responsible for the constitu­ tion of a whole new region of our intellectual map, as they add a new modality to the usual ways to establish truth, reminiscent of the sciences and their representation within a closed system. Apart from this truth, which corresponds to a systematic hierarchy of conc epts, there are truths that "can be expressed neither systematically nor conceptually-much less with acts of knowledge in judgments-but only in art. Works of art are the proper sites of truths. There are as many ultimate truths as there are authentic works of art. "9 This enigmatic formula guides all of Benjamin's art criticism, accounting



not only for the diversity of forms he examined, from the Romantic's fragments to epic theatre, from Baroque drama to lithography and the art of cinema, but also for the quality, and at times, for the dif­ ficulty, of his own pro se. If truths do not come into contact with one another, and above all, cannot be completed through one another, their systematic investigation is impossible. The task of criticism would then be to make them become manifest, "with a sound like music." One must acquire what he calls elsewhere the harmonic concept of

truth, "a truth which won 't deceive once it proves it is not watertight. Much we expect to find in it slips through the net. "10 The inves­ tigation of the Trauers iel might well have made Benjamin aware of a level of experience, which was left over, despite the detailed poetics of allegory he constructed in order to describe the language, action,

and dramatic structure of the plays. The experience lies behind,j usti­ fies the principles of repetition pervading the Baroque drama. The genre 's conventions set this reiteration in relief by the even number of acts and by the singing interludes, which suspend the action and transpose it into the realm of music.

The interplay between sound and meaning remains a terrifying phantom of the mourning play; it is obsessed by language, the victim of an endless feeling-like Polonius, who was overcome by madness in the midst of his reflections. This interplay must find its resolution, however, and for the mourning play that redemptive mystery is music-the rebirth of the feel­ ings in a nature above sensibility.11

This "metaphysical order" points to a tension between unbridgeable domains, her e the fe eling of sadness and the spoken word . For the overflow of emotion resists the interruptions imposed by language . In the process of signifying, language freezes emotion and breaks the continuity of the Tra uerinto meaningful words . On the way from fe el­ ing to speech , lament becomes hyperbolic use of language . Yet, cruel and violent as it is, the language of the mourning plays does not bring out all the intensity of fe eling. The poet ics of alleg ory captures this tension by the fr agm entation it imposes on all its contents, but doesn 't solve it. However, it is with the help of allegory that this redeeming remnant of the Trauers is disclosed and its overwhelming power recognised in the sound of music. The poetics of allegory and its minute details had two closely related consequences. The first was a working through of the mourning plays that revealed an originary Baroque phenomenon , melancholy.

Similar to Calderon's and Shakespeare 's theatre , German drama had



its own share in framing a phenomenon, which can be neither per­ ceived nor seen outside the limits defining these particular art forms. Hence the title of the book: it underlines the emergence (Ursprung) of the genre from an overwhelming feeling of sadness particular to Silesian writers and the Protestant view of salvation . The second con­ sequence of Bertjamin 's approach was to liberate the Trauerspiel from

its long-lasting amalgamation with ancient tragedy. For Greek theatre and the German drama are the repositories of two quite different phenomena. Tragedy refers to a culpability no one is guilty for, while Protestant drama reveals the state of fallen man and his sorrow. To the first corresponds a view of human life as being already condemned, condemned beforehand. The second alludes to the status of creature and to the fe eling of loss that nothing can appease. The two genres are both original forms enabling the introduction, into the realm of consciousness, of phenomena that, outside the limits imposed by art, can only be intuited. In the process of criticism, antique tragedy and German drama receive a new dignity: to shape truths and present them independently of a systematic investigation. The proj ect on comedy was guided by the recognition that this genre also qualifies for a place in the history of forms, by virtue of the originality it preserved in respect to both mourning plays and tragedy. Its design probably evolved from the parallel Benjamin set between the mourning play and tragedy. Due to the general tendency of the scholarship of the day to conflate the two art forms, it was virtually inevitable to see in the first a continuation of the second, rather than a distinctive form in its own right.12 The invocation of comedy sug­ gests its relevance to the criteria Benjamin designed to dissociate the Trauerspiel from tragedy within a history of forms considered from the point of view of an experience they shape and express. On this point Benjamin makes a very clear distinction between the two forms when

he proposes two criteria against which they should be measured: the first is their relation to historical time, the second refers to the role of language. 13

Fate and Character

When placed in connection to historical time tragedy appears as a struggle of the individual to uproot himself from the demonic past he has inherited in its mythological form, in order to break through the complica tions imposed by prophec y and guilt. Tr agedy and the concept of fate derived from it represent a stage prior to the birth of

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law, a stage that the law was intended to overcome, but which it was never able to surpass completely. Its historical relevance rests on the hope it expresses that the newborn law might be able to deliver the hero from natural guilt, while at the same time never showing this task as fully achieved. When Benjamin calls the death of the tragic hero an ironic death he refers to the fact that his sacrifice doesn't institute a new order, as it has been so often claimed. The death of the hero reveals the hidden face of the law and the demonic forces it wished to silence. In the context of tragedy, this remnant appears as destiny. It is this understanding of the law that ties up the tongue of the hero. He is mute, for the language capable of breaking the circle of destiny that tightens up around him in his last moments is still to come. Benjamin's interpretation of tragedy was guided by the need to free the concept of fate from its association with ethics, on the evidence that there is no correlative concept for destiny within the moral sphere embodied by justice, as there is for guilt, namely innocence. " In the Greek classical development of the idea of fate , the happiness granted to a man is understood not at all as confirmation of an innocent con­ duct of life but as a temptation to the most grievous offence, hubris.

There is, therefore , no relation of fate to innocence ."14 Claiming that innocence remains outside the realm of tragedy, Benjamin not only removes the tragic hero from an ethical sphere which escapes him, but also denies the relevance of the religious sphere: there is no room within tragedy for anything that is not misfortune, and thus there is no possible path for liberation. The context in which tragedy can be best understood in its relation to the Greek perception of phenomena remains that of law in its earlier stages, when the first forms of admin­

representation of tragedy, were

still embedded in the demonic forces they set out to overcome. The setting of this theatre reminded the audience of the court of law in several ways: the dialogue (the direct interpellation and the defence) , the unity of action (the trial) , the unity of place (the tribunal) , and the unity of time (the judicial session) . 15 Yet tragedy remains foreign to the administration ofjustice when it confines the hero to natural determinations and stages the enslavement to natural guilt, be it by negligence or omission. The protagonist enters the stage loaded by a remote mythological past, of which the mask, costume , and buskin give a hint. These theatrical devices place him on a larger scale than mere human determinations, as does the open-air theatre . And the plot sets out the knot of an ancient and ind elible culpability. This far-

istratingjustice , contemporary with the



reaching past is remembered in the deeds and the death of the hero, and by the complicated threads of prophecy, which leave no room for innocence . This remnant never enters the domain of tragedy. Rather it is kept carefully outside it, either in the satirical play that precedes the representation of tragedy or in the comedy that follows it. A passage from the essay "Fate and Character" situates tragedy on the balance of law and suggests that on such a scale "bliss and innocence are found too light and float upward":

and innocence are found too light and float upward": Law condemns not to punishment but to

