Walter Benjamin on Socrates, Histrionic Dialogue, and Comedy as the “Inner Side of Mourning”

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Walter Benjamin was fascinated with the figure of the “imposter” (or intriguer) and how it related to the Trauerspiel (Mourning Play) since it represents the meeting point of comedy and tragedy.   This meeting point, for Benjamin, finds its precursor in Socrates.  His silence, as opposed to tragic silence, is ironic. It is based on letting one, as Leo Strauss says of Maimonides, relate chapter headings.  And this act is, in itself, comical, histrionic:

The ironic silence of the philosopher, the coy, histrionic silence, is conscious.  In place of the sacrificial death of the hero, Socrates sets the example of the pedagogue.  But, in Plato’s work, the war which the rationalism of Socrates declared on tragic art is decided against tragedy with a superiority which ultimately affected the challenger more than the object challenged. (118)

The coming together of comedy and tragedy is alluded to at the end of the Symposium. As Benjamin notes, Socrates, Agathon (the tragedian), and Aristophanes (the comic playwright) face each other as “dawn breaks over the three.”  Benjamin notes that what we find in this moment is dialogue as such and he dubs it “pure dramatic language”:

The dialogue contains pure dramatic language, unfragmented by its dialectic of tragic and comic.  This purely dramatic quality restores the mystery which had gradually become secularized in the forms of Greek Drama: its language, the language of the new drama, is, in particular, the language of Trauerspiel.  (118)

This is quite a claim.  It suggests that the Trauerspiel, against what we read in most of the book, is a dialectic of the comic and the tragic. And that the “dramatic quality” of “pure dramatic language…restores the mystery.” In other words, comedy and irony have a major part to play.

Later in the book, comedy makes its first appearance when Benjamin talks about the intriguer (or, as Michel Serres will say, in relation to Moliere – a favorite comic playwright of Benjamin, the “imposter”). Benjamin associates comedy with the “inner side of mourning”:

With the intriguer comedy is introduced into the Trauerspiel.  But not as an episode. Comedy – or more precisely: the pure joke – is the essential inner side of mourning which from time to time, like the lining of a dress at the hem or lapel, makes its presence felt.  It’s representation is linked to the representative of mourning.  (126)

Its representative is an amalgamation of a prince and a buffoon (126).  It is also evinced in the relationship between the satanic (the cruel) and the comic (which Benjamin drew from Baudelaire’s essay on the “Essence of Laughter.)  This aspect of the comic, says Benjamin, has been missed by “speculative aesthetics”: “Rarely, if ever, has speculative aesthetics considered the affinity between the strict joke and the cruel.”

Noting that we have all seen the “children laugh where adults are shocked,” Benjamin ventures that the child knows best and is teaching us about the essence of the mourning play which can be found in the relation of comedy to tragedy.  The alteration between the cruel and the comic finds its figure in the “intriguer”(126).

Using philology and a genealogy of sorts, Benjamin argues that the figure of the intriguer emerges in the 14th century by way of the rogue whose scorn marks a transition.  According to Benjamin, the scorn was originally a Christian kind of scorn for “human pride,” but, over time, it took on a “devilish” aspect.   The merrymaker, says Benjamin, is not a rogue.  And the rogue circumvents salvation; he is seen to emerge out of the murder of Jesus.   And the comic aspect of the rogue, therefore, is devilish.   And by way of the “secularization” of the “passion play,” the rogue becomes the intriguer:

As in contemporary secular drama, the rogue had already, in the religious drama of the fifteenth century, taken over the role of the comic figure, and, and, as now, this role was perfectly adapted to the structure of the play and exerted a fundamental influence on the development of the (comic) action. (127)

In an odd move, Benjamin insists that the role of the intriguer is not simply an “amalgamation of heterogenous elements.” In fact, he seems to suggest something ontological about comedy:

The cruel joke is just as original as harmless mirth; originally the two are close to each other; and it is precisely through the figure of the intriguer that the…Trauerspiel derives its contact with the solid ground of wonderfully profound experiences. (127)

In other words, the cruel joke, figured in the intriguer, facilitates “contact with the solid ground of wonderfully profound experiences.”  I put the stress on wonderful because, as we saw above, Benjamin associates the comic with preserving mystery (going as far back as Socrates).

…to be continued

(In my book on the schlemiel, I am currently working on a chapter that addresses Walter Benjamin’s reading of the intriguer since it taps into Benjamin’s deep interest in the comic. This interest in the comic has, for some odd reason, been bypassed by major Benjamin scholars.   This blog, essays to be published on this topic, and my book, look to address this gap in Benjamin scholarship.)

 

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