Life beyond Violence - Notes on Walter Benjamin’s ‘Zur Kritik die Gewalt’ Versão para impressão E-mail
Autor: Andrew Benjamin   
Life beyond Violence - Notes on Walter Benjamin’s ‘Zur Kritik die Gewalt’

In Benjamin’s Einbahnstrasse, in a short section early in the book with the title ‘Normaluhr’, the relationship between ‘genius’, interruption and activity is given an important formulation. Benjamin writes,

To great writers, finished works weigh lighter than those fragments on which they work throughout their lives. For only the more feeble and distracted take an inimitable pleasure in closure, feeling that their lives have thereby been given back to them. For the genius each caesura (jedwede Zäsur) and the heavy blows of fate (die schweren Schicksalsschlänge) fall like gentle sleep into his workshop labour. Around it he draws a charmed circle of fragments. ‘Genius is application’.[1]

Why would it be that the ‘genius’ is open to this form of positioning? The deferring of completion and the retention of the productive nature of the fragment and thus the retaining of that which in being what it is resists finality – resisting precisely because the incomplete is maintained as an original condition rather than as a form of failure occasioning lament – is itself located in a setting in which fate could have played a determining role. And yet, it does not. The work of fate is undone. Perhaps it is not surprising given its centrality in Benjamin’s work on translation – a work written in 1921 - that within this formulation of the relationship between ‘fate’ and ‘genius’ there are intimations of Hölderlin’s encounter with and translation of Sophocles’ Antigone.[2] In the play Creon’s final lines are translated by Hölderlin in a way that does not just inscribe the centrality of fate, fate is attributed a genuine power.

Hier in den Händen und hiermir auf das Haupt.EinwüstSchicksalgehäufet.[3]

Creon is not just overtaken by fate, fate falls upon him. The link between law and fate operates throughout the play. While there is a fundamental difference between Creon and Antigone in terms of the content and the source of the specific laws to which they declare allegiance – the family and the state - it remains the case that both hold to the centrality of law and both continue to connect law to fate. Indeed, Hölderlin himself in the ‘Anmerkungen zur Antigone’is clear that the movement of the tragedy – moreover its presence as a tragedy – occurs ‘schiksaalsweise’.[4] What has to be noted is the contrast that the play itself introduces. While it is a contrast between law and wisdom that is complicated by Hölderlin’s translation in relation to his positioning of ‘happiness’ (Glücks) within the final lines, it can be argued more generally that what endures at the end of the play, in the last words of the Chorus, is the didactic centrality of wisdom (to phrone in). Indeed it is possible to argue that Benjamin’s own introduction of the centrality of ‘happiness’ (Glück) can itself be read as a critical engagement with Hölderlin’s translation of the line: ‘polloi to phrone in eudaimonias proton’ as ‘Um vielsist das Denkenmehr, dennGlückseeligkeit’.[5] What Hölderlin loses is the possibility of locating ‘happiness’ (‘eduaimonia’ translated as ‘Glückseeligkeit’) as fundamental to the operation of thought and thus judgment.[6]

Once judgment and happiness are attributed a major role within the play a more nuanced interpretation is then possible. The Antigone can be read as suggesting that if there is a conflict that has a determining effect, then it is not between two different conceptions of law (as though law itself could not be subject to contestation).[7] Rather, the actual conflict is between law and the acquisition of wisdom through experience; where the latter is present not just as contesting law but is positioned beyond the automatic hold of law. In fact it can be argued that the final speech of the Chorus reiterates the position first articulated by Haemon in his engagement with Creon. Within this encounter Haemon states unequivocally that:

If you were not my father (me patér), I would say that you had no wisdom (ouk phronein). 755

Not only does this earlier line have its own dramatic quality, it can be argued that it sets the measure for any subsequent reiteration of the relationship between law and fate. Indeed, the introduction of ‘wisdom’ repositions the movement of the play such that it can no longer be viewed as the presentation of a simple conflict between two different conceptions of law. Once Haemon utters the line noted above both law and the type of claims made in relation to the different senses of law– the law of the Gods and those of the polis – will have been repositioned. Despite the presence of a clear internal conflict concerning law within this line – that law defining an obligation to a father as opposed to a law demanding obedience to a ruler - law has been separated from justice.[8]It should be added however that retrospectively this possibility once uttered will have been clear from the beginning. Thereby opening up the question : is justice to be defined in relation to the law or can it have another source and thus a different arché? This question and the position from which its stems can be connected to Benjamin’s claim that has already been cited, namely, that the breaching of ‘fate’ occurs within tragedy. (It is, however, not the tragedy.) If it is possible to name the subject position that can be contrasted with a positioning that is defined in terms of an immediate relation to law then it is that of the ‘Glücklichen’.

What then of another source of justice? It is vital to proceed slowly with this question. Another source, even of justice, cannot be just posited. There is both an existing account of law and equally an existing account of the force of law. Were there to be an attempt to undo such a conception of law it would necessitate a countermove move, one having the force of an undoing that was itself the provision of an opening. This is of course not just the motif; it is equally, the motive of ‘divine violence’. At work is the possibility of the caesura as a productive arché. In order to pursue the possibility of another source of justice it is essential to return to the differing formulations of life identified above.

[1] GS IV.1 page 88. SW 1 page 446.

[2] On the complex problem of the relationship between translation, law and the political in Hölderlin see my, Political Translations: Hölderlin’s Das Höchste. In Alexandra Lianeri (editor) Translation and the Classic. Oxford University Press. 2008.

[3] Friedrich Hölderlin. Antigonä. In Sämtliche Werke. Edited by D.E. Sattler. Band X. Wissenschaftliche Buchgellschaft. München. 2004. Page 212.

[4] Hölderlin. Anmerkungen zur Antigone in Theoretische Schriften. Felix Meiner Verlag. Hamburg. 1998. Page 107.

[5] Hölderlin. Antigonä. Page 212.

[6] Add further discussion of the ‘enjeu’ of this translation.

[7] In this regard see my ‘Placing Speaking: Notes on the First Stasimon of Sophocles’ Antigone. Angelaki. 9.2. 2004

[8] Haemon makes this precise claim in line 743 of the Antigone.

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