Law condemns not to punishment but to guilt.Fate is the guilt context of the living.It corresponds to the natural context of the living-that semblance (Schein), not yet wholly dispelled, from which man is so far removed that, under its rule, he was never wholly immersed in it but only invisible in his best part.It is not therefore really man who has a fate; rather the subject of fate is indeterminable.The judge can perceive fate wherever he pleases; with every judgement he must blindly dictate fate.It is never man, but only the life in him that it strikes-the part involved in the natural guilt and misfortune by virtue of semblance. (204)

Fate corresponds to a vision of man that links him to nature and makes him appear at the same level as natural phenomena. Seen on this level, only a part of the entire being of the hero emerges. Yet this mere fragment is the most visible from outside , the point of view that tragedy configures for its godly and human spectators. Here Benjamin seems to propose a reading of fate similar to other practices of in terpretation, such as astrology, haruspices, or augury, all claiming to identify a concept of fate wi thin a correlation borrowed from the physics of natural phenomena. The difficulty of the text corresponds to the difficulty of the task he sets forth.16 Perhaps the enigmatic prose extends from an implied analogy Benjamin draws between identifying a pure concept of fate and reading the mantic signs. In fate , as in these different interpretative practices, the one who is struck is unable to access its meaning. Only a staged act of interpretation supplies this meaning, whether carried out by the judge or the soothsayer. Both link the living being to the circle of nature that, by virtue of its semblance provides a similarity between the human order and the physics of things. It is this similarity and its mere appearance that obscures the part of the human being soaring above the sea of culpability and sentences him to natural guilt and misfortune. If tragedy grasps the natural life of man under the com­ plicated knot of destiny, leaving no room for other determinations besides the physical ones, comedy opposes this definitive sentence with the belief in the natural innocence of man. Based on the notion



of character, Benjamin's interpretation of comedy is guided by this original phenomenon , equivalent to natural culpability and of equal import for bot h anthropology and philosoph y. The essay "Fate and Cha racter" was devoted to spelling out the confusion between the two concepts and to deny any intimate asso­ ciation between them, as established both by scholarship and several practices of int erpretation, including ch iromanc y. It was imp ortant to withdraw fate from the religious and ethical spheres and to introduce it instead among perceptions of natural phenomena, in order to make explicit the constraints this determination imposes on the speech and deeds of the tragic hero. By the same token, the iden tification of fate as a natural constraint touching the physical life of the tragic hero through the complicated thread of guilt, underscored the sim­ plifications involved in the practice of predicting someone's future from reading the lines of a hand. The practice remains a legitimate one in so far as it indicates a series of corresponding phenomena in nature and in man , which may be identified only through a process of interpretation or reading of the signs of the body. Its outcome however, is not. Furthermore it was crucial for Benjamin to divorce the concept of character from its moral connotations and to find a natural correlation for it, if it was to occupy the same scale as fate and allow him to measure one against the other. This might well have been the purpose of a project on classical French comedy: to develop , as exemplified by the genre, the notion of character as the proper site of the natural innocence of man and to assess its weight on a scale that already places on its other pan the concept of fate , proper to tragedy. Derived from the study of Moliere's comedy, the concept of charac ter, might have received en ough weight to rebalance the scale and to temper the Greek vision of culpability and its heaviness with the perception of happiness. The closing paragraphs of "Fate and Character" suggest this new envisaged equilibrium:

While fate brings to light the immense complexity of the guilty person, the complications and bonds of his guilt, character gives this mystical enslave­ ment of the person to the guilt context the answer of genius.Complication

the dogma of the natural guilt of

human life, of original guilt, the irredeemable nature of which constitutes

becomes simplicity, fate freedom


the doctrine, and its occasional redemption the cult, of paganism, genius opposes a vision of the natural innocence of man. (205-06)

A line from the fragment " Moliere: The !magi.nary Invalid" indicates the place Benjamin intended to secure for comedy: " Moliere is the exact tangent of the French spirit in respect to the Greeks. "17 This


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scant remark suggests the importance he was to assign to comedy on the basis of its authenticity. French comedy, like Gre ek trage dy, is an art form able to secure and disclose a perception and attach to it an original form. As much as Greek tragedy brings forth the understand­ ing of guilt outside the domain ofjustice, French comedy reveals its originality when it presents innocence outside the relationship to law. Neither the brief fragments on comedy nor the several passages dedicated to this topic elsewhere allow for the pursuit of the inster­

section suggested by Bertjamin in his own terms. Nevertheless, the relationship between comedy and tragedy deserves to be taken further, in order to clarify the significance both of a genre whose treatment was supposed to stand as a companion piece to the treatment of the Baroque drama and of the philosophical issues brought forth by the consideration of works of art as proper sites for truths.

Comedy and Law

According to the law, the accused is declared innocent only by clear­ ing him of the charges brought against him. To this extent the state of innocence is derived from the rej ection of an accusation of guilt already made: a person becomes innocent only after guilt has been initially supposed and then set aside for lack of evidence. Because in the realm ofjustice innocence is thus drawn from guilt, it cannot appear but in reference to it, as its negation. And no matter how much relief or happiness one may fe el when acquitt ed, no release from a ch arge can completely restore what was taken away from the moral identity of the accused by the incriminator, just as no apology can erase the impact of a ligh tly thrown word. It can only acknowledge it. To this extent innocence as a restoration of what is right carries with it the shadow of deceit. The legal context denies the state of innocence de facto when it acknowledges innocence dejure. Therefore , in the context

of law, innocence is to be proved according to a protocol. It is never an assured matter, as it can always be attacked by public or private accusations. "Thus the freedom of the citizen depends on the good formulation of criminal law,"18 never on presumed innocence. When Montesquieu remarks that whenever the innocence of citizens is not assured by the laws freedom has not been granted either, he implies that innocence is a matter of accurate formulations of law, not a mat­ ter of legal principle. Innocence doesn 't refer to the nature of man; it refers to the nature of governments in their capacity to produce good legislation. Within this correlation it remains a derivative product,



following from a presupposed, yet unsubstantiated guilt, not a primary and fundamental determination of the human being, as it is presented in comedy. The relevance of the genre, which Benjamin places on the same footing as tragedy, consists in proposing a vision of innocence that no law can question, acknowledge, or refute. Moliere 's comedy shows the proper sphere occupied by natural innocence when it places at its centre as the main protagonist " an individual whom, if we were confronted by his actions in life instead of by his person on the stage , we would call it a scoundrel. On the comic stage , however, his actions take on only the interest shed by the light of character, and the latter is, in classical examples, the subj ect not of moral condemnation but of high amusement. It is never in themselves, never morally, that the actions of the comic hero affect his public; his deeds are interesting only insofar as they reflect the light of character" (" Fate and Character" 205). These lines suggest that the study of comedy is perforce grounded in the concept of character, whi ch, in classical examp les, offers a fr amework for the perception of innocence outside the ethical realm ofjustice. The mention of the scoundrel among the main protagonists of comedy points to a set of natural determinations morally indifferent, such as cleverness or stu­ pidity, wh ich are for eign to the spher e of law. However fr uitful these remarks on the comic character are, Benjamin never followed up these general statements on the nature of comedy. Ye t they dese rve to be taken a step further, more fully delineating this sphere of comedy as a counterpart to the tragic vision of man defined by the Greeks. An example from Moliere 's plays may clarify the issue . Scapin the Schemer presents a series of in trigues and inventions forged by the title character to bypass the stipulations of law and to keep himself out of the grip ofjustice. All the devices he imagines, all the dangers he encounters, including the clubbing, are the signs of the liberties he takes with and against the law. And his long discourse, exposing to Argante the reasons not to go to court and annul his son 's unwanted marriage, points to a world of serenity and ease where life could be lived ever after, once the complications of heavy legal procedures are avoided: "I beseech you to keep away from this Hell on earth . To go to the law is to be damned while you are still alive , and the very thought of such a thing would be enough to send me off in voluntary exile as fast as my fe et would carry me."19 In Scap in's wor ds, the legal course of action becomes a punishment in itself, inflicted prior to any judgement. It ensures everlasting pain even before a sentence is passed. Through his speech he warns that each stage of the procedure



