- Storyteller Mode
Walter Benjamin Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie, and Sebastian Truskolaski, eds.
240Pages; Print, $19.95
The Storyteller: Tales Out of Loneliness is the latest addition to a rapidly lengthening list of Walter Benjamin’s writings available in English. As a focused curatorial project, The Storyteller draws on and complements other Benjamin collections to appear since the 2004-2006 publication of the expansive Selected Writings; these include Early Writings (2011), Radio Benjamin (2014), and Walter Benjamin’s Archive (2007), sections of which have been retranslated for the present volume. Rather than edit Benjamin by period, or by reference to media or archive studies, this latest translation seeks to offer a Benjamin of a new genre, to present the famously unclassifiable philosopher-critic as a literary experimenter. This is an ambitious methodological move, since in the case of Benjamin a collection of stories would be both very short and of limited intrinsic interest. Instead, the editors seek to present a Benjaminian storytelling—a self-consciously offhand, traditional, oral, tale-spinning mode—and they should be commended for the provocation.
As a collection, however, The Storyteller doesn’t live up to the editors’ conceptual project. In their introduction, the editors venerate the assembled “experimental” and overtly “literary” writings as attempts to smuggle traditional experience through an inhospitable, mass-cultural, post-war world. The grand claim is that the storytelling mode is an essential matrix for Benjamin’s critical works—that storytelling (including, here, “novellas and short stories, fables and parables as well as jokes, riddles and rhymes”) represents, after the First World War, a set of genres whose inherent subversiveness is ensured by their concretely degraded or inherently anachronistic status. Obeying the alternative gravitation of this subversiveness, these genres (according to the editors) coalesce into a productive galaxy within which Benjamin can elaborate the ideas underpinning his critical essays. The editors, I believe, would like us to experience Benjamin’s “storytelling” as a concrete-traditional-subversive matrix on the level of his efforts at theoretical “rag picking” in the Arcades Project (1982)—another degraded and anachronistic activity that, Benjamin averred, can hoard and divulge more genuinely critical energies than one might think.
But, contrary to these ambitions, no concerted logic on the level of the Arcades Project is at work in The Storyteller as a whole. Instead, the book reads as a striking but ultimately incoherent miscellany; while we do find critically engaged, experimental writing in some sections, in other sections we find conventional modernist-realist story fragments that Benjamin may have abandoned for good reasons. One of these, for example, concerns the humiliating anti-adventures of a besotted teenage schoolboy as he harmlessly and guiltily, but also bemusedly, encounters the object of his eroticism on the train, then follows her onto her tramcar, from which he clumsily unloads her suitcase, then follows her down her street, finally remarking apologetically on the weather and getting her door shut in his face (“Still Story”). It reads like an exercise in masochistic self-contempt sliding into self-pity, and Benjamin never sought to have it published.
The best case for the editors’ project to establish the micro-political efficacy of genres destined for anachronism may be represented by the section of the book devoted to dream narrations. Benjamin, after all, knew how to invest private experiences with supreme lapidary confidence, and his carefully selected, arranged, and polished dream narrations summon a melancholy pathos. Around 1932, for example, he dreams a moment of absolute symbolic impeachment of military power: a mother (followed by her child) appears at a tribunal before “the Emperor” to denounce the results of “the war,” presents a broom and a skull and says: “For the Emperor made me so poor, that I can give my child no other receptacle from which to drink” (“The Chronicler”). Published in 1934, this makes sense as a pure literary-critical secretion of Benjamin’s dreaming mind, full of the pathos of vulnerability.
Other dream narrations, however, are simply quick diary entries, and following the aestheticizing system imposed by the editors, these receive...