In one the earliest appraisals of Benjamin’s work, Adorno noted that Benjamin never thought “freely” or in an “amateur fashion,” but always through direct engagement with a cultural object. Yet it precisely a “free” and “amateur” thought that has characterized previous critical engagement with Benjamin’s Origin of German Tragic Drama. His readers have tended to think that they could say something meaningful about the study through immanent critique: by drawing links between various sentences and concepts and then paraphrasing. The result is very often a tacit presentation of Benjamin as a genius who somehow transcended his era: exactly the kind of evaluation that Benjamin himself worked to debunk.
In constructing a global reading of Benjamin’s text, Jane Newman’s Benjamin’s Library engages instead, and for the very first time, with the actual materials about which Benjamin wrote–the dramas of the Second Silesian School–and with the reception history that is so crucial to any understanding of these gnarled, recalcitrant texts. Like much of the best Benjamin criticism, Newman’s book actively restores Benjamin to his era. And in doing so, paradoxically, it makes him a more important and fascinating writer.
I admire tremendously Newman’s methodological reflections in the Introduction and elsewhere regarding Cold War periodization. According to Newman, the baroque disappeared from scholarly discussion in the United States because the Renaissance was the “ideologically more congenial period . . . because it signified the ‘rebirth’ of a vaguely democratic ‘classicism’ with which the collegiate intelligentsia of an America triumphans could identify more easily in their new postwar role as custodians of the culture and achievements of a ‘West’ that Europe could no longer defend.”  To what extent has our new paradigm of early modern broken with this narrative?
The questions that govern my investments in Benjamin’s Library concern the ends to which the study of the Baroque was put as a means of interpreting the chaos that engulfed Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century. My prism is the study of the seventeenth-century ‘mourning play’ that is Benjamin’s Origin of the German Tragic Drama (1928), and its engagement with debates about the legacies of early modernity for the late modern world. Put another way: Benjamin’s Library proposes that we read the title of Benjamin’s infamously opaque book against the grain. Rather than assuming that it refers to the odd dramatic texts – the mourning plays proper – of the Baroque, with their mysterious allegorical intermezzi, arcane topics and overheated speech, I suggest that Benjamin’s subject in the Trauerspiel book was another kind of “trauriges Spiel,” or mournful play, namely the one of the German nation itself as it had emerged out of early modernity and traveled forward into his time. This is not to say that Benjamin does not take as his main concern the dramatic oeuvre of the German Baroque and its reception over time. But as he knew: “Like the term ‘tragic’ in present-day usage…the word Trauerspiel was applied in the seventeenth century to dramas and to historical events alike.” Scholars of the massively lethal events that rolled across central Europe during the signature war of the Baroque, the Thirty Years War (1618-48), agree that the mid seventeenth century was justified in using the term in this way. Benjamin and we might be pardoned for accepting its ongoing aptness to the situation in Germany both in the midst of World War One and on into the fraught post-war years. In such a reading, Benjamin’s title would refer to the origin of Germany’s Trauerspiel, to “der Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels.”