will fall upon the claimant as blows of clubs, for every word he utters slaps Argante and makes him shrink.20 While presenting the exercise of human justice as irredeemable damnation falling upon the victim much before the lastjudgement, Scapin proposes a new path for rec­

onciliation between the involved parties as a way to save everyone. It is common knowledge that at the time the multiplicity of French royal, county, and ecclesiastical decrees, and above all their overlap­ ping, made the administration ofjustice heavy to handle, difficult to understand, and easy to defer. Racine 's comedy The Pkaders presents these ins and outs of law at the end of the play when the judge turns mad and the guilty parties of a long-lasting trial are declared to be two dogs. To this failure of law, Moliere brings a deeper insight.

Scapin's incredible stratagems are rooted in his cleverness. These include the story about the Tu rkish galley kidnapping Ger ont e 's son, a ploy invented to secure from the father the necessary sum to buy

Leandre 's bride without having to steal the

point to a realm foreign to the law. Moreover they suggest that, in its alienation, the legal system relates to the rule of law on land as pirate justice at sea.21 By means of the comic character, comedy not only points at the holes within the judicial system, it also annuls its very raison d'etre, by turning justice into a scarecrow, a toy one can play with as one pleases. At the moment when it reconciles fathers, sons, and servants in the act of pardon, clearing all involved parties of any responsibility and ill faith , Scapin the Schemer challenges the law's very nece ssity. Th rough this process that counterposes the law to the high cleverness of man , the comic character of the scoundrel , the one who acted and devised all the way through , appears as a sign of nature , a stigma. This word is to be taken not in its moral, but in its physiognomic sense: as a birthmark or a scar. After fathers and sons are reunited in the play's final scene, Scapin performs his last trick to obtain pardon and escape justice. He enters the scene with his head wrapped with bandages covering a mortal wound and begs for mercy so that he may leave the world in peace. This mask fe atures his cha rac ter as a natural inscription of his doings, and his spirited temper and inventiveness as a physiognomic trait, "laying bare all his brain."22 The mercy he receives is the acknowledgement of an innocence never in need of proof, but granted under the aegis of character, with the words, deeds, and gestures that the comic poet lends to the protagonist. The comedy of character interjects this insight into the natural innocence of man ; it endows this innocence with the obj ectivity of a mask, a mask on which one can read the protagonist's

money. Such contrivances



fe atures like on a forehead or a ha nd. This aspe ct of the genre was retained by Benjamin when he envisaged Moliere 's comedy in the same tradition as Greek tragedy, the tradition of drama of mask. The originality of both genres rests on two equivalent modes of knowledge shaping the natural determination of the living being, character and fate, outside the moral and religious spheres.

Was Benjamin's envisaged study on comedy guided by the forebod­ ing that comedy can bring a new dimension to recognised forms of knowledge defining human understanding and the use of reason? Did he also fe el that the genre might help to ach ieve a level of in tegration between natural phenomena and their representation, beyond the self-imposed limitations of Kantian anthropology? According to that conception , character is an acquired mode of thinking revealing a person's compliance with certain principles prescribed by reason. As such, the notion of character describes what the individual does with himself, and is opposed to temperament, which bears the imprint of nature . 23 Is comedy a genre testifying to that indiscernible level of human action and reasoning where thought is not just recognisable through deeds in a moral sphere, but is also inscribed in an exterior mark? A mark that is bold enough to envisage a natural sphere for thought? In other words, could thought be expressed in the same ways as the ancient doctrine of humours envisaged temperament? In order to answer this question we have to go back to the tradition of

the drama of mask Benjamin invokes and to the philosophical issues it raises.

The Drama of Mask

Aware of the immense distance in time between Greek tragedy and French comedy, yet convinced of their significant correlation when viewed together from an anthropological point of view, Benjamin sought a point of intersection between the two genres prominent enough tojustify a common ground yet sufficiently distant to account for the centuries separating them. This point emerges when Benjamin places Moliere 's comedy wi thin the remote tradition of the drama of mask, a tradition which probably started before the Greeks, took its first historical form in the Greek drama, was then continued in Plaut us's and Te ren ce's Latin comedies, and rea ched the Middle Ages through Hroswitha von Gandersheim 's theatre. These landmarks of the dramatic tradition leading up to the seventeen th-cen tury French comedy designate the milestones according to which the genre was to



be measured in order to answer what was the main question raised by such an art form. "The question is to establish if he (Moliere) continues this tradition, the tradition of the drama of mask. The comic mask as well as the tragic mask. All of these are the most fundamental issues

concerning drama and the classical spirit of the drama depends on

the mask" ("Moliere: Der Eigenbildete Kranke" 612).

The mask, characterising both tragedy and comedy, is the distinc­ tive fe ature that captur es, over a long span of time , the very spirit of classicism. The investigation of classical French comedy was directed, as much as was the study of German Baroque drama, towards the jus­ tification of an aesthetic categorisation, historically grounded within

a philosophical tradition that Benjamin enlarged to accommodate

works of art. In this light the project on comedy appears indeed as

a companion piece to the book on the mourning plays, since it was

probably also intended to reconsider the notion of classicism in a manner paralleling Benjamin's reflection on the tensions character­

ising the Baroque age. The comparison may be taken a step further in terms of method. We may see in the proposal to treat Moliere 's dramaturgy in the context of the drama of mask the deployment of

a tool equal to allegory. What would then be the content of French

comedy if considered in this tradition?

One of the most common fe atures of

the Trauerspiel consists in

presenting sovereigns accompanied by their councillors. These char­ acters are the intrigants of the plays; with them comic elements enter the drama.24 While one represents sadness, the other, always near the despot, presents derision toward human vanity. Their ill-council, while

fooling the prince and sealing his damnation, gives them pleasure and

makes them laugh at the credulity of the master. Benjamin invests this dramatic construction with a theological content. If the melancholy of the prince is so close to the joy of the intrigant, it is because both phe­ nomena reveal in the distance the kingdom of Satan. This significant correlation , associating deep melancholy with the relation between the prince and his demonic j ester, is a major theme of the theatre of


at the very heart of the law of the genre. Baroque theatre reveals its

historical identity when it shows comedy developing wi thin drama. Here Benjamin touches the clearest foundations governing the status of Baroque theatre. Under no circumstances could comedy emerge in the realm of tragedy, and it is their separation that accounts for the opposition of classical drama to the Baroque forms that were to be further developed by Romanticism. The essay "Fate and Character,"

era, including Calderon's and Shakespeare 's. This linkage resides



while setting the two concepts apart, also argued indirectly for the

separation of two different truth contents, which do not mix together within the classical tradition .

