This prose-poem is a personal analysis of some of the ideas of Walter Benjamin(1892-1940). Benjamin was a German literary critic, philosopher, social critic, translator, radio broadcaster and essayist. In his writing he combined elements of romanticism, historical materialism and Jewish mysticism, Benjamin made enduring and influential contributions to aesthetic theory and Western Marxism. He was associated with the Frankfurt School, a school of interdisciplinary social theory.
The ideas I am most concerned with here are found in his essay, The Storyteller, published in 1936.1 He was concerned, among other things in that essay, with the incommunicability of experiences in the modern world. The storyteller, said Benjamin in that essay, had served the role as the guardian of tradition, part of a chain of tradition which passed a happening on from generation to generation.
“Through the storyteller,” writes Miguel Santos-Neves, “memory leaves the past to be morphed into and in the present.”1 That is no longer the case or, it is more accurate to say, that there are dozens, even hundreds, of traditions, which are being preserved for modern man in a cacophony of languages, voices, myths and traditions. In some ways, the storyteller has only begun his journey through the lives of the billions of people who have and who now inhabit the planet.
In the 20th century the theme of incommunicability, though, is often found in such places in the literary and philosophical world as: the theatre of the absurd, nihilism, deconstruction and post-modernism, as well as some varieties of existentialism, inter alia. Benjamin’s essay attributes the fall of the storyteller in the last century, the years after WWI, to the problem of sharing experiences.
While I find the writings of Benjamin provocative, and often reflect my own experience and views, I often find that what he says is, when viewed from another perspective, an inaccurate perception of the society I now live in. If what he says is accurate, it is often only a partial truth, a partially accurate reflection and analysis of the world I live in, analyse and observe. This is especially true of the storyteller and storytelling.
His essay, The Storyteller, is an example of what for me is one of Benjamin’s partial truths. Benjamin states that after WWI people became unable to reflect accurately upon their experiences, in part because of the dramatic influx, and rapid distribution of information. He asserted that the rise of information, the information overload, was incompatible with storytelling, and contributed to the diminished efficacy of the storyteller. Before World War I, people received information locally. Rumours and information were spread verbally, from person to person, not read or watched. People’s knowledge of the outside world in 1913, compared with 2013, was scarce and nowhere near as graphic.
Benjamin asserted that World War I crystallized a change in the perception of many things.2 He believed that societal norms were transformed, not suddenly but progressively, slowly, over time, as knowledge seeped into people’s lives, as technology expanded and events like WW I took place. After World War I, people struggled to communicate their experiences. World War I was one of the most traumatizing events in human history. It had significant cultural, political, and social ramifications. Traumatizing events have continued, seemingly unabated into the 21st century, and communication has remained a problem.
In The Storyteller Benjamin focuses mostly on the social consequences of the Great War. According to Benjamin, when the soldiers returned from World War I, they were simply unable to communicate their experiences. They returned to a world transformed by the war. This transformation, of course, has been happening, a fortiori, as the decades of the 20th and 21st centuries have succeeded one another.
For millions, modern technology, the mass media and mechanical warfare have changed everything. This was not true for large segments of our global society whose lives remained relatively unchanged until the last decades of the 20th century since most of modern technology did not reach many of the hunting and gathering communities and much of the third world, and when it did reach them it was oh so slowly.
Benjamin communicates his conception of the changes as follows: “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar stood under the open sky, after WWI, in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of forces of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human life.” Many soldiers had grown up knowing a slow-paced, effectively unchanging lifestyle. But after the war, this kind of lifestyle was ripped from their grasp. The world was immediately affected by the great quantities of information and this led to a metamorphosis of the greater society. Life became fast-paced and information-driven. While some were reaping the so-called benefits of the new age, many were left behind and this dichotomy between rich and poor, advanced and underdeveloped, peoples is still with us.
Benjamin correlates the dramatic increase in the dissemination of information with the quick decline of the storyteller. According to Benjamin, the beauty of the storyteller was his ability to communicate a story and allow the audience to integrate that story into their own experience. Critic Peter Brooks expands on this idea, stating that the storyteller gave the narrative “a chaste compactness that commended it to people’s memory.”3 The story sank into the listener, and the experience made the storyteller and the reader one. In turn, according to Brooks, a type of wisdom was imparted to the listener. Through narrative and discourse, people were able to reflect upon experiences and share them with others. Ultimately, it was the integration of experience by the use of open narrative, of storytelling, that led to wisdom.2–Ron Price with thanks to 1 Miguel Santos-Neves, Reflections on Walter Benjamin’s The Storyteller in Texas Theory Wiki, 2Leo Hall, The Modernism Lab, Yale University; and 3Peter Brooks, Psychoanalysis and Storytelling, Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994, p. 81.
Well, Walter, 80 years after your
essay, I think the picture is so very
different from the one you saw far1
back in the 1930s….People are now
drowning in stories, & sharing them
with millions-billions; and integrating
more wisdom than ever in history…
The world has been transformed just
about out of all recognition except for
those clouds in the sky and the ground
beneath our feet over those 100 years.2
Back in 19361 the Plan was activated and
systematically, for that world, that field of
forces and their destructive torrents, all the
explosions, on the tiny, fragile human lives…
You got that right Walter-yes sir-ee-bob!!!
The world of the story-teller has just begun;
he has returned to us with a vengeance in so
many more ways than one: read that thesis of
Areti Dragas, his PhD thesis at Durham Uni.3
1 In 1936, Benjamin’s essay was published and the Baha’is of North America were asked to implement Abdu’l-Baha’s teaching Plan for the extension of His Father’s faith throughout the world. See Shoghi Effendi, 30/5/’36, in Messages to America: 1932-1946, Baha’i Pub. Committee, Wilmette, 1947, p.7.
The translation series Selected Writing contributes to an effort, intensified in recent years, of presenting unfamiliar facets of Benjamin's work in the English language. This third volume of the series presents selected writings from the years 1935-38.--Howard Eiland, Michael W. Jennings, eds.: Walter Benjamin: Selected Writing: Vol.3 1935-1938, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2002.
2 1913 to 2013
3 Areti Dragas, The Return of the Storyteller in Contemporary Literature, Durham theses, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online: https://etheses.dur.ac.uk/2877/ , 2007.
13 & 14/1/’13.