The Storyteller by Walter Benjamin — Tristan Burke

How does one approach a book of stories by one of the most important twentieth-century writers of philosophy and criticism, Walter Benjamin? Should one attempt to separate this patchwork of occasional and unpublished fiction from his essays and books, or attempt to link the two? By calling this wonderful collection The Storyteller, the work is immediately put into relationship with one of Benjamin’s most famous critical essays, ‘The Storyteller’ (1936). The translators of this volume, Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie and Sebastian Truskolaski, take this approach, attempting to link the stories with Benjamin’s claim that ‘before the onset of the First World War, we are told, experience was passed down through the generations in the form of folklore and fairytales’, but that the mechanised destruction in the trenches rendered the ability to narrate that experience of past generations unsettled if not impossible. What use is the experiential richness of the past when the world has become an automated charnel house?

This is easy enough to understand, but Benjamin’s argument takes a more complex turn, a typical turn which brings together his messianism with Marxist materialism, offering a shimmering suggestion of how art may be revolutionary as seductive and inspiring as it is opaque. As Dolbear, Leslie and Truskolaski lucidly explain, ‘Benjamin’s association of experience with folklore and fairy tales cannot be seen as expressing a nostalgic yearning to revive a ruined tradition. Rather, the obsolescence of these forms becomes the condition of their critical function […] Kafka’s parables elude interpretation because the key to understanding them has been lost, yet the function of this anachronistic opacity is the unfolding of a language of gestures and names: a facet of what has been described as Kafka’s “inverse messianism”’. Thus, the parables of Kafka, and the stories of Benjamin, contain within them the possibilities of revolutionary change, of the coming of the Messiah, of a totally new experience of the world, not over there, beyond, in another age, yet to come – but within the stories themselves. Little shards of the Messiah glitter in these stories in the materialist praxis of literature itself.

Thus we return to the question of the relationship between Benjamin’s literature and his philosophy and criticism. It would be all too easy to see Benjamin’s stories as practical examples of his critical views, an illustrative adjunct to his philosophy. A slight shift of focus offers a slightly different view. Rather than illustrative examples of his philosophical thought, these stories are praxis. They are enactments of how a revolutionary Messianism might emerge from the use of language and the construction of narrative. Both in form and content, usually in little details or minor stories, they offer the possibility of new ways of seeing and new ways of experiencing the world. As the translators astutely put it, the stories demonstrate ‘how Benjamin formally stages, enacts and performs certain concerns that he develops elsewhere in a more academic register’, though this seems a little dry for describing the little doors to rose gardens that Benjamin unlocks for us.

Do you need to know all this to understand these stories? And more importantly in stories that enact revolutionary possibilities, do you need to know all this to enjoy these stories? No. It is all there already, evident in the divisions that the translators group the stories into: dreams, travel and pedagogy – different ways of transforming the ways in which we experience the world, three categories to which we might add literature itself. Thus we find stories such as ‘How the Boat Was Invented and Why It is Called “Boat”’, where Benjamin tells us that a person called Boat wanted to go swimming and so tied wooden planks onto himself to help, ‘The Warning’, where a restaurateur in China finds the lovers’ view from his restaurant turned into a suicide spot and so puts people off jumping by putting up an electric fence, or ‘Sketched Into Mobile Dust’ where a cathedral stonemason carves the name of a prostitute into an intricate capital. In each case play, humour, the unexpected, shifts perceptions about things and space. These parables without meaning, then, find their purpose not in an experiential lesson or a moral that they impart, but by offering little shifts in how the world is perceived, so little one might almost miss them. As Benjamin writes elsewhere: ‘The Hasidim have a saying about the world to come. Everything there will be arranged just as it is with us. The room we have now will be just the same in the world to come; where our child lies sleeping, it will sleep in the world to come. The clothes we are wearing we shall also wear in the next world. Everything will be the same as here – only a little bit different.’

One objection to these claims would be that literature is unable to enact a politics strong enough to stand against power, that literature for all its revolutionary charge will still be minor. But to be minor literature does not preclude being strong literature, revolutionary literature. While so much of Benjamin’s writing is filled with an optimistic-pessimism about the clash of fascist and communist mass politics, a pessimism fully justified by the barbarism of the fascism that killed him, these stories teem with possibilities of the new. These stories go beyond the injunction that ‘Communism must politicise art’. And as such they seem to embody an optimism that is sometimes lacking from Benjamin’s writing. Messianism is not, here, the revolution-to-come, but is right here, in these stories. Even at a linguistic level there is no sense of lack. In one of the review essays that intersperse these stories, Benjamin puts forward a quite different view of linguistics to Saussure’s. Rather than empty spaces between signifiers, ‘words become magnets, which irresistibly attract other words’. Hence astonishing turns of phrase: ‘For such is the grip required by the red thread of experience, in order to pass from one hand to the next’, or beautiful and moving collations of heterogeneous linguistic images: ‘The first panel: that colourful street with two children. The second: a web of fine little cogs, pistons and cylinders, rollers and transmissions, all of wood, whirling together in one plane, without person or noise. And finally the third panel: a view of the new order in Soviet Russia.’

The book itself forms one of these constellations which shifts perception to make things anew again. Each story is illustrated by a drawing by Paul Klee, whose work Benjamin famously wrote about. These images themselves refashion the stories, force them to be re-evaluated, and seen to be just the same but slightly different.

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 Illuminations, The Arcades Project, and The Origin of German Tragic Drama.

Esther Leslie is a lecturer in English and Humanities at Birkbeck College, London. She is the author of Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism and sits on the editorial boards of Historical Materialism, Radical Philosophy and Revolutionary History.

Sam Dolbear is a PhD student at the Birkbeck College, London

Sebastian Truskolaski is a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths, University of London

Tristan Burke has very nearly finished a PhD on nineteenth-century novels. He has written about literature, cinema and critical theory for 3:AM Magazine, The Manchester Review and the Everyday Analysis Collective.

The Storyteller is published by Verso Books. Bios of Benjamin, Leslie, Dolbear, and Truskolaski courtesy of the same.