So let us dive into the Trauerspiel book, where I want to argue that Benjamin develps a distinct theory of allegory that he will subsequently appropriate as his own in the Passagenarbeit. Beneath the swirling eddies of that book on the German mourning play, I detect the deep currents of medieval biblical allegory, especially in the celebrated and influential final chapter of the book.23 I begin at the chapter's third and final section,24 for here, after dealing with the need to recover the value of allegory over against the symbol,25 as well as the various allegorical dimensions of the Trauerspiel itself, Benjamin moves to the heart of the nature of allegory - theology. 'For a critical understanding of the Trauerspiel, in its extreme, allegorical form, is possible only from the higher domain of theology; so long as the approach is an aesthetic one, paradox must have the last word'.26 Not theology as such, but specifically the theology of history: 'Such a resolution, like the resolution of anything profane into the sacred, can only be accomplished historically, in terms of a theology of history, and only dynamically, not statically in the sense of a guaranteed
22 Benjamin 1999a, p. 459; Benjamin 1972, Volume 5, p. 573.
23 Although very different, my argument here was triggered by Fredric Jameson's reading of Benjamin's work in light of the four levels (see Jameson 1971, pp. 60-83). Jameson's curious inversion of the second and third levels - he transposes the second (allegorical) and third (moral) levels - is important for the development of his own theory of three levels of interpretation in Jameson 1981. See further Boer 1996.
24 Benjamin 1998, pp. 215-35; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, pp. 390-409.
25 In his earlier critique of the valorisation of the symbol over allegory (Benjamin 1998, pp. 159-167; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, pp. 336-44), he also criticises the infatuation with the classicistic symbol over against the genuine - theological - one, which 'could never have shed that sentimental twilight over the philosophy of beauty which has become more and more impenetrable since the end of early romanticism' (Benjamin 1998, p. 160; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 336). Baroque allegory also attacks the incorruptible classicism of German thought (Benjamin 1998, p. 175; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 351).
26 Benjamin 1998, p. 216; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 390.
economics of salvation'.27 I will keep a close watch both on Benjamin's notion of the theology of history [Geschichtstheologie] and on the economics of salvation [Heilsokonomik], for they will emerge as crucial features of his discussion.
If Benjamin then seems to slide away for a few pages from the promise of the first few lines,28 ruminating on the function of the corpse in baroque drama, then we miss the deep theological current of an argument that only with death, as corpses, can the characters of the Trauerspiel 'enter into the homeland of allegory'.29 This is heavily Christological, for behind it lies the death and resurrection of Christ and the simultaneous absence (the empty tomb) and presence (in the Eucharist) of the body of Christ. The reference is by no means arbitrary, for the figure of Christ was the allegorical key in medieval biblical exegesis, the moment in the second or allegorical level in which interpretation began.
So it is that he looks back from the baroque fascination with the allegorical corpse:
It is not antiquarian interest which enjoins us to follow the tracks which lead from here, more clearly than from anywhere else, back into the Middle Ages. For it is not possible to overestimate the importance for the Baroque of the knowledge of the Christian origin of the allegorical outlook.30
Yet the possibility of baroque allegory arises from a conjunction of Christian and pagan traditions: the distinctly Christian forms of medieval allegory met various elements from Egyptian and Greek antiquity.31 Benjamin's immediate aim is to show how the baroque dramatists who wrote the Trauerspiele were well aware of this heritage, but his way of dealing with this relationship is what interests me. Instead of working directly with medieval biblical exegesis, he assumes them as an indispensable background: 'But it will be unmistakably apparent, especially to anyone who is familiar with allegorical textual exegesis . . .'.32 Benjamin seeks for the nature of baroque allegory around and
28 Benjamin 1998, pp. 216-220; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, pp. 390-3.
29 Benjamin 1998, p. 217; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 391.
30 Benjamin 1998, p. 220; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, pp. 393-4.
31 See Benjamin 1998, pp. 171-2; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, pp. 347-8.
32 Benjamin 1998, p. 175; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, pp. 350-1.
beneath this tradition. In the process, medieval allegorical exegesis becomes the absent centre of his writing on allegory.
Allegory has a tradition in biblical criticism that runs back to the earliest interpretation of the Bible, used by Origen for instance, who himself adapted a strategy used by the rationalist Hellenists, who found the myths of ancient Greece a little too crude for comfort and so interpreted them allegorically - as emotions, faculties of human activity, forces of nature, and so on. For Benjamin, this Greek heritage is pre-allegorical, since only with Christianity does allegory emerge fully. Yet, the irony of allegory is that, although it formed the basis of biblical interpretation for something like a millennium and a half, it is still in some disrepute in biblical studies, having to carry on a half-life in its various offshoots such as literary theory and cultural studies. The problem for biblical studies is that allegory is part of that whole world of interpretation dispensed with in the rise of 'modern' methods of interpretation that stressed the scientific and rational dimensions of the history of the Bible's emergence and of its literature.