The reflection on classical comedy and the insight into the law

of the genre goes back to this particular point in the analysis of the

mourning play wh en Benja min clarifies the mixed fe eling of sadness

and joy. The Trauerspiel owes

their classical guise. From a historical point of view, Greek tragedy

had been put to death long ago by the Platonic dialogue , at the end

of the Sy mposium when Socr at es, still awake, suggests that the true poet is the one who can write both tragedy and comedy. Giving th is advice to Agathon and to Aristophanes at the end of a night-long

dialogue opposing different forms of discourse given in honour of a

god, Socrates keeps his own speech out of both, and thus suggests a different way to continue the dramatic form. Benjamin refers directly

to the last lines of the Sy mposium in a concluding passage on the

tragic dialogue , as a way to introduce the language of Trauerspiel and its mixture of melancholy and comedy (Ursprung 297). He also refers to it indirectly in the fragm ent on Moli ere 's Imaginary Invalid, when he briefly mentions why classical drama, both tragedy and comedy, can be explicated within the context of the drama of mask-because both develop forms of knowledge and language divergent from the Platonic dialogue and the philosophical norm it imposed on the subseq uent his tory of philosoph y. Philosophy can be neither comic nor tragic, only sober, like Socrates's speech at dawn. Comedy and tragedy are forms which remain outside the recognised philosophical forms, and for which Socrates set the rule of sobriety: "Only when one had recognised the depth of the unexpressive in tragedy and the intellectual purity of comedy, and established their in terchangeable role, would it be possible to consider the problem of philosophy and

establish with precision the genre of Platonic dialogues, from which these two forms of language and knowledge-for this is how these two

forms are to be grasped-are

her e

Kra nke" 612). Thus the study

fa lling apart" ("Mol iere: Der Eigenbi/,dete

nothing to either tragedy or comedy in

of comed y and tragedy delin eates

a role never before accorded to them; they are invoked to shed light on the philosophical genre invented by Plato , a genre which departs from both of them. Was Benjamin about to set out one of the possible ways to draw the

historical limits of the Platonic dialogue between Greek tragedy and French comedy? A long development on the tragedy in the Trauerspiel

book may point in this direction as it contrasts the death of the tragic



hero with Socrates's death and with the martyr drama, a close relative of the mourning play. Was this an alternative to Nietzsche 's approach to the same question concerning the end of the tragic poem as genre and the beginning of Plato 's prose through a critique of art forms?25 And was the understanding of French comedy directed towards find­

ing a terminus point for the rationality instaured by Socrates within the Platonic dialogue? The answer to these questions depends on the way both genres are made to accommodate forms of knowledge which remain outside the reach of the Platonic dialogue. Benjamin identifies these forms in tragedy and comedy, both forms of dialogue shaped by the distinctiveness of the drama of mask they represent in opposition with Plato's dramatic staging. The Greek drama of mask corresponds to a staging of human speech preceding the beginning of philosophy as we find it in the Platonic dialogue. Philosophy's urge to identify, to the best of human abilities, a way to speak about the nature of things (physics), of men and gods, from the point of view of humans, left behind the vision of enslaving guilt, and brought about the end of tragedy. Searching for the most appropriate way to talk about natural phenomena, laws, education, love , the protagonists participate in all these things. They undertake their specific course of action not as objects in the hands of gods but as subjects, attaching to each topic a good formula, a correct expres­ sion. It was Socrates 's task to endorse through each of his speeches, the stake that human beings have in what happens, and to present this involvement as a proper way to speak and behave , as their own

responsibilit y. In the per son of Socr at es, the in dividual breaks free from the demonic powers of fe ar by tur ning the gods, and what poets and myth say about them, to his side. Phaedo, recounting Socrates's last hours, which were no different from the other hours of his life, describes the dialogue scene in opposition to the tragic scene: "I certainly found being there an astonishing experience. Although I

the death of one who was my friend, I had no fe eling

was wi tnessing

of pity, for the man appeared happy both in manner and words and he died nobly and without fear. "26 Here another scene opens up, cleared of tragic passions, of terror and pity. It is the scene in which the protagonist acquires speech, and its apprenticeship institutes a rationality not only for him but also for his disciples and others to come. With the change of scene another form of truth emerges when the protagonist, now able to speak for himself, bequeaths his speech to his friends. This anonymity of truth and of the rationality to which it gives rise, required further developments in Plato's writings, including



the dialogues where Socrates is absent or keeps silent. There are many instances where the participants, after agreeing on a formulation in a given context, remove it from its original setting and try it again on a different topic, to check and prove its validi ty. Although never directly expressed in these terms, Benjamin acknowledges this procedure as the norm of philosophy: the subject who speaks withdraws from the scene of the dialogue for the benefit of what is said, so that what is said could be spoken by other mouths.

the individual from the scene

These remarks on the wi thdrawal of

of the dialogue conclude the historical presentation of tragedy in the Trauerspiel book, but the anonymity of truth to which several other

fragments and writings refer becomes the touchstone of the critique to come. Wheneve r he considers art forms like tragedy or comedy, the task of criticism is to position them according to a canon responsible for our rationality and the anonymous way it is constituted. And thus,

through interpretation , it is also to make the work reveal its truth as an anonymous or unexpressive form. In other words, Benjamin conducts the study in such a way as to deliver its meaning, not as the consequence of an act of judgement, but rather as the unveiling of the different possibilities of a work within a framed historical time. Thus tragedy and comedy are invoked as forms able to elucidate the nature of the Platonic dialogue on the assumption that they too participate in the constitution of truths through their dramatic form. To the anon y mity of reason deli vered by the Platonic staging of the dialogue , corresponds the unexpressiveness of the drama of mask, in both its tragic and comic forms. Their distinction is firstly one of language. Benjamin made this point clear when he opposed the

silence of the tragic hero to Socrates's loquacity, lasting beyond his death. The anonymity of the masked protagonist refers to another

content. For in tragedy, the covered face marks a degree of passion that overcomes speech and annihilates its powers. It refers precisely to a force, that of fate, whose grip on the hero keeps him immature and speechless. The comic mask is different. It alludes to the same serenity Socrates exemplifies, yet it turns against the ways it is achieved in Plato's dia­ logues. The language of comedy points precisely to the limits of faith in human language and its reliability. In the comic dialogue, language can always be turned around and twisted by language. Moreover no knowledge remains intact when subjected to an art of dialogue devised to elicit human individuality in its capacity to question com­ mon grounds, the very grounds of a shared dialectical scene. This



is revealed by comedy not as an intention to deceive , even less as a way to revoke the achievements of logic, but rather as a description

of the very nature of rationality and its tendency to enthrone itself at the expense of other kinds of knowledge. Don Juan 's response, when queried regarding his beliefs, is: "I believe that two and two

make four, Sganarelle, and four and four make eight. "27 Don Juan, the rational character, uses his reason like his sword, to kill dead arguments stopping him from proceeding on his way. But through comic dialogue these arguments keep bouncing back, forcing reason to spin around itself until it surrenders in laughter.28 No matter how much commentators wished to emphasise Don Juan 's punishment by the statue of the Commander, it is still difficult not to see in this huge

marionette, who merely nods his head, an allegory of reason , suiting

the fashion of the time. The statue grasping Don Juan 's hand and consuming him in fire leads him to the depth of reason the libertin was first to claim. This landscape is no different from the hell Scapin referred to when presenting the arcana of law. Never does Moliere come closer to the drama of mask than when he introduces on stage the moving statue of the Commander, this revenant who comes back from the dead, to interrupt the supper and demand his dues. His petrified face shows at once all that Don Juan has said and done dur­

ing five acts, transforming the allegations into a kind of playful word game. If Don Juan 's speeches were an attempt to set him free from

any given conventions-marriage , religion, money-and thus to end­ lessly defer the question of responsibility, then this remote place of freedom which he always envisages in the name of (another) reason, is opening to him with a nodding welcome and consumes him on its pyre. The statue discloses in an unexpressive form, beyond words and deeds, the pursuit of reason to the end by reducing it to a gesture. In this image , Benjamin's insight into the nature of comedy as the drama of mask finds its con firmation. The mask of comedy, here Don Juan 's eternal youth and thirst for experience, conveys the anonymity of the moral person, whose character says nothing of his intentions, only of his thinking. Like Scapin's mask pointing to his brain, the statue of the Commander is an enlargement and exaggeration of Don Juan 's reasoning, until it disappears into void or laughter. After all , his dashing off might as well be a scheme to avoid paying Sganarelle 's wages.29

