In a 1983 episode of Channel 4’s series Voices, perfectly preserved in the digital archive of YouTube, two renowned twentieth-century thinkers and writers sit opposite each other. The eyes of Susan Sontag and John Berger meet across a table, their bodies mirrored: their reflective positions become emblematic of their similarities as practitioners of literary observation, writers of fiction and essays, and theorists of visual culture, such as the medium of photography. As Berger’s gentle and engaging opening remarks reveal, the two of them have many reasons to agree; however, on this particular occasion, a discussion about the act of storytelling, the interlocutors differ greatly.
For Berger, stories can be symbolized by ‘a group of people huddled together’: ‘maybe they are huddled against a wall’, or perhaps ‘they are around a fire’. Either way, what is important for Berger is that ‘in the very idea of story’ is the notion of ‘shelter’. A ‘voyager’, ‘traveler’ or ‘soldier’ has ‘survived’, ‘lived to tell the story’: the story symbolizes a ‘physical sense of shelter’, a form of ‘habitation’ or coming ‘home’. Berger continues: ‘inside the story is another kind of shelter’, because what it ‘narrates and tells is sheltered within the story from oblivion, forgetfulness and daily indifference’ (Sontag and Berger 0.00-3.09). The world we inhabit is strange and absurd, and the story acts as a ‘rescuing operation’ against the ‘restless, terrifying space in which we live’ (Sontag and Berger 30.10-30.20).
In her response to Berger’s opening comments, Sontag swiftly severs his warm, lulling image of protection:
You’re talking about stories in a very remote kind of society that is quite different from ours because surely story telling is much more diversified in the societies that we know…We experience stories mediated through images as in television and movies, we read stories in print…This most archaic definition of stories…does not tell us…what challenge of what story telling is now. (Sontag and Berger 03.09-03.55)
As their discussion unfolds, a binary between oral and written story begins to emerge: for Berger, something of the oral origin of storytelling is still of primary importance. Stories should be recited: if printed, they should always be read as if spoken. For Sontag, however, stories are an essentially literary phenomenon. They come to life through their being read on the printed page, are something invented by the storyteller: they do not necessarily have to be about a life lived. Issues of time and place seem to lie at the heart of their polarized understandings of story: Berger’s notion is rooted in the isolated communities of southern France where he was living at the time, Sontag’s in the metropolis (Sontag and Berger 03.55-20.48). The former, in its seclusion and quiet, still allows for collectivity and community; the latter is the setting of the isolated individual, lost in the crowd.
Reverberating in the definitions and complexities of storytelling that Sontag and Berger put forward are the ideas of German-born critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin. In his 1936 essay “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov”, Benjamin is highly sensitive to the ways in which the symptoms of modernity were, at the beginning of the twentieth century, dramatically changing the nature of storytelling: ‘familiar though his name may be to us, the storyteller in his living immediacy is by no means a present force. He has already become something remote from us and something that is getting even more distant’ (Benjamin, “Leskov”, 362). As Sontag states, ‘once people began to write stories, they told different kinds of stories’ (Sontag and Berger 21.50-21.53): her observation echoes Benjamin’s awareness of how the advent of the novel dramatically altered the nature of storytelling. Previously, it was ‘experience…passed from mouth to mouth’ that was ‘the source from which all storytellers [drew]’ (Benjamin, “Leskov”, 362): these pliable oral stories could be told and retold, change their shape throughout time and had human experience at their core. Printed matter, however, does not necessarily allow ‘that slow piling one on top of the other of thin, transparent layers which constitutes the most appropriate picture of the way in which the perfect narrative is revealed through the layers of a variety of retellings’ (368): it does not need a human voice to keep it alive, is a fixed entity. For Benjamin, this includes the short story form, which is reliant on, and complicit with, the information age of magazines and newspapers and thus another cultural product of modernity, rather than associated with an essential oral tradition (368).
The roots of the arguments made by Sontag and Berger are therefore found deep in the soil of Benjamin’s ideas. He is an unsurprising predecessor, but what many readers of Benjamin’s theoretical works do not know is that he also wrote fiction, the English translations of which have now been collected together for the first time under the title The Storyteller: Tales out of Loneliness (Berger is in fact quoted on the cover). Given the title of Benjamin’s seminal essay, such a choice for his collected fiction is loaded: it subsequently raises the question as to how Benjamin’s lesser-known fictions might act as a possible site of experimentation for the themes he would explore in his critical writings.
