The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov Critical Essays

Walter Benjamin


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The first criterion of storytelling Benjamin describes is its oral nature; moreover, he says, of those who write down stories the best ones are those who most closely stick to a simulation of this oral source. Benjamin says that there are two basic types of oral storytellers—those who come from afar and tell of their adventures (embodied in the figure of the traveling seaman) and those who stay at home and tell of events there (as represented by the stationary farmer). The second characteristic of the storyteller is an orientation toward practical interests; all stories contain something useful, Benjamin argues, whether that useful information is obvious and on the surface or is embedded within the narrative in some way. Thus, stories do not derive from idle gossip or even from the need to recount interesting experiences, but rather they spring from a basic human need to recount real-life examples of coping with the mystery of human reality.

However, storytelling is dying out, says Benjamin; people no longer seem to have the ability to exchange experiences. He offers several historical and sociological reasons for storytelling’s demise. The most basic reason for the death of storytelling is the fact that the communicability of experience itself is dying out; thus storytelling, which always offers counsel, has no more place in the modern world. Indeed, wisdom itself, which Benjamin defines as counsel woven into the fabric of life and thus which has its origins in storytelling, is dying out. This process, which Benjamin links to the increasingly secular forces of history, has gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech.

The rise of the novel is one of the primary symptoms of the decline of storytelling, Benjamin suggests. The novel is quite different from the story in that it neither comes from the oral tradition nor goes into it. Whereas the birthplace of the story is the teller’s experience, the novel begins with the solitary self. Whereas the story springs from orality, the novel is bound to the form of a book. Whereas the storyteller takes his story from experience, either his own or what he has heard from others, the novelist is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns.

Furthermore, Benjamin says, another form of communication has come to predominate in the modern world, which threatens storytelling even more seriously than the novel; that is, “information,” by which Benjamin means primarily the information of the news media. The difference between the forms of storytelling and forms of news information, argues Benjamin, is that whereas storytelling always had a validity that required no external verification, information must be accessible to immediate verification. Storytelling differs from information in that storytelling does not aim to convey the pure essence of the experience in some distilled way, but rather imbues the story with the life of the storyteller. Aspects of the storyteller cling to the story; that is why many storytellers begin with the circumstances by which they have gained access to the story that they are about to tell.

This distinction between storytelling and information points to one of the primary differences between the “truth” of story and the truth of other forms of explanation characteristic of discursive writing. Whereas, in such forms of discourse as history, sociology, and psychology, the aim of the work is to abstract from concrete experience so that a distilled discursive meaning remains, in story, the truth is somehow communicated by a recounting of the concrete experience itself in such a way that the truth is revealed by the details of the...

(The entire section is 1511 words.)