Writings about Goethe

Hélio Cabral (Journal de Resenhas)


Commentary on one of the volumes of the collected work of Walter Benjamin

With this volume, the reader has at hand two critical essays that allow not only to better understand the life and work of Goethe (helped, in this book, by the excellent notes of Marcus Mazzari), but also to understand the reflective and methodological reach of the practice Walter Benjamin's critique.

The first essay (1922), dedicated to Goethe's novel, The elective affinities, is a dense and difficult text from Benjamin's youth: a writing with profoundly metaphysical assumptions that provides a privileged link between the doctorate on the concept of criticism in German Romanticism, still marked by the style of the academic thesis, and the book much more daring and personal about baroque drama.

The second essay, from 1928 – fulfills a request from the “Great Soviet Encyclopedia”, which wanted a “Marxist interpretation of Goethe in 300 lines”, as Benjamin tells Scholem –, is a cleaner text with a clear political focus. Both texts have in common the specific gesture of Benjamin's criticism: undoing the sacralized image constructed by the dominant tradition, deconstructing the monument Goethe, whether as a monument to the bourgeoisie's struggle against feudalism, or the image of an “Olympic nobility”, a paradigm of German grandeur and classicism (Gundolf's interpretation).

Benjamin's iconoclastic criticism provoked and still provokes a certain discomfort because it prevents an affective identification with the character of the “great writer”, replacing devotion with the blade of precision. Precision, however, loving, since Benjamin has not only with the work, but also with the person of Goethe a relationship of proximity, almost of tenderness, as evidenced by other small texts, in particular the dreams reported in one way street. Benjamin seems to have captured, like no one else before, the core problematic of Goethe's work and life, namely, a perpetual oscillation (Vary), a painful hesitation between the erotic and restless impetus of the Sturm und Drang (“Rush and Storm,” a movement of youthful enthusiasm and irreverence) and the classical ideal, yes, of class, an ideal of aristocratic calm to which Goethe tries to conform at the Court of Weimar.

In the entry of the Encyclopedia, Benjamin diagnoses this oscillation of the poet based on his inability (which refers to revulsion) to understand history, that is also, the concrete political configurations of the State and the Revolution (in particular the French one). This difficulty is also reflected in how Schiller saw it, quoted by Benjamin, in Goethe's research linked to botany and mineralogy: Nature offers Goethe a “refuge” in relation to History and provides him with the larger conceptual framework of his thought both aesthetic as political, a framework responsible for its findings and its limitations. Thus, according to Benjamin, “it was not aesthetics, but the contemplation of nature that reconciled for him ((Goethe)) literature and politics”.

This attachment to nature also explains the deeply distressing and “mythical” tenor of The elective affinities, whose title, by the way, alludes to a chemical phenomenon. Here we must remember that the category of “myth”, in Benjamin, is opposed to the categories of history and redemption; the mythical does not designate a time of humanity definitively overcome by rationality, but rather a background of violence that always threatens to submerge the constructions of human civilization, when these rest on obedience to social conventions and not on decisions taken by subjects who risk taking action historically and morally (and for the young Benjamin, morality is not about accepting the law, but about the pursuit of justice). Conception of myth resumed by Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Thus, the architectural and marital buildings collapse in The elective affinities because the four main characters, precisely because of excessive education, obedience to conventions, “noble indulgence, tolerance and delicacy”, give up fighting for what they really want: “So much suffering, so little struggle”, exclaims Benjamin. This passivity leads them to their loss in opposition to the heroes of the little “soap opera”, narrated in the second part of the novel by a guest of the couple. Benjamin unveils the constitutive core of the novel inscribed in the text itself, in the almost structural opposition between the characters in the novel – who follow their affinities, even if elective – and the characters in the novel – who make decisions, even at the risk of their lives. This opposition between decision and affinity (even choice is not enough if it is not supported by decision) is read by Benjamin as the key to the opposition between historical and moral action, always risky, and sacrificial passivity, however sublime this may be. seems, as in the figure of Ottilie, who allows the mythical forces of destiny and catastrophe to emerge.

With this interpretation, Benjamin clashes head-on with the edifying readings of the novel that see in it a defense, undertaken by Goethe on the threshold of old age, of the institution of marriage and, equally, a sanctification of the character of Ottilie, as beautiful as she is passive and suffering. . Benjamin not only criticizes the moralizing assumptions of this reading; he shows that the anguishing beauty of the novel is born in good part from the ambiguity of the narrator himself (by metonymy, of Goethe himself) in relation to these august social conventions, whose passive observation, even with good intentions, does not lead to a truly moral conduct, but slides into the ruin of the buildings of “civilization” like beautiful gardens, beautiful houses, beautiful marriages and happy families.

Thus, the material content (Sachgehalt, I confess that I do not agree with the translation by “factual content”, because Benjamin does not allude to “facts”, but to things, Sachen, or to materials, Materials, as Adorno would say in Aesthetic Theory), duly analyzed by the philological commentary, reveals the truth content (Truth content) of the work. The critic glimpses it, better than the author himself, precisely because of violence and power (Violence) of “historical distance”, says Benjamin in the introduction to the essay, insisting on the productivity of distancing in opposition to the illusions of immediacy of affective understanding.

This content of truth in the novel is the denunciation of the pretense of sufficiency of the “beautiful appearance” (der schöne Schein) both in terms of aesthetics and social convenience. Benjamin does not refuse the beauty and brightness of the bill, but denounces the temptation of deceit that can lurk there: precisely because it is beautiful, it can lead to the conception of a harmonious totality, “the false, deceitful totality – the absolute totality”. Criticism that he resumes when rehabilitating the arbitrary figure of allegory and when questioning the conception of symbol as a totality of meaning in Origin of baroque drama.

In the essay on The elective affinities, Benjamin makes use of a concept that he approximates to that of “caesura” in Hölderlin: it is the “without expression” (das ausdruckslose), a non-aesthetic force, but one of moral origin that manages to break, interrupt the false harmonious totality of the beautiful appearance, denouncing its illusory character, so that the work can no longer emerge as a “deceitful totality,” and “absolute”, but rather as “fragment of the true world, torso of a symbol”. At the same time, as B. Lindner observes in his excellent entry on this essay in Benjamin Handbuch, the expressionless saves the beauty of the beautiful appearance, because it makes it shudder and become paralyzed in an instant of time before the dissolution of its false totality.

This notion of interruption, of caesura, will be decisive from the essay on The elective affinities to the theses “On the concept of history”, Benjamin's last text. Despite several unilateral readings of his work, it attests to his opposition to any aestheticism and the preponderance that his thought has always given to the moral and historical dimension of human action.

*Jeanne Marie Gagnebin Professor of Philosophy at PUC/SP and Literary Theory at Unicamp. She is the author, among other books, of History and narration in Walter Benjamin (Perspective).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews, No. 9, May 2010.


Walter Benjamin. Collected Essays: Writings on Goethe. Translation: Mônica Krausz Bornebusch, Irene Aron and Sidney Camargo. São Paulo, Publisher 34.


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