Walter Benjamin: “The Storyteller”


Walter Benjamin was a member of the Frankfurt School, a Marxist organization, which originally sought to discover why the German working class had not united in revolution against the oppressiveness of capitalism in Germany as Marx had predicted it would do. The essay was written after the separation of the Frankfurt School following the rise of fascism/Nazism in Germany prior to the beginnings of the Second World War. The writing of the essay would coincide with a shifting of the Frankfurt School’s question from an analysis of the failure of communist essentialism in Germany to a search for an understanding of the reasons which allowed the development of fascism/Nazism in Germany and in the west. Did the two separate questions have one answer, capitalism, and if so what was the force within capitalism that created such possibilities?

Benjamin committed suicided in 1940 near the Spanish/French border as he feared a return under arrest to France, then under German control, into the hands of the German military.


Who is the “storyteller” in Benjamin’s essay?

He tells us that, “Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly. More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed. It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.”

Does he succeed in sharing his experience of reading and experiencing Leskov? Does he succeed in sharing his life experience? Becoming a young man, a young Jewish man, in German during the beginnings of the first World War, and living his life across two world wars which included that origins of fascism and Nazism, which would drive him from his home, and lead him to take his own life?

“A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.”

Does he speak for a “generation” or does he speak for himself? Whose tiny body stands under an open sky with changeless clouds helpless in a world filled with “destructive torrents and explosions?” Can one body represent a generation? Or must it stand alone?

The Individual/The Particular/The Universal

How do we read Benjamin’s essay? Are we reading an essay? Are we reading a novel? Where does Benjamin exist within his work?

Benjamin tells us that the “new form of communication is information.” But what does he give us? Reflections of information?

“Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov”

Do we read to gather information about Leskov? Or do we read because we are curious about Benjamin?

With Benjamin we have the author writing about; himself (the individual), Leskov/the other (the particular), and about authorship/writing in general (the universal). Benjamin is a literary critic and he did write topically about authors and their works. But how much does attention to the particular, the display of information that is Leskov’s work, conceal a different motivation?

We read about Leskov because we wish to learn about Benjamin. Or do we wish to learn about the history of literature as it evolved from oral tradition to written word?

Do we decide our intent or does Benjamin decide for us? Or does Benjamin even decide for himself?

“The novelist has isolated himself.”

“The reader of the novel is more isolated than any other reader.”

Is Benjamin novelist or the storyteller?

Or is he chronicler?


“The chronicler is the historyteller.”

If we return to the universal, to the history of storytelling, we become more immersed in the philosophical, detached from the temporality and contingency of narrative. This is after all the foundation for Benjamin’s work? To describe the world, to reason and to theorize, to share something with us, that will provide foundation for a praxis that may change the world?


Can we use his essay to answer these questions about his essay? Does his methodology apply to itself?

The novel is significant, therefore, not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger’s fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.



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I am working on a doctorate in American Studies and the emphasis of my work is a study of poverty within the American Dream as a necessary/sacred presence.