The Storyteller: Tales out of Loneliness by Walter Benjamin. Verso Books. $19.95, 240pp.
There are habits of the mind that are nurtured by Walter Benjamin’s collection of notes, dreams, short stories, characters, and diary entries in The Storyteller. Like the art of medicine, storytelling is a practice that is both technical in terms of skill and relational in its potential to reach people across any distance; Benjamin even used surgery as a metaphor to distinguish between these two aspects of art in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” suggesting that the healing touch hidden within a surgeon’s attempt to detach from his patient could be left uncommunicated and lost like the mass proliferation of human images due to industrial advancement. Without collapsing the comparisons of medicine and writing, the larger theme at work in his prose is that the healing power of art is derived from rituals rather than material reality alone.
Benjamin pierces through layers of tissue and draws attention to the body’s beauty, in addition to its hazards. Writing about the act of listening, he describes an interior space of the ear, noting in an experimental piece:
I had suffered very much from the din in my room. Last night the dream retained this. I found myself in front of a map and, at the same time, in the landscape which was depicted on it. The landscape was incredibly gloomy and bleak, and it wasn’t possible to say whether its desolation was merely a craggy wasteland or empty grey ground populated only by capital letters. These letters drifted curvily on their base, just as if they were following the mountain range; the words formed from these letters were more or less remote from each other. I knew, or came to know, that I was in the labyrinth of the ear canal. The map was at the same time a map of hell.
How can a feverish dream be translated so well into language? That “din” he hears is a representation of an acute feeling of helplessness; nowhere is the location of the original wound specified. The pain caused by this din is not spreading gradually—its existence draws his focus toward the ear in his mind. There is the physiological pathway that receives the sound, the hair receptors in his ear if you will, and then there is the “labyrinth” that subjectively reinterprets the significance of the “din” with every turn. What makes that sound tolerable is his perseverance to write about it. To listen with purposefulness could lessen the sting. Really, it is the ritual of listening, of being heard in return, and not the very flesh of the ear that serves as a source of relief for Benjamin.
Benjamin goes into greater depth on his themes of healing and the technical mechanisms of the body when he describes the act of sharing a meal with another person. In a short story called, “The Cactus Hedge,” one character reiterates a particular point saying,
As far as eating was concerned, he didn’t think much of vitamins and calories and suchlike. All food, he used to say, was either a cure or a poison, and nothing existed in between. The eater therefore would have to consider himself continually as a kind of convalescent, if he wanted to properly nourish himself.
That same conversation also refers to the idea of sleeping as being a “dream immunization.” To choose what food the body ingested and what nightmares the mind would ease into before truly anticipating deep sleep shows how the human body integrates a person’s most basic needs concurrently, rather than one organ system at a time. Becoming truly “nourished” by a meal begins with having substantial company, and not exclusively with the physical intake of food. Resting the body not only requires the brain to shift gears for REM but also includes the actions performed during the waking hours that prepare a body for the ritual of sleep. Exchanging visions of the future and reminiscing about the past happen all at once in this volume. Each tale exists to protect the others because storytelling itself is a shared experience that heals the persons involved as the body registers its fate to physically rely on others to survive.
To have an even better sense of how one’s intuition tries to move in lockstep with one’s physical nature, consider Benjamin’s short story “The Lucky Hand” when one character says,
And gambling is effectively a blasphemous test of our presence of mind. For in danger the body makes an accord with things that goes over and above our heads. Only once we breathe a sigh of relief, upon being saved, do we think about what we have been through. In acting we are ahead of our knowledge. And gambling is a disreputable affair because it unscrupulously provokes all the finest and most precise things that our organism affords.
To what do we owe the honor of risking our lives by even stepping outside our front door, not knowing what will happen next? The metaphor of gambling could stand for the act of play: making the next move even when the body and the mind hold their cards close to their chests and refuse to coordinate with each other. The “danger” in our cards may not come from the routines our bodies and minds competitively do over. We suffer from the regret of missed chances. We become invalids by literally invalidating what pain we experienced when our relationships fell to the waste side or when we couldn’t acknowledge the weight of loss as more than a physical heaviness in the lungs.
And yet to still find ourselves breathing the next morning becomes the chance of a lifetime.
Nirmala Jayaraman received a B.A. in Anthropology from Union College, Schenectady, NY. She has written book reviews for Allegra Lab: Anthropology, Law Art & World, the British Psychological Society’s The Psychologist, Anthropology & Aging, Anthropology, Bookforum, and Somatosphere.
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