On the Decline of Storytelling
As I went out one evening – not really just one evening, but a dateable dusk, with my son, Adam, here in Paris, October 14 – I came across a number of photographs pinned to a brick wall on Rue des blancs manteaux. It was a warm Sunday. Rue des blanc manteaux always has a crowd going down it on Sundays, when the automobiles are banned, and this always brings out a number of buskers and beggars as well, looking for pocket change or at least an audience. Adam was interested in this scene. We passed a harpist entangled in his reverb and speculated about the difficulty of moving his huge instrument – which towered over his sitting figure – around the city. We passed a painter, or at least someone who painted vaguely impressionistic street scenes, the kind of thing spawned by such memories of impressionism as those sustained in the heads of tourists, who might think that this school of art is still of current interest. And perhaps, I thought, their interest in the work might be their real and genuine encounter with art, so who am I to turn up my nose? Nevertheless, when Adam tugged at me and made me turn back to the photographer’s piece of sidewalk property, I did not feel that democratic charity was called for: I looked at it and saw it was bad, very bad.
On the wall there was a sign (dancers from 1980-1990) and a series of colored photographs depicting ballerina like dancers. Most of them, on second glance, were the same dancer. And again, here she was in profile, and in repose. There was a vaguely David Hamilton air about it all, although the dancer was not a gauzy nymphet. Down on the sidewalk itself there were spread similar photographs, plus a scarf and a plate with some remains of a meal and a bottle that held some clear liquid that could be eau or could be eau de vie. The photograph that attracted my six year old son’s attention was of a woman’s face in profile, the whole stained red, with brownish cracks in a web across the image. Adam is a boy who is always alert for horror imagery, and he took it for granted that the red stain meant blood. We were discussing whether this was so when the vender and begetter of the photos came up to us.
He was a man who might have been fifty or seventy, such was his wear and tear. In any case, he was gray, shabbily dressed, and much stubbled around the mouth. He was wearing a cap which was too worn to be a beret. He smelled, slightly, of the sweat of the day and of the drinks he’d had over the course of it.
After asking us if we were Americans or French, and deciding that we were Americans, he ground out a story in English for Adam – in front of whom he knelt – about the photographs and how he had achieved the stained effect in the days before photoshop. He went on for a bit discussing the technique of taking a photo of, say, branches, and imposing it over a photo of the woman. Adam listened respectfully. I got the vibe that he was not entirely sure why this adult was directing this patter to him, or how he should respond, but he was respectful, since Adam is like that.
After the patter was over, the man straightened up. I asked him who the woman was. This seemed to wake something in him beyond the usual street spiel, and he told us a story.
Her name, he said, was Barenda. She was a dancer, and they were in love. Then, to make money, she became a model. During this time, she became tired of Paris. Unspoken, here, was the fact that she became tired of the photographer and his David Hamilton aesthetic too. She met a doctor, married him, and moved to America. To Washington D.C., to be precise.
Have you ever told her you are selling photos of her, I asked. Only later did I wonder at my presumption. My bourgeois presumption.
Oh, he said, I have her email. But I have never emailed her. You see, she has grown up children now. And what I think, what I dream, is that someday she will come back to Paris with her husband, and they will walk down this street, and she will see herself in my photographs, and then she will turn around and call out for me! And he pantomimed this longed-for gesture of surprise. He leaped back and turned around. He laughed. Mr. Bojangles.
Then he explained that the small photos were 10 euros and the larger ones were 15.
I didn’t have money in my pocket. But I would definitely have bought the red one for Adam. As we left, we discussed coming back.
I’m telling this story not because it has an intrinsic interest, but instead to say something about stories, telling, and their supposed decline in ordinary life.
The sense that something had gone wrong with storytelling, and the old old cultural certainties that supported it, crops up first, I think, in Germany before World War I. Of course, elsewhere there was an ongoing sense of the casting off of old forms – certainly that was happening in France. And in England, as Woolf famously wrote in 1924, “on or about December 1910 human character changed” – which hits the right Bloomsbury note of announcing something major and grave without making it quite serious. I say this not to criticize that Bloomsbury note, but to ask whether it, as well, doesn’t come out of the sense that something within the old order had given up the ghost.