Benjamin's longest passage dedicated to French comedy is the frag­

ment on Moli ere 's Imagi,nary

of the mask as the particular mode of delivering the truth content of

comedy was in the first instance guided by this play. In the last lines

In valid. It is likely that the ident ific ation



of the fragment he cursorily notes that the main character should wear a mask, even if only an ideal mask so that the imagination which possesses him is also clearly marked from outside. "When he makes himself dead, he should veil his head even if Moliere doesn 't indicate so" (613). This remark refers to the third act of the play, when Argan, the Hypochondriac , plays dead in order to convince his brother that his young wife is not the inheritance hunter he believes her to be. The moment when he reluctantly accepts to counterfeit the dead-"Is there no danger in faking the dead?" he asks before taking on his role-his head must be veiled so that his illness is not mere appear­

ance but a form of life that is lived as an illness. The veil, concludes

Benj amin, is the secret

origin of the spirit of drama.

The Unexpressive

It is not possible at this point to further elucidate Benjamin's claim about the origin of drama remaining within the context of the frag­ ments on comedy. However some developments from the essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities might shed some light on its meaning. They occur on the occasion of clarifying Ottilie's beauty, and its relation to both semblance and its opposite, the unexpressive.30 In beauty, a term that holds for both the character of the novel and the work of art, dwells a semblance which gives to it the fe atures of life. All in beauty is not semblance however, despite the fact that what is beyond it, the unexpressive , cannot appear on its own :

Although the expressionless contrasts with the semblance, it stands in such a fashion of necessary relationship to the semblance that precisely the beautiful, even if it is not it.self semblance, ceases to be essentially beauti­ ful when the semblance disappears from it. For semblance belongs to the essentially beautiful as the veil and as the essential law of beauty, shows it.self thus, that beauty appears as such only in what is veiled. 31

This passage, while emphasising the necessary relationship between beauty and semblance, identifies a remnant of the beautiful, which doesn't disappear when beauty is envisaged outside semblance. Ben­ jamin designates that level, which criticism has as its task to construct whenever it approaches a particular art form, with the term 'unex­ pressive '. Its role is to forbid the beautiful to become an empty word when it is conceived by art criticism as beyond mere appearance . If semblance remains the medium in which the beautiful is perceived, if the former covers the latter like another skirt stuck to Glauce 's body, it


106 1

does not consume it in its radiance. It is the task of criticism to make

sure that the beautiful as semblance doesn 't absorb the work of art entirely and that it is confined only to its presentation. The beautiful

presents the content of the work as veiled and thus grants its mystery. Therefore the role of art criticism is, on the one hand, to acknowledge the beauty of works as secret, and by so doing to forbid empathy. On the other it has to show the necessary veiling for us. In other words, the meaning of an art form is never significant for us, unless in the process of interpretation the exposition of its meaning is parallel with the acknowledgement of its obscurity. The unexpressive corresponds to a concealment, inherent in all important works of art that the veil

to formulate. Shakespeare 's comedy, from whom Ben­

of beauty helps

jamin probably borrowed the term, furnishes an illuminating instance of the unexpressive in a scene where Orlando carves on trees not only the words praising Rosalind's beauty and virtue , but also a meaning he attac hes to them wh ich escapes fe eling. The "une xp ressive she" addresses the one he likes, Rosalind, as the one whom we like too, the beautiful girl disguised as a witty boy. Under the name of Ganymede, Rosalind's beauty is enhanced by the shepherd's inventive words and games, and saves it from being mere appearance.32

In a fragment on As You LikeIt, Benjamin takes this particular comedy for the epitome of the idea of art developed by the Romantics and the sense of infinity they attached to it.33 Shakespeare 's ease in transmut­ ing one appearance into another, in pursuing one deliberation into the next and in turning a previous form into the content of the fol­ lowing one , provided the German Romantics with the understanding of reflection as an endless process. They moved reflection from the world of drama, where Shakespeare staged it through his characters, into the realm of art critique-a critique that Benjamin was now pre­ pared to take a step further in the light of the discrepancy between the claim and the accomplishment of their philosophy. Opposing Goethe's theory of archetypes to the early Romantics idea of art, he writes : "With respect to the concept of beauty, Romanticism rej ected not simply rule but measure as well, and its literary production is not only ruleless but measureless."34 The unexpressive35 was a way to stop the infinite process of reflection characterising the contemplation of works of art and to limit the experience they provide to the experience of knowledge they host. Through the unexpressive, the work of art unfolds its truth content as a language-formation, which is neither that of the work nor of the subj ect who contemplates it. Such a language draws and displays the dimensions according to which what is known is



necessarily limited, while the veil under which it is known leaves open the possibility to know it again. The veiling of the content accounts for the historical life of a work, the one that will appeal to future gener ations because it allows them to read the artwork in fe atures of their own time. In this respect the process of criticism contributes

to the life of the work, while dispelling the appearance either of its beauty or of what its contemporaries identified with. To this extent,

the unexpressive touched on the meaningful level of a form belonging to the past. Perhaps it also expressed Benjamin's distance from the contemporary Expressionists ' art and its fits of passion. Benjamin 's own contribution to the staging of Moliere 's play-the

request to veil Argan 's head-was a way to indicate the secret of the genre of classical comedy and to establish its truth content in rela­ tion to the use of reason and its first enthroning through Plato 's

dialogues. It is under this veil that the old tradition of the drama of mask made its last appearance , while pointing to the use of reason

emerging from the determinations of man , the

in his highest degree of individuation. Moliere 's comedies present the forces resisting the exercise of reason as coming from reason itself. Its classical character rests on the dramatic role it assigns to appearance, to paradox or to flights of imagination. Appearance takes the form of a mask under which reason is covered, without being denied. Scapin

covering his head is a means of rendering his mental ruses sensible to the audience. Moliere 's text is explicit here in terms of stage direc­ tions. This is, however, not the case in his last play.

