Benjamin Tells a Story…

By Peter FenvesSeptember 29, 2016

Benjamin Tells a Story…

The Storyteller: Tales out of Loneliness by Walter Benjamin

“I HEARD THIS STORY from Rastelli,” Walter Benjamin writes at the beginning of a story he published in 1935 under the title “Rastelli Tells a Story…”; Enrico Rastelli was a dazzlingly accomplished juggler who had died a few years earlier. (A brief film about him produced soon after his death is available on YouTube.) Benjamin, for his part, may have heard the story from Rastelli himself, but it is more likely that he invokes the name of the then-famous juggler to lend a degree of authenticity to a story he quite possibly heard elsewhere or perhaps even made up himself. In any case, “Rastelli Tells a Story…” concerns an event in the life of a great juggler of an earlier era who had gained “world-wide fame” as a result of the amazing tricks he performed with a large ball. To those who saw his performance, it seemed “as though he were handling a living comrade, who was sometimes docile, sometimes obstinate, sometimes affectionate, sometimes jeering, sometimes friendly, sometimes negligent — but who was never a dead thing.” The great juggler’s performance was facilitated by a deception, for he did indeed work with a “comrade,” specifically a “dwarf boy,” who, stationed inside the ball, played “on the compression strings located within the ball as easily as on the strings of a guitar.”

Once upon a time, so Rastelli tells Benjamin, the juggler was ordered to perform his tricks before the Turkish Sultan — which he carried out to perfection. The ball seemed to obey not so much the movements of the juggler’s hands as the music emanating from his flute, which, for a moment, achieved a kind of counter-sovereign power:

The flute seized command for itself. The breaths of the flutist became fuller, and, as though he were breathing new life into his ball in a new and powerful way, its jumps proved to be gradually higher, while the master began to raise his arm so that after he had calmly brought it to shoulder height he stretched out his little finger — always while playing music — onto which the ball, obeying a last, long trill, settled with a single bound.

But Rastelli’s story does not end with the successful completion of the royal performance. A messenger approaches the juggler and hands him a letter from his “comrade,” who, lying sick in bed, tells him to cancel the performance. Because the letter-carrier was delayed, the performance went on as scheduled, without anyone inside the ball, imperceptibly controlling its movements. So, as it turns out, the great juggler did not need any help, after all! This stunning revelation is not the end of the story, however, for the juggler proceeds to explain the reason he told a story to Benjamin: “You see, added Rastelli, after a pause, that our profession [Stand] wasn’t born yesterday and that we have our own story — or at least our own stories.”

The last lines are both evocative and equivocal, especially when one remembers that the German and Italian words for “story” (storia and Geschichte, respectively) also mean “history.” Rastelli may have told Benjamin a story in order to demonstrate that his Stand has its own history, and then, on reflection, decided that it only had stories, which function in the absence of history.

Less than a year after Rastelli’s story appeared in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Benjamin published a now-famous essay entitled “The Storyteller” in another Swiss venue, Orient und Occident. A convergence between the theme of Rastelli’s story and “The Storyteller” can be found in the title of the journal where the latter appeared, for, as you may recall, the action of the story occurs in the Sultan’s court, which Rastelli, or Benjamin, incongruously calls “Constantinople” — not only the city where “Orient” meets “Occident,” but also where numerous acquaintances of Benjamin would take up residence as a consequence of Nazi terror.

“Rastelli’s Tells a Story…”, moreover, resonates with other projects Benjamin pursued during this period, including “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility,” for it can be seen to present the exact inverse of technical reproducibility, as the juggler’s flute functions as a magical counterpart to the movie camera. Indeed, Rastelli’s story is even more closely connected with another of Benjamin’s most widely read works — his reflections “On the Concept of History,” which begin with the story of an automaton that was capable of winning chess games against all opponents. Here, too, there is a trick associated with Turkey:

A puppet wearing Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. […] Actually, a hunchbacked dwarf — a master at chess — sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings.