Rilke, writing the Notebooks of Malte Laurid Brigge in 1910, that magic year, puts it this way: “That people told stories, really told stories, must have happened before my time. I have never heard someone tell a story.”
Georg Lukacs, who was Max Weber’s student, wrote the Theory of the Novel in 1914-1915. He tells his own story about how human character changed, although he puts it in a more lyric form. It all goes back to the long decline of a certain empire – the empire of the epic form. And he begins on a high note that echoes Rilke’s own rhetoric – or the rhetoric of high culture, and its nostalgic depression, common to Rilke, Thomas Mann, and to an extent, Weber – whose “iron cage” of modernity is kin to those bars that enclose Rilke’s panther. Here’s Lukacs:
Blessed are the ages for whom the starry sky is a map of a possible path and whose paths are lit by starshine. Everything is new for them and yet familiar, adventurous and yet their own. The world is wide and yet like their own house, because the fire that burns in the soul is of the same kind of stuff as the stars; the world and the I, the light and the fire, are sharply distinguished, and yet are never alien one to the other; because fire is the soul of every light and in light every fire clothes itself. So too every act of the soul is rounded and meaningful in this duality; perfected in its meaning and perfect for meaning; round, because the soul sits still in itself while it acts; round, because its act detaches itself from the soul and as it becomes itself finds its middlepoint and draws a closed circle around itself.
And finally, to round out and draw a circle around the Germans, there is Benjamin, writing in The Storyteller along the same songline as Lukacs, and like Lukacs transplanting a fundamentally reactionary sense of dispossession into a Marxist framework.
Benjamin makes two comments about the story and its historical conditions that interest me. The first of these insights concerns the relationship of the story to advice-giving, and more generally, to a notion of wisdom. He relates the advice-giving to a certain ideal vocational condition for the storyteller – he is a person who travels, a person who has been involved with practical things. This person has seen the world, had adventures. The other insight relates the rise of the novel and the fall of the story to the press – to the dominance of a new language of sociability based on “information”.
Here’s Benjamin’s lovely account of the council-giving/story nexus:
They [the storytellers] carry with them, openly or secretly, their skills. The skills may be moral, or another time they may be practical, or thirdly they may be encoded in a slogan or a rule of life – in each case the storyteller is a person who can give the hearer council. But if being able to “give council” sounds a little old fashioned to our modern ears, the blame is on the circumstance that the communicability of experience has shrunk. Consequently, we don’t know how to give ourselves, or others, council. Council is less an answer to a question than a suggestion, the continuation of a (unfolding) story. In order to give advice, one has to first be able to recount, to tell a story (putting aside the fact that a person can only give council if he can put his situation into words). Council, woven into the web of life, is wisdom. The art of storytelling is coming to its end because the epic side of the truth, wisdom, is dying out.
That Benjamin wrote this in the twenties, that decade of the intensified mechanization of ordinary life, is to my mind consistent with the unfolding of the great twentieth century event: the end of the quantitative domination of peasant society throughout the world. If I were to choose the date when human nature changed, it wouldn’t be December, 1910, but August, 1910, when the Haber-Bosch process for making artificial fertilizer was first successfully used on a factory basis. In one stroke this abolished the economic and technical necessity for using the greater part of society’s human energy in raising crops, chickens and livestock. The farming human labor force had long formed the majority occupation of the populations of most of India, China, Europe, Latin America and Africa. The U.S., the most advanced industrial nation, was still half rural in 1900. Britain was one of the few countries where the majority of the inhabitants were urban or not engaged, directly or at one or two degrees, in agriculture – and what was true of Britain was certainly not true of the British empire, which was largely peasant. The divide between the countryside and the city formed the condition under which the travelers and merchants of Benjamin’s storytelling class existed. While not themselves peasants, their adventures were conditioned by the “rural idiocy” of peasant culture, by the ruses of the yokel and the tyrannical rhythm of the seasons. Their stories of adventures were related to the epic side of the truth, as Benjamin might put it.
This side of the truth had long been under attack in the city, perhaps since Plato’s time. Plato’s Republic, with its expulsion of the poets, is a forerunner of modernity in as much as it is a blow against the epic, the imaginary. Here one can locate an impulse that belongs ultimately to urban culture, with its rationalization of social relations and its criteria to separate the true and the false – to atomize what was once a totality, divesting it of its supervenient mystery and making it, ultimately, additive, a matter of joining all the parts. The machine, and not the organism.
