The Storyteller

Tales out of Loneliness

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Walter Benjamin
Editor(s): 
Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie, Sebastian Truskolaski
  • Brooklyn, NY: 
    Verso
    , July
     2016.
     240 pages.
     $19.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781784783044.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Storyteller: Tales Out of Loneliness is a collection of short pieces, both fiction and criticism, written by Walter Benjamin between 1906 (when Benjamin was an adolescent) and 1939 (within a year of his death). Many of the pieces are translated here for the first time; many were unpublished in Benjamin’s lifetime. This is the first time all of the pieces appear together. The emphasis is on fiction, but works of criticism are included in each of the three sections of the book. It would be misleading to call this a collection of short stories. The pieces are short, and the emphasis is on fiction, but the genres that rub shoulders here are varied, ranging from fragments of dream diaries through bits and pieces of novellas to parables, riddles, jokes, aphorisms, and polished short stories. In their introduction, “Walter Benjamin and the Magnetic Play of Words,” Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie, and Sebastian Truskolaski write that the “short forms” they have gathered “stand in their own right as works of experimental writing...” (ix). Giving these pieces  a place to stand and making them accessible to a wider circle are important contributions. These fragments open a window on one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century, and that alone makes the book worth reading.

But there is more: the editors note that these pieces “act as the sounding board for ideas that feed back into Benjamin’s critical work” (ix-x). That claim about the relationship between these pieces and the critical work (by which most readers will have come to Benjamin) invites new readings. Benjamin’s work has had profound influence in academic circles, but Benjamin himself never fit comfortably in those circles, a fact that contributes to the continuing importance of his work as criticism of scholarly circles that have sought to place it. This collection gives readers a chance to encounter Benjamin the way we encounter Franz Kafka, not as a displaced academic, but as a teller of tales who delights in paradox.

The editors write that “the purpose of bringing together these texts is to demonstrate how Benjamin formally stages, enacts and performs certain concerns that he develops elsewhere in a more academic register” (x), a play of words sure to provoke lively discussion of the place of Benjamin’s criticism. Is it staged, enacted, and performed in one register and developed in another? Or is it developed in its performance across registers to make room for play (Spielraum) in every place it touches?

The discussion of Benjamin’s reflections on storytelling (x-xiii) is among the book’s most important contributions. The translators reference Benjamin’s 1936 essay on Nikolai Leskov (“The Storyteller”) as the source of their title. They point to an earlier essay, “Experience and Poverty” (1933), where Benjamin “lays out the claim he would later develop in the Leskov essay” (x, xi). That claim has two parts: first, that experience was passed down before the First World War “in the form of folklore and fairy tales” (xi), and, second, that “with the war came the severing of ‘the red thread of experience’ which had connected previous generations” (xi). The fragile body that emerged from the trenches was unable to narrate the horrors that had engulfed it, and stories that had passed experience from generation to generation were silenced, replaced by “the journalistic jargon of the newspaper,” the “highest expression of experiential poverty” (xi). That there are higher expressions has become evident since, but the claim that war unsettles communicability rings true. Buried in news, bereft of stories, the question is how to speak in the face of the unspeakable. The editors suggest that Benjamin’s response is an attempt “to reactivate the orality of storytelling under new conditions” (xii).

The arrangement of the book is thematic, but it is informed by the attempt “to reactivate orality under new conditions.” There are three parts, each introduced by a carefully chosen Paul Klee drawing: “Dreamworlds” (“Fantasy” and “Dreams”), “Travel” (“City and Transit” and “Landscape and Seascape”), and “Play and Pedagogy.” In each section (or subsection), earlier work is placed first. The first section, “Fantasy,” which consists almost entirely of fragments not published in Benjamin’s lifetime, contains the earliest writings included in the collection (though “City and Transit” is not far behind). This reinforces the impression that the “short form” pieces function as sounding boards; but it is equally plausible that unpublished, fragmentary pieces introduce themes more fully developed in later, polished pieces, many of which Benjamin published. The difference is not between short-form experimental pieces and longer pieces in an academic register, but between short-form experimental pieces or fragments that were not prepared for publication and short-form experimental pieces or fragments that were.

The chronological proximity of the fantasy pieces and the “city and transit” fragments is suggestive. Though they are gathered under different themes, both exhibit a logic more dreamlike than linear, an interesting window into Benjamin’s reading of cities. This paves the way for “Play and Pedagogy,” which begins with “the cultural effect that children’s lives and activities exert on the ethnic and linguistic communities in which they take place” (153) and ends with a children’s primer from which “the seriousness of life” spoke, noting that “the finger that followed along its lines had crossed the threshold of a realm from which no wanderer returns: he was under the spell of the black-and-white, of law and right, the irrevocable, the being set for all eternity. We know today that we should think of such things” (203-204). When Benjamin writes of children’s rhymes, he notes that what can be traced there is “how the child ‘models’, how he or she ‘tinkers’, how – in the intellectual realm as well as in the sensuous one – he or she never adopts the established form as such, and how the whole richness of his or her mental world occupies the narrow track of variation. The children return the oldest fragments and phrases of verse to the adults in variegated forms; their work lies not so much in the gist of these pieces, as in the unpredictably appealing play of transformation” (154).

That “we know today that we should think of such things” (if indeed we do) is partly a product of the fields that have developed around the magnetic play of Benjamin’s words. I suspect Benjamin sought to reactivate not orality but the modeling, tinkering, and wandering characteristic of orality. Benjamin’s Spielraum is a rejoinder to “the being set for all eternity” that underwrote the violent quest for Lebensraum with which he was painfully familiar. Reactivating the modeling, the tinkering, the wandering that makes room for play is as important now as it was when Benjamin wrote, and this collection is a singularly important contribution to thinking of such things.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Schroeder is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
July 28, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) was a German-Jewish Marxist literary critic, essayist, translator and philosopher. He was associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory and is the author of IlluminationsThe Arcades Project, andThe Origin of German Tragic Drama. In 1940, he was in Spain, fleeing the Nazis and en route to the United States, when Franco’s government cancelled his visa. Expecting repatriation, he took his own life.

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