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.

As a preliminary to a closer scrutiny of Benjamin’s analysis of the Baroque from the vantage-point of the problematic character of contemporary art, it will be helpful to take a quick look at the distinction between symbolism and allegory established by Romantic aesthetics. This will reveal that their position was here much less clearly defined than that of thinkers in the crises that preceded or followed them. The reasons for their intermediate position are manifold. Above all, there was the overwhelming impact of Goethe’s personality, with his clear insight into this very problem—which he too, as we have seen, regarded as crucial for the fate of art. This factor was intensified by the powerful drive towards realism in art active in Goethe, but by no means in him alone. Furthermore, Romanticism thought of itself as a transitional phase between two crises. This led to specific, if questionable insights into the historical nature of the problem, but also to a certain defusing of the inner dilemma implicit in any attempt to define allegory.

Schelling, in his aesthetics,footnote1 organizes the history of art according to the principle that classical art was an age of symbolism, while Christianity was dominated by allegory. The first claim is based on the tradition established by Winckelmann, Lessing and Goethe; the second is intended to provide a historical underpinning for a specifically Romantic art. It is not so much the absence of any really precise knowledge of the Christian era that makes this scheme so vague and ambiguous, as the fact that its perspective is all too monolithically Romantic. It does away with that conflict already familiar to us between symbol and allegory in sculpture, and even interprets as allegorical authors and works in whom the primacy of realistic symbolism is indubitable. Solger takes over Schelling’s distinction, but defines it more sharply at the level of general theory.footnote2

The real theoreticians of the crisis tendencies of allegory in Romanticism were Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis. Their sifting and propagation of the idea of crisis, and of allegory as a means of expression appropriate to it, has close affinities with the philosophies of history just outlined. But whereas, particularly for Schelling, the problem is rendered less acute by his incorporating it within an objective philosophy of history, Schlegel takes as his starting-point the loss of a mythology that might serve as a foundation for culture, and above all for art. The loss is seen as the index of a crisis, even though he still hopes and believes that the creation of a new mythology will make it possible to find a way out of the impasse of the profound crisis of his own day. Since for Schlegel every mythology is nothing other than ‘a hieroglyphic expression of Nature around us’, transfigured by imagination and love, it comes as no surprise to see him conclude that ‘all beauty is allegory. Simply because it is ineffable, the highest truth can only be expressed in allegory.’ This leads to the universal hegemony of allegory in all forms of human activity; language itself, in its primordial manifestations, is ‘identical with allegory’.footnote3

It is plain to see that such an analysis increasingly tends to cut allegory free from its old links with the Christian religion—links which were precisely determined and even laid down by theology. Instead, it establishes its affinity with a specifically modern anarchy of the feelings, and with a dissolution of form which leads in its turn to the collapse of objective representation [Gegenständlichkeit]. It is Novalis who finds an explicit formula for such trends. ‘Stories without [logical] links, only associations, like dreams. Poems that are merely melodious and full of beautiful words, but without any meaning or coherence—at best only a few stanzas which are comprehensible—like a mass of fragments composed of the most heterogeneous objects. At best true poetry can only have a general allegorical sense and an indirect effect, like music, etc.’footnote4

Compared to these uncertain, obscure and self-contradictory statements by the Romantics, the picture of German Baroque tragedy etched by Benjamin is remarkable for its impressive internal consistency and coherence. This is not the place to enter into a discussion of his often brilliant polemics, such as the one against Goethe, or of his illuminating detailed analyses. We must start by emphasizing that his whole interpretation of Baroque does not stop short with a contrast between Baroque and Classicism, or with the attempt (typical of some later eclectics) to establish Mannerism and Classicism as related, complementary tendencies. Instead, he makes a direct attack on his target: the unveiling of the principle of art itself. ‘In the field of allegorical intuition’, he says ‘the image is a fragment, a rune. Its beauty as a symbol evaporates when the light of divine learning falls upon it. The false appearance of totality is extinguished. For the eidos disappears, the simile ceases to exist, and the cosmos it contains shrivels up . . . A deep-rooted intuition of the problematic character of art . . . emerges as a reaction to its self-confidence at the time of the Renaissance.’footnote5 However, the logic of Benjamin’s argument leads to the conclusion that the problematic character of art is that of the world itself, the world of mankind, of history and society; it is the decay of all these that has been made visible in the imagery of allegory. In allegory, ‘the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape’. History no longer ‘assumes the form of the process of an eternal life, so much as that of irresistible decay’. However, ‘allegory thereby declares itself to be beyond beauty. Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.’footnote6