Walter Benjamin’s “The Storyteller,” reflects Benjamin’s sense of mourning for the lost art of storytelling. His nostalgic recollection of this past oral tradition demonstrates his discontent with the current era of information, technology, and the search for truth. He first introduces readers to the character of the storyteller with the assumption that the modern reader will never know him. We will never have the privilege of hearing a story and sharing that experience. Benjamin implies that certain advancements and changes in modern day society are to blame for this loss of “something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions… the ability to exchange experiences” (Benjamin, 362). Storytelling is a shared experience, a connection between the teller and the listener. Without it, we lose the ability to learn from people whose lives are so different from our own.
Benjamin’s discussion of experience connects to our exploration of knowledge in Professor Robb’s unit, specifically through John Locke and empiricism. Locke insists that knowledge is not justified by experience, but it is experience. Benjamin’s point about a loss of shared experiences could also be about a broader loss to humanity of shared knowledge. In his lifetime, civilization changed so quickly through technology and warfare. Benjamin witnessed horrors that were enough to make one question the very essence of humanity. What are humans truly capable of? Are they innately good? In that time, at the very least, stories would have brought comfort or perhaps understanding of why things happened the way they did. Instead, technological and chemical warfare were new inventions of the twentieth century that no experience from past stories could have ever prepared the world for. Benjamin described it as a world where “nothing remained unchanged but the clouds” (363). Thus, stories from the past have become essentially obsolete and inapplicable to the modern man’s everyday experiences.
Benjamin makes a distinction between a novel and a story through the purpose, execution, and takeaway. As an avid lover of novels, particularly historical fiction novels, I was curious about what Benjamin would say about these novels that are based on real experiences. While the characters themselves are made up, they are compositions of several, maybe many, true identities to whom similar events happened to. I would argue that the author is then taking on the role of the storyteller in a way by piecing together parts of a whole and perhaps filling in some holes to construct an experience. The role of the author and the storyteller seem almost identical, so I am wondering if perhaps the experience of novel-writing and storytelling diverges because of the listener. Listeners of stories have to listen carefully to interpret the story because it is subjective. There is a moral at the end of the story, but the listener chooses how to process it. As a reader of a novel, though, I don’t have to do that hard work. However, I acknowledge that according to Benjamin, the author is still separate from the storyteller in the way that they share the story because they are isolated from the reader– they do not directly share the experience of telling the story with readers.
These are some additional thoughts and questions I had:
- Connection to other beings, empathy– have we lost it? Through journalism/constantly being berated with news (especially dark news)– desensitized, removed geographically
- Tamura’s unit– how far can empathy take us?
- Journalism– also very westernized, biases, single sided story, don’t get raw data– already processed
- Communication vs information– storytelling as a way of sharing information or no?
- Our need for truth and answers, objective world vs subjective
- Bad at being bored now, lost art
- Time has become our enemy/most valued commodity– take shortcuts whenever we can
- Death has become taboo, we are afraid– opposite of living instead of part of living– related to our clinging to time? Make the most of life before you die
- Industrial world and technology clearly his enemy– based on what he’s seen/lived through in the first and second world wars– what technology is capable of, what the modern man is capable of– he is himself a storyteller, telling us about the lost art of storytelling and the tragedy of his modern day– chronology of storytelling
- Historiography– central to storytelling
- Language– written vs spoken– does written language get lost in translation when telling stories? Don’t have non-verbal cues, tone, direct engagement with storyteller
- Is written language reliable?