The image of the “hunchback dwarf” is thus prefigured in the juggler’s story. All of this emphasizes the evident affinity between Benjamin and Rastelli: itinerant performers both, they juggle things, tell stories about juggling, and reflect on the distinction between history, histories, and stories.

It is for this reason, among many others, that a book entitled The Storyteller published under the name Walter Benjamin is welcome. Because it is difficult to determine Benjamin’s “position,” or “profession,” on the basis of traditional academic categories, it is worth reflecting on his writings in light of their receptivity to stories and storytelling.

The volume under review here — edited and translated by Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie, and Sebastian Truskolaski — does not, unfortunately, include “Rastelli Tells a Story…”. Nor does it contain “The Storyteller.” Both texts are already available in English: “The Storyteller” has been accessible in English since the early 1960s, and a translation of “Rastelli Tells a Story…” can be found in the appendix to Carol Jacobs’s The Dissimulating Harmonies, as well as in the third volume of Benjamin’s Selected Writings. The majority of the items in The Storyteller are previously unavailable in English — but not all of them. At least 10 of the 42 items have already been translated and, as the editors note, a few of them can be found with little variation in some of Benjamin’s others writings.

I speak of “items” here because, despite the title and subtitles of the volume (“Short Stories” on the cover, “Tales out of Loneliness” on the frontispiece), many of the texts in The Storyteller are neither stories nor tales. This is perplexing. So, too, is the absence of “Rastelli Tells a Story…”, as well as other prominent examples of Benjamin’s skills as a storyteller, including “Myslovice—Braunschweig—Marseilles” and “The Handkerchief.” As for the items in The Storyteller, most are recognizable as narratives or narrative fragments, but a large percentage are something else — dream reports, travel reportage, and riddles, for instance. You will also come across a calendrical poem, word games, the account of a radio performance, and a dialogue on gambling. In addition, each of the three parts of the volume concludes with one or two book reviews, thus suggesting that Benjamin’s primary “position” was that of a critic, after all.

The oddness of its selection does not make the appearance of The Storyteller any less welcome. New texts are now available in English, and the volume is richly illustrated. One of its distinguishing characteristics in comparison with other collections is its chronological range: along with many fragments that Benjamin wrote before he entered into the university system in 1912, there are a substantial number of items from the late 1920s and early ’30s, some of which are perhaps marked by the collapse of his attempt to find a position within German academia. The volume does not follow a strict chronological sequence; instead, it is divided in terms of three themes.

The first section is called “Dreamworlds” and is itself divided into two subsections, the first of which is entitled “Fantasy.” Some indication of the diversity of stories can be gleaned from its first and last items: a fragment entitled “Schiller and Goethe: A Layman’s Vision” seems like the work of a diligent Gymnasium student seeking to conquer the canon of classical German literature by way of parody; another, even shorter fragment is entitled “In a Big Old City” and may be the beginning of a Maupassant-like novella about secrets hidden in the attic of a merchant’s mansion — and thus, by extension, the secret charms and terrors of the bourgeoisie. Both of these stories were probably written when Benjamin was a teenager.

The last of the items in “Fantasy,” by contrast, was probably written in the early 1930s. Unpublished in Benjamin’s lifetime, it tells the story of a “rather dwarfish clerk” who must have fallen into a drunken dream on New Year’s Eve. Wandering about, the clerk is drawn into a place that advertises itself “Imperial Panorama,” where an Italian impresario cheerfully greets him and proceeds to recount a counterfactual story of the recently completed year of his life, which now features “a gentleman who bears no resemblance to your: your second self.”

The story of the clerk provides a segue to the second subsection of “Dreamworlds,” simply entitled “Dreams.” Some of the dream reports are lightly worked over, whereas others, especially those familiar to readers of Benjamin’s autobiographical reflections, Berlin Childhood around 1900, are models of literary composition. Several years ago, the late Burkhardt Lindner edited a volume of Benjamin’s writings entitled Traüme (“Dreams”), which, in addition to gathering a variety of Benjamin’s dream reports, provides a sample of his theoretical writings on dream and awakening. One of the theoretical texts that Lindner included in his volume is an abridged version of a 1937 review of Albert Béguin’s doctoral dissertation, L’âme romantique et le rêve.

