The Storyteller

Been reading Walter Benjamin’s very great essay “The Storyteller.” When I read it years ago I found it too theoretical, or something like that—it didn’t speak to me. But what he is saying has become more vivid, more truthful in the intervening time, as in this quote:

“With the complete ascendancy of the middle class—which in fully developed capitalism has the press as one of it’s most important instruments—a form of communication emerges…This new form of communication is information…[which is]…incompatible with the spirit of storytelling. If the art of storytelling has become rare, the dissemination of information has played a decisive role in this state of affairs…This is because nowadays no event comes to us without already being shot through with explanations. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information. Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one recounts it.”

This is so close to the position I’ve been developing on this blog that it is distressing to realize how little I responded to it in the eighties. Today all knowledge has been replaced by information. This is one of the reasons I no longer teach—education has been swallowed by information, as life has been supplanted by achievement. Understanding, insight, wisdom—all gone. Only information. Benjamin, from an era when, as he says, one “went to school in horse drawn carriages,” was so sensitive to the destructiveness of the press that he was a true prophet of our own times, laid to waste by the computer. But what puzzles me is what my own view—that “global conceptualism” is an aspect of the displacement of experience by information and explanation, to the extent that meaning destroys art—has to do with storytelling. Productive puzzlement.

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