Panel Discussion | February 11 | 5-7 p.m. | 370 Dwinelle Hall
Howard Eiland, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The Program in Critical Theory & City Lights Books, San Francisco, present a panel-and-audience discussion with Howard Eiland: On Walter Benjamins Origin of the German Trauerspiel
A panel of UC Berkeley faculty from the Humanities and Social sciences will speak with Eiland about Benjamins book, including issues involving Eilands new translation of and introduction to the text, as well as those raised by Eilands February 10 talk, Hamlet as Trauerspiel? (see further below for description of the February 10 talk). The panel will then open things up by inviting questions and discussion from the audience.
Origin of the German Trauerspiel was Walter Benjamins first full, historically-oriented analysis of modernity. Readers of English knew it until last year under the title The Origin of German Tragic Drama, but in fact the subject is something else: the play of mourning. Howard Eilands completely new English translation and introduction (Harvard University Press, 2019), the first to appear since 1977, is closer to the German text and more consistent with Benjamins philosophical idiom.
Focusing on the extravagant and historical seventeenth-century theatrical genre of the trauerspiel, precursor of the opera, Benjamin identifies allegory as the constitutive trope of the Baroque and of modernity itself. Allegorical perception bespeaks a world of mutability and equivocation, a melancholy sense of eternal transience without access to the transcendentals of the medieval mystery playsthough no less haunted and bedeviled, and no less susceptible to momentary apotheosis. History as trauerspielas shaped by the base machination of schemersis in Benjamins account the condition as well as subject of modern allegory in its inscription of the abyssal, or ever-increasing, apparently incomprehensible, layers of depth, experience, and interpretive questions.
Benjamins investigation of the trauerspiel includes German texts and late Renaissance European drama such as Shakespeares Hamlet and Calderóns Life Is a Dream. The books Prologue is one of Benjamins most important and difficult pieces of writing. It sets forth his method of indirection and his idea of the constellation (which would become crucial to thinkers across several generations of the Frankfurt School, as well to other critics, philosophers, theorists, and artists) as a key means of grasping the world, of constructing dynamic unities from the myriad bits of daily life and historical materials. Thoroughly annotated with a philological and historical introduction and other explanatory and supplementary material, Eilans rigorous and elegant new translation brings fresh understanding to a cardinal work by one of the twentieth centurys greatest literary critics.
Eilands talk Hamlet as Trauerspiel? approaches Benjamins interpretation of Hamletwhich deems the play a consummate trauerspielas a way into the thorny interior of the trauerspiel book itself. Benjamin presents the theory of the trauerspiel as containing prolegomena to the interpretation of Shakespearean tragedy (Benjamin faults critics for their loose usage of the term tragedy), and to the interpretation of Hamlet in particular. Eiland examines Benjamins claims for decisive historical and formal-stylistic differences between the genres of tragedy and trauerspielthe former based in pagan myth and cult, the latter in Judeo-Christian history and spectacle; the former embedded in dialogue, the latter in the Dingweltand Eiland then briefly traces these distinctions back through the German critical-philological tradition, to Herder and A.W. Schlegel. Eiland focuses, first, on the philosophical-historical antinomies of allegoresis that structure the trauerspiel world, and then on Benjamins discussion of the enigmatic themes of fate and play. These issues are all reflected and crystallized in Hamlets death scene, which Benjamin here presentsin its vehement externality, its crucial reliance on props and its profusion of corpses, as well as in its hint of apotheosisas typical of the trauerspiel. All of which leads Benjamin to conclude that Hamlets death is definitely not tragic. Eiland takes issue with this last assessment, arguing for the prince as a tragic hero of recognition and remembrance.
Howard Eiland taught literature for several decades at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is co-editor, translator, and author in the ongoing Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings series from Harvard University Press. The many volumes in the series that hes translated, edited, and/or co-authored include The Arcades Project (2002); Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life (2014); and, most recently, the new translation of and introduction to Benjamins Origin of the German Trauerspiel (2019).
This event is co-sponsored by the Program in Critical Theory and City Lights Booksellers and Publishers.