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Peter Uwe Hohendahl

As early as 1916, Carl Schmitt underscored the centrality of myth and religion in his analysis of the expressionist Theodor Däubler. He celebrated Däubler as a Christian poet and radical critic of modernity. This critique of modernity was then articulated in more systematic terms his 1919 essay Political Romanticism, which opposed the Romantic approach to life and art as ironic escapism and relativism. During the 1920s and 1930s, a personal search for new ground led Schmitt to the Catholic author Konrad Weiss, and subsequently to Herman Melville’s story Benito Cereno as a private allegory of Carl Schmitt as persecuted intellectual. His late literary criticism focused on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. His interpretation emphasizes the tragic nature of the play, explicitly taking issue with Walter Benjamin’s reading of Hamlet as a Christian Trauerspiel (mourning play). For Schmitt, the central issue is the presence of contemporary history as a force that deeply impacts the drama. This argument is directed against the notion of play and the idea of aesthetic autonomy. Instead, for Schmitt, the older concept of representation defines the place and relevance of art and the aesthetic within a broader cultural and religious configuration.

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Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) was situated among a constellation of early-20th-century radical Jewish thinkers delving into questions of German culture and philosophy in Mitteleuropa. Within this Jewish Central European radical culture, a complex network of links, of “elective affinities,” as Johann Wolfgang Goethe called them, brought together romanticism, Jewish messianism, anti-bourgeois cultural rebellion, and revolutionary (socialist and anarchist) utopias. This messianism is not the one of Jewish orthodoxy but a new, highly political version, seen through the lens of German romanticism. Benjamin should thus be viewed as a religious atheist with anarchist leanings, who only discovers Marxism in the mid-1920s, following the lectures of Georg Lukacs’s that were published as History and Class Consciousness in 1923. He became the first Marxist to break radically with the ideology of progress. Benjamin’s thinking has a distinct critical quality that sets his apart from the dominant and official forms of historical materialism and gives him a formidable political and intellectual superiority as a Marxist critic. This philosophical peculiarity comes from his ability to incorporate into the body of Marxist revolutionary theory insights from Jewish messianism and from the German Romantic critique of modern civilization.