Walter Benjamin, "Der Erzähler" (The Storyteller)

In the comments to my last post, Ian mentioned an essay by Walter Benjamin, Der Erzähler (The Storyteller). Benjamin was an important German philosopher of the first half of the twentieth century; he wrote on a wide range of topics, but his best-known work is probably his essay Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (it is widely cited as The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, but The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility would have been a better translation).

Der Erzähler is a very rich and complex essay. It claims to be a reflection on the work of Nikolai Lesskow (in English known as Leskov, I believe); but it also touches on the difference beween a story (in the sense that a storyteller tells stories; Erzählung, not Geschichte) and a novel, on the communicability of experience, on the role of death in modern life, on the nature of wisdom, on the relation between man and nature, and on several other topics. All that in twenty-four pages. It certainly deserves close study, and for those who are interested, I have located an English translation in either PDF or html form. Those who prefer a physical book should look for the collection called Illuminations, or Illuminationen in German.

(The translation appears to be very bad, unfortunately. For instance, in IV "der dem Hörer Rat weiß" is translated as "who has counsel for his readers". But "Hörer" means "listeners", not "readers", and given the connection that Benjamin sees between story-telling and oral communication, this is significant. It is full of such mistakes. "Exemplarisch", for instance, should be translated "exemplary", not "by giving examples". In XIII, the translator makes a complete muddle of Benjamin's distinction between Gedächtnis, Eingedenken and Erinnerung. Can anyone tell me whether this online translation is the same one as that published in Illuminations? If not, I recommend the latter.)

What I would like to do in this blog post is give a summary of the essay. Given the essay's richness and denseness, this summary will be both too long and too short.

There will be some translation issues. The German Erfahrung and Erlebnis both seem to translate to 'experience'. But, at least as Benjamin uses them. the first is the experience of 'a man of experience', while the second is the experience of 'I experience pleasure'. Erfahrung is connected with wisdom, with understanding life and the world we live in; Erlebnis has more to do with particular sensations that do not build up a greater whole. Unless otherwise indicated, I'll use 'experience' for 'Erfahrung'.


The art of story-telling is dying out. With it also dies the human capability that is the essence of story-telling: trading experiences (Erfahrungen). The explanation for this is that experience itself is falling away.


Experience, passing from mouth to mouth, is the source from which all story-tellers have created. This is illustrated by the folk-notion of a story-teller: he is either someone who has travelled far, or someone who has learned the history of his own country. In both cases, experience not readily available to all is passed on by means of the story-teller.


Lesskow is at home in the distances both of space and time. He is a man of the earth, of practicality; his exemplar is the man who finds his way about the world without getting too deeply involved with it.


This connection with the practical is a natural one for a story-teller. A story always has its own practical use; the story-teller is someone who has counsel for his listeners. If "having counsel" sounds old-fashioned, this is because the communicability of experience is dwindling. We have no counsel, either for ourselves or for others.

Counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding. To catch up with this counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story. Counsel, woven into the fabric of a lived life, is wisdom.

Story-telling is dying out because wisdom, the epic side of truth, is dying out.


The decline of the story is the rise of the novel. Where the story-teller takes his stories from lived experience, either his or that of others, to change it into experience for his listeners; there the novelist is the lonely individual, no longer able to speak exemplarily about his most important concerns, unable to give or receive counsel. In the midst of life’s fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound despair/perplexity (Ratlosigkeit; literally 'counsellessness') of the living.


A new form of communication has arisen with the rise of the press (read: mass-media); this new form is information.* Information is antithetical to the story.

Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. It is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation. It is left up to the reader to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.


[An example from Herodotus of a story without internal explanation is given.] The reason that the story is still food for thought is exactly that Herodotus explains nothing.


The stories that linger in memory are the ones free of psychological analysis. This process of memorising stories, however, is becoming less and less common, because the situation in which it most easily takes place becomes less and less common: boredom. It is the hearer entranced in the rhythm of labour - such as weaving or spinning - who most naturally assimilates the story. As craftsmanship dies out, so does the story.


The storyteller does not try to convey dry, impersonal information; he sinks the story into his own life, in order to bring it out of him again. Story-telling itself is not a liberal art, but a craft. The great story is therefore a carefully crafted thing, the "precious product of a long chain of causes similar to one another". It takes time, a lot of time, to create such a story; and this is why story-telling is dying out. "All these products of sustained, sacrificing effort are vanishing, and the time is past in which time did not matter. Modern man no longer works at what cannot be abbreviated."


