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?

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