I want to open up a different avenue of exploration. Newman does a brilliant job of reconstructing the historical arguments about the baroque and their relevance to debates about German nationalism. But there is another, more familiar dimension to Benjamin’s argument that transcends history altogether. In A Theory of Literature Production, Pierre Macherey seems to capture Benjamin’s own insight in the Trauerspiel book: “We have defined literary discourse as parody, as a contestation of language, rather than a representation of reality. It distorts rather than imitates.” But he then goes on to admit that “the idea of imitation, correctly understood, implies distortion, if, as Plato suggests in The Cratylus, the essence of resemblance is difference. The image that corresponded perfectly with the original would no longer be an image if it remains an image by virtue of its difference from that which it resembles.” And here’s the connection to Benjamin: “The aesthetic of the baroque merely takes this idea to its paradoxical extreme: the greater the difference the better the imitation, culminating in a theory of caricature. In this sense, all literature is ultimately baroque in inspiration.”  One question for Newman is whether her historical contextualization of Benjamin alters or fundamentally contests this insight.
Kahn’s question addresses my own interests as a scholar of European literature and culture of the Renaissance and early modern periods in the footprints left by early modernity on the landscape of modernity and, for that matter, in the afterlives of these earlier periods in our own post-modern world. The reason why Benjamin’s reading of the Baroque is a compelling object of study today is because it asks us to consider, first, the ideological investments of the Renaissance of the Baroque that occurred in the early twentieth century in particular and, second, the implications of periodization schemes overall (up to and including the so-called post-modern). There is, in other words, something about turning to the past that always seems to involve either the desire to become the master inheritors of a proud cultural legacy and to christen that inheritance as progress, or the desire for a ‘do-over’, a critical rearrangement of the narratives of cultural and political evolution so that they point to another, different way of moving forward. Both approaches imply a progressivist theory of history that is seldom articulated or questioned in studies of the Renaissance and early modern periods today. Thus while Jennings suggests that in restoring Benjamin to his era, it is he who becomes more interesting and more important, I would counter that it is in observing how Benjamin figures the German Baroque as a past that the nation cannot leave behind that allows his era to become visible to us as a model of how periods of crisis like our own engage or refuse their own embeddedness in history.
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.”