The Sto­ry­teller: Tales Out of Loneliness

Wal­ter Benjamin

  • Review
By – June 30, 2016

Every now and then a muse­um will present an exhib­it of a famous artist’s sketch­es, some unfin­ished; these sketch­es reveal the cre­ative process that went into the final paint­ings. Sim­i­lar insight is giv­en by the short sto­ries and excerpts by philoso­pher Wal­ter Ben­jamin col­lect­ed in The Sto­ry­teller—many of which were unpub­lished dur­ing his lifetime.

Like the Swiss artist Paul Klee, whose work is used to illus­trate each chap­ter, Wal­ter Ben­jamin was influ­enced by dreams and mythol­o­gy, espe­cial­ly in his ear­ly work. One frag­ment enti­tled In a Big Old City,” reads like a fairy tale. It begins, There once lived a mer­chant in a big old city,” and goes on to describe the man­sion and its two occu­pants, the old mer­chant and an eight-year-old girl who is not his daugh­ter. As the mer­chant has to trav­el a few times a year, he trains the girl to house­keep. When she is about eleven, he gives her the keys to the house and tells her to do as she pleas­es, but nev­er to go to the upper floors. Then he leaves the girl by the stairs, stand­ing with the ancient keys in her hand. Because the sto­ry is unfin­ished, we are left to imag­ine what the girl will do. Will she go upstairs, and if so, what will she find there?

In a Big Old City” can be inter­pret­ed on many lev­els. What kind of man leaves an undeage girl alone to care for a man­sion? Why should she be sub­mis­sive? Although he kiss­es her good­bye, he is stern with her and expects his rules to be fol­lowed with­out ques­tion. The sto­ry can also be read as an alle­go­ry. Is the under­ly­ing theme about the rela­tion­ship between God and mankind? Ear­ly in this unfin­ished novel­la, Ben­jamin points out that the man­sion is in a pious town” where many of the hous­es had beau­ti­ful carv­ings of the holy vir­gin or some oth­er saint above their door­ways.” Only the merchant’s house did not. Do we have the keys” to enlight­en­ment on the upper floors” but don’t use them?

Mem­o­rable lines also give us insights into Wal­ter Benjamin’s own life. His deep feel­ings about one woman are con­veyed in a pow­er­ful metaphor in the brief Let­ter to Toet Blaupot ten Cate”: The flood of this sleep, which force­ful­ly broke against the day,is moved by the pow­er of your image, like the lake is by the pull of the moon. I miss your pres­ence more than I can say — and, what’s more — more than I could believe.” A state­ment wor­thy of Shakespeare.

His thoughts range from those of love to why peo­ple buy detec­tive nov­els at air­ports or train sta­tions when they have unread books at home. In Review: Detec­tive Nov­els on Tour,” Ben­jamin tells us that in order to numb one fear, we need to cre­ate anoth­er, arti­fi­cial­ly induced dan­ger.” This explains the pop­u­lar­i­ty of phe­nom­e­na as diverse as gam­bling, hor­ror films, roller coast­er rides, and Stephen King novels.

The frag­ments of dreams and self-explo­ration of Wal­ter Ben­jamin in The Sto­ry­teller, sub­ti­tled Tales Out of Lone­li­ness, will pro­voke unex­pect­ed mem­o­ries of dreams in the reader.

Relat­ed Content:

Eleanor Ehrenkranz received her Ph.D. from NYU and has taught at Stern Col­lege, NYU, Mer­cy Col­lege, and at Pace Uni­ver­si­ty. She has lec­tured wide­ly on Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture and recent­ly pub­lished anthol­o­gy of Jew­ish poet­ry, Explain­ing Life: The Wis­dom of Mod­ern Jew­ish Poet­ry, 1960 – 2010.

Discussion Questions