Walter Benjamin - The Storyteller

Walter Benjamin on Explosive Reading and the Storyteller

“For Benjamin, the activity of reading is charged with an explosive power that in no way preserves, but rather, in the interruption of its movement, tears the image to be read from its context. This tearing or breaking force is not an accidental predicate of reading; it belongs to its very structure. Only when reading undoes the context of an image is a text developed, like a photographic negative, toward its full historical significance.” Eduardo Cadava

Walter Benjamin published two radically important essays in 1936. The one you are probably more familiar with is The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction where where he teases out the implications of aura in challenging our ideas of time and space. The lesser known of the two is called “The Storyteller” which opens our eyes to what Cadava calls “the explosive power of reading.”

The Storyteller Walter Benjamin

At first glance, Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on storytelling are a reincarnation of the ancient dispute between mimesis and diegesis. Mimesis, or imitation, is thought to bringing a reader closer to truth, while diegesis, or narration, relies on deception in the act of creation.

When writing a narrative, we step inside the minds of another and speak in their voice. Because we are not telling a story that “purely” reflects reality, but creating a story that shapes it, the contemporary storyteller practices diegesis far more often than mimesis – simply because they are writing instead of telling.

To craft a convincing story, the writer must relay information to make it believable. This is how the genre of realism evolved. 

There remains an unspoken emphasis that associates what we know with what we see and this became even more important when storytelling lost the “existential actuality” of the voice – a term Walter Ong (1912-2003) uses to describe the weight of aural storytelling.

Bruno Snell (1896-1986), in his profound exploration of early Greek thinking that he explores in his 1954 book, The Discovery of the Mind, traces the sight-intellect equation to Homer, ideas are conveyed through the noos, a mental organ analogous to the eye; consequently “to know” is related not just “to see” but “to have seen.”

“The eye, it appears, serves as Homer’s model for the absorption of experiences. From this point of view the intensive coincides with the extensive: he who has seen much sufficiently often possesses intensive knowledge.” Bruno Snell
Bruno Snell - The Discovery of the Mind

While what is seen still emphasizes what is visible, it carries with it an even greater emphasis of experience — all kinds of sensory experiences. While we often think of the storyteller as the one speaking, the skill of artistic observation resides in the reader. It is an act required of both writer and reader, storyteller and listener.

“All books should not be read in the same way. Novels, for instance, are there to be devoured. Reading them is a voluptuous act of absorption, not an act of empathy. The reader does not imagine himself in the hero’s place, but assimilates what befalls him. The vivid report of these experiences is the appetizing trimmings in which a nourishing dish comes to the table.

There is, to be sure, a raw diet of experience—just as there is a raw diet for the stomach—to wit: one’s own experiences. But the art of the novel, like the culinary arts, begins beyond the raw ingredients.

How many nourishing substances there are that are unappetizing in a raw state! How many experiences are advisable to read about, but not to have! Some readers are struck so forcefully, they would have been devastated had they suffered the experiences directly.

In short, if there were a muse of the novel—a tenth muse—her emblem would be the cook. She raises the world from its raw state in order to create something fit to eat, to bring out the fullness of its flavor. One may, if necessary, read the newspaper while eating. But never a novel. These are two conflicting obligations."

Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller

The forceful and explosive emotions a reader experiences contain an aura of power and majesty. Throughout Benjamin’s essay, he invokes Paul Valery (1871-1945), a French poet and philosopher, whose  writings inform Benjamin’s thoughts on the majesty of storytelling in a pointed way:

“Artistic observation can attain almost a mystical depth. The objects on which it falls lose their names. Light and shade form very particular systems, present very individual questions which depend upon no knowledge and are derived from no practice, but get their existence and value exclusively from a certain accord of the soul, the eye, and the hand of someone who was born to perceive them and evoked them in his own inner self.” Paul Valery

Benjamin gleans insight that not only informs our understanding of Valery, but of Benjamin’s mission as a whole: to determine a new practice of seeing. This practice of seeing is not a mundane habit, but requires an explosive act. 

Eduardo Cadava focuses on the metaphor of photography throughout Benjamin’s work because it demands we consider the power of artistic observation.  The explosive power of seeing advances art and intuition and utterly transforms the reader. Benjamin considers how this explosion takes place when three become one: 

“With these words, soul, eye, and hand are brought into connection. Interacting with one another, they determine a practice.”
Walter Benjamin - The Storyteller

When telling a story, we must create a picture in the mind that is so vivid, we can touch it. This is where it is clear that Benjamin advances the ancient dispute between mimesis and diegesis by conflating these two modes of storytelling in the powerful figure of the storyteller capable of telling his entire life in a way that counsels the reader or the listener. The storyteller is the messenger for the story who communicates the spirit he calls aura. 

Walter Benjamin on Explosive Reading and the Storyteller