Reconsidering Allegory and Symbol: Benjamin and Goethe

Brenda Machosky

in Structures of Appearing

Published by Fordham University Press

Published in print November 2012 | ISBN: 9780823242849
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780823242887 | DOI:
Reconsidering Allegory and Symbol: Benjamin and Goethe

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This chapter revisits the supposed antagonism between symbol and allegory that begins in the seventeenth century and becomes an accepted ideology in the wake of Romanticism and Idealism. Allegory threatens ideal concepts like the symbol by exposing the unity of divine and worldly as an arbitrary relationship, not an intrinsic one. Allegory was devalued because of the obviously arbitrary relationships it could propose between sign and meaning, making it aesthetically uninteresting, but allegory is indifferent to aesthetics of taste or judgment. Rather than being overcome by the symbol, allegory submerges itself in it. As a hidden structure supporting symbolic experience, allegory threated the symbol's universal claims. Following Benjamin's suggestions, the author focuses on the work and theory of Goethe, long presumed a champion of the symbol (pitted against Schiller's defense of the allegorical). With a close reading of Goethe's obscure story “Das Märchen” and careful attention to the aphorisms and letters that mention allegory and symbol, the author determines that Goethe understood that the symbol, or the symbolic moment of immediacy that is possible in art, could only appear by virtue of an allegorical structure. Allegory makes the symbol possible.

Keywords: allegory; Benjamin; Goethe; Romanticism; symbol

Chapter.  11053 words. 

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies

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