The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov Critical Context - Essay

Walter Benjamin

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

One of the earliest mentions of Benjamin’s essay on the storyteller by an English-language critic of note is Susan Sontag’s citation of the piece as an example of the kind of formal analysis for which she called in “Against Interpretation” (1966). The essay has been the source of some annoyance to the two groups of critics who have tried to claim Benjamin as their own in the 1970’s and 1980’s: the Marxist critics who align themselves with the Frankfurt School of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, and the structuralists and deconstructionists who try to see Benjamin as a forerunner of Michel Foucault or Jacques Derrida. For the Marxists, the storytelling essay represents a lamentable lapse into nostalgia and thus is uncharacteristic of Benjamin’s “tougher” philosophical essays; for the structuralists and poststructuralists, the work depends too much on a sort of inherent mythic consciousness that does not align itself comfortably either with the “scientific” linguistic-based studies of the narratologists and the textualists or with the skeptical self-questioning of the followers of Derrida.

Moreover, although the essay is praised by Sontag as a model of the formal study of both a genre and an author, one of the best-known formalists, Rene Wellek, finds it doubtful in its assumptions about the relation between fairy tale and myth and just plain wrong in its reading of Leskov’s stories. Wellek confesses finally that he sometimes does not understand the working of Benjamin’s mind, particularly in this essay, which has been considered by some to be his masterpiece.

Because Benjamin has so often been identified with Marxist criticism, many critics and readers who are either hostile or indifferent to Marxism have not studied this essay very carefully. Its value lies not in its assertion of Marxist values, either socially or aesthetically, nor does it lie in its analysis of Leskov, for that is but a minor and, as Wellek has pointed out, a questionable part of the piece. Rather, the essay’s real value lies in the suggestions it offers about the basic nature of narrative, particularly the primal nature of story as opposed to the more recent realistic narrative characteristic of the novel form. No one who wishes to understand the basic nature of story can afford to ignore Walter Benjamin’s profound study of the storyteller.