The Meaning of Cities   /   Summer 2017   /    Book Reviews

Story, Sign, and Play

Nathan Goldman

Angelus Novus (detail), 1920, by Paul Klee (1879–1940); The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Carole and Ronald Lauder, New York/ Bridgeman Images.

An imaginative new presentation of the short tales of Walter Benjamin.

When Gershom Scholem, the twentieth-century Jewish thinker who rekindled academic interest in Kabbalah, published his seminal study Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, he dedicated it to the memory of a dear friend who had taken his own life in 1940 out of fear of being returned to Nazi Germany: “The friend of a lifetime whose genius united the insight of the Metaphysician, the interpretive power of the Critic and the erudition of the Scholar.” This friend was Walter Benjamin.

The soaring register of Scholem’s praise, published a year after Benjamin’s death and some time before his work became widely known, foreshadowed the impact Benjamin would come to have in the following decades. The three distinct titles with which Scholem eulogized his friend’s brilliance—metaphysician, critic, scholar—speak to Benjamin’s resistance to disciplinary and professional categories. But Scholem’s formulation misses one aspect of Benjamin’s approach: the imagination of the Artist. The Storyteller: Tales out of Loneliness, which explores this feature of Benjamin’s work, makes a compelling case for the artistic imagination’s centrality to his project.

One could be forgiven for expecting The Storyteller to comprise, simply, short works of fiction. Much of the marketing apparatus surrounding the book insists as much. But the contents, many of which appear here in English for the first time, span many genres: novellas, dream journal entries, book reviews, riddles, fantastical tales for children, even verses written for a wall calendar. The pieces, none more than a few pages long, are arranged into three themed parts: “Dreamworlds,” “Travel,” and “Play and Pedagogy.”

If The Storyteller is not simply a collection of the short fictions of a brilliant critical mind, the book’s existence demands justification. So its editors devote much of the introduction to fretting over the question of the volume’s purpose and supplying different versions of the same unsatisfactory answer. After acknowledging the reuse of material gathered in The Storyteller in Benjamin’s later critical work, the editors defend the volume against anticipated charges of banality, superfluity, and being mere “juvenilia.” “Benjamin’s early stories,” they write, “anticipate a number of the theoretical concerns that he developed in subsequent years.” Fine—but is that all?

Fortunately for its readers, The Storyteller illumines Benjamin’s work anew, highlighting the importance of the imagination in his thought. The volume’s editors have facilitated this not only by bringing these works together, but by doing so in a way that is itself imaginative: classing the pieces under suggestive titles, juxtaposing writings in divergent styles and written for radically different audiences, referring to the pieces as numbered chapters, as if each were intended to follow its predecessor in a strange novel, and pairing each “chapter” with a piece by the painter Paul Klee, whose Angelus Novus Benjamin owned and famously cites in his essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

Nowhere is Benjamin’s regard for the imagination clearer—not only as a key form of human thinking, but also as a pedagogical principle for children—than in the two book reviews that close the final section (“Pedagogy and Play”) and the book as a whole. In the first, a review of Alvois Jalkotzy’s The Fairy Tale and the Present: The German Folk Tale and Our Time, Benjamin rails against Jalkotzy’s narrow view of children’s fairy tales as serving purely practical societal ends:

It is not easy to find a book which demands the relinquishment of that which is most genuine and original with the same taken-for-grantedness that unreservedly dismisses a child’s delicate and hermetic fantasy as an emotional demand, having understood it from the perspective of a commodity-producing society, in which education is regarded with such dismal impartiality as an opportunity for colonial sales of cultured wares.

For Benjamin, the “child’s delicate and hermetic fantasy” is not merely “an emotional demand” to be exploited or discouraged, but, rather, a vital manifestation of human imagination. In the second review, a laudatory examination of a children’s primer based on principles of play, Benjamin makes it clear that, for him, the story is a sacred form. He condemns the primer he used as a child for hiding math problems in narratives, a pedagogical trick Benjamin regards as treachery:

What coldness was spread by the phoney moral uprightness of these lines, into which—like a trap door—numerals were embedded every now and again. It was nothing less than a betrayal by the most trusted and beloved thing that the child had received from his mother: the story.

This old primer, Benjamin writes, spoke from “the seriousness of life” and put the student “under the spell of the black-upon-white, of law and right, the irrevocable, the being set for all eternity.” And, he claims, “[we] know today what we should think of such things.”

