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New Left Review I/110, July-August 1978

Georg Lukács

On Walter Benjamin

Our purpose here is to demonstrate that the spirit of allegory manifests itself quite unambiguously both in the theory and in the practice of the modernist avant-garde.

It is no accident that, for decades now, critics have drawn attention to the basic affinity between Baroque and Romanticism on the one hand and the foundations of modernist art and ideology on the other. The purpose of this tactic is to define—and legitimate—the latter as the heirs and successors of those great crises of the modern world, and as the representatives of the profound crisis of our present age. It was Walter Benjamin who furnished the most profound and original theorization of these views. In his study of Baroque tragic drama (Trauerspiel), he constructs a bold theory to show that allegory is the style most genuinely suited to the sentiments, ideas and experience of the modern world. Not that this programme is explicitly proclaimed. On the contrary, his text confines itself quite strictly to his chosen historical theme. Its spirit, however, goes far beyond that narrow framework. Benjamin interprets Baroque (and Romanticism) from the perspective of the ideological and artistic needs of the present. His choice of this narrower theme for his purpose is peculiarly happy, because the elements of crisis in Baroque emerge with unambiguous clarity in the specific context of German society of the period. This came about as a consequence of Germany’s temporary lapse into being a mere object of world-history. This led in its turn to a despairing, inward-looking provincialism, as a result of which the realist counter-tendencies of the age were enfeebled—or became manifest only in exceptional cases like Grimmelshausen. It was a brilliant insight that led Benjamin to fix on this period in Germany, and on the drama in particular, as the subject of his research. It enables him to give a vivid portrayal of the actual theoretical problem, without forcing or distorting the historical facts in the manner so often seen in contemporary general histories.

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Georg Lukacs, ‘On Walter Benjamin’, NLR I/110: £3

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