Thursday, May 1, 2014

Walter Benjamin: "The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov"

Although the sub-title of Walter Benjamin's storytelling essay, from Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, 1968, suggests that its focus is on the fiction of the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, what Benjamin actually develops in the essay is a definition of the nature of storytelling--an art which he laments is coming to an end for various sociological reasons. The essay lists what Benjamin considers to be the primary characteristics of the storyteller and examines each one in turn, both in theoretical and historical terms and as evidenced by the fiction of Leskov. Benjamin examines the sources of storytelling, analyzes its basic characteristics, points out its differences from other similar narrative forms, suggests what in human experience gives it its most basic authority, and laments nostalgically its inevitable passing away in the modern world.

The first criteria of storytelling Benjamin describes is its oral nature; moreover, he says, of those who write down stories the best ones are those who most closely stick to a simulation of this oral source.  Benjamin says there are two basic types of oral storytellers--those who come from afar and tell of their adventures (embodied in the figure of the travelling seaman) and those who stay at home and tell of events there (as represented by the stationary farmer). The second characteristic of the storyteller is an orientation toward practical interests; all stories contain something useful, Benjamin argues, whether that useful information is obvious and on the surface or whether it is embedded within the narrative in some way. Thus, stories do not derive from idle gossip or even from the need to recount interesting experiences, but rather they spring from a basic human need to recount real-life examples of trying to cope with the mystery of human reality.

However, storytelling is dying out, says Benjamin; we no longer seem to have the ability to exchange experiences. He offers several historical and sociological reasons for storytelling's demise. The most basic reason for the death of storytelling is the fact that the communicability of experience itself is dying out; thus storytelling, which always offers counsel, has no more place in the modern world.  Indeed, wisdom itself, which Benjamin defines as counsel woven into the fabric of life and thus which has its origins in storytelling, is dying out. This process, which Benjamin links to the increasingly secular forces of history, have gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech.

The rise of the novel is one of the primary symptoms of the decline of storytelling, Benjamin suggests.  For the novel is quite different from the story in that it neither comes from the oral tradition, nor does it go into it.  Whereas the birthplace of the story is the teller's experience, the novel begins with the solitary self.  Whereas the story springs from orality, the novel is bound to the form of a book. Whereas the storyteller takes his story from experience, either his own or what he has heard from others, the novelist is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concern.

Furthermore, Benjamin says, another form of communication has come to predominate in the modern world which threatens storytelling even more seriously than the novel; that is, "information," by which Benjamin means primarily the information of the news media. The difference between the forms of storytelling and forms of news information, argues Benjamin, is that whereas storytelling always had a validity that required no external verification, information must be accessible to immediate verification. Storytelling differs from information in that storytelling does not aim to convey the pure essence of the experience in some distilled way, but rather imbues the story with the life of the storyteller. Aspects of the storyteller cling to the story; this is the reason why many storytellers begin with the circumstances by which they have gained access to the story they are about to tell.

This distinction between storytelling and information points to one of the primary differences between the "truth" of story and the truth of other forms of explanation characteristic of discursive writing.  Whereas, in such forms of discourse as history, sociology, psychology, etc, the aim of the work is to abstract from concrete experience so that a distilled discursive meaning remains, in story, the truth is somehow communicated by a recounting of the concrete experience itself in such a way that the truth is revealed by the details of the story, not by abstract explanation. The story has a compactness that defies psychological analysis; in fact the less psychological shading the story has the more the listener will remember it and tell it to someone else later on, says Benjamin.

Whereas story is borrowed from the miraculous and does not demand plausibility or conformity to the laws of external reality, information must be plausible and conform to such laws.  When stories come to us through information, they are already loaded down with explanation, says Benjamin; it is half the art of storytelling to be free from information.  Because the reader of story is free to interpret things the way he understands them, story has an amplitude lacking in information.

