Der Erzähler

On first reading Der Erzähler, I could not decide if Benjamin’s position was one that we, in our position some 75 years later, would be comfortable naming ‘modern.’  In fact, it seemed as if the typical facets of modernity–technology, globalism, progress–were points of lament, not celebration, for Benjamin.  Beginning with the claim that the novel is competing with and replacing the story teller, in this post, I will try to list a few of the author’s arguments supporting the claim and relevant to our discussion.

Benjamin opens the essay by describing the writer Nikolai Leskov as a storyteller (ein Erzähler), but comments that such a title, while perhaps sounding familiar, is actually quite removed from us.  This distance, he claims, results from a vacuum in our communicable ability and is symptomatic of the experience-contradicting (i.e., in this context, literally dumbfounding), modern horrors related to World War One: trench warfare, crumbling economies, and distrust of the morality of government leaders.  At their advents, these were such unthinkable atrocities and disasters that they rendered people unable to accurately articulate their experiences, and the storyteller, who existed through this type of communication, began to decline.

Concentrating on passages IV, V, IX, and XIV, I have selected three themes in Benjamin’s argument, which I found present in the text and which had previously been brought up in class.  Perhaps they can serve as jumping-off points for discussion.

The first is his interest in technology.  The decline of the storyteller, he writes, is inherently linked with the rise of the novel, an art form that depends on the invention of the book and, by extension, the press.  This creates two problems in Benjamin’s mind.  The first, and perhaps more superficial, is that the act of writing turns from a craft into a product of industry, removing the natural, human element from the art.  The second problem comes in that the novel elevates the isolated, individual writer over the communally shared experiences of a story-teller.  Whereas the strength of the story rests in its lesson, the novel “bekundet die tiefe Ratlosigkeit des Lebenden” (V).  The novel’s interest in life’s Ratlosigkeit, leads to the next theme, that of ambiguity.

With respect to ambiguity, not only are the simple counsel of the story and the storyteller now superseded by an interest with life’s perplexity, Benjamin doubts if the novel is even capable of relaying truth in its message complexity.  Die Moral von der Geschichte is replaced by der Sinn des Lebens, Benjamin writes, but he worries that, as the paradigmatic Don Quixote demonstrates, the novel’s relationship to the meaning of life is only as a quest for it, never in actually attaining it.  As the novel replaces the story, so ambiguity replaces truth.  “Die Kunst des Erzählens neigt ihrem Ende zu, weil die epische Seite der Wahrheit, die Weisheit, ausstirbt” (IV).

The choice to qualify the concept of truth as epic in the previous quote points to the last theme I will mention, the loss of tradition.  Losing the epic side of truth is a loaded phrase, both with ontological and literary connotations.  The old way of stories, tracing all the way back to the epic model of Homer, is now being lost, as Benjamin argues, to an entirely new type of art.  This theme encompasses the above points of technology and ambiguity as well, but I honestly am unsure if Benjamin sees the loss of the story’s traditional form as something negative.  In fact, if the experiential landscape has been so transformed by the events surrounding World War I, wouldn’t that necessitate a new art form in order to grapple with it?  In any case, Benjamin believes that the days of epic wisdom and truth in writing are past, and a new, synthetic, artificial, and non-communal genre has emerged.

But I do wonder, if the novel has “die Form der transzendentalen Heimatlosigkeit,” is the novel not simply a new iteration of the Homeric myth, the epitome of the storyteller, only now no longer limited by the distance a man can walk in a day?  I’m curious if we aren’t actually losing the storyteller, as Benjamin has depicted it, but rather witnessing a metamorphosis.

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2 Responses to Der Erzähler

  1. Codi Coslet says:

    I was very interested in William’s introduction, specifically the question as to whether Walter Benjamin would be in support or contest to modernity, and I began to wonder. Personally, given his various arguments I believe that Benjamin would view modern lives in a negative light.
    Benjamin quite obviously holds the role of the traditional storyteller in high esteem and, as William noted, Benjamin closely links the rise of things typically associated with modernity to the loss of the storyteller. It is evident that developments such as the printing press, mass media production, newspapers, novels, etc. would directly lead to a lessening of the need for a storyteller. Prior to relatively recent technology, storytellers were a necessary part of communication. As technology became ever more present in everyday life there was no longer a need for people to derive information from “storytellers” (even now people struggle with the loss of personal communication and the rise of the internet, networking websites and television).
    While reading Benjamin’s depictions of the way a storyteller acts through the layering of stories, I immediately thought to our recent reading of Theodor Storm’s The Rider on a White Horse. Within that story, Storm paints layer over layer to completely delve readers into the world of the story. In this way, I see Theodor Storm as a storyteller in the sense that Benjamin described though he wrote Rider on a White Horse as a novel, though Benjamin seems to look negatively on the role of novels in the dissipation of storytellers.
    I have to agree with William’s assertion in his final question. That the world is in fact not losing those whose role it is to be the storytellers, but rather the people continue to exist today only through different channels, using different means of communication that what was used during the height of the storyteller in the past.

  2. Marcus Liddell says:

    Benjamin’s word choice makes it clear, I think, that he’s very much concerned about the perceived loss of the storyteller. He opens his treatment of the subject with the assertation that ‘more and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed’ and goes on to describe the story as ‘the securest among our possessions’ for its capacity to share experience with the listeners. He then says that storytelling is fading because ‘the epic side of truth, wisdom,’ which it is purported to impart, is also dying out.

    For someone so nostalgic about the spoken story, Benjamin makes pretty liberal use of material that could only have come his way thanks to the advent of the written language, without appearing to acknowledge them. He praises Leskov for being ‘grounded in the classics,’ which have all come to him and his contemporaries not as stories but as written word. Even Homer, long the champion of the oral tradition among those who wish to see it supercede the novel, survives only in printed form. The classic epics which he praises, ironically, were available to him only under the guise of the novel.

    He goes on to speak about what he seems to take as a unique power of the spoken story in the anecdote relayed through Herodotus about the Egyptian king Psammenitus. The lasting relevance of the story, which Benjamin totes as available only through the spoken word, seems to me to be a product of subject rather than medium. There are also many novels that leave some parts to interpretation on the part of the reader, and many that deal with universal aspects of humanity, like the grief of the Egyptian king. Benjamin argues that the novel is a symptom of a disease in which ‘the community of listeners disappears’. In reality, though, the ability to proliferate an identical story across a wide expanse is a more normative and communal experience than sharing a partially remembered, partially embellished version of that same story around the proverbial campfire.

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