charac ter of comedy,

The Imaginary Invalid

In a consultation scene, Argan describes the symptoms of his illness as a veil intermittently covering his eyes (Act III, Sc. X) . Benjamin

takes this sign for a distinctive mark of character and sees in it a mode of constructing a reason particular to comedy. Compared to the way reason is achieved within Plato 's dialogue , to which Benjamin briefly alludes, comedy proceeds differently. In order to develop its argument, the philosophical dialogue marks clearly the instance of agreement bringing the protagonists together. They stop, as did Socrates on his way to Agathon's house , before moving ahead. This explicit moment of decision on what needs to be discarded from the next stages of conversation is absent from comic dialogue. It is precisely this absence that the comic action represents through obstacles and devices. The actions and knots of comedy teach that no agreement can be achieved



through conversation, as long as the characters maintain their high individuality. Resolution can come from action alone. In the case

of Mol iere 's comedies-baUet, such as the Ima{!jnary Invalid, where the

last scene is a masquerade , the ceremony ritualises thought and its driving force, through music and dance. Thus thought is presented

as an action, however abbreviated it may be to the dimensions of a


The last scene of the play stages a ceremony Argan performs to become a physician , get rid of the parasite presence of his doctor

and apothecary, and take care of himself. This triumph of imagina­ tion in music and dance reformulates on the level of sensibility the sense of the dialogues in p rose, and it confirms the invalid's infirmity, who suffers not from ruined body but failedjudgement. Nevertheless comedy doesn 't present this failure as an error or a deception. Rather

it emphasises the process of imagination in its work of de-forming

what has been previously formed within recognised formulae. The language of the scene awarding to Argan the title of doctor, is neither French nor prose anymore, but a mixture of several idioms sometimes scanned and sometimes sung, ye t perfectly comprehensible. "It is characteristic of all imagination that it plays a game of dissolution with forms. "36 Benjamin describes this process not in terms of a faculty of

an empirical subject who is affected by his inner representations but

rather as a manifestation of

it is perceived no longer as an instant of stillness, but as a transient

moment. The veil claimed by Benjamin for the Imaginary Invalid, is therefore justified by an astute reading of comedy as a way to repre­

sent reason and its recognised forms in the process of deformation imposed by imagination.37

The law of comedy would then be to make reason visible to the extent it is covered by the appearance of imagination and undergoes

a process of disintegration. Benjamin's veiling of Argan suggests

that in th e world of classical comedy, reason doesn 't collapse into nothingness or into the absurd, as in later forms of drama. What is envisaged in Moliere 's plays is a new birth of the world, according to

a subje ct, the ch arac ter of the comedy, who undoes what has been

previously done without destroying it. The creation of a new genre, the comedie-ballet, as well as the whole series of ima{!jnaires Moliere

invented, initiate a metamorphosis of the old genre of drama of mask and its forms. 38 They correspond to a perception of dissolution permeating old modes of thought and speech, one is transforming while remembering them . The tension between what was once said

a form dissolving itself from wi thin when



and coined and its transformation into another shape is at the basis

of Moliere 's

take place is not painful, since it doesn 't destroy, but reshapes. The parody of the Hippocratic oath , closing the Imagi,nary Invalid, is on e instance of such a happy conversion. And Agnes, the protagonist of the School of Wives, under stands Ar nolp he 's inst ruction to cha se her lover by throwing stones at him as a way to send him a letter wrapped

in a pebble. The action, reduced to a gesture , not only saves her from an unwanted marriage and announces the happy ending of the play. It also saves the old world from becoming mere appearance as its meaning is fading away into a new form, constantly referring to the old one. "It is like the sun setting over the abandoned theatre of the world with its deciphered ruins" ("Imagination" 281). If classical comedy, through the deformations through which it subj e cts the com­ mon formulae of ordinary language or recognised discursive forms (Hippocrates, Aristotle or Descartes) ,39 offers a view of the world at dusk, it opposes the dawn of Platonic dialogues and Socrates's sober speech. For in the latter, all subj ects of debate are submitted to a process of clarification for which the scene of the dialogue provides the theatre. Law, education, love, among other topics, receive in the course of the conversation a light, which indicates, like on a sundial, the physical determinations and the natural perception responsible for their formulation. In Moliere 's comedy, the diminishing light pene­ trates the theatre in the night scenes. Yet the dialogue, music, and dance exhibit, while exaggerating the fe atures of the comic ch arac ter, a striving to penetrate the darkness.40 This breaking through retrieves its positive meaning when understood as a gesture to undo what has been already done and reform it afresh. Benj amin 's understanding of Moliere 's comedy in the tradition of drama of mask is to be placed at the intersection of several paths he was pursuing when he envisaged the role of artworks as proper sites of truth. Its consideration came about at an early stage of the criticism he was beginning to synthesize. Before the later formulation of a criti­ cism able to put on display, through dialec tical images, the indire ct and distant ways in which truth contents are released in the process of interpretation, Benjamin's initial attempts to configure criticism were guided by the art of physiognomy, both an art of interpretation devoid of moral judgment and an art of reading images.41 On this basis he was to relieve artworks from both ethical and aesthetic judgment, and make them j oin a history of forms, whether conceptualised by literary or philosophical classifications. The project on comedy was meant

comedy and its serenity. The disintegration about to



to elucidate a number of issues opened by the preliminary research on the German mourning plays, and in the direction of inquiry and method set out by that book-in this respect the study of classical comedy was to be a continuation of it. For it was adding, to the form of baroque allegory, the classical mask, a form devised also to account for the truth content of a genre and to claim for it an original position in the history of art forms. Where allegory accounted for the sadness shaping the experience and contemplation of history as endless fall, the mask was to bring forth the serenity emerging from the deforma­ tion of previous forms. To the pain that accompanies the ongoing dissolution of creation into fragments corresponds the painless birth of new shapes. Both forms of drama refer to a perception of time

as an endless series of transitions, and bring this perception to the dimension of an image. One captures it under the facies hippocratica of history prognosticating imminent death, the other grasps it under the mask of imagination , a stigma that figures the living being not only as alive , but also deathless. If Argan needs to wear a mask, as Benjamin requires, it is not only to allude to the melancholy of the hypochondriac, whose imagination makes him sick of living. The ill­ ness, to the extent it occupies him ceaselessly, doesn 't kill him. Quite in the contrary, it keeps him alive. For the comic mask of the ill man presents the living being not as being condemned to death , only as being everlastingly ill. Comedy therefore displays him as ready to play with death itself, and in so doing it shapes the truth content proper to the genre. It appears as a moment of lucidity when from under the veiled face of death the human face breaks through , clear and pure , and triumphs over fe ars and pains. If the relationship of Moliere 's comedy to the Trauerspiel points to a method of investigation, allowing a delineation between classical and Baroque forms , both present in the same century, its relation to tragedy helps to describe accurately and over a huge span of time a content-innocence-never envisaged before outside the realm of justice. Comedy rightly deserves a place within the history of forms , for it shapes an original perception and gives to happiness enough weight to even the perception of misfortune hosted by the form of tragedy. Furthermore , its insertion wi thin the drama of mask, a tradi­ tion primarily recognised in relation to tragedy, but less remembered in the context of Moliere 's comedy,42 would have furnished a standpoint for reshaping the concept of classicism on the basis of the status of appearance. It is the appearance of phenomena that was responsible for placing perception under the aegis of vision, and for translating



it into a terminology borrowed from the physics of things.43 Once this classical tradition was identified within drama under the figure of the mask, and the language particular to tragedy and comedy described, once both suffering and serenity were exposed as determinations of nature in man and their objectivity established under the unexpressive mask, a further question was to follow, one concerning the status of the Platonic dialogues as a form removed from the tradition of the drama of mask. It is from the perspective of such a reflection, which can be followed in other fragments written at the time, that the pas­ sages on comedy can be clarified.44 Benjamin refers to French comedy at different stages of his work in different ways. As a classical genre contemporary with a Baroque form, Moliere 's plays demonstrate that the concept of classicism is not given to us with the ancient texts we 've inherited. It has rather to be produced in the act of in terpretat ion: this was th e meaning fu l relationship Benjamin drew when he situated Moliere 's comedy in the tradition of the drama of mask. As a form of dialogue emerging from this tradition, comedy was called upon alongside tragedy to clarify the sobriety of philosophical discourse, and also perhaps to show what it silenced when it made Aristophanes speak according to his head, not his muse.45 As truth content it opposed, through the notion of character, the concept of fate shaped by tragedy, and rebalanced an asymmetry that could never sustain happiness on an even scale with unhappiness. In this respect, comedy revealed itself in relation to a rationality, which Plato had seen at its dawn , and Moliere , at its dusk. Constellating all these issues, the study of comedy offered a new point of intersection between literary criticism, history and philosoph y. Why was it abandoned?

