Benjamin and Embodiment: How German Mourning Plays Respond to Alienations

by Shaun Terry

(note: I may use non-gendered “they,” “them,” “their,” “theirs,” and/or “themselves” to refer to anonymous imagined persons)


On p. 138 of The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin seems to be arguing that one of the effects of Lutheranism is that focus on reality, experience, and embodiment become somewhat lost. He says,

By denying [good works] any special miraculous spiritual effect, making the soul dependent on grace through faith, and making the secular-political sphere a testing ground for a life which was only indirectly religious, being intended for the demonstration of civic virtues, it did, it is true, instill into the people a strict sense of obedience to duty, but in its great men it produced melancholy.

As people’s points of focus retreat into their thoughts, they lose some access to their sensorial lives. Thus, some forms of knowledge become devalued and less effectual. Here, it seems to me that Benjamin is taking issue, in part, with the Cartesian comminution of the person, the products of which are the mind and the body as the two distinct aspects of personhood. Associated with this, Benjamin sees people’s acts as going from being about trying to do good in the world to following rules. Included in those rules is compulsory faith—an act of thought. No longer do we rely on our sense of what is needed in the world around us and what we can do about it in order to achieve grace; now, we rely on regimes of authority and discipline. Later on the same page, Benjamin addresses this more directly: “Human actions were deprived of all value.” Value no longer lies in what we do, but in what we think. Returning to the earlier quotation, Benjamin sees this paradigm shift as dissatisfying, producing melancholy as we lose some of our sensorial experiences, as we become removed from our social environments, and as we lose some of our agencies to do good.

For Benjamin, it seems that the emergence of the German mourning play reflects something that was occurring in the lives of people during the Romantic period. Our lives have gone to ruin, requiring mourning for our shared loss of humanity (p. 139). Referring to the privileging of faith over lived experience, Benjamin claims, “[Life] feels deeply that it is not there merely to be devalued by faith. It is overcome by deep horror at the idea that the whole of existence might proceed in such a way. The idea of death fills it with profound terror. Mourning is the state of mind in which feeling revives the empty world in the form of a mask, and derives an enigmatic satisfaction in contemplating it.” (p. 139) The mind and the body are again in tension: as the realm of human action is devalued, the mind responds by mourning the previously held value in human action. Albeit likely temporarily, the emotional response appears to set something right: the emotional reaction appears as a reintegration of the comminuted human. By responding in this emotional way to the loss of humanity, the mind and the body come together. The visceral response represents the embodiment of the anxieties felt because of the privileging of the rational. Here, the body and the mind become realigned, even if only briefly.

If we think about some of the other Benjamin readings that we have read (especially “On Language as Such and On the Language of Man”), it seems that Benjamin sees embodied acts as valuable in a way incommensurate with modernistic views that often privilege thought-acts over embodied ones. In the same way that he is wary of the privileging of thought over action, he sees introversion as carrying with it some danger: “The vain activity of the intriguer was regarded as the undignified antithesis of passionate contemplation, to which alone was attributed the power to release those in high places from the satanic ensnarement of history, in which the baroque recognized only the political aspect. And yet: introversion also led only too easily into the abyss.” (pp. 141-2) I suppose that this is because introversion might have a way of causing a person to retreat into themselves and to disengage from physical acts in the world, consistent with the concerns laid out above.

Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. London: NLB. 1977.