Yet, allegory is a method of reading literature that has the Bible as its centre. The four levels of medieval exegesis, constructed over long years in order to contain the greater flights of fancy, have an extraordinary appeal about them. The names of the four levels - literal, allegorical, moral and anagogic -conjure up the richness of a vast history of interpretation. The allegorical level takes a first step by using the figure of Christ to render the meaning of the Hebrew Bible in Christian terms. Once this move is made, in which the Hebrew Bible refers to Christ himself, one can move to the life of the believer, the moral level, in which stories of the Hebrew Bible as well as the life and death of Christ refer directly to the individual life of faith. Finally, the ana-gogic level returns to the collective, although now in terms of the history of the people of God from creation to the end of the world. It seems to me that this extraordinary schema is the quiet partner to Benjamin's discussion, all the way through to his theory of history, one that relies on the final, anagogic, level of interpretation.
Demons, allegory and flesh (allegorical level)
Benjamin sets out on nothing less than a complete retelling of the history and development of allegory. And, in the process, he produces a finely tuned theory of the way allegory itself works - a theory that continues to reverberate in literary criticism, although hardly at all in biblical studies. It seems to me that such attention to the workings of allegory is nothing less than an attempt to unravel the second, crucial level of allegorical interpretation itself.
As for the history of allegory, Benjamin makes the striking point that it was a Christian and not a Hellenistic invention. The Hellenistic effort to deal with the gods of Homer and others is merely an 'intensive preparation'.33 In other words, Benjamin does not argue that allegory enabled the vaporisation of the gods, their reinterpretation as human emotions and so on, as happened in the Hellenistic era. Allegory arose only in the context of Christian opposition to the ancient gods. The problem for allegory was how to deal with these pagan 'gods': they were transposed from heaven to hell, becoming demons instead of gods. There is double dialectic here: to begin with, in the very act of banishing them, Christianity preserved the ancient gods, albeit in a faded and abstract form. Over against seeing allegory as a way of reading the gods out of existence, he argues that it was a means of preserving them in a hostile environment. But then, in dialectical obverse, allegory also arose precisely because it was not possible to banish them so easily. Their residual power had to be dealt with in some manner.
In other words, allegory names a paradox, for, in the effort at preserving what is passing, one seeks eternity: 'For an appreciation of the transcience of things, and the concern to rescue them for eternity, is one of the strongest impulses in allegory'.34 Here, we pass into Benjamin's broader theory of allegory, a method that works to preserve that which is passing away. Allegory is predicated on this desire, and, for the Middle Ages, it was the disappearance of classical antiquity that indicated the impermanence of all worlds and eras, locked into 'stations of its decline'.35 Or, as he puts it in the sentence made famous by Adorno: 'in allegory the observer is confronted with the facies hip-pocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape'.36
33 Benjamin 1998, p. 223; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 397.
35 Benjamin 1998, p. 166; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 343.
For a transient world that is running down in a spiral of decay and decline, ruins and fragments - the echo of the biblical 'remnant' should not be missed here37 - becomes a feature of allegory:
In the ruin history has physically merged into the setting. And in this guise history does not assume the form of the process of an eternal life so much as that of irresistible decay. Allegory thereby declares itself to be beyond beauty. Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.38
In order to deal with such a world, the very language of the baroque writers becomes allegorical, fragmented and broken - 'anagrams, the onomatopoeic phrases, and many other examples of linguistic virtuosity, word, syllable, and sound'39 - so that, at the moment such language loses its connection to traditional meaning, it becomes allegorical.40 And, here, the crucial second stage of medieval biblical allegory comes to the fore: the function of this second, properly allegorical stage was to unlock the restrictions of the literal meaning. Breaks and hitches, fragments of word and sentence, were the stuff of this second stage of interpretation. And, just like the medieval allegorists, the baroque artists were interested in the fragment or anomaly that provides the allegorical trigger.
