Walter Benjamin's essay, "The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov," is the scheduled reading for the Professor's Corner in January at the South Branch Library.
"The Storyteller" is divided into 19 sections. Following are some of my notes and jottings from the essay. The version I'm reading was translated by Harry Zohn and from the book, Illuminations, edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt.
We are losing our ability to share experiences.
Experience is contradicted and anything but experience is being told.
The first 2 lines seem to capture the idea best.
“Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn. And among those who have written down the tales, it is the great ones whose written version differs least from the speech of the many nameless storytellers.”
2 sides to Leskov
Religious interests but also opponent of church bureaucracy
Best storytellers impart something useful.
The novel is dependent on the form of the book.
The novelist is a solitary being.
Storytelling is oral.
Invention of printing is the downfall of storytelling.
Information versus storytelling.
Benjamin tells us Leskov was knowledgeable of the ancient stories. Benjamin uses as an example a Herodotus story with an Egyptian king and his emotion at seeing his servant imprisoned. Herodotus does not explain the psychological impact and so the story retains its power in retelling for centuries whereas information is of the moment and must be explained and then it's power is finished. [I'm thinking about Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." and Richard Bausch's "The Man Who Knew Belle Starr." ]
When a story "chaste of psychological shading" is told, it is more likely to become the experience of the listener. Relaxation and listening are becoming rare but are necessary for the story to become part of the listener's memory--his experience--and hence will eventually be retold.
We no longer make fun with a stick and a cardboard box and create the attendant story.
Benjamin quotes Paul Valery. "...all these products of sustained, sacrificing effort are vanishing, and the time is past in which time did not matter." The short story has been removed from the oral tradition and hence does not build layers upon layers with retelling.
According to Benjamin, Leskov wrote in a letter, “Writing is to me no liberal art but a craft.”
Storytelling has become abbreviated with no layers created by retellings.
Because we do not think of death every day, so our idea of eternity will disappear which has imparted to us a certain authority and this is the stuff of stories.
An example of “natural history” “embedded” in a story by Hebel.
chronicler is the history-teller differentiated from the historian=writer of history
The historian explains.
Interpretations which do not have to be accurate
Chronicler = “…displaying them as models of the course of the world.”
"...memory--manifests itself in a form quite different from the way it manifests itself in the story.”
People most remember stories that do not contain psychological analysis.
Relaxation is required for stories.
“Here ‘meaning of life’—there ‘moral of the story’: with these slogans novel and story confront each other…”
“Actually there is no story for which the question as to how it continued would not be legitimate.”
“What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.”
“…refine the tricks with which the attention of the listener was captured.”
Benjamin says that Leskov’s story “The Enchanted Pilgrim” is a hybrid of a fairy tale and a legend.
“voice of nature”
Storytelling in its oral tradition seems to be his topic here.
All in all, I think he is describing what confounds people even today. On the one hand, we do not understand why short stories are not more popular given their shorter length and people's short attention spans. However, as we are in the "information age" and are inundated with information and little, if any, storytelling, it makes sense that those who do read prefer novels with its information and explanation and verifiability. We do not share experience but we share massive amounts of information.