What do Benjamin’s own stories reveal about the form’s possibilities to transcend the inhibited thinking embodied by his old primer? The pieces collected in The Storyteller find freedom in the itinerant over the intentional. In a contrast with the ceaseless forward motion that animates much contemporary American fiction, Benjamin’s narrators don’t venture forth with purpose; rather, they wander, restless and often alone. Their solitude allows them space to move haphazardly, digressively—and generally on foot. In each of the short pieces that make up “Tales out of Loneliness,” the sequence from which The Storyteller takes its subtitle, the narrator’s solitary walk makes possible the piece’s revelations.

These “Tales out of Loneliness” appear in the part titled “Travel,” which features the most complete and traditionally structured of any of the stories collected here. Benjamin excels at the form. In “The Death of the Father,” his evocation of the protagonist’s grief, which takes the form of his unsettlement from his academic work in political economy, is graceful and moving:

From this day on he worked with less certainty. He noticed deficiencies; fundamental problems, which until then he had regularly passed over, began to preoccupy him. While ordering books, he would suddenly lose all composure and orientation…. When he interrupted his reading, he could never shake off the feeling that he was someone whose clothes were too big.

Benjamin is as skilled in evocation as he is in analysis. This is clearest in the pieces, more affective than narrative, collected in the first part, “Dreamworlds,” which encompasses two sections: “Fantasy” (dreamlike fiction fragments) and “Dreams” (dream reports and a tangentially related book review). Here, anxiety and melancholia are the dominant moods. Benjamin’s unease is often cosmological: In a dream entry titled “The Moon,” a question plagues him in the dark: “Why then is there something in the world, why does the world exist?” (In 1935, a year or two after Benjamin wrote his dream entry, Martin Heidegger would open the lecture course that was later published as Introduction to Metaphysics with a version of this very question—“Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?”—which Heidegger called “the first of all questions.”) The problem stalks Benjamin, even disturbing his sleep: “When I awoke at night in the dark the world was nothing more than a single mute question. It might be that this question, though I didn’t know it at the time, sat in the pleats of the plush curtains which hung from my door to keep out the noise.”

These pieces also highlight Benjamin’s sensitivity. In “A Christmas Song,” he describes “a Christmas song that filled me, as only music can, with solace for a sorrow not yet experienced but only sensed now for the first time.” In “Too Close,” as he stands in wonder before a doppelgänger of Notre Dame Cathedral that in no way resembles the real Notre Dame, he describes another paradoxical and compelling emotional experience: “What overwhelmed me was longing. Longing for the very same Paris in which I found myself in the dream.” Strikingly, at this moment he pivots from description to analysis: “But where does this longing come from?” Benjamin’s analytical impulse drives him to interpret even the most emotional experiences.

But the Benjamin who emerges in The Storyteller is not always anxious or melancholic; he is often exuberant. This aspect of his disposition is most prominent in the book’s final part, “Pedagogy and Play.” Most of the pieces are written for children, whom he held in high esteem. In a review of a collection that documents Frankfurt children’s rhymes, he expresses admiration of children’s ingenuity: The child “never adopts the established form as such…. The children return the oldest fragments and phrases of verse to the adults in variegated forms; their work lies not so much in the gist of these pieces, as in the unpredictably appealing play of transformation.” Benjamin displays his own keen sense of “the unpredictably appealing play of transformation” in these writings, which include riddles, challenges for children to compose stories using strange sets of words, and fables (“Why the Elephant Is Called ‘Elephant’”; “How the Boat Was Invented and Why It Is Called ‘Boat’”; “Funny Story from When There Were Not Yet Any People”). Certainly the most delightful, these pieces may also be the most revealing about Benjamin. They foreground the power of unbounded play, which for Benjamin is essential to radical thinking and to the sacredness of stories.

In an essay that does not appear in this volume, “On Some Motifs of Baudelaire,” Benjamin takes up the nature of stories:

There is a contrast between all these forms [of communication] and the story, which is one of the oldest forms of communication. It is not the object of the story to convey a happening per se, which is the purpose of information; rather, it embeds it in the life of the storyteller in order to pass it on as experience to those listening. It thus bears the marks of the storyteller much as the earthen vessel bears the marks of the potter’s hand.

The writings in The Storyteller are all stories in this sense, for each bears the inimitable imprint of Benjamin’s imagination. The Storyteller usefully complicates Benjamin’s legacy and his absorption into mainstream academic and popular discourse by emphasizing the fractured, digressive, poetic character of his thinking. But beyond this, it reveals aspects of his mind that transcend the critical concern with his intellectual development. The collection allows us to delight in the singular warmth and wonder of one whom Scholem spoke of not only as a metaphysician, a critic, and a scholar, but as “the friend of a lifetime.”