The Storyteller includes a translation of the entire review without the unpublished material Lindner provides. This is a curious decision on the part of the editors, since a translation of the entire review (without the unpublished material) is available in the fourth volume of Benjamin’s Selected Works. From at least one perspective, the earlier version is superior to the one in The Storyteller, for it is fully annotated. Given the relative obscurity of the topic under investigation in Béguin’s treatise (the absorption of German romanticism into modern French poetry), notes are particularly helpful for an English-speaking readership.

The absence of an editorial note in the review of in Béguin’s treatise can be seen as the expression of an editorial policy that aims to free Benjamin’s writings from a self-enclosed scholarly industry and return them to the lay readership for which many of them were originally written. Instead of massive notes, The Storyteller has illustrations drawn from Paul Klee’s work. If the volume were only composed of Benjamin’s stories, the policy could be seen as liberating. After all, it is not necessary to know much about Enrico Rastelli to enjoy, reflect on, and make use of the story Benjamin published in a Zurich newspaper. But many of the items in The Storyteller suffer, I fear, from a paucity of notes. This is particularly true of both Benjamin’s critical essays and his early writings, some of which refer to topics every Gymnasium student in Benjamin’s Germany would know — but very few English-speaking readers in the 21st century.

It is simply a mistake — induced perhaps by the sales department of Verso — to describe The Storyteller as “Short Stories.” The mistake is corrected in the frontispiece, where it is redescribed as “Tales out of Loneliness.” But the revised subtitle raises questions of its own, beginning with the word “loneliness.” Probably in the early 1930s Benjamin wrote some stories under the title “Geschichten aus der Einsamkeit,” which could also be translated as “stories from solitude.” Elsewhere in The Storyteller, the translators appropriately render Einsamkeit with “solitude.” Because the entire volume stands under the rubric “out of loneliness,” two questions naturally arise: are we to understand that the source of Benjamin’s stories, from beginning to end, lies in loneliness, or is this perhaps a qualification of stories in general?

After visiting Goethe’s house in Weimar, Benjamin asked whether the narrow room in which the poet worked was evidence of the “solitude of poetry.” Stories, however, are presumably different from poetry. In “The Storyteller,” Benjamin distinguishes the situation of the storyteller from that of the novelist on the basis of their relation to solitude: novel reading is generally done alone, whereas storytelling is a communal event. “The Storyteller” also proposes the now-famous claim that the psychophysical devastation of trench warfare — the “shell shock” — abruptly completed a long-prepared breakdown in the communicability of experience, which is by its very nature continuous and unpossessable, belonging to neither “me” nor “you.” With this breakdown comes the decline of storytelling, for the space and time in which stories are given and received depends on nothing so much as the transmissibility of experience. The editors’ introduction outlines the argument of “The Storyteller,” and inasmuch as the volume includes text written before and after World War I, its compositional principle is perhaps to be understood as a way of testing Benjamin’s controversial thesis: can traces of trench warfare, as it were, be discerned in the first two parts of the volume, which include items that traverse both sides of the temporal rift created by the so-called the Great War?

Here is a possible response, evidence for which would be ampler if the volume had included such stories as “Rastelli Tells a Story…”, “Myslovice—Braunschweig—Marseilles,” and “The Handkerchief.” Nevertheless, something of the following can still be seen in the aforementioned story of the clerk who hears about his “second self” as well as the strange story entitled “Etched into Mobile Dust” and even “Palais D…Y,” which derives from a story told by a young girl, who is herself acting out a fairy-tale role: Benjamin’s stories are told at second hand. In other words, he is no longer the storyteller but, rather, the story-receiver. Why are others able to tell stories? In the case of “Myslovice—Braunschweig—Marseilles,” it is because the storyteller, a painter by profession, has ingested copious amounts of hashish. Rastelli, for his part, tells a story for the sake of his position, which is as precarious as that of the storyteller. And when no one is around to tell Benjamin a story, there one finds “Tales out of Loneliness,” which is to say, stories that do not stem from someone else. Benjamin, of course, did not invent storytelling at second hand; it is probably as old as storytelling itself. But after the war, for him, it was perhaps the only way in which a story could crystallize into written form — by presenting its teller as an intermediary in the absence of transmissible experience.

