Benjamin, Walter (1892–1940)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC089-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 15, 2024, from

3. Symbolism, melancholy and politics

Benjamin’s thought runs through two phases. In his earlier work, which included the important essay ‘Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften’ (Goethe’s Elective Affinities) (1922) and culminated in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin is concerned to explore the manner in which art adopts pragmatic stances. His initial target is what he calls the ‘symbolist’ approach to art: the view, whether asserted by critics or implied by art works themselves, that art makes magical contact with essential structures of reality. It may issue (as it did with Goethe) in a superstitious fatalism, or (as in certain seventeenth-century dramas) in a naive faith in the capacity of art mimetically to capture God’s creation.

Diametrically opposed to this stance is what Benjamin terms ‘melancholy’, a scepticism about the claims of science and empirical knowledge. The melancholic artist devises allegories and conceits to emphasize their despair at the inaccessibility of God’s reality; the Baroque Trauerspiel is a typical example of this attitude. However, this is a rash response to the problems of mimetic realism, or ‘symbolism’, for there is a third possibility available to artists: an interventionist pragmatism. This depends on their ability to perceive their own activities within a wider, political frame. In Benjamin’s view, if they can do this, they will ‘awaken under the open sky of history’; but the precise nature of interventionist art is something that, in the early work, still remains obscure.

Citing this article:
Roberts, Julian. Symbolism, melancholy and politics. Benjamin, Walter (1892–1940), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC089-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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