Philosophy and Melancholy: Benjamin's Early Reflections on Theater and Language

Philosophy and Melancholy: Benjamin's Early Reflections on Theater and Language

by Ilit Ferber

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This book traces the concept of melancholy in Walter Benjamin's early writings. Rather than focusing on the overtly melancholic subject matter of Benjamin's work or the unhappy circumstances of his own fate, Ferber considers the concept's implications for his philosophy. Informed by Heidegger's discussion of moods and their importance for philosophical thought, she

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This book traces the concept of melancholy in Walter Benjamin's early writings. Rather than focusing on the overtly melancholic subject matter of Benjamin's work or the unhappy circumstances of his own fate, Ferber considers the concept's implications for his philosophy. Informed by Heidegger's discussion of moods and their importance for philosophical thought, she contends that a melancholic mood is the organizing principle or structure of Benjamin's early metaphysics and ontology. Her novel analysis of Benjamin's arguments about theater and language features a discussion of the Trauerspiel book that is amongst the first in English to scrutinize the baroque plays themselves. Philosophy and Melancholy also contributes to the history of philosophy by establishing a strong relationship between Benjamin and other philosophers, including Leibniz, Kant, Husserl, and Heidegger.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Ilit Ferber's meticulous reconstruction of the role of melancholy in Benjamin's Origin of the German Trauerspiel, participates in [the] scholarly return to Benjamin's philosophical beginnings . . . [H]er analysis offers a fresh, concise, and insightful presentation, formulated in exemplary clarity, of Benjamin's early inquiry into the interrelations among melancholy, language, and truth."—Rolf J. Goebel, Monatshefte: For German-language Literature & Culture

"It is the merit of Ferber's Philosophy and Melancholy to let such a call of an infinite responsibility reach us through such a careful, loving, and attentive reading of Benjamin . . . I know very few books in our contemporary time which have so powerfully intervened in debates concerning mood as linguistic and philosophical phenomenon . . . [T]he book as it stands is still beautiful and an important to some of the deepest concerns of our time."—Saitya Bras Das, Comparative and Continental Philosophy

"Ferber enters the burgeoning field of Benjamin scholarship with her meticulous study . . . Readers interested in working through the details of Benjamin's philosophy will find much in this book . . . Recommended."—M. Donougho, CHOICE

"An impressive work of articulate scholarship, Philosophy and Melancholy: Benjamin's Early Reflections in Theater and Language is a highly recommended and welcome addition to academic library Philosophical Studies reference collections and an important critique for students of Walter Benjamin's life and work."—The Midwest Book Review

"This is a remarkable and timely study of Walter Benjamin's early writings. No longer an obscure hermetic work from some distant historical moment, Benjamin's Trauerspiel becomes central to contemporary philosophical concerns."—Andrew Benjamin, Monash University
"Ilit Ferber's study of the structuring role played by the concept of melancholy in Benjamin's Origin of German Trauerspiel offers a penetrating and absolutely original account of a central problem in Benjamin's development of a philosophically-based criticism. Ferber's book reveals melancholy, usually treated as something merely subjective and psychological, as a 'fundamental mood of philosophical disclosure' and a 'philosophical, structural edifice.' By displacing the emphasis from personal pathology to historical and philosophical structures, she is able to open up melancholy as a structure of loss with profound consequences for narrative, history, and philosophy. The full thrust of Benjamin's emphasis on Baroque eschatology emerges here for the first time: the loss of the world, both present and impending, is represented as the melancholic structure of an era.Philosophy and Melancholy intervenes powerfully in contemporary debates on the ongoing role of psychoanalytic criticism, on the philosophical problem of the relationship of consciousness to objects, and on the role of affect in language."—Michael Jennings, Princeton University

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Stanford University Press
Publication date:
Cultural Memory in the Present Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

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Benjamin's Early Reflections on Theater and Language

By Ilit Ferber

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-8519-8


Benjamin and Freud

At the Juncture of Melancholy

Given the manifold nature of its history, the concept of melancholy has remained curiously stable despite the dynamic transformation of the meanings it has acquired. Yet in spite of its remarkable steadfastness, a distinct moment of rupture can nevertheless be identified during the closing days of the nineteenth century—a moment when the struggle to "present ... a limited number of words which always remain the same" had ceased and melancholy was transfigured into melancholia. This moment was the emergence of psychoanalysis. My discussion begins, therefore, at this juncture, when Freud wrote his account of melancholia (1915), a moment almost concurrent with Benjamin's preliminary work on his habilitation, The Origin of the German Trauerspiel, the main text in which he examines the concept of melancholy.

