My favorite cultural critics are the ones who swung broadly, even when they sometimes missed—Barthes, Bakhtin, Sontag, Paglia, Chomsky, and so on. Also, Walter Benjamin, who is perhaps too well know for Freudian Marxism and not well enough known for aesthetic theory. He did insightful work, especially on Goethe and Baudelaire, and was seeming equally at home in the minutia of social psychologies of both German and French culture. He traveled widely and corresponded often, occasionally dipping a toe into writing his own fictions and fragments.
Most of my favorite fiction is written by authors primarily know for their work as cultural critics—Eco, Calvino, Carroll, Schulman, arguably Auster and even Bret Easton Ellis. Finally, a thorough selection of Benjamin’s marginalia is available to the English-speaking world. In The Storyteller, a master of the theory of craft puts his money where his mouth is, revealing a precise descriptive power that gracefully commands plot and characterization with equal force to terrific effect. The book is broken into three parts, by motif or mode rather than by chronology—dreamworlds, travel, and play and pedagogy.
Benjamin was very interested in how the mind comes to dig into and appreciate the telling of a story. He could hinge an entire yarn on a single well-placed adjective, or drop the bottom out of conversations to reveal infinite layers, like in Arabian Nights. He thought a lot about how children learn best, what captivates their attention and then can continue to hold it in suspense through adulthood. Benjamin’s prose is yellow, not in the sense of cowardice, but with all the courage of melancholia. He looks the mystery and irony of life in the eye with a little sad nostalgia and allows faces to fade away without closure.
His juvenilia, fragments, travelogues, nursery rhymes and other odds and ends on display in The Storyteller are completely consistent with his well known essays and criticism primarily because of their warmth, their suffusion with a psychic intimacy that allows readers to meander in a landscape that is fraught but essentially trustworthy. The first section, recounting his dreams, is surreal without collapsing into the solipsistic. For example in this universally appealing fragment: “But a new horror gripped him—as clearly as he saw, it was not as it usually was. And the more he mustered all of his strength to see, the more alien everything became” (23). Or in this: “Of all those songs, the one I loved the most was a Christmas song that filled me, as only music can, with solace for a sorrow not yet experienced but only sensed now for the first time” (53).
Landscape is of chief concern to Benjamin, whether he’s relaying information from a dream or from a journey. He gives a spatial sense of topography to the ether of feelings, as in: “And what overwhelming me was longing. Longing for the very same Paris in which I found myself in the dream. But where does this longing come from?” (33). Some of the sections end in review excerpts where Benjamin is commenting on another’s work in a way that also ends up applying to his own: “Every architecture worthy of the name lets its best element fall not to mere views, but rather to the sense of space” (106). Many of these fragments are unfinished, or else purposely dropped off in a peak instead of a valley. One story finishes off several pages of intense characterization with the tip of the plot’s iceberg in this maddening way: “Yes—there had indeed been an incident” (88).
He accomplished each tiny feat of coaxing the reader to invest anew in part because he was an exceptionally self-aware human being, able to connect his feelings to his actions to his understanding of the wider world. “I had suffered very much from the din in my room. Last night the dream retained this. I found myself in front of a map and, at the same time, in the landscape which was depicted on it. The landscape was incredibly gloomy and bleak, and it wasn’t possible to say whether its desolation was merely a craggy wasteland or empty grey ground populated only by capital letters” (60).
Benjamin understood himself to a remarkable degree, but it did not give him swagger and he could extrapolate his self-knowledge with ease in order to depict others with empathy. In a review analyzing the work of Romantic poet Beguin, he says, “of course this weakness [of lacking self-confidence] also has its merits. It gives him the opportunity to prove himself as a portraitist who it is often truly charming to pursue. It is the portrait studies which make the book worth reading, irrespective of its construction” (67).
The construction here is very fragmentary. Most of the stories are just one or two pages. Some are only a paragraph. The book can be read quickly in one sitting, or it can be savored piecemeal between life’s little interruptions. There are so many ways this book could have been organized, but really, any of those ways works because of the strength of each independent text. Benjamin is holding tight to timelessness, to a rich sense of the merits of the fable as a form, even when he’s applying those sensibilities to another form such as the travelogue. On visiting a folk museum in Olso and seeing an exhibit about ancient Viking chairs, he writes, “Anyone can sit, and some will come to see in those chairs what really matters” (118). Their form is something greater and more philosophical than simply a resting place.
Of Franz Hessel’s work, he said, “Whoever understands how to read his books senses how—between the walls of aging cities, the ruins of the past century—they all conjure up antiquity. Yet even if the far-flung circles of his life and work traverse Greece, Paris, and Italy, the needle of his compass always rests in his parlour at Tiergarten, which his friends seldom enter without knowing of the risks of being transformed into a hero” (108). Every fragment in The Storyteller points back to Benjamin’s mastery, but it also points to a deep well of love that prompted such mastery in the first place.
He simply loved books, and had hoped one day to write a classic spy novel to pay the shivers forward. “Reading is as related to rail travel as stopping at train stations is. As is well known, many railway stations resemble cathedrals. We, however, want to give thanks to the moveable, garish little altars that an acolyte of curiosity, absentmindedness and sensation chases past the train screamingly—when for a few hours, snuggled into the passing countryside, as though into a streaming scarf, we feel the shudders of suspense and the rhythms of the wheels running up our spine” (111-112).
The book is fronted by an essay from the translators that’s not about their translation decisions as much as it’s about how these more fictional fragments fit in with his work as a cultural critic. I read the 24 page breakdown before reading the main text, and would advise against it. It feels a bit odd to say their analysis contains spoilers, but the translators succeed at being on point about so many facets of the text that it ruins the delight of coming to one’s own conclusions. To read the introduction first is to see many killer quotes floating by without context as readers try to grasp Benjamin as a theorist. As he said of childhood’s primers, “The judicious user of these documents will not focus on ‘originals’. Rather, here he can trace how the child ‘models’, how he or she ‘tinkers’, how—he or she never adopts the established form as such, and how the whole richness of his or her mental world occupies the narrow track of variation” (154). These fragments are sound variations on his critical themes, and we need not worry too much about the original essay accompanying them.
Read the astute introduction at the end instead, if Benjamin’s fragments don’t speak to you loudly enough themselves. This book is actually terrific “beach reading”, if you’re an academic type who cannot abide the latest John Grisham or whomever, though as the quote above shows, Benjamin himself possessed an reverent appreciation for the seedy novels one picks up at the train station. But the strokes of his lifelong critical projects are here exemplified in the follow-through swings of his marginalia, and no matter how little or how much you know about his literary criticism and aesthetic theory, these are some very interesting fictions for people who may not be very into fiction in the first place.
Oh, and did I mention that every single fragment is fronted by a Paul Klee illustration? The Storyteller meaningfully connects with everything it touches. It’s a warm and welcome delight for geeks in need of a break from theory.
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