Walter Benjamin’s book is a study of the German baroque drama, but his argument ranges beyond the nature of baroque tragedy to the idea of “the state of emergency” and the quite modern antithesis between an encompassing “catastrophe” and the “restoration” of life. Lawrence’s book is a study of John of Patmos’ “Book of Revelations” in the New Testament, but his discussion also ranges beyond the Biblical idea of apocalypse to address the crucial modern tension between catastrophe the hope for restoration.Benjamin describes the baroque yearning for a transcendent order designed to reign in and ultimately negate the vitality of the Renaissance and its restoration of Classical humanism and its “pagan glorification.” In the baroque era, the sought-for metaphysical order aims for a “complete stabilization” of “the worldly and despotic aspects of [the energy intrinsic to] the rich feeling for life characteristic of the Renaissance.” In fear of the recurrence and “restoration” of that “feeling for life,” the baroque develops a conception of the “state of emergency” as the last and terrible means to trap and regulate the vital chaos of life. Similarly, the baroque version of “heaven” becomes an antithetical instrument for fearful purgation and regulation, whereby the “hereafter is emptied of everything which contains the slightest breath of this world.” (Here's an Amazon link to Benjamin's book: The Origin of German Tragic Drama (Radical Thinkers).)
The modern version of the baroque apocalypse connects the eradication of life with the suicidal advances in the mechanization of war (not to mention the soulless mechanization of mass society). Both the baroque’s orderly purgation of life and the rationalized suicide of modern Europe’s wars yield the apocalyptic sensation of living in a world that “is being driven along to a cataract.” This world, headed for the abyss, is “haunted by the idea of catastrophe,” of life being wiped out.In the baroque period, an elaborate, sometimes grotesque art results; such art “clings closely” to the smallest, most discarded things in life, which exist under the threat of the world’s eradication. As a result, baroque art, rather like modern art, “extracts a profusion of things which customarily escaped the grasp of artistic formulation and, at its high point, brings them violently into the light of day, in order to clear the way for an ultimate heaven, enabling it, as a vacuum, one day to destroy the world with catastrophic violence.” The “violence” of such art zeroes in on any signs of “pagan glorification” and reproduces them even as it distorts these signs of life’s vitality.
That paradox is embedded in the façade of the baroque Mexican cathedral dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, with its unholy mix of Christian and native pagan iconography, just as it is at work in Benjamin’s portrait of the baroque German tragic drama, with its demented sovereigns and its apocalyptic final acts.When we turn to modern art and literature, we can find a similar paradox whereby the gestures and images of ordinary life are estranged and often beautifully deformed – the nude body or box of unsmoked Gauloises in a Matisse or Picasso painting, the mud-dripped church or the vacant streets of modern cities in a Gaudi building or an Eliot poem. To an extent, as Carlos Fuentes argues, America itself is a paradoxically baroque construct invented in the seventeenth century, and the modern manifestations of America reproduce – to an exaggerated extreme – the baroque conjunction of puritanism and paganism, of sun-desiccated metaphysics and darkly lush sensuality, of abstract ideals and the earthy vista of freedom. In modernity as in the baroque, there is an unstable embrace of such contradictions, simultaneously contemplating the wiping away of the things of this world and their distorted “glorification.”
D. H. Lawrence developed a similar conception in his Studies in Classic American Literature (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) and above all in his last work, Apocalypse. In the former work, America is seen as haunted by the apocalyptic death of the old world and the challenge of creating the new world; for example, in Lawrence’s view of Whitman and Melville, death surrounds the human being who must use his isolated will to transform the bare force of nature and construct himself and his ties to other humans from the encounter. But for our purposes, Lawrence’s last work is most relevant and illuminating.In Apocalypse, Lawrence identifies the deadly danger of modernity, which impedes the affirmative contact with nature and the resulting potential for self-creation. His description of “The Book of Revelations” parallels Benjamin’s portrait of the baroque, even with regard to the two Christian visions of the state, for in “Revelations,” the worldly operations of the state, let alone of the body, are anathema and must be apocalyptically purged. Yet this “dark side,” this “resistance” to “the things that the human heart secretly yearns after,” is a refusal of “what man most passionately wants…his living wholeness and his living unison, not his own isolate salvation of the ‘soul.’” “By the very frenzy with which the Apocalypse destroys the sun and the stars, the world, and all kings and all rulers, all scarlet and purple and cinnamon, all harlots, finally all men altogether who are not ‘sealed,’ we can see how deeply the Apocalyptists are yearning for the sun and the stars and the earth” and the rest of life.
How can the great rush toward death be stopped? Can human beings restore their sense of life, of vital consciousness, and “what the old Greeks meant by…theos”? In a wonderful passage about the restoration of language itself from his 1929 book, Lawrence again parallels Benjamin, who in “On Language as Such and the Language of Man” asserts that in the act of “naming, the mental being of man communicates itself to God.” (Here is a link to the book containing Benjamin's essay - Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings). Lawrence describes the “old Greek” way of naming the water which overcomes thirst, of naming the cold of the water in one’s mouth, “whatever struck you was god.” If the water was cold “as you touched it: then another god came into being, ‘the cold.’” For Lawrence, the names themselves, the words, are sacramental “things themselves, realities, gods, theoi. And they did things,” they restored human consciousness and imagination to life in a way similar to what Lawrence hoped the language itself of his lyrical and incantatory poetry and fiction would achieve.Let the language of Lawrence’s own conclusion end this post: “What we want is to destroy our false, inorganic connections, especially those related to money, and re-establish the living organic connections, with the cosmos, the sun and earth, with mankind and nation and family. Start with the sun, and the rest will slowly, slowly happen.”