It’s been noticed by more than one person that Walter Benjamin had a melancholy streak. But Benjamin’s melancholy has often been misunderstood. as a form of nostalgia, a lament for things lost to the relentless march of history and time. It’s true, of course, that some melancholics are nostalgic. Nothing prevents the two moods from going together. But Walter Benjamin’s melancholy wasn’t that kind at all. He happened to think, surprisingly enough, that melancholy is at the service of truth.
That’s quite a claim. It sounds both grand and unapproachable. For Benjamin, though, it was almost a matter-of-fact proposition; it was so intuitive to him, it came as second nature. Benjamin thought that melancholy is at the service of truth because he thought that things, especially complicated things like periods of history and social arrangements, are hard to understand until they’ve already started to fall apart. The shorthand formula might be: truth in ruins. The type of person who sifts through ruins is the melancholic by definition. Such a person is interested in the way that meaning is revealed in decay. In a way, the Benjaminian melancholic is darker even than the nostalgist because the nostalgist wants to bring something back, whereas the melancholic is best served by the ongoing, pitiless work of death.
Benjamin was always fond of Dürer’s engraving, Melencolia. In Melencolia, a figure sits amidst discarded and unused tools and objects of daily life. It appears that the world in which those tools made sense, the world in which they had a purpose, use, or meaning, has somehow faded away. The objects lay there without a context and the melancholic figure who gazes at them views them with an air of contemplation. The collapse of the world has become an opportunity for reflection. Truth in ruins.
It’s impossible not to think that Walter Benjamin was so fascinated by melancholy, ruins, and truth because he, himself, had come of age in a period where a world was passing away. For Central Europeans (and to a less extreme extent, the West in general), the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th was the collapse of an entire world. In one of the more moving and epic sentences ever written about that collapse as it culminated in the Great War, Benjamin once penned the following: “A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air, amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds and, at its center, in a force field of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile, human body.”
All of this is by way of a preface to the fact that I just finished reading Joseph Roth’s amazingly brilliant, beautiful, sad novel, The Radetzky March. The Radetzky March follows the fortunes of three generations of the Trotta family as the 19th century winds down into the seemingly inevitable, though nevertheless shocking, assassination at Sarajevo. As the critic James Wood notes in his typically powerful essay “Joseph Roth’s Empire of Signs,”
In at least half of Roth’s thirteen novels comes the inevitable, saber-like sentence, or a version of it, cutting the narrative in two: ‘One Sunday, a hot summer’s day, the Crown Prince was shot in Sarajevo’.
Roth is always writing through that moment, through the shot that cracked out on that hot summer’s day. As Wood points out, Roth became the self-appointed elegist of the empire that had come to an end at Sarajevo. The men of the Trotta family are bound to that empire in a descending line of meaninglessness and helplessness that itself tracks the dissolution and collapse of the world within which they lived. The very song, “The Radetsky March”, becomes a mournful ruin in sound. At the beginning of the novel it can still stand as a symbol for the ordering of life that holds the world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire together. By the end of the novel, it is a relic from a bygone age, and is the last thing that the youngest member of the Trotta family hears as he is gunned down ignominiously in the brutal and senseless fighting that opens the First World War.
What a profoundly and beautifully melancholic work. All the more so because it is melancholy in the service of Benjamin’s truth and not in the service of nostalgia. The Radetzky March is about how meaning operates, about how human beings come to see themselves as functioning within a world that coheres precisely as a world. In the end, Roth is essentially indifferent as to whether that world was a good or a bad one. Like all worlds, it can only cohere for so long. Instead, he focuses on laying bare its nature and its functioning in the moments where it began to break apart. Here, he is like the melancholic figure in Dürer’s engraving. The ‘tools’ of the Austro-Hungarian Empire lay around him as they’ve been discarded by history while Roth sifts through the ruins, contemplating what they were and how they worked.
That is something that Wood gets a little bit wrong, I think, in his otherwise brilliant essay. Wood takes the elegiac moments in Roth’s writing, which invariably come from the mouths of those serving the Empire, as words of longing and approval that are endorsed by Roth. But there is something more subtle and complicated going on. Wood touches on it briefly in his comment about Andreas, an organ grinder in Roth’s Rebellion. Wood writes, “It is the empire that gives him authority to exist, that tells him what to do and promises to look after him. In Roth’s novels, marching orders are more than merely figurative. They are everything.”
To put it in Kantian terms for a moment, that is exactly what Roth is doing, showing the Empire as ‘the everything’, the transcendental horizon within which human beings understand themselves and their relations to everyone else. Like Walter Benjamin, Roth has adopted this broad transcendental framework while jettisoning the strict a priori method that made Kant’s transcendental method a-historical and purportedly universal. Roth has come to see, indeed witnessed with his own eyes, that transcendental horizons of meaning are themselves historical; they fade away, they fall into ruins, and are reconstituted as something new.
It’s kind of interesting in this quasi-Kantian vein to reflect that Roth takes a marching song as his symbol for the coherence of the transcendental horizon of meaning. Kant himself started with space and time, noting rather reasonably that without space and time, you are without a framework for apprehending anything at all. Things have to be ‘in’ something, transcendentally speaking, and space and time are the broadest, most abstract categories of ‘inness’ that one is likely to find. Since Kant was after the broadest and most universally applicable set of rules that govern knowledge of the external world, it seemed a lovely place to start.
But Kant wasn’t much of a melancholic. The Sage of Königsberg thought that he could provide his set of categories for the understanding and that would be that. The content gets filled in later. History is always a posteriori, a matter of particulars. Roth’s transcendental ground, by contrast, is shot through with content and history. It’s a march, a specific song from a specific time and place. But it is no less transcendental for being so. For what is a march but a means for ordering space and time? The Radetzky March is thus more than a symbol for the ordering of the Austro-Hungarian world: it is part and parcel of that very ordering. It’s a transcendental object made palpable and tangible. And it’s one that gives up its transcendental secrets precisely as it fades into ruin. As Benjamin once wrote, “In the ruins of great buildings the idea of the plan speaks more impressively than in lesser buildings, however well preserved they are.” That’s the method of the melancholic, the historical transcendentalist. It’s fitting that it was put into practice at its highest level by a novelist chronicling the end of his world.