That urban culture relates to the second cause Benjamin adduces for storytelling’s decline:
On the other side we know how the educated domination of the bourgeoisie finds its most important instrument, in the era of high capitalism, in the press, a form of communication that appears on the scene without, as far back as it goes, influencing or determining the epic form. Now it does. And it appears that it is as alien and as great a threat to the story as it is to the novel, which in its own zone is undergoing a crisis. This new form of communication is “information.
Much as I love Benjamin’s rhetoric here, the rhythm of it like oak thinking, or singing, I think this intrudes the idea of epic in such a way that it obscures the archaic origin of the news. For Fama, rumor, that form of dysfunctional sociability (from the viewpoint of the rulers, at least) has been a threat to the epic from the very beginning. There is a reason that, in the Aeneid, Fama perches on the city wall and her squawks produce riots.
… fast footed
And lithe of wing, she is a terrifying
Enormous monster with as many feathers
As she has sleepless eyes beneath each feather
(amazingly), as many sounding tongues
She sits as sentinel on some steep roof
On high towers, frightening vast cities;
For she holds fast to falsehood and distortion
As often as to messages of truth. – translation by Allen Mandelbaum
The displacement or discomfort with Fama, is an epic discomfort. Rumor, in the ancien regime, turned against the rulers, and caused riots. It also turned against strangers, against Jews, against minorities and the marginalized. The cosmopolitan melting of all that was solid took place in that social space where middle class intellectuals and their patrons, the aristocrats, held sway. Those ties of patronage were swept away by the French revolution, and in its place came the newspaper, science, and the university. Benjamin sites the modern construction of information in the press, or more generally, the media, associating it with a certain flattening of outlook, a certain suspicion of the story. I think this can’t be right. What is important about the newspaper – and the rise of the media – is not information – but its spatializing of a certain temporality. The newspapers invented a way of introducing the present as a connective social link – not the past with its tradition or the future with its final judgment. This link is what is meant by the contemporary in all its guises – in fashion, art, and lifestyles. Its ideogram is the newspaper layout, columns next to each other and yet independent of each other, each a separate monad. Their unity is the page itself, the contemporary as typography. This becomes one of the primary modes of lived experience in modernity. The contemporary embodies the break from the chronicle – the royal history – and, on some level, the underground persistence of rumor. It is also, incorrigibly, endless. The longing for the end of things, for apocalypses large and small, is a longing to get beyond the contemporary. I think Benjamin is misled, here, by a conservative nostalgia for an era of the “communicability of experience” that has always been hassled by and on the defensive against rumor – the acceleration of experience, so to speak. That nostalgia distorts his social placement of the story teller.
I think it was when I was living in Santa Monica that I started becoming attuned to a tonal difference between what I heard from street people (Santa Monica, owing to laws going back to the hippie days in the seventies, is officially tolerant of street people) and what I would hear from, say, the patrons of Whole Foods. The latter were almost all, I assumed from their dress and talk, college educated, or with some college. Most of the street people seemed, on the other hand, to be hard livers, whose school years had been beaten out of them. Yet for eloquence, the hard living street people, in their raps and even in their psychotic fits, had the Whole Foods crowd completely beat. The conversations I overheard in Whole Foods were entirely utilitarian. The life of language was so sucked out of them that they were tiring to eavesdrop on. Much of the talk was punctuated with exclamation marks not because what was being said was extreme, but because what was being said needed a borrowed emphasis simply to be worth producing and distributing at all. It had so lost the bodily rhythm of telling that it could have come out of screen. On the other hand, street people – when they weren’t simply asking for money – often raved like 17th century ranters. Their words echoed with the spirits and history, the acids and pastoral and nasty encounters, of the language.
This disturbed me. The enlightenment model would predict the opposite: as people are introduced to literature, to the great works, and to science, their imaginations are supposed to expand, and their base of reference – their sense of language as a living thing, with a past – is supposed to inflect their way of speaking even in ordinary life. A bigger repertory, models to choose from, quotes and quips, this should be what I heard at the Whole Foods.
