“The storyteller”, Walter Benjamin wrote, “has already become something remote from us and something that is getting even more distant”.
Yesterday was a bad day for humanity. A passenger plane was apparently shot down by a missile over a conflict zone in eastern Ukraine. In another part of the world, the battle over Gaza continued to escalate. It was day 93 of the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls. It was day 4,666 of the war in Afghanistan.
These are the ‘stories’ that surround us whenever we turn on the news, whenever we start up our browsers. But how much of these stories can we understand, how much of the human experience of these events is truly communicated to us?
Benjamin, a German philosopher and social/literary critic, was writing in 1936 about the effects of the Great War on the ways in which people were increasingly unable to communicate basic human experience to one another. “It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.”
It’s been just about one hundred years since that war began, and Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller” deserves another look. You’re forgiven if the first section takes a couple of read-throughs before it starts to make sense, but it’s well worthwhile.
It describes what appeared to be the subversion of humanity amidst all the forces of modernity and war that defined the early 20th century. Every aspect of life that seemed authentic and human was corrupted by larger systemic processes took place above the control and comprehension of individual people.
“For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power.”
There are a lot of ways we try to describe what we do here at the Storytellers, but what I think it comes down to most of all is just injecting a bit of humanity and human comprehension into a world in which corporate, economic, and political processes tend to be valued more highly than basic human experience. And there’s nothing remarkable about that.
In 1936, however, that wasn’t the case.
“A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.”