The Golden Thread: Walter Benjamin’s Romantic Side
THE Frankfurt School philosopher, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), is often dismissed as a Marxist but his early writings display a far more traditional approach that drew heavily on the German Romantics.
Following on from the Cartesianism of the famous French thinker, René Descartes (1629-1649), known for his credo “I think, therefore I am” (Cogito, ergo sum), Romantics such as Novalis (1772-1801) developed the idea that everything is a self and each comes into being through the process of thought. This happens, he argued, due to “the reflection of spirits in themselves” and all beings are centres of reflection. He also believed that it is possible for one of these centres to radiate its self-knowledge onto others. This, however, requires very intensive reflection and yet can result in the incorporation of other beings within the one centre. This was considered to be a ‘progressive’ action that leads to evermore complex units of reflection, not in a linear fashion but as part of a universal interconnectedness. Thus, for people such as Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829), “reflection constitutes the absolute, and it constitutes it as a medium”. This means that an object and its knowing being merge into one another and become part of the Absolute.
Benjamin took the Romantic ideas of Novalis and Schlegel and set them within the context of art. As the foremost medium of reflection, therefore, art could lead to something infinitely more spiritual and transcendent. Benjamin achieved this by developing his theory of criticism, something that strips away the more peripheral aspects of a poem or painting and unearths the bare essentials. As he explained,
setting free the condensed potential and many sidedness of these forms [reveals] their connectedness as moments within the medium. The idea of art as a medium thus creates for the first time the possibility of an undogmatic or free formalism.
What, at face value, may be interpreted as an exercise in deconstruction, however, actually elevates the sacred at the expense of the profane and the work in question is able to realise its full potential through criticism itself.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) had a similar objective in mind when he searched for the “ideal of content” within a piece of art and, by doing so, suggested that the authentic components may be grasped only in the “limited plurality of pure contents into which it decomposes.” In other words, what Goethe went on to describe as a “harmonic discontinuum” of the real becomes a repository for “true nature”. Benjamin took this notion – similar, perhaps, to the Golden Thread of Classical antiquity – and subjected a particular artwork to the intense scrutiny of criticism, resulting in the systematic decomposition of the object concerned to the point that it became possible to reveal certain truths in the guise of a unique cognitive medium. This was achieved by comparing the artist’s work in relation to the whole; be it history, religion, education or art itself. Furthermore, Benjamin even noticed the similarities between his own critical process and that of Alchemy. Art is transformed and renewed, just as basic chemicals are changed into other substances in a transmutational laboratory.
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Walter Benjamin, therefore, believed that it was possible to use criticism of art as a unique cognitive medium in the wider search for truth. This is achieved by a reflective process that relates each artistic work to matters such as history, religion, education and even art itself. As I explained above, Benjamin’s method is similar to the idea of the Golden Thread and his approach to the function of linguistic translation – an outgrowth of his developing ideas on criticism – has other perennialist ramifications and these also relate to Romantic thought.
Our usual interpretation of the work performed by a translator relates to one’s ability to communicate what something in a foreign language actually tells us in a language of one’s own. However, Benjamin insisted that translation was not simply a question of conveying the exact meaning of an original piece of text. Whilst this may sound highly questionable, perhaps even wildly eccentric and unorthodox, Benjamin explained that translation can actually reveal something about the text that was not apparent in the original and that
a specific significance inherent in the original manifests itself in its translatability.
In other words, and the example is my own, the role of the Benjaminian translator is rather similar to that of the holy man who meditates between God and the people to whom he ministers. During the Tridentine mass, for example, a Catholic priest is able to convey the liturgy to non-Latin speakers by way of the universally recognised symbolism that surrounds the transubstantive ritual, but for Benjamin the translator can perform such a transformation by using nothing more than the domain of the written word to create something altogether new. Not a textual falsehood, that seeks to distort in the way that a contemporary preface might warn us about the dangers of a politically-incorrect work, but through the creation of something which actually supersedes the original and conveys that which had previously lain undetected. This may seem like a form of linguistic embellishment, but as far as Benjamin was concerned through the skill of translation
the life of the original attains its latest, continually renewed, and most complete unfolding.
This stripping-away can lead to what the Frankfurt School thinker further describes as the
language of truth, a tensionless and even silent depository of the ultimate secrets for which all thought strives.
Past truths live on in the present and, for Benjamin, can be expressed through a pure language.
The inspiration for this idea arose from his familiarity with the work of the Romantic poet and philosopher, Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), who diligently translated a series of Ancient Greek texts into his native German. So diligent were Hölderlin’s efforts, mark you, that the translations themselves were literal in the extreme and his refusal to dismiss the original Greek syntax and morphology meant that he actually disfigured his own language in the process.
As a result of Benjamin’s own penchant for Lurianic Kabbalah, he compared this activity to the repair of the broken vessels that one finds in Jewish mysticism. The important thing, he contends, is not to make them identical but to nonetheless piece them back together and, as a result, create the fragments of a greater language that is unquantifiable and yet centred on linguistic truth. When this revealed truth outweighs the purely material content of a text, since destroyed in the search for meaning, the “fallen language” that was previously hidden from view achieves redemption. In a sense, therefore, by using translation to change the nature of language in the quest for the authentic he allows something more transcendent to break through the surface of reality.
Ironically, it is almost as though constructivism was being used in the service of a more sacred Tradition.