At this crucial moment, the discourse on melancholy is relocated within the psychoanalytic discourse of depression. As Jennifer Radden shows, the end of the nineteenth century marks a borderline in our traditional understanding of the concept; it is the point where "melancholy" parts from "melancholia" and its clinical categories of depression. The psychoanalytic turn shifts our focus from the apprehension of melancholy as a mood or normal inclination of the mind that only occasionally takes on morbid colorations to an entirely pathological understanding in which melancholia comes to describe an exclusively abnormal reaction to loss. More particularly, Freud considers melancholia a state that is accompanied by self-loathing and self-reproach, and he thereby assigns it a particularly negative character. The implications of this rupture in the term's genealogy not only bring about a radical change in its apprehension; they also obscure the vast expanse of connotations once attributed to the concept, rendering melancholy into something almost synonymous—at least intuitively to the contemporary mind—with Freudian pathology.

Moreover, Freud's account effaces the powerful dialectic formerly believed to be inherent to melancholy and indicative of the intricacy and convolutedness of the term, which could contain both negative and positive, normal and pathological traits. In replacing this dialectical, one might say "flexible," nature of melancholy with a far narrower definition, Freud extends the rigid boundary he establishes between health and pathology. Both the motivating force and analytic strategy of Freud's psychoanalytic project can accordingly be traced to his insistence on distinguishing the normal or healthy from within the adjacent state of pathology; in other words he is keen on using human nature's pathologies to shed light on its normality.

Freud's commitment to the idea of a perimeter separating the healthy from the pathological makes it difficult for him to fit melancholy's diverse and at times conflicted history into the psychoanalytic scheme. The history of melancholy is distinguished precisely by the fact of an inherent unwillingness of this phenomenon to surrender to any pregiven category (be it health or illness, the psychological or the somatic). Freud's transformation of melancholy into melancholia can be seen, from this perspective, as an attempt to "tame" or at least bend melancholy to make it comply to his system's trajectories. Given the strength and rigor of Freud's psychoanalytic theory, it is clear why his confrontation with melancholy marks an essential change and a deep rupture in the signification of the term.

The relationship between Benjamin and Freud has been extensively explored in recent years. It has been described in terms of a "constellation," a "long-distance love affair," a mutual dependence, and a relation of "intertextuality"; all interpretations have stressed the indirect character of their correspondence while nonetheless demanding a careful reconstruction of its genealogy. Nägele argues that any serious reader of Benjamin should question the latter's relationship to Freud, while maintaining that Benjamin's resistance to Freud actually discloses a close affinity between them. He proposes that resistance is at work in this relationship, a resistance pointing precisely to where Benjamin's own thinking becomes rigorous. Ley Roff, who reads this relationship as one of "intertextuality," claims that it is possible to examine significant areas of contact between Benjamin and Freud under this rubric despite the apparent lack of direct mutual influence. Application of such an approach may indicate that the structure of Benjamin's attitude to psychoanalysis is that of deferral, that Benjamin read psychoanalytic texts long before he actually responded to them. Rickels maintains that the question of influence cannot be measured, at least in this case, by criteria of sameness. He claims that "only what has been mutated, digested in part—part object, part objection—resisted, disavowed, and displaced can count as influence on the sliding scale from transference to telepathy." These incisive accounts all posit, in one way or another, that direct influence should not be considered the precondition for examining the relationship between Benjamin and Freud, a claim that I substantiate here.

In Constructions in Analysis Freud describes his work as that of liberating a fragment of historical truth from its distorted form of appearance in the present and leading it back "to the point in the past to which it belongs" (SE, 23:268). The task of psychoanalytic investigation is, therefore, to reveal the intimate connection between the material of present disavowal and its original repression. The effectiveness of the psychoanalytic method, as Freud describes it here, lies in its recovery of fragments of lost experience; the crux of the pathology of delusion is, then, its "convincing power to the element of historical truth, which it inserts in the place of the rejected reality" (ibid.).

