We’re back with some more ruin talk.
Third Reich architect Albert Speer and cultural philosopher Walter Benjamin both warned for the loss of aura in works of art. However, their overall view upon art and architecture couldn’t be more different. The meaning they attribute to ruins stands face-to-face. Speer saw the ruin as an auratic and romantic vehicle from a mythical time and attaches the most importance to its esthetic qualities. Benjamin, on the other hand, saw the ruin as an allegorical and critical vehicle:
Benjamin’s concept of the ruin, especially as adumbrated in his book The Origin of German Tragic Drama, is valuable because it delves beyond the aesthetic of the ruin as an object, and reads it as a process, a means of demythifying and stripping away symbolism – a means of approaching historical truth through reduction, at the expense of romantic aesthetics (Stead 51).
Naomi Stead explains that Benjamin had looked beyond this esthetic quality of a ruin. In his Trauerspiel book, Benjamin has said the following about the beauty of ruins:
Its beauty as a symbol evaporates when the light of divine learning falls upon it. The false appearance of totality is extinguished (Benjamin “Trauerspiel” 176).
In this work, Benjamin defends the Trauerspiel from the baroque where symbolism makes place for allegory. The romantic symbolism is according to Benjamin a corruption of the real mystic and holy symbolical. He therefore tries to revive the allegory and redeem it from prejudice.
Allegory was often criticized in those days. People thought of it as something that works mechanical, nothing more than a technique, based on convention and that is only useful to illustrate concepts, but not ideas. But according to Benjamin, allegory is a critical instrument and thus more valuable than symbolism. While symbolism stands for esthetics, allegory can surpass beauty by going deeper than this shallow esthetic value (Stead 55).
Speer saw the ruin as a symbol for timelessness, but Benjamin, on the other hand, stated that the ruin wears the mark of history. The ruin remembers us that architecture, culture, and social aspirations will all eventually have to succumb to the ravages of time. That what Speer hated so much about the modern ruin, namely the marks of its own time, was an argument for Benjamin in favor of the ruin as an allegory: “In the ruin history has physically merged into the setting” (Benjamin cited by Stead 56).
The allegory is actually equally political as symbolism, but in a demythifying and anti-esthetical kind of way. Both use the ruin to clarify their visions while reading totally different and even opposing features into the same object (Stead 59).
This proves the ambiguous character of the ruin. In his Trauerspiel book, Benjamin explains that the allegory isn’t just a figurative figure of speech, which says one thing in order to say another thing. According to him, the allegory also exists out of an inequality and thus metafiguratively lends an explanation for the world which doesn’t coincide with its own meaning or visual representation.
The allegory visualizes ruins, namely the eternal rupture between the sign and his material embodiment. The ruin as allegory of the natural history, manifestation of the incessant decline, is suitable as allegory of the allegory itself! What Benjamin meant with this is that in the allegorical example of the natural history as ruin, and with the ruin which is the allegory itself, allegory resides beyond beauty (“Benjamin Handbüch” 223).
The beauty of the ruin dissolves when the light of the divine knowledge sheds its light. Ruins are above all intelligent meta images (Benjamin Traurspiel 176).
The ruin is thus not only allegorical, but also an allegory for the allegory itself. The ruin is, like the allegory, a montage or a fragment, and therefore capable of revealing the truth. Ruin and allegory are solvable, decipherable. The melancholy of the baroque maintains a dialectical relation to the world of things. She moves between the poles of depreciation and growth:
On the one side, the melancholic loses himself in contemplation and mourning for a world of rubbish, deprived of inherent meaning; on the other, he never ceases to ascribe new meanings to dead objects, thereby granting them new life (cf. Menninghaus 1980, 109). Allegory connects to precisely this melancholic and mournful worldview. In allegory, everything revolves around change, especially change of meaning (Lijster 65).
The baroque melancholic thus gives, like the allegoricus, new meanings to things which have lost their meaning. Besides the ruin, other emblems of the baroque, such as corpses and skulls, are also allegories of the allegory:
[They] are already dead: their meaning has withered away. As empty shells, markers of natural decay, they are available for the allegorist (Lijster 65).
Benjamin explains in his Trauerspiel book that “allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things” (178). But the ruin can be equally useful on the territory of thoughts as it is an intelligent meta image for the allegory.
The ruin is an allegory which relies on context and this context must be explained as the catastrophe of crisis. Benjamin paraphrases Agrippa von Nettsheim who has said that the ruin is “the home of the saturnine beasts” (179). These depressed creatures, plagued by crisis, didn’t only live during the baroque, but also in modernity.
Benjamin read the baroque period as a foreshadow of modernity. The allegory of the seventeenth century, and thus modernity as well, is not the convention of expression, but the expression of convention (ibid. 175). On the basis of melancholic marks, the rubble that remains after the catastrophe, the allegorist can analyze his own condition critically (Stead 58). Benjamin warns that is equally dangerous to believe that the catastrophe is an ontological fact and thus inevitable, than it is to believe that crisis will eventually evolve by itself to a more righteous society (Lijster 71).
Next time, I will write about allegory and the angel of history.
Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Vert. John Osborne. Londen-New York: Verso, 2003.
Benjamin Handbüch. Redacteur: Burkhardt Linder. Weimar: J.B. Metzler, 2011.
Lijster, Thijs. “Corresponding Catastrophes – Walter Benjamin on Allegory and History”. Tickle your Catastrophe. Redacteurs: Frederik Le Roy, Nele Wynants, Dominiek Hoens, Robrecht Vanderbeeken. Gent: Academia Press, 2011. 63-73.
Stead, Naomi. “The Value of Ruins: Allegories of Destruction in Benjamin and Speer”. Form/Work October 2003: 51-64.