Fall and Eschaton (moral and anagogic levels)
Whereas the initial phases of Benjamin's discussion concerns the allegorical stage proper, the later parts of the chapter on allegory focus on the moral and anagogic levels. The fourth and final level, the anagogic, begins with the Fall and closes with the Eschaton, and, within these parameters, comes history itself. At the third, by contrast, we have the individual life of the
38 Benjamin 1998, pp. 177-8; see also p. 188; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, pp. 353-4 and 364.
39 Benjamin 1998, p. 207; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 381.
40 Too often, however, elements such as transience, fragments, ruins and melancholy are carefully extracted from their theological context, which is then left by the wayside of Benjamin criticism. Susan Buck-Morss is a welcome exception: 'Benjamin's stated purpose in the Trauerspiel study is not so much to evaluate this Christian resolution as to demonstrate that in Baroque allegory, such theological thinking is primary'. Buck-Morss 1989, p. 174.
believer, for whom Fall and Eschaton become the daily battles with sin and the promise of personal salvation.
How, then, does the Fall appear? Through guilt - a guilt that attaches in allegory to both interpreter and object interpreted, that is, to human beings and nature which both suffer from the Fall. Here, allegory's profoundly Christian nature appears, for allegory is both a postlapsarian condition of language and the only possible means of salvation for guilt-laden nature - precisely because it sifts through the ruins in order to locate a moment of eternity. But there is a catch: the possibility of reading Genesis 2-3 as the 'Fall', as a narrative of sin and guilt, can happen only via an allegory in which Christ becomes the key. In other words, the moral (individual) and anagogic (collective) narrative of Fall and redemption is possible only with the allegorical moment of the New Testament. The second level enables the third and fourth to make their way forward.
Benjamin's treatment of the Fall will become central to my later discussion, especially for what I want to call Benjamin's anagogic theory of history. So let me explore for a moment the theological logic that lies behind Benjamin's fascination with the Fall. The Fall is ultimately oriented to the future rather than the past: built into the specifically Christian notion of the Fall is a pattern of redemption. Hardly a matter of free choice, the Fall is necessary for salvation - without the sin of Adam and Eve, Christ would not have appeared. Thus the Fall enables history itself to begin, specifically the history of salvation, Heilsgeschichte.
Personalised, this narrative becomes the contest between Satan and Christ. In the single theological figure of Satan all the pagan powers were concentrated, and so he becomes the ultimate allegorical figure. Tyrants, tricksters, intriguers, rogues of all sorts - whether in the Trauerspiele or Shakespeare -become allegories for Satan.41 Of course, Satan himself is another result of reading the Hebrew Bible allegorically in light of the New Testament. Thus the serpent in Eden becomes Satan, but he also is directly responsible for a Fall for which we need none other than Christ. In the moment of Satanic dominance does redemption appear, and the model for this is the death of Christ:
41 Benjamin 1998, p. 227; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 401.
The bleak confusion of Golgotha, which can be recognized as the schema underlying the allegorical figures in hundreds of engravings and descriptions of the period, is not just a symbol of the desolation of human existence. In it transitoriness is not signified or allegorically represented, so much as, in its own significance, displayed as allegory. As the allegory of resurrection.42
That Christ should appear eventually is hardly a surprise, given his cen-trality to medieval allegory. And this is the catch, for, if Christ is the key to allegory, then he is also the key to its redemption: allegory undergoes a reflexive redemption, internally transformed despite itself. In other words, allegory seeks a restoration of meaning, a 'parable of redeemed life'. For 'the intention does not faithfully rest in the contemplation of bones, but faithlessly leaps forward to the idea of resurrection'.43 But why faithless? In turning in on itself, allegory empties itself of content. Christ becomes a cipher for allegory, but, as he fades away in the non-existent realm of allegory, evil and vice dissipate to become the subjective knowledge of evil, i.e. guilt, which is the origin of allegory. The only redemption is of allegory itself.44 It seems to me that Benjamin's move here is extraordinarily volatile: he attempts to develop a method based on theological commentary or allegory that does away with the theological content. By arguing in a swift double-take that the only concern of allegory is allegory itself, he neatly sidesteps the truth claims of theology. Is Benjamin able to contain such a move? Adorno was not so sure, although he was fascinated by Benjamin's effort. While Adorno remained suspicious of any effort to base a position on theological categories, he also wanted to take theology to its dialectical conclusion - beyond theology. But let us see how the method Benjamin explores in the Trauerspiel book becomes his own in the last great work of his life.
42 Benjamin 1998, p. 232; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 406.
43 Benjamin 1998, p. 233; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 406. 'In a like manner [to Kierkegaard's critique of dialectics], Benjamin charged that the operation of allegory triggered meaning in the emblem, through a dialectical trick (Kunstgriff), as through a spring. At the deepest point of its fall or immersion (Versenlung) into nothingness, allegory in fact turned into a redemptive figure of itself'. (Hanssen 1998, p. 100.)
44 See further Adorno 1984; Hanssen 1998, p. 102; Buck-Morss 1989, pp. 174-5.
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