Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov,” rich in aphorism and vatic utterance, has for many years been a point of reference I return to when thinking about narrative and why its various forms play such an important part in our lives. Like all of Benjamin’s work, the essay stands in dialogue with a number of other texts that had talismanic value for him: not only by the author ostensibly under discussion, the nineteenth-century Russian novelist and short-story writer Leskov, but also Georg Lukács, Paul Valéry, Ernst Bloch, and Johann Peter Hebel. So it is gratifying to have this slim volume, edited by the translator and critic Samuel Titan, that brings “The Storyteller,” newly translated by Tess Lewis, together with excerpts from all of these writers and others (Herodotus, Montaigne) who are inseparably stitched into Benjamin’s thinking. It also contains other pieces by Benjamin that offer first approximations of “The Storyteller” and provide glosses on it, including one of his radio tales for children, the captivating “The Lisbon Earthquake.”
“The Storyteller” stages an opposition of the oral tale to the printed novel. The tale comes to life in the milieu of work and travel and trade: it is an oral transaction in the workshop or with a traveler returned to tell his adventures to those at home. Above all, it involves one living person transmitting experience of life to another in a vital exchange. The personality of the storyteller, Benjamin writes, clings to the story “the way traces of the potter’s hand cling to a clay bowl.” Stories are compact; they have a “chaste brevity” that precludes explanation. They unfold within the rhythms of work. The tale offers human counsel. What it transmits, in Benjamin’s strikingly simple term, is “wisdom.”
If storytelling is dying out, so is the art of listening: the creation of a community of listeners around the storyteller. And beyond that, the very communicability of experience is threatened with loss. We no longer know how to share our experiences; we have been impoverished by the shock of the Great War and its sequels:
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.
The war that destroyed high European culture is both the symbol and the historical event of the decline of shared experience passed on as wisdom.
Story requires a state of relaxation akin to boredom: “Boredom is the dreambird that broods the egg of experience,” writes Benjamin in a sentence worthy of the Surrealists. He quotes Leskov’s opinion that storytelling is not high art but a craft—“ein Handwerk”—and…
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