Benjamin Finally Arrives: On THE STORYTELLER ESSAYS
by Tess Crain
Spanning 1929 to 1936, Walter Benjamin’s The Storyteller Essays, out this year from NYRB Classics, circles the question: Why is the art of storytelling dying out? The collection comprises thirteen pieces of diverse form and intended audience that nonetheless share a thematic lineage. Just as the salient features of grandparents (a curved nose, full lips) may suddenly manifest in the faces of a younger generation, here, concepts and even whole passages from an earlier meditation will resurface, slightly altered or not at all, a few essays later. At the end of the book, short writings by contemporaries (Bloch, Lukács) and inspirations (the playful Hebel, Herodotus) are appended. From an ardent cross-pollination of ideas, Benjamin’s work displays traits of these authors, too.
Throughout, Benjamin contrasts storytelling, which bears the closest resemblance to oral narrative and “represents the epic at its purest,” to the novel, which cannot be separated from its pages. Contingent on mechanical reproduction, the novel is a “side effect of historical secular forces of productivity.” It is Benjamin’s attention to these forces—to their logarithmic sweep—that gives The Storyteller Essays an uncanny continued relevance.
Experience, Benjamin writes, fuels stories, yet “experience’s stock has fallen in value.” Although this is the mid-1930s, the fatal swipe occurred in 1914. Whereas men had once returned from war with pockets full of red thread to weave into tales, those who survived “one of the most horrific experiences in world history” came home mute. By 1918, the muse no longer told “of that ingenious hero” but “of gas-shells dropping softly behind”: the epic was gone. In its place, an anthem for doomed youth. Benjamin writes:
A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars found itself under open sky in a landscape in which only the clouds were unchanged and below them, in a force field crossed by devastating currents and explosions, stood the tiny, fragile human body.
Modern warfare, mechanization, inflation, and the rise of facism had changed the scale of human experience beyond human comprehension. Benjamin killed himself in 1940, so he missed the next two quantum leaps: first, television, mass air travel, and nuclear proliferation; then, the internet. When the naked eye looks through Google Earth, experience dilates several orders of magnitude.
In one Johann Peter Hebel story, referenced by Benjamin and included in this book, a young miner falls to his death down a dark shaft and is lost. Fifty years later, his body is discovered, “saturated with iron vitriol but otherwise perfectly preserved and unchanged… as if he had died only an hour before or simply nodded off at work.” Reading Benjamin, one is met with a similar impression.
His themes are millennial—information (“Every morning, news reaches us from around the globe. And yet… almost nothing occurs to the story’s benefit anymore, but instead it all serves information”), boredom (“who has never been bored cannot be a storyteller. Boredom, however, no longer has a place in our lives”), artisanship. Regarding the succor of superstition, Benjamin writes the following:
This monstrous development of technology has brought a completely new kind of poverty to human life. The flip side of this poverty is the oppressive wealth of ideas that has come from the revival of astrology and yogic wisdom, Christian science and palmistry, vegetarianism and gnosis, scholasticism and spiritualism and has spread among—or, rather, over—the population.
Love or hate the zodiac, The Storyteller Essays reads less like an artifact than a contemporary opus with anachronisms, its images of the past illuminating the present. The predominant feeling is not that Benjamin “holds up” but that he has (thanks to Tess Lewis’ excellent translation) finally arrived.
Tess Crain is a graduate of the NYU Creative Writing Program, where she served as a Goldwater Fellow. Her writing has appeared in the New Republic. She lives in New York City.