The Image-Space

All these directions of inquiry formed the core of Benjamin 's reflec­ tion betwe en 1916 and 1922, at a time when he was preparing for an academic career. If the Trauerspiel book could not bring him a chair in German Studies in 1925, he revisited the option again in 1928, when the University of Jerusalem was prepared to create an Institute of Human Sciences and envisaged appointing him to teach German and French literature. The curriculum mentioning the project on French classical comedy might have been written on this occasion. After the completion of the Habilitationschrift, however, Benjamin's interests and approach to art took a different path . It is the time of the political



fragments published first in the press, later assembled under the title One-Way Street, and a growing preoc cupation with Fr ench Surrealism and Russian Naturalism. These directions and others lead to the conception of The Arcades Project, which fe eds direc tly or indirectly all major essays to come. Here another path takes shape, and with it an increased awareness of the tensions at hand in any attempt to base a theory of knowledge on the perception of the present time, without losing the visibility (Anschaulichkeit) of history itself.46 The reception of Benjamin's work follows the critical reflection on modernity and the modem,47 which he was first to signal wh en he noted the affinity between his understanding of mourning plays and Baudelaire 's proj­ ect of making poetry into an organon for the perception of modem life. On his way to Calvary, the poet was sustained by a precious coin he received from the treasury of European society: "On its head it showed the figure of Death; on its tail, Melancholia sunk in brooding meditation. This coin was allegory. "48 Regular collaborations in the literary press after the failure at the University of Frankfurt, trips to Paris and Moscow, losses of different sorts: all these circumstances brought Benjamin's work closer to the conceptualisation of history and the exposition of it under the category of present time ( das Jetzt der Erkennbarkeit) , already sketched in the Trauerspiel book and the fragments on comedy. More acquainted with the most recent forms of art, familiar with the political engagement of Russian and Surrealist writers, Benjamin retraces his own awaken­ ing under the aura of Aragon's Traite du Style when he calls for the expulsion of moral metaphor from politics and for the discovery "in the space of political action the one hundred percent image-space."49 Such an image-space, like the actual space of the city, receives the task of organising pessimism by showing that each action of the modem man is absorbed and consumed in its very image . It also has the virtues of lucidity, the one first allowed by profane illumination. This in tegral actuality, presenting the inner man as a field common to materialism, the physical determinations of the creature, individuality, andj ustice, points to the fact that there is no exterior room left for evaluation , and hence, no outside point of view for contemplation. Benjamin perceived this new synergy already at work in Charlie Chaplin's films.50 Asserting the great significance of the cinema, Benjamin saw in it the ability to construct an image-space annulling any exterior position at the moment it brings together the moving image and the distraction of the audience. The film transforms the spectator into a collective body when it appeals to its emotions by means of laughter. It awakens



life by innervating the sleeping organs of the masses. In front of this new scene framed by technology, happiness withdraws to a minimum of perception. Chaplin 's image reminds Benjamin of it: "His clothes are impermeable to every blow of fate," yet these clothes are "far too small for him. "51 Alongside the mask of non-involvement, cinema pre­ cludes any relationship to comedy in its classical forms, and with it the perception ofhappiness as an original phenomenon. Charlie Chaplin 's comedy and Benjamin 's remarks on the genre recall the actuality of Kant's assertion that happiness may be only a usurped concept. By an ironic historical detour, which deserves its own recounting, a project once conceived as a way to rebalance the heaviness of Greek fate and suffering by individual freedom, happened to be abandoned.

Un iversity of Sussex


Curriculum Vitae (III), in Walter Benjamin, Sel.ected Writing3 II, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard

Curriculum Vitae (III), in Walter Benjamin, Sel.ected Writing3 II, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eliand, and Gary Smith (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999) 78. It is this translation we follow for the English version of Benjamin's texts. For the fragments available in German only we refer to the Gesammelte Schriften, published by Rolf Tiedmann and Hermann Schweppen hiiuser, reprinted by Suhrkamp (Frankfurt am Main, 1991) .


The translation is mine.


Allegory serves the exposition of Trauerspiel in the same way that the theory of mimesis, formulated by Aristotle's Poetics, furnished a level of integration able to host all human productions, be they in the realm of art, logic, or science. For an understanding of mimesis as an original mode of knowledge able to account not only for the exercise of arts, but also for the constitution of Greek science and philosophy, see C. Imbert, Phenomenologies et languesfurmulaires (Paris: PUF, 1992) ch. II, 70-88. Furthermore, allegory may be understood as a way to supplant the Kantian synthesis devoted to establishing the conditions under which judgement articulates experience, and to bridge the gap between objective knowledge, limited to the dimensions of the object of experience, and general aesthetics, as it was formulated on the one hand by the judgment of taste, and on the other by the early Romantics' philosophy of art.


Poetics 50a 15.


The Reyen generally concludes each act of the TrauerspieL It is often a versified part where allegorical or mythological characters comment upon the action, while singing and dancing.


W. A Schlegel, Lectures on Dramatic Art, trans. J. Black (London: Bohn, 1846) Lecture Ill, 28.


On the several stages accounting for Benjamin's conceptualisation of history with the help of works of art, see C. Imbert's essay "Le present et l'histoire," in Walter Benjamin et Paris (Paris: Cerf, 1986) 743-92. Although the shaping of a concept of history to accommodate the present time as a time in which a work is able to be known is fundamental for describing the full extent of Benjamin's criticism, we have to leave here aside the relationship between allegory and Expressionist



art in favour of an earlier formulation of criticism as art of physiognomy. For it is this aspect of the task of criticism, present in the early writings, which sheds light on the fragments on comedy.

8 See the introduction Benjamin wrote in 1 935 to the Arcades Project and the entry N2a, 3, in The Arcades Project, trans. H. Eiland and K. McLaughlin (Cambridge:

Belknap, 1 999) 3-1 3, 462.

9 "Truth and Truths/Knowledge and Elements of Knowledge," fragment written in 1 920-21, in Selected Writings I, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael Jennings (Cam­

bridge: Belknap, 1 996) 278.

10 and Logic,"


fragment written in 1920-21, in SW I, 272.

11 in Trauerspiel and Tragedy" [1916] in SW I,



12 The title of the study in its English version, The Origi,n of German Tragi,c Drama, may contribute to entertain the assimilation of German plays with Greek tragedies and thus make less bold a fundamental distinction Benjamin draws between the two genres. This is why the genre is called here, as elsewhere, 'mourning play'.

