The Storyteller : on essays by Walter Benjamin and Dale Peck (5 December 2003)


"To write a novel is to take to the extreme that which is incommensurable in the representation of human existence. In the midst of life's fullness and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living."

This is a passage from part five of Walter Benjamin's magnificent essay The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov (published in 1936, from Illuminations and also volume three of his Selected Writings. I quote it because I like the idea of taking a novel to that extreme.

Benjamin makes the claim that there was a decline in storytelling in the 20th Century; a decline very much in progress when he was writing. Nowadays, it is axiomatic that storytelling is a good thing; something to be cherished. I'm reminded of the final pages of Peter Handke's great novel Repetition (Die Wiederholung, 1986) in which the narrator rounds off his journey, with an reordering, I suppose, of the invocation to the muse at the beginning of an Epic:

"Storytelling, there is nothing more worldly than you, nothing more just, my holy of holies. Storytelling, patron saint of long-range combat, my lady. Storytelling, most spacious of all vehicles, heavenly chariot. Eye of my story, reflect me, for you alone know me and appreciate me. Blue of heaven, descend into the plain, thanks to my storytelling. Storytelling, music of sympathy, forgive us, forgive and dedicate us. Story, give the letters another shake, blow trough the word sequences, order yourself into script, and give us, through your particular pattern, our common pattern." (translated by Ralph Manheim).

The sweet excess here has often been quoted approvingly: 'our common pattern' is taken as the goal of storytelling; the 'decline' is therefore seen negatively. Presumably, with the loss of narrative goes the loss of community. More generally, any hint of narrative seduction is hailed as 'a return to storytelling'; the promise of innocence. Benjamin, however, says that the decline is due not to the excessive knowingness of modern times but that 'the epic side of truth – wisdom – is dying out'. This wisdom takes the form of 'counsel'. It is a fact that an 'orientation toward practical matters is characteristic of many born storytellers'. The current lack of counsel is due, he says, to the increasing incommunicability of experience. The loss of such wisdom rather works against the strain of high fantasy in most of the novels we’re told appeal to older traditions.

Benjamin also sees the rise of the novel and its 'dependence on the book' as evidence of the decline of storytelling. The whole thing is 'concomitant of the secular productive forces of history – a symptom that has quite gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech and at the same time is making it possible to find a new beauty in what is vanishing'.

One might see this beauty in the flourishing of modernism. But I don't know what narrative in 'the realm of living speech' means exactly. Perhaps this is conclusive proof not only of storytelling's decline but its absence. And if that is so, it is causing cultural havoc.

While Benjamin’s essay is beyond my scope to discuss in full here, it does prompt an excuse to post a link to an article by Dale Peck, current scourge of polite literary discourse. We might see it as an attempt to deal with that decline in communicability, but it communicates very little of worth.

He explains why he has chosen to become a review hachet merchant: he claims that 'the very process of literary analysis legitimizes a body of work that I feel is unworthy of such attention'. It is a curious piece. He tells us his hands are shaking as he types his 'heresy' in excising from the canon, 'or at least the demotion in status, … most of Joyce, half of Faulkner and Nabokov, nearly all of Gaddis, Pynchon, and DeLillo, not to mention the general dumping of their contemporary heirs'. In general, it seems, he despises modernism. He says 'we have been far, far too busy celebrating our Pyrrhic victories to examine our much greater failures' which these writers represent. The celebration is 'esoteric and exclusionary, falsely intellectual and alienating to the mass of readers, and just as falsely comforting to those in the club.' It is a non-experience. So, presumably, we need a return to older traditions.

However, rather than pick the line of least resistance, Peck ends the essay with a theoretical flourish that, to me, is a reasonable restatement of Benjamin's at the beginning, as well as a plausible definition of modernism.

"Semiotically, syntactically, at the level of the sign and the level of the sentence, from which all narrative proceeds, language waters the seeds of its own failure. Not just its inability to be what it names, but the immense difficulty of measuring the gap between. Of distance? Of closeness? It depends whether you see the cup as half full or half empty. But only after a work of literature has accepted its own failure - has, as it were, elegized its stillborn self - can it begin the complex series of contextual manipulations by which meaning is created and we locate ourselves as surely as the ancient navigators fixed their positions between stars. […] Contemporary novels have either counterfeited reality or forfeited it. In their stead we need a new materialism."

Putting aside what the 'mass of readers' might make of this, I want to know what 'a new materialism' means. Any ideas?

And what does he make of the more representative modernist writers who have dealt with such failure: Proust, Kafka, Beckett, Bernhard, and Handke too?



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