Benjamin certainly expresses an admiration for oral, collective modes of communication: such stories, perhaps in the form of tale or proverb, are laced with wisdom and counsel, some kind of truth. In an earlier essay from 1933,“Experience and Poverty”, Benjamin also notes how the destructive nature of the First World War’s technological conflict silenced such modes of oral communication even further:
Wasn’t it noticed at the time how many people returned from the front in silence? Not richer but poorer in communicable experience? A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air, amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds and, at its center, in a force field of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile human body. (Benjamin, “Experience”, 731-2)
Benjamin’s image of vulnerable, exposed human flesh again anticipates Berger’s emphasis on the physical presence of the storyteller and the importance of human life in stories. In the machine age, the human mind and body, and the experiences they live through, are scattered and fragmented, resulting in what Benjamin calls a ‘poverty of experience…not merely on the personal level, but poverty of human experience in general. Hence, a new kind of barbarism’ (Benjamin, “Experience”, 732). However, this barbarism is also ‘positive’, a pathway to something new: ‘for what does poverty of experience do for the barbarian? It forces him to start from scratch; to begin with a little and build up further, looking neither left nor right’ (732). When tradition can no longer resist the changing course of history and subsequently breaks down, new possibilities emerge: the storyteller must reconfigure a means of communication that can bear the flux of modernity.
As Benjamin writes of the Bauhaus figure Paul Klee, ‘he is an artist who ‘reject[s] the traditional, solemn, noble image of man, festooned with all the sacrificial offerings of the past’; instead, Klee turns ‘to the naked man of the contemporary world who lies screaming like a newborn babe in the dirty diapers of the present (733). He also praises Paul Scheerbart, who he sees as interested in:
…how our telescopes, our airplanes, our rockets can transform human beings as they have been up to now into completely new, lovable, and interesting creatures. Moreover, these creatures talk in a completely new language. And what is crucial about this language is its arbitrary, constructed nature in contrast to organic language.’ (733)
Simply lamenting the fading of old forms is not productive. Benjamin is certainly frustrated by the fact that ‘every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories’ (Benjamin, “Leskov”, 365), but he is not just wistful for outworn oral means of interaction to return. As Andreas Huyssen notes, ‘Benjamin’s suggestion that the age of storytelling had ended has nothing to do with…nostalgia’; rather, his experiments with ‘the modernist miniature’ can be seen as a ‘specific mode of writing [that] may indeed be more central to the new in literary modernism than the novel or poetry’ (Huyssen 28-9). Indeed, ‘the obsolescence of these forms becomes the condition of their critical function…What Benjamin attempts to re-imagine…is the communicability of experience in spite of itself…These stories create layered worlds of citations, enigmas and perspectives.’ (Dolbear xi)
In “Sketched into Mobile Dust”, there is essentially a frame narrative, an oral act of telling performed between friends. However, as it draws to a close, ‘the story seemed to escape him…and the undying verse wandered majestically through the arch of this story as if through a gate.’ (Benjamin, “Sketched”, 97). Returning to Sontag and Berger, the latter believes that in fiction ‘there is nothing that does not have a signification’ or meaning: meaning is always created through a story being ‘related’ (Sontag and Berger 27.40-31.40). Sontag disagrees, insisting also on the telling of stories that are not directly interpretable in terms of meaning. Such a shift, she argues, is ‘freer’, engenders expansion and introduces the reader ‘to the absurd’, rather than just sheltering them from it; it encompasses more kinds of experience and moves the focus from meaning to ‘restoring…the intensity of feeling’ (Sontag and Berger 33.50-44.30). In “Sketched into Mobile Dust”, the story becomes personified, and is in fact only kept alive and able to continue on its journey due to its state of incompletion. A tension of liminality, rather than full, tangible meaning, is conjured up, a tension that is left to fester on a threshold, left unresolved. Such forms resist the complete, pre-determined end of oral stories that employ experience as function, but should nevertheless be welcomed into an understanding of story, one that casts spotlight on the unknown, unpredictable journey, not just the anticipated homecoming.