13 Apart from the developments contained in the first part of the Trauerspiel book, these two issues are presented in the preparatory studies "Trauerspiel and Trag­ edy" and "The Role of Language in Trauerspiel and Tragedy," both dating from 1916 when the project was conceived. Their early composition as much as the reformulation of the same distinction in different terms, show the importance Benjamin was giving to their separation, and above all to the construction of the very criteria which allowed this.

14 "Fate and Character," in SWI, 203.

15 Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels, in GS l.l, 296.

16 Andrew Benjamin comments on the destructive character of the essay and its hermetic formulations in a different context: fate and character provide a reading for the thesis on history and the possibility of discarding both historical tempo­ rality and empirical chronology for the benefit of the concept of present time. See "Shoah, Remembrance and the Abeyance of Fate: Walter Benjamin's 'Fate

and Character, '" The Actuality of Walter Benjamin, them. issue of New Formations 20

( 1993) : 98-103.

17 "Moliere: Der Eingebildete Kranke," in GS II.2, 612.

18 Montesquieu, De l'esprit des lois (Paris: Flammarion, 1979) XII.II 328.

19 Scapin

the Schemer, trans. G. Graveley and I. Maclean (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1 998)

Act II, Sc.V 365.

20 "Just think of all the dishonest practices of the law, the number of appeals and different legal processes, the tiresome procedure, the ravenous rabble, through

clutches you must past; sergeant-at law, attorneys, advocates, registrars, deputies,

assessors, judges and their clerks"


21 To Geronte's faith in law, Scapin replies: "Law on the high seas? You must be joking!" (Act II, Sc.VII 371 ).

22 These are Carie's words introducing Scapin's last appearance, in which he performs his trick of "going fast" to meet his death (Act III, Sc. XII 389).

23 Immanuel Kant, An thropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, ed. M. J. Gregor (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1 974) Part II, Div. 285 151.

24 See Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels, 304-07.




characterising previous classifications, and instituted the genre of the nove� a kind of "enhanced Aesopian fable." The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New

York: Modern Library, 1 968) 99. The inquiry into

the genre of Plato 's dialogues

is simultaneous, in Benjamin 's reflection, with the formulation of concepts such as sobriety and the unexpressive. Such an approach was inductive of Benjamin's recognition of the fruitful path opened up by Nietzsche's work, yet it also expressed dissatisfaction with his terminology, which leads to the disappearance of all art forms into appearance.


Plato, Phaedo, 58d, in Complete Works (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 1997)



Don Ju an, in Don Ju an and Other Plays, trans. George Gravely and Ian Maclean

(Oxford: Oxford, 1 989) Act II, Sc.

I, 61.



See Sganarelle's long response to Don Juan 's discourse on the best way to do whatever he likes with "no risk of being called to account for it" (Act V, Sc.II 86-88). Sganarelle's reply brings to mind the first principles of philosophy.


The last words of the play are Sganarelle 's: "But who will pay my wages?" (Act V, Sc. VI 91).


The term translates the German "das Ausdruckslose," often rendered into English as "expressionless" like in the quote above. However because the use of the term may be followed back to one of Shakespeare's comedies, I' ve opted for the exist­ ing English word.


"Goethe's Elec tive Affinities," in SWI, 350.



For the separation between appearance and truth within the beautiful, and the wider meaning of the unexpressive as a concept designed by Beajamin's criticism to capture the content of the artwork in its relationship to natural life, see Bernd

Witte, Walter Benjamin: Der Intellektuelle als Kritiker (Stuttgart, 1 9 76) 2.6, 69-79.


GS ll.2, 610-1 1.


The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism, in SW I, 1 84.


In his German translation of As You Like It, W. A. Schlegel rendered ' the unexpres­

sive she ' by 'die

unnennbare sie ', the one who cannot be named. The unexpres­

sive, as concept able to measure what is un-nameable, is also an indirect way for Benjamin to distance himself from the Ro mantics ' understanding of infinity.


"I magination," fragment written in 192 0-21, in SW I, 280.


On the aesthetic dissociation between creation and formation replicating the distinction between life and art and the relation of the latter to the unexpres­ sive, see Rainer Nagele, "The Eyes of the Skull," in Theatre, Theury, Speculations:

Walter Benjamin and the Scenes of Modernity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1 991)

1 08-34.


Among the most famous are Sganrelle (le Cocu Imaginaire) , Monsieur Jourdain ( the Would Be Gentleman) , Jupiter (as Aphithryon ).


The same holds for Moliere's theatre in relation to the comic tradition of both Latin comedy and Italian commedia dell'arte.


Besides the Prologue of the Nigh t, framing the setting of Amphitryon, see also the opening scene of Le Sicilien and George Dandin, Act III, Sc. IV.


The configuration of a physiognomic criticism was an important step in fram ing art forms within the dimensions of an image, and in securing objectivity without compromising the subjectivity of the viewer. Beajamin will invoke the same art of reading in the essay "On the Image of Proust," written in 1929 and revised in 1934. On the development of Benjamin's "physiological stylistics" as a way to


107 1

construct an image of aging to be placed at the threshold between autobiography and novel, between forgetting and retrieving, see Carol Jacobs's essay "Walter Benjamin: Image of Prous t," in Jn the Language of Wa lter Benjamin (B altimore:

Johns Hopkins UP, 1 999) 40-57.

42 The mask in Moliere's comedies becomes an object of reflection for drama pro­ ducers first. Jacques Copeau had introduced the mask in the representation of the plays from 1913. The first production, opening the new founded Theatre du Vieux-Colombier, was Moliere 's L'amour midecin. Benjamin mentions his work in

a review of Baty's book, Le masque et l'encensoir [ 1927) , in GS III, 66.

43 The appearance of art works will be formulated again under the concept of aura,

a distinctive feature allowing the identification of the characteristics of mechani­

cally reproducible art forms. For the loss of aura and the parallel eviction of ap­ pearance from criticism , see Rodolphe Gasche, "Objective Diversions," in Walter

Benjamin '.s Philosophy: Destruction and Experience, ed. Andrew Benjamin and Peter

Osborne (London: Routledge, 1994) 1 90.

44 See, for example, "Das Gliick der antiken Menshen" ( 1 916) , "Socrates" ( 1 916) ,

"Language and Logic" ( 1 920-21),

45 The Symposium, 1 89, b7, 472.

46 See The Arcades Project [N2,6] 461 .

47 On the

first reception of Benjamin in Germany in the 1 960s, simultaneous with

and "The Paradox of the Cretan" (1919-20) .

a wider reception of Surrealism, see Bernd Witte, Walter Benjamin (1985] , French

translation (Paris: Cerf, 1 988) 1 30. The reception of his critical work started

mainly in the following decade, with the publication of the German edition of

the collected writings and the critical apparatus it contains. Since the collective

after Maurice de

Gandillac 's, "Trois entretiens" ( 1 971 ), Benjamin 's inheritance has been divided

among several disciplines and directions of inquiry. Numerous articles and books, several conferences, and a learned society have brought Benjamin's work to the core of academic research around the world.

volume Zur Aktualitiit Walter Benjamins ( 1 972) , published just

48 "Central Park" 36, in Selected Writings IV, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings (Cambridge: Belknap, 2003) 1 85 (translation revised).

49 "Surrealism," in SWII, 217.

50 "Chaplin in Retrospect" (1929] , in SW II, 224.

51 "Chaplin" [1928] , in SWII, 199.