In the deracinated world of social media, an Instagram story is merely a picture and a few words, both of which self-destruct after 24 hours.
All the more prescient, then, was Walter Benjamin’s preoccupation in the 1930s with the cultural decline of storytelling.
A story for Benjamin does not expend itself in the telling but lives on in the memory, integrating itself into the listener’s experience. Storytelling preserves what gives it life and meaning and he gives as an example a tale from Herodotus about the Egyptian king Psammetichus.
Herodotus’ story is rich in detail and what follows here is a bald summary: Egypt has been conquered by the Persians and Psammetichus is forced to watch as his enslaved daughter is compelled to fetch water from a well.
Her father does not cry out and even the sight of his son being led to execution, roped and bridled like an animal, does not break his silence. But when he sees one of his servants, now reduced to begging for a living, he is stricken with grief and bursts into tears.
Noting the absence of psychologising or emotive comment, Benjamin acclaims how it ‘shows what true storytelling is’ and compares the story to seeds of grain that after centuries in chambers of the pyramids retain their power of germination.
In this invaluable collection of essays about storytelling, Benjamin’s acute understanding of modernity is evident on every page.
Storytelling, rooted in a pre-industrial world, is ‘a form of artisanal labour’ and its decline is related to cultural changes like the growing invisibility of death.
Once an everyday part of public life, death has retreated into a private realm: People nowadays ‘live in rooms untouched by death’ and ‘when the end approaches, they are stowed away in sanatoriums or hospitals by their heirs’.
Benjamin’s point is that in the past dying was out there in the open, its frank acknowledgement was a source of understanding and knowledge and as one of life’s most important experiences it provided the kind of material that nurtures storytelling.
What passes for stories nowadays, observes Benjamin, is ‘permeated with explanations’. It becomes a form of information whereas the tale told by Herodotus withholds from telling us why Psammetichus did not cry out at the plight of his son and daughter but was reduced to tears when he saw his former servant reduced to begging in the streets.
We can provide explanations of our own after hearing and reflecting on the story but it is left to us to make sense of it and our own life’s experiences will have a bearing on how we understand the story.
Benjamin notes how the trauma of World War II did not produce a wealth of storytelling. The survivor who chooses silence over speech is not uncommon. The war and the industrialisation of killing it inaugurated ‘brought a completely new kind of poverty to human life’.
Were he alive today, Benjamin would probably see social media as a new kind of impoverishment of the spirit and a poverty of experience.
“The storyteller essays”, by Walter Benjamin, is published by New York Review of Books