Essential here is the lingo of liberation and freedom used to describe the attachment of the past to the present, as is Freud's insinuation that the present should be relieved of the past's sovereignty. The reason is that any relationship of this sort inherently entails the risk of what Freud would identify as a pathological inhibition. This structure implies that despite the great authority exercised by the past over the present, this authority cannot be sustained simultaneously with a healthy psyche. This structure can shed light on the transformation initiated by psychoanalysis—melancholy's complete departure from melancholia and depression. For the melancholy of the past to make room for the melancholia of the present, a new route has to be taken. This break from the past (the term's history and those of its historical features that invade the present) will henceforth be understood as the conditions enabling the establishment of melancholia's new meanings and dominance.

Freud's Distinction Between Mourning and Melancholia

In "Mourning and Melancholia" (1917) Freud defines two possible and opposing responses to loss—mourning (Trauer) and melancholia (Melancholie). These responses represent two distinct types of object-relations, both of which arise in response to bereavement. The almost keen difference between the two phenomena has long since become virtually synonymous with the understanding of loss as inviting either a normal or pathological response. It should be noted, however, that Freud's definitions are not stable throughout his writings. In his early "Draft G [Melancholia]," from 1895, he writes of a much closer relationship between mourning and melancholia: both stand on the same axis of a "longing for something lost." The element of work, so present in mourning, is not yet fundamentally present here (see "Draft G [Melancholia]," SE 1:200—206). In his later writings, especially in "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" and "The Ego and the Id," Freud complicates the distinction between mourning and melancholia, making it much vaguer. My analysis of Freud's view of melancholia is therefore largely based on his 1915 "Mourning and Melancholia."

In the beginning of his essay Freud discusses loss solely in terms of these two categories, while stating his intention to introduce mourning into his argument for the purpose of shedding light on melancholia by means of their contrast. Freud thus draws a deep dividing line between the two responses, a line placing the two on opposing sides of the demarcation separating normality from pathology. This dissociation, he continues, is based first and foremost on the feature of self-reproach. To Freud, mourning is a normal, natural response to loss and, despite the difficulties and great pain it engenders, still part of a healthy process. Comparing mourning to melancholia he writes:

The distinguishing mental features of melancholia are a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feeling to a degree that finds utterances in self-reproach and self-reviling, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment. This picture becomes a little more intelligible when we consider that, with one exception, the same traits are met with in mourning ... It is easy to see that this inhibition and circumscription of the ego is the expression of an exclusive devotion to mourning which leaves nothing over for other purposes or other interests. It is really only because we know so well how to explain it [i.e., mourning] that this attitude does not seem to us pathological. (SE, 14:244)

This statement is curious because it positions our understanding of mourning as congruent with normality, suggesting that Freud deems the familiar and easily understood as nonpathological. Yet melancholia, also according to this passage, although intimately related to mourning is transformed by self-loathing into a pathological counteraction. The picture is far more complex, however, since the melancholic's self-reproach carries far deeper implications than ate initially apparent. What clearly differentiates the two responses—and what gives birth to self-reproach—depends on whether the loss has been accepted and acknowledged.

Freud's mourner and melancholic begin with a corresponding basic denial of their loss and an unwillingness to recognize it. But soon, the mourner, who is reacting in a nonpathological manner, recognizes and responds to the call of reality to let go of his lost love-object and to free his libidinal desire. The mourner's recognition of the loss makes it possible for him to perform the work of mourning, whereas the unabridged, and therefore unidentifiable, nature of the melancholic loss makes it almost impossible to detach oneself from the loss, since for the melancholic there seems to be nothing from which a detachment is at all possible. The melancholic, therefore, remains immersed in loss (with "an excessive devotion"), unable to acknowledge and accept the need to cleave to a substitute object of attachment. In self-destructive loyalty to his lost object, he internalizes that object and makes it part of his ego, thus circumscribing still further the conflict aroused by the initial loss. The lost object continues to exist, now as part of the dejected subject, who can no longer clearly demarcate his own subjectivity from the lost object he has embraced. Freud regards the structure of this response as antithetical to the ego's basic well-being, the survival of which melancholia puts at risk.