If this is not happening, is there some overlooked factor – perhaps the classroom itself and its institutional set-up – that prevents it from happening?
Here, I imagine, we can make more sense of Benjamin’s notion that information has replaced a complex narrative pattern of dodges and inferences by tracing it to the scene of learning. Information is not what the media provides: it provides a continual newness. Nor does the tale-teller provide information: he or she provides council and motif. But the institutional time of the classroom is a time that can be defined wholly by, if you will, its evaluative purpose, and for that purpose information, an empty form of fact whose great symbol is the box you check on the multiple choice exam, finds its place. Every teacher has to fight against the grades by which she judges the students. By being passed through and judged with grades that are wholly about exchange value, the repertory of references shrinks to a mere forgettable plinking, as forgettable as the essay answer one wrote on yesteryear’s final exam. It is the odd effect of education to tamp and temper and flatten the story telling impulse, which lives on the way words seem to take on a life of their own, for instance by rhyming, or by sounding against each other, reminders of teeth and tongue and nose and throat – the phonic spirit. Every student, of course, knows this. But as the world of books is sucked into the world of education, associative links are forged between the poem, the story, and the classroom. That the material of humanities can become a casualty of teaching the humanities is a paradox that is never completely resolvable.
“Whoever hears a story must be in the social circle of the teller; even someone who reads it is part of the larger social circle. The reader of a novel, however, is alone.” One can find many counter-instances to Benjamin’s dictum – the people who, for instance, read each installment of Dickens’ novels outloud in the family circle, or the reader in cigar factories, mentioned by Cabrera Infante in Up in Smoke, who read Victor Hugo to the rollers – but the tendency in the novel as it moves through the 19th century is definitely towards that solitary reader. Auden, in a review of a book of French folk tales, imagines a person who has memorized Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and seeks to tell it to a group of after-dinner guests: in Auden’s view, this would put the group to sleep. Auden’s thought experiment is meant to illustrate the difference between fairy tale and novel, but he curiously ignores how bound up with each other sleep and storytelling always are. It is the novel that demands that we stay awake – although in real life the novel reader is often lying prone, reading in the hour before sleep. Myself, at least, I have read myself to sleep since I learned to read, at the age of six. The relation between the novel and sleep is inscribed in some of the great novels of the twentieth century, from Kafka’s The Trial to James Joyce’s Ulysses, with its famous ending monologue as Molly goes to sleep. Yes, yes. It is perhaps not to the credit of the short story, that inheritor of the “tale”, that it cuts the bond with sleep. A divorce that finds its correlative in Borges’ story, Funes the Memorious.
Funes, you will remember, was thrown from a horse, knocked unconscious, and crippled. When he awoke, the scales fell from his eyes, and he could remember literally everything:
With one quick look, you and I perceive three wineglasses on a table; Funes perceived every grape that had been pressed into the wine and all the stalks and tendrils of its vineyard. He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30,1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once, or with the feathers of spray lifted by an oar on the Rio Negro on the eve of the Battle of Quebracho. … A circle drawn on a blackboard, a right triangle, a rhombus—all these are forms we can fully intuit; Ireneo [Funes] could do the same with the stormy mane of a young colt, a small herd of cattle on a mountainside, a flickering fire and its uncountable ashes, and the many faces of a dead man at a wake. I have no idea how many stars he saw in the sky.
Benjamin speaks of the way the transmission of the story, for the listener, is about two things: one is the interest in the material of the story itself; the other is about being able to re-tell the story – to, in effect, memorize its image. But memory driven too far destroys the necessary cloud of unknowing, the mysterious and inferential leaps that create the interest in any story, what Barthes, in his book on photography, called the punctum. We are all now linked to our own Funes machine – the internet. I love the internet. My life would be very much worse without the internet. Yet it does, in a way, threaten the web of experience in which the story exists, simply because it tempts us with a too muchness, with an absoluteness, of memory. Funes, telling about his superhuman awakening to the narrator of Borges’ tale, makes three comments that the narrator remembers. I think I will quote this, and rest here, not at the end of this essay but at its bottom, so far as I see it in these dark depths.
“I, myself, alone, have more memories than all mankind since the world began,” he said to me. And also: “My dreams are like other people’s waking hours.” And again, toward dawn: “My memory, sir, is like a garbage heap.”