The subtitle of the collection of Benjamin’s short fictions is Tales out of Loneliness. Loneliness is a key marker of modern experience, the direct opposite of the collectivity that should bond storyteller and audience together. This is especially the case, although not at all limited to, the experience of the city, which is one of the collection’s thematic foci. “The Aviator” (written as early as 1911-12), begins with one Günter Morland ‘sat in front of a café’, berating himself for seemingly having lost his virginity to a prostitute (Benjamin, “The Aviator”, 77). In this cityscape, though, bodies are spectral and intimacy seems impossible. Morland thinks the neck [of an old woman] ‘could have twisted off…that’s how thin she was’, and he can only grasp traces of perfume, or glimpse ‘the hair of a slender blonde’ lit up by the ‘hiss’ or ‘an arc lamp’; bodies brush past him, ‘making him hot’ (78). There is an inversion of collectivity, as unidentifiable people are bunched together in groups: ‘well-dressed men’, ‘newsboys’, ‘women’, are together and apart simultaneously (78). Morland ‘steered clear of other people and yet kept an eye on them’ (78). In the final scene, touch and the sexual gaze, even kinds of communal looking, override the importance of listening, but they too are limited:
At around eleven at night, he found himself in a square and noticed a crowd of people with upturned heads looking at the sky. In a circle of light above the city there drifted an aeroplane, black and jagged in the pinkish mist. It seemed as it one could hear its quiet rumbling, but the aviator remained invisible. He steered an even course, almost without accelerating. The black wing hovered sedately in the sky.
When he turned, Gunter had to sharpen his gaze to make out the prostitute he had slept with. She did not notice the look in his childlike eyes as he took her by the arm assuredly. (79)
It is only the first section of the collection that is entitled “Dreamworlds”, and yet in this vignette the metropolis becomes a site of mystery. Everything is slightly out of sight and focus, bathed in ‘milky brown’ skies and ‘pinkish mist’ (78-9). In this piece Benjamin begins to observe the seductive nature of the commodity: ‘the doorways to the amusement halls were dazzling’ and he is ‘spellbound by the jewelers’ shops…For a minute at a time he observed the hats at the milliner’s shop and imagined them on the heads of women in full make up’ (78).
The inclusion of shop facades in Benjamin’s fiction forecasts his major yet unfinished work The Arcades Project. As T.J. Clark states, ‘the point of reading The Arcades Project, then, is being prepared to lose one’s way’ (Clark para. 12), a sentiment I suggest applies to Benjamin’s fiction more broadly too. As the first and final sections of the collection demonstrate, Benjamin advocates play and fantasy, encouraging constant changes in perception. The willingness to get lost, to investigate process and resist linearity are artistic aims made more possible by working with short fiction. The collection itself thus becomes a space in which to veer off course, rather than follow a pre-destined path to one meaning: what his fictions demonstrate is that when the ‘red thread of experience’ is cut (Benjamin, “Sketched”, 90), the two ends can be grasped again, fused and fashioned into an alternative.
Benjamin, Walter. “Experience and Poverty”. Selected Writings: Volume II 1927-1934, trans. Rodney Livingstone et al, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, The Belknap Press, 1999, pp. 731-736.
Benjamin, Walter. “Sketched into Mobile Dust”. The Storyteller, trans. and ed. Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie and Sebastian Truskolaski, Verso, 2016, pp. 89-97.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Aviator”. The Storyteller, trans. and ed. Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie and Sebastian Truskolaski, Verso, 2016, pp. 77-79.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov”. The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900-2000, ed. Dorothy J. Hale, Blackwell Publishing, 2006, pp. 361-378.
Huyssen, Andreas. “Modernist Miniatures: Literary Snapshots of Urban Spaces”. PMLA, vol. 122, no. 1, 2007, pp. 27-42.
Clark, T.J. “Reservations of the Marvelous”. LRB, vol. 22, no. 12, June 2000, pp. 3-9, https://www.lrb.co.uk/v22/n12/tj-clark/reservations-of-the-marvellous.
Dolbear, Sam et. al. “Introduction”. The Storyteller, Verso, 2016, pp. ix-xxxii.
Sontag, Susan and Berger, John. “To Tell a Story, 1983”. YouTube, uploaded by Everything has its first time, 3 Feb 2017, https://youtu.be/MoHCR8nshe8.