Such a distinction does not exist in Benjamin's texts. In fact, in the Trauerspiel book he uses mourning and melancholy interchangeably. This identical use of the two terms appears often in the book, mainly at the end of the first part (entitled "Trauerspiel and Tragedy"), which centers on an explanation and explication of the nature and structure of the Trauerspiel plays. In this part of the book Benjamin concentrates on the different figures prominent in the plays (such as the sovereign, tyrant, martyr, and creature), compares Trauerspiel to tragedy (a comparison essential to the understanding of Benjamin's interpretative enterprise), and, finally, discusses the history of melancholy and its various emblematic and historical expressions. Benjamin summons melancholy to reinforce and enrich his discussion of the special type of sorrow and mourning expressed in the plays. He therefore employs melancholy to better understand mourning rather than to distinguish between two phenomena. Moreover, Benjamin frequently attributes a "mournful" state of mind to the melancholic individual and describes the mournful as those suffering from melancholia. It thus appears that his recourse to the term melancholy expresses rather considerably its historical accounts. Melancholy and mourning—or, one might say, the sorrow of the Trauerspiel—stand together here, with one underscoring the other.

I suggest here that Benjamin challenges Freud's overly assertive distinction by rethinking the relationship between loss and affect, thus proposing an alternative view, which this chapter will elaborate. Rebecca Comay suggests that Freud's antithesis between mourning and melancholia echoes the bifurcated structure of melancholia itself, a division representing a systematic oscillation between denigration and overvaluation. This structural rift is essential to the understanding of Freud's original, lacerated configuration of melancholia, in which the presence of divergence no longer indicates the initial, precise separation between the normal and the pathological but a further split, found in Freud's very account of the nature of loss itself. By not accepting the absolute demarcation between the two responses, Benjamin restructures Freud's ideas into an altogether different configuration, in which mourning and melancholia abide one with the other as an amalgamated mood. In the following sections I analyze the four structural categories we can discern in Freud's essay as being pertinent to the understanding of Benjamin's position vis-à-vis Freud. For each category—loss, commitment, absence of intentionality, and work—I first scrutinize the role it plays in Freud's account of melancholia and then show how this account is transformed in Benjamin's book on the Trauerspiel.


Freud: The Internalization of Loss

Freud's "Mourning and Melancholia" is saturated with the question of loss and its implications. Loss for Freud is intimately tied to love, for it is always a loved object that is lost, be it a person, an ideal, or even a function an object fulfills as the subject's object of love (SE, 14:243, 245). Mourning and melancholia both emerge from loss, the first from an actual loss, the second (in its extreme cases) from an unidentifiable loss or, one might say, the complete absence in consciousness of any event of loss.

When opposed to the mourner's clear and locatable loss—which "reality shows" (SE, 14:244)—the melancholic's loss is blurred and impossible to situate; this indefiniteness provides the main reason why such a loss initiates pathological reactions. In some cases of melancholia one feels justified in maintaining that a loss of this ambiguous kind has occurred without being able to identify what has, in fact, been lost. Such events make it all the more reasonable to suppose that the patient, too, cannot consciously perceive what he has lost even if he is aware of the loss motivating his melancholia. More precisely, we may say that the patient knows whom he has lost but not what about him was lost. Correspondingly, Freud suggests that melancholia corresponds in some ways to an object-loss; however, this loss has been withdrawn from the patient's consciousness. During mourning, however, nothing about the loss is unconscious (SE, 14:245).

Circumstances of unidentifiable loss represent extreme cases of melancholia, in which the symptoms of a painful separation manifest themselves but without being directed toward any specific object or event. In addition the preponderance of the sense of loss lies not only in the event of separation but also in its implications. "In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself" (SE, 14:246), writes Freud, thereby locating loss in the midst of mourning and melancholia, albeit on entirely different levels. The mourner's loss renders the world surrounding him empty. The absence of the loved object seems to drain the world, as if the site of the loss is stretched to contain everything but the dejected subject.

Excerpted from PHILOSOPHY AND MELANCHOLY by Ilit Ferber. Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
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