Another basic difference between story and information is that whereas the value of information does not survive the moment of its newness, a story is so concentrated that it retains its truth power for a long time.  Moreover, story stays in the memory and compels the listener to tell it to someone.  In fact, insists Benjamin, it might be said that storytelling is the art of repeating stories, for when the rhythm of the story seizes the reader he listens in such a way that the ability to retell it comes by itself.

However, Benjamin does not spend the entire essay focusing on such external characteristics of story as how it is transmitted. He is also concerned with what gives storytelling its validity, since he insists that, unlike information, it does not require external verification. Instead, the story finds its validity in the awareness of death, says Benjamin.  One's wisdom and real life, the very stuff of stories, become transmissible at the moment of death, and thus death is the sanction for whatever the storyteller tells, for death is storytelling's ultimate authority.  However, since increasingly modern man has become distanced from the actual experience of death, Benjamin argues, we can see another reason why the art of storytelling is coming to an end.  Whereas dying once was a public process for the individual, in modern times death has been pushed out of the perception of the living. In deriving its ultimate validity from death, Benjamin argues, story faces ultimate reality, not immediate reality; that is, story deals with man's most basic existential situation in the world.

In describing the craftsmanship required of story, Benjamin cites Paul Valery, who notes that nature creates perfection through a long chain of causes; man once imitated nature, says Valery, by elaborating things to perfection, but he does so no longer. Modern man is only concerned with dealing with what can be abbreviated and abstracted; he is no longer concerned with telling stories by the layering of various retellings so that multiple experiences of storytellers can imbue the story with concrete human meaning.

Benjamin also sets up a distinction between the chronicler and the historian to clarify his definition of storytelling.  Whereas the historian must explain the happenings he describes, the chronicler is content with displaying the events as models of the course of the world. Whereas the chronicler bases his tales on a divine plan of salvation and thus is relieved of the burden of explanation, the historian is bound to the abstraction process that explanation demands. The storyteller preserves the nature of the chronicle, Benjamin says, albeit, in a secularized form.

The most basic relationship between the storyteller and the listener, Benjamin argues, is the listener's need to retain the story so that he can reproduce it.  There is a crucial difference between the way memory is manifested in the novel and the way it is manifested in the story, Benjamin says.  Memory is that which creates the chain that passes story from one generation to the next, much as a web is created in which one story ties on to the next.  What distinguishes memory in story from memory in the novel is the perpetuating "remembrance" of the novelist as contrasted with the short-lived "reminiscences" of the storyteller.  Whereas the remembrance of the novel is bound to one hero and one journey, the reminiscences of the storyteller encompass many diffuse occurrences.

As a result, story focuses on the relatively concrete "moral of the story," while the novel focuses on the more abstract "meaning of life."  The first true storyteller, says Benjamin, is the teller of fairy tales, for the fairy tale provides good counsel. According to Benjamin, whereas realistic narrative forms such as the novel focus on the relatively limited areas of human experience that indeed can be encompassed by information, characters in fairy tales or stories encounter those most basic mysteries of human experience which cannot be explained by rational means, but which can only be embodied in myth.  The wisest thing the fairy tale teaches is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and high spirits.  What the fairy tale, and therefore the tale, does is to tell us how to deal with all that which we cannot understand.

The storyteller is of the same company as that of teachers and sages, says Benjamin, for the storyteller has counsel for many based on a lifetime of experience.  The gift of the storyteller is the gift of relating his life, for he is able to fashion the raw material of experience, both his own and the experience of others, in a solid and useful way. It is therefore unfortunate, says Benjamin, that storytelling, that is, the ability to exchange experiences is being slowly taken from us.

Because Benjamin has so often been identified with Marxist criticism, many critics and readers who are either hostile or indifferent to Marxism have not studied this essay very carefully.  Its real value lies not in its assertion of Marxist values, either socially or aesthetically, nor does it lie in its analysis of Leskov, for that is but a minor  part of the piece, but rather in the suggestions it offers about the basic nature of narrative, particularly the primal nature of story as opposed to the more recent realistic narrative characteristic of the novel form.  No one who wishes to understand the basic nature of story can really afford to ignore Walter Benjamin's profound study of the storyteller.

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