The final part of the volume, “Play and Pedagogy,” includes “just-so-stories” such as “Why the Elephant Is Called ‘Elephant,’” as well as a number of anecdotes Benjamin repurposed for his critical writings. It also includes some of Benjamin’s reflections on how children’s books should and should not be produced. But what about play? Does it, too, emerge “out of loneliness”? An instructive item in this regard is entitled “Radio Games,” which appeared in a German newspaper in 1932. Benjamin broadcast a list of ambiguous words, which listeners would then use as the basis for a very short story or some lines of nonsense verse. In the case of “Radio Games,” the words stand in isolation from one another, and they nevertheless contain something like a virtual camaraderie, which listeners can discover for themselves, as they decide, for instance, whether they will make the word Ball (“ball”) refer to a spherical object with which one can do tricks or to a formal dance in which one may participate. Can something similar be said about the dream reports included in The Storyteller? Do they come “aus der Einsamkeit” — not so much from the loneliness of the dreamer as from the solitude of the images that dreamers weave into their sometimes zany, sometimes frightful reports?

The editors’ introduction does not address this question, but emphasizes that there is, after all, nothing special about Benjamin’s dreams:

What is perhaps remarkable about the dreams here is how unremarkable they actually are. For, when written down as narratives, in their expression of desire outside of physical, political and psychic constraints, dreams echo the general desire for a world that cannot so easily be imagined in the daytime. Benjamin’s attachment to the Jungian image of the “collective unconscious” in “Convolute K” of The Arcades Project, despite protestations of its proto-fascism, can be understood as an acknowledgment of this tendency. Not only do dreams operate against the status quo, but they do so through a universal or collective impulse.

In a note appended to this passage from the introduction, the editors refer to a letter Adorno wrote Benjamin in August 1935 that was translated in a Verso volume published almost 40 years ago, Aesthetics and Politics. Adorno criticizes Benjamin’s preliminary draft of what would become his Arcades Project, identifying the following sentence as the un-dialectical kernel of the whole mistaken adventure: “Chaque époque rêve la suivante [every epoch dreams its successor].” Wanting to rid the text of any suggestion that there is something akin to a “collective unconscious,” Adorno aims to help Benjamin remain true to himself: “If you transpose the dialectical image into consciousness as a ‘dream,’” Adorno explains, “you not only take the magic out of the concept and render it sociable, but you also deprive it of that objective liberating power which could legitimize it in materialistic terms.” With this verdict, Benjamin’s position became even more precarious.

In the following months, Benjamin addresses a series of letters to Gretel Karplus that respond to her fiancé’s (that is, Wiesengrund-Adorno’s) criticisms of squandered magic. At the end of a letter written in October 1935, Benjamin tells Karplus that he will send her “a miniscule story” bearing the title “Rastelli Tells a Story…”. The letter says nothing further about the story, but she will soon discover that it revolves around a great juggler, who, much to his own surprise, is able to perform his tricks alone, without the help of a hidden-away “comrade” eager to pull the strings. Did Adorno ever suspect that the story was addressed to him? It is, in any case, a suggestive story of unexpected solitude.


Peter Fenves is Joan and Serapta Harrison Professor of Literature at Northwestern University

LARB Contributor

Peter Fenves, the Joan and Sarepta Harrison Chair of Literature at Northwestern University, is a professor of German, comparative literary studies, and Jewish studies. He is the author of several books, including Arresting Language: From Leibniz to Benjamin (2001), Late Kant: Towards Another Law of the Earth (2003), and The Messianic Reduction: Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time (2011).


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