Walter Benjamin – Storytelling vs. Fiction

Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller” in Illuminations: Walter Benjamin: Essays and Reflections (English translation 1968), will be thought-provoking for anyone who loves to write or read fiction.

Most of us think of fiction as storytelling, but it isn’t really. I can attest to this from experience.

Back on a September day in 2004, my drumming mentor, Barbara Borden, gave me a day pass to “The Healing Power of Art” at Moscone Center in San Francisco. On my way to Moscone I passed an intriguing stranger.

What caught my eye at first was a large patch of burnt-looking skin on his face. I recognized it immediately.

Years ago I’d known one other person who had that deformity – my Mariner scout leader, a spinster who was obviously ashamed of it and never spoke of it.

But that wasn’t what drew me to this fellow; it was his bright eyes. He smiled at me, and I felt as if we were kindred spirits.

As I walked on, I really wished I could have gotten to know him. But he was with another man, and they quickly disappeared down Market street, I thought, probably going to lunch.

I had a couple of hours to spend before drumming with Barbara. At the sign-in table I grabbed a brochure about the speakers. I picked a workshop on “Transformational Storytelling”.

I found the doorway to the building the workshop was in and descended down the steps of a narrow corridor into a small basement room. About thirty folding chairs were set out. I was dismayed. There was only one other person there.

But when that person turned, I was delighted. He was the man I’d passed on the street earlier. We both sat in the front row talking while waiting for the workshop leader and the others to arrive.

Soon the room filled up. And to my surprise the man I’d chatted with got up and went to the front and faced us.

His name was David Roche. David told the story of his face and how a doctor helped him accept it age age 19. That event was the catalyst for his career as a storyteller, a career that included four invitations to the White House.

David then went over details of how to tell a story and invited each of us to tell our story.

I got up and told my very first story in front of a group.

It was about the day my mother rushed down our front yard after I cried out in anguish because my perfect summer day with my best friend vanished after my brother took her to a 4H show.

Wiping her hands on her kitchen apron, my mother said in anger, “There’s no point in crying over spilt milk, Nancy” and stalked back up the hill, leaving me doubly alone.

David gave me great feedback – suggesting I show the audience my brother’s bouncing walk as he came to invite us to the show at his high school.

Telling this story, I felt both a degree of fear and happiness I’ve only felt when being part of a performance in a drum group. On the other hand, I find public speaking a misery. I much prefer to write.

Yet writing, even while it often brings me joy, also brings an ominous sense of silence afterwards, especially when waiting for written responses delivered by people—most of whom I’ve never seen or will see.

Publication of one’s writing is a precarious thing because there is such a distance between the telling of a story and the reading of it (a distance in time that can be many years). There is a disconnect—even for the author. As a friend put it, “When I got my book, it wasn’t my ‘baby’ anymore.”

Walter Benjamin defines storytelling this way:

“…storytelling in itself [is] an artisan form of communication… It does not aim to convey the pure essence of the thing, like information or a report. It sinks the thing into the life of the storyteller in order to bring it out of him again.“

Reading this sentence it occurs to me that poetry and vocal music are genres closest to storytelling. They are also orally (or visually) presented to an audience. And the way these types of stories are presented can and should change over time.

Bruce Springsteen is a great example of a storyteller whose songs and stories have evolved over a lifetime.

Benjamin points out that unlike allegories or novels, stories told by storytellers instantly impart wisdom to the listeners. Most novels do not have such immediacy, and do not last in one’s memory.

A story in a book is fossilized the minute it’s published. I believe this is why author appearances at bookstores often seem dull.

The best novelist I’ve heard at a bookstore reading was Denise Mina. Mina didn’t read from her new book; she told stories—like the one about getting a grant to to do academic research and instead using the money to write her first mystery.

Mina’s personal story sold many of her books that day.

Walter Benjamin’s own personal story isn’t dull either. He was a Jewish intellectual forced to flee Germany for Paris during Hitler’s regime.  When the Nazis invaded France, the door to his freedom literally closed on the day he arrived at the border with papers needed to leave.

Not only is Benjamin’s essay about storytelling versus fiction fascinating, but also Hannah Arendt’s Introduction to Illuminations, with her biographical essay on Benjamin’s life (1892-1940), is as well. Both the essay and Introduction can be read online.


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