If this is so, then there seems to be a connection between the decline of story-telling and the slow vanishing of the concept of eternity from how we conceive our lives. Indeed. The idea of eternity has its source in the idea of death. It is the vanishing of the idea of death that is linked to both the dying-out of story-telling and the dwindling of the communicability of experience.

Death used to be a central part of life; but it is so no longer. In modernity, the phenomenon of death was slowly removed from daily reality. (Who still lives in a house in which at some point someone has died?)

It is, however, characteristic that not only a man’s knowledge or wisdom, but above all his real life — and this is the stuff that stories are made of — first assumes transmissible form at the moment of his death. A the moment of death, suddenly in his expressions and looks the unforgettable emerges and imparts to everything that concerned him that authority which even the poorest wretch in dying possesses for the living around him. This authority is at the very source of the story.


Death is the authority of the story-teller. In other words: his tales (Geschichten) refer back to the tale of nature (Naturgeschichte; both 'story of nature' and 'natural history'). [An extended example of a modern story-teller who embeds a personal life in the natural cycle of death and birth.]


Consider the difference between a historian and a chronicler. The historian writes history; the chronicler is the history-teller. The historian explains history; in the chronicle, the place of explanation is taken by interpretation, which is not concerned with an accurate concatenation of definite events, but with the way these are embedded in the great inscrutable course of the world.


Erinnerung (remembrance) takes different forms in the story and the novel. In the story, it appears as Gedächtnis (memory). The cardinal point for the unaffected listener to a story is to assure himself of the possibility of reproducing it. Memory (Gedächtnis) is the epic faculty par excellence. Only by virtue of a comprehensive memory can epic writing absorb the course of events on the one hand and, with the passing of these, make its peace with the power of death on the other.

In the novel, on the other hand, Erinnerung appears as Eingedenken (reminding?). The novel is about a particular character, event or situation; of which it 'reminds' us.


"Only in the novel are meaning and life, and thus the essential and the temporal, separated; one can almost say that the whole inner action of a novel is nothing else but a struggle against the power of time." Indeed, the 'meaning of life' is the centre around which the novel revolves. Here 'meaning of life' — there 'moral of the story': with these slogans novel and story confront each other, and from them the totally different historical co-ordinates of these art forms may be discerned.

There is no story for which the question as to how it continued would not be legitimate. The novelist, on the other hand, cannot hope to take the smallest step beyond that limit at which he invites the reader to an anticipated realization of the meaning of life by writing "Finis."


Moritz Heimann said: "A man who dies at 35, is at every point of his life a man who dies at 35." This is false, but merely because Heimann got the tenses wrong. The truth is: "At every point of his life, man who dies at 35, will have been a man who dies at 35." The meaning of a life only becomes apparent after death.

The reader of a novel looks for human beings from whom he derives the "meaning of life." Therefore he must, no matter what, know in advance that he will share their experience of death: if need be their figurative death - the end of the novel - but preferably their actual one. The novel is significant, therefore, not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger's fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.


The fairy-tales is the earliest step man has taken to free himself from the pressure of the mythical. The liberating magic which the fairy tale has at its disposal does not bring nature into play in a mythical way, but points to its complicity with liberated man. A mature man feels this complicity only occasionally, that is, when he is happy; but the child first meets it in fairy tales, and it makes him happy.


In the world of the story-teller, creatures are positioned on a continuous ladder that sinks down into the interior of the earth and goes up into the clouds. For Lesskow, the highest creature is the righteous person; who is also a bridge between the mudnane and the divine world.


The whole created world speaks not so much with the human voice as with what could be called "the voice of Nature". [An extended rendering of a tale of Lesskow's, which is about the voice of nature.]


Because the whole world speaks with the voice of nature, Lesskow can even write about stones, the least conscious of all beings, as if they have a significance to man and communicate with him.

One can go on and ask oneself whether the relationship of the storyteller to his material, human life, is not in itself a craftsman’s relationship, whether it is not his very task to fashion the raw material of experience, his own and that of others, in a solid, useful, and unique way.

Seen in this way, the storyteller joins the ranks of the teachers and sages. He has counsel - not for a few situations, as the proverb does, but for many, like the sage. For it is granted to him to reach back to a whole lifetime (a life, incidentally, that comprises not only his own experience but no little of the experience of others; what the storyteller knows from hearsay is added to his own). His gift is the ability to relate his life; his distinction, to be able to tell his entire life. The storyteller: he is the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story. This is the basis of the incomparable aura about the storyteller, in Leskov as in Hauff, in Poe as in Stevenson. The storyteller is the figure in which the righteous man encounters himself.

