Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Taking the World by Storm: Forgiveness in Walter Benjamin's Early Works
by Henke, Anna Elizabeth, Ph.D., Yale University, 2015, 372; 3663631
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation takes as its starting point the figure of forgiveness in the early works of Walter Benjamin. The word is of particular interest because it appears prominently in his fragment entitled "The Meaning of Time in the Moral World" (1921) only to disappear thereafter. This disappearance should be taken seriously as Benjamin cuts himself off at the end of the fragment in order to demand that his observations be rearticulated in more conceptual terms. Though forgiveness no longer plays a role in his works thereafter, other, related terms surface in his essays on the translator (1921) and Goethe's Elective Affinities (1919-1922). This dissertation looks at the way his work plays with the figures of the law, the suspension of judgment, the semblance of reconciliation, and the moral world, which come into play after "forgiveness" has been expunged from his writings.

In the fragment, Benjamin redefines the Last Judgment that potentially obliterates the world as the moment of God's Forgiveness. We are accustomed to associating forgiveness with reconciliation; reconciliation transforms forgiveness into a force of preservation and stabilization. Here, however, it is precisely the opposite. Forgiveness arrives as the exception to the law: not as reconciliation but as interruption. It is the name Benjamin gives to messianic time.

The introduction to this dissertation turns to Judith Butler and Giorgio Agamben in order to outline the present engagement with the issues at stake in the dissertation. Both theorists are concerned with the exception-become-the-rule, a trope that can be traced back to one of Benjamin's theses in "On the Concept of History" (1940). Though Butler does not couch her understanding of forgiveness in terms of the sovereign suspension of the law in Giving an Account of Oneself (2005), historically the pardon has been the prerogative of the sovereign – just as it is the prerogative of the executive in the United States today. Her forgiveness is synonymous with reconciliation. She re-envisions a public sphere based on a logic of mutual forgiveness between subjects in light of their shared humanity. Agamben, on the other hand, explicitly treats the exception-become-the-rule in Homo Sacer (1998). The juxtaposition is productive because, though both theorists are staunchly left-wing, they adopt opposite positions with regard to it: Agamben, with Schmitt in mind, condemns the exception-become-the-rule while Butler, thinking of reconciliation and pardon, lauds it. Indeed, for the former, the exception-become-the-rule points the way to a dystopia that transforms the public sphere into a concentration camp; for the latter, it inaugurates a utopia. The two provide a polarized framework against which Benjamin's own forgiveness can take shape.

Chapter 1, "Circling around Forgiveness," turns explicitly to Benjamin. It begins with an examination of the fragment in which God's forgiveness plays such a prominent role before turning to Benjamin's essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities. That Benjamin refuses to speak of forgiveness is curious in light of its centrality in the novel. Elective Affinities culminates with a vision of the heroine rising up from her bier and seeming to become a vehicle of God's forgiveness. The chapter examines this final scene, contrasting it with a short story by Kafka, A Hunger Artist, and asks whether the disappearance of the figure of forgiveness has to do with the shift from a discussion of time to a discussion of art? If forgiveness is the name Benjamin gives to absolute immediacy, perhaps only its echoes belong in art, where mediation is the law. Chapter 2, "The Critic and the Suspension of Moral Judgement," remains with the same texts but turns from the figure of forgiveness (and the figures of "real reconciliation" and the "semblance of reconciliation") to the demand that Benjamin makes of his art critic: namely, that he suspend his judgement. This chapter will turn from the contents of the fragment and "Goethe's Elective Affinities" to the figure of the reader and the work of reading as Benjamin defines it in his essay.

In "The Meaning of Time in the Moral World," the figure of the moral world appears after Forgiveness' suspension of the law but Benjamin also suggests in his essay on Goethe's novel that the moral world arises according to its own laws. Chapter 3, "On Truth and Laws in a Non-Moral Sense," treats the suspension of the law, in "Towards a Critique of Violence" (1921) and Derrida's "Force of Law: The `Mystical Foundations of Authority' (1989). In part, it asks what is "justice" if it arises not from the law but from its suspension; but it also asks what these laws are that appear in forgiveness' wake and build the moral world?

Chapter 4, "The Translator's Law; The Critic's Moral World,' turns to the figure of the translator, whose work, unlike that of Benjamin's critic, does not depend on the suspension of moral or aesthetic judgement but on a singular law. The suspension of judgment demanded of Benjamin's critic echoes forgiveness but the translator is permitted to work in accordance with the law. The chapter compares the two figures, translator and critic, before turning to the faculty of fantasy and Benjamin's description of the laws that govern it – for these are the laws upon which all reading depends.

Chapter 5, "Lifting the Veil; Drawing the Veil," returns again to the figure of the critic and asks what is at stake in demanding that he suspend not only his moral judgement but also his aesthetic judgement. According to Benjamin, the aesthetic judgment produces an image of a figure in its veil. Though the critic desires to lift it and reveal the truth shining beneath, this proves impossible. The work of art cannot be unveiled. This chapter examines the importance of the judgement of the beautiful for philosophical enquiry – and follows what happens when the critic suspends the beautiful in a sublime moment of legibility. It ends by suggesting that because Benjamin defines the work of art as a construct in which veil and unveiling do not obtain (i.e. there is no possibility of stripping the work bare and revealing naked truth), the critic who suspends his judgement and recognizes this could momentarily be transported back to Eden. For his eyes, like Adam's before the Fall, can no longer see nakedness. The critic who suspends judgement is momentarily forgiven: his reading bares a trace of this wind that blows from Paradise.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Nagele, Rainer
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 76/11(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: German literature, Aesthetics
Publication Number: 3663631
ISBN: 978-1-321-95760-0
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