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Study Questions for “The Storyteller”

Some questions to guide your reading/thinking on Benjamin’s formidable text for Thursday’s discussion:

  1. Early in the essay, Benjamin claims that, in the early 20thC, “It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.” Why is this? What is it about modern life that makes storytelling more problematic than in the past?
  2. What are the two kinds of “experience” that feed into traditionally storytelling, according to Benjamin? How does Benjamin use this distinction to link, on the one hand, literary form and, on the other, labor? [n.b., in the original German, Benjamin distinguishes between Erlebnis and Erfahrung, which both often translate to “experience” in English]
  3. WB claims that the novel’s rise in the 18th-19th centuries is the “earliest symptom” of a process culminating in “decline of storytelling.” Why? I thought that novels are storytelling!
  4. What does WB make of the rise of “informational” writing, such as news articles? How do these new literary forms compare to traditional storytelling?
  5. Why, for Benjamin, is death so central to storytelling? What happens to the relationship between death and storytelling in modernity, with the rise of the novel?
  6. More German, folks! What is the difference between remembrance (Eingedenken) and reminiscence (Gedächtnis)? How do these categories map onto a) the deep historical currents WB is tracing between the “old days” and “modernity,” to speak very broadly, and b) the “story” and the “novel”?
  7. Near the end of the essay, Benjamin claims that the story and the novel are shaped in a fundamentally different way: what is the distinctive closure of each form? How does this mode of closure relate to a) WBs discussion of death throughout the essay and b) the distinctiveness of the novel as a genre?
  8. What are some questions we might raise about Benjamin’s argument in light of our study of the audiobook? In what ways does listening to an a-book edition of a recent novel on our phone while commuting to work square with Benjamin’s thesis, and in what ways might it force a revision of it?