* This reminds me of the lines by T. S. Eliot: "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"


  1. excellent post, Victor. I don't really have anything to add but to say thank you for these thoughtful entries you've been writing lately. And I picked up Viriconium at the library thanks to you, I'm enjoying it as I write this.

    best, George

  2. Hi Victor,
    Shouldn't everything in your summary be attributed to Benjamin? I may be wrong, but it seems as though each section of your summary contains direct quotes from the translation of the original work.

  3. Hi Victor
    I'm trying to read "the Storyteller" by compairing a bad hebrew translation with the engelish bad one. From the preface of your post I understand that you read also the german version. Can you help me understand some difficulties on chapter XIII. Right now I'm on the second paragraph (Mnemosyne...). It would be kind, if you summerize in your own words this paragarph.

    Thank you

  4. Thank you!!!! I would'd have been able to understand this text without your summary.

  5. Your summary is priceless to me - it explains the text so well! Thank you

  6. I agree with Tamara, this summary is so useful for one of my courses. Thanks for it, your efforts are appreciated.

  7. I agree with the others but I have to point out that our anonymous commenter is correct. You have not necessarily summarized. In fact in most places you quote directly from Benjamin. I am actually reading "The Storyteller" currently and I was surprised to see that you dont put Benjamin's text in quotes. You do realize this is plagiarism.

  8. am surprised at the nasty, mean-spirited accusations of plagiarism where the blogger has already made clear the context in which he is writing. in the summary the badly translated bits are left out -- isnt it worse that the translation doesn't do justice to the german text? -gladys

  9. Actually, I thought the comment about plagiarism was hilarious -- evidently written by a student who has been warned against plagiarism so often that he/she now sees it everywhere. Plagiarism necessarily involves hiding where you got your text (or ideas) from; so if you say "I'm now going to summarise text X", it is then impossible to plagiarise text X.

    Of course, many students will also have learnt that you should not write summaries by stringing quotes from the ogirinal text together. Good advice, in general, since by summarising something in your own words, you engage more actively with it and learn more. Also, it will often be hard to make a text from direct quotes that can be understood by someone who has not read the original article.

    Since these were not my aims here -- this summary is intended for people who are also reading the article itself -- I don't feel this "rule" applied.

    Anyway, I'm glad to hear that people continue to find this summary useful!

  10. Hey man, nice summary. Although I wanted to chime in on the plagiarism thing. While I agree with you that within this context, already having cited the source of your summary, it's clearly not intended to lift any of Benjamin's ideas and present them as your own. However, I would add that for the sake of your readers you might have followed Benjamin's own citations, for example, Paul Valery in sections 9 and 10, Georg Lukacs in 14, Ernst Bloch in 17, etc. Thank you, though, very helpful--especially your comments on the translation, which btw the poor translation of the German for "listener" rendered as "reader" in section 4 is from Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn, :(. Good to know :).

  11. Caroline Jones (MIT)4 April 2012 at 22:12

    Hi, very interested in the framing and the translation issues. I'm particularly tracking the Erlebnis/ Erfahrung problematic, did you (Victor) figure out which one(s) Zohn is translating in the paragraph where "Experience" appears 3 times (without German gloss)? the distinction is crucial and I just wonder what the German is here. Of course, I could do my own homework on this.... but thanks for starting me off.

  12. Caroline Jones (MIT)4 April 2012 at 22:13

    sorry, paragraph II and it appears 2ce not 3 times.

  13. The German text complete online:

  14. Perhaps before jumping on the translator, you might wonder if Benjamin is himself lacking the sort of conceptual clarity you want from him. I've read both, and while Zohn is not a particularly literal translator, that also wasn't the style when that translation was produced (nor was Benjamin enjoying the Konjunktur and critical scrutiny that he sees today). I don't think he does a very bad job at all.

    An example of this inconsistency: you write "Death is the authority of the story-teller. In other words: his tales (Geschichten) refer back to the tale of nature (Naturgeschichte)." And yet you have written above that "[B.'s esssay] also touches on the difference beween a story (in the sense that a storyteller tells stories; Erzählung, not Geschichte)." Is the story-teller telling Erzaehlungen or is he telling Geschichten?

    Eingedenken is a term that is in large part associated only with Benjamin and whose precise status remains unclear. Again, it hardly seems fair to Zohn to fault him for this.

  15. Thanks for your comments, Southern Comfort. Benjamin may or may not be lacking conceptual clarity, but that doesn't seem to be something for the translator to decide. If Benjamin decides to use several different words, the translation should also use different words, and consistently; otherwise, the English reader who has no working knowledge of German will not be in the position to decide whether Benjamin's distinctions are clear or not.


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