From Modernism Lab Essays
by Leo Hall
Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller” concerns itself with the incommunicability of experiences in the modern world. Published in 1936, the essay attributes the fall of the storyteller to a time in history devoid of shared experiences. According to Benjamin, people have become unable to reflect accurately upon their experiences, in part because of the dramatic influx and rapid distribution of information in the early twentieth century. Moreover, he asserts that the rise of information is incompatible with storytelling, and contributed to the diminished efficacy of the storyteller.
Arguments and Response
Before World War I, people received information locally. Rumors and information were spread verbally, from person to person, not read or watched. Moreover, prior to the rise of information, death was a time of gathering. Family and friends would come together and discuss the deceased person’s life, ultimately finding the meaning in his or her life. More importantly, death was commonplace. According to Benjamin, there were few places death had not touched.
Benjamin asserts that World War I crystallized a change in the perception of death. In addition, it appeared as a symptom for the rise of information usage. Specifically, he believes that these transformations in societal norms were not sudden changes; rather, they were progressive movements that slowly seeped into the modern world as technological usage expanded.
According to Benjamin, after World War I, people struggled to communicate their experiences. World War I, one of the most traumatizing events in human history, had significant cultural, political, and social ramifications. In “The Storyteller," Benjamin focuses mostly on the social consequences. According to Benjamin, when the soldiers returned from World War I, they were simply unable to communicate their experiences. Specifically, they returned to a world transformed by the war. For many, the addition of modern technology, such as mass media and mechanical warfare, was disconcerting. Benjamin communicates this idea very accurately, stating: “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky 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 this new addition of information processing, leading to a quick metamorphosis in 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.
Benjamin correlates the dramatic increase in the dissemination of information to 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 member to integrate this story into her own experience. Critic Peter Brooks expands on this idea, stating that the storyteller gives the narrative “a ‘chaste compactness’ that commends it to memory”; the story sinks into the reader, and the experience becomes one with the reader. In turn, according to Brooks, a type of wisdom is imparted to the listener. Through narrative and discourse, one is able to reflect upon experiences and share them with others. Ultimately, it is the integration of experience enabled by open narrative that leads to wisdom.
Information, according to Benjamin, cannot impart any wisdom upon its reader. Instead, information is used to gratify immediate needs. Likewise, it is subject to “prompt verifiability” (Benjamin, 89). Where a narrative can remain timeless, information is only relevant in real time; information is unable to transcend time like a story can.
Benjamin also contends that information can only be taken in as raw data. While a story can be interpreted by the reader and made his own, information is objective. One cannot look at a set of numbers and interpret their meaning; rather, the numbers are meant solely to gratify an insatiable lust for knowledge. Benjamin captures this idea when he states that “the most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is up to him to interpret things the way he understands them and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks” (Benjamin, 89). Specifically, it is information's lack of connectivity that leads to broken connections between people. Instead of being able to communicate and converse about a particular experience, information leaves no room for interpretation; therefore, one cannot glean wisdom from information.
Benjamin is also extremely critical of the novel, the so-called counterpart to the storyteller and narrative. To Benjamin, the novel is much like information: it does not allow for the integration of the story into the reader’s own experience. While storytelling is supposed to be community-based, the novel is more individualistic. A person indulges in novels for personal gratification: “the birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounseled and cannot counsel others” (Benjamin, 87). Because the reader is unable to counsel others or engage in intimate discourse pertaining to a certain experience, the ability to communicate experiences is lost in the novel.
Additionally, for Benjamin, counsel allows for further discourse on a certain experience. Naturally, conversation between two people on a certain issue will lead to more questions and proposals, leading to increased sharing of experience: “Good counsel, the quintessence of what the storyteller communicates, likewise is of importance not per se but as a communication: ‘After all, counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story.'" Moreover, the integration of the narrative into a person’s experience will allow for further permeation of the story, thus allowing more people to unite in a specific experience.
Benjamin’s idea that the story becomes integrated into the listener’s experience is widely debated by critics, who have argued, for instance, that “storytelling has been a communicative vehicle for shared memory (Gedächtnis) and a moral counsel; the novel, by contrast, was predicated on the existence of an alienated, atomized public whose readers searched for explanation and information." By asserting that the novel was predicated on a population interested in obtaining information, Paige claims that the novel must be modern, because the rise of information application is modern. According to Benjamin, the rise of the novel in correlation with the rise of information has led to a time devoid of shared experience. Without narrative as a source of wisdom, people have become unable to engage themselves in discourse about certain experiences.
Benjamin also explores the idea of death with regards to the novel. In the modern world, death has largely been hidden from view; it no longer serves the social function it did in pre-modern times. To compensate for this loss, readers turn to novels to familiarize themselves with death in the hopes of finding its greater meaning. To Benjamin, the reader engages with a book in full understanding that he will encounter death. Additionally, for the main character of the novel, the ‘“meaning’ of his life is revealed only in his death” (Benjamin, 101). Death, something that is often intangible in the modern world, is what drives people to read novels.
Peter Brooks also explores Benjamin’s interpretation of death. Much like Benjamin, Brooks asserts that the meaning of life for the main character is only found in his death. Brooks also contends that the novel is an attempt to grapple with this idea of death as something intangible and impossible to understand: “one reads a novel in order to know death, that death that we will never know in our own lives, that which, through the figuration of a fictive life, gives us an image of what might constitute meaning” (Brooks, 84). While it may appear good that modern people are attempting to understand the unknown, the vehicle through which they attempt to understand, the novel, does not hold the same power as direct discourse. In the past, when a person died, people gathered together and were unified and connected. When a person reads a novel which concerns death, however, there are multiple layers of mediation which function to protect the reader from such a melancholy experience. This disconnect is something that ultimately leads to a disconnect between people. Because they are removed, they are unable to speak with another about their unified experience. Indeed, for Benjamin, this inability characterizes the modern world.
- ↑ Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 2007), 84.
- ↑ Peter Brooks, Psychoanalysis and Storytelling (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994), 81.
- ↑ Uwe Steiner, Walter Benjamin: An Introduction to His Work and Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2010), 130.
- ↑ N. Paige, "The Storyteller and the Book: Scenes of Narrative Production in the Early French Novel," Modern Language Quarterly 67.2 (2006): 141.