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With respect to ambiguity, not only are the simple counsel of the story and the storyteller now superseded by an interest with life’s perplexity, Benjamin doubts if the novel is even capable of relaying truth in its message complexity.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.