One can hear the echo of Rilke’s passionate exhortation to “live the questions” — a celebration of the uncertainty necessary for the telling of truth — in Benjamin’s case for the sensemaking power of story.To this he adds a point both piercing and prescient, which instantly strips of validity our essential illusion that the most pressing issues of our time are singular and unprecedented in human history: Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom.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. The usefulness may, in one case, consist in a moral; in another, in some practical advice; in a third, in a proverb or maxim.
And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounseled, and cannot counsel others.
To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life.
But if today “having counsel” is beginning to have an old-fashioned ring, this is because the communicability of experience is decreasing.
In consequence we have no counsel either for ourselves or for others.
In the introduction, Arendt envelops Benjamin’s genius in her own to describe him as “an alchemist practicing the obscure art of transmuting the futile elements of the real into the shining, enduring gold of truth.” The most dazzling such transmutation takes place in an essay titled “The Storyteller,” in which Benjamin uses the work of 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov as a springboard for a higher-order meditation on the role of storytelling in society, the dangers of its decline, and how it shapes our relationship to truth, both public and private.
The picture Benjamin paints begins in darkness but reaches toward the light.
And nothing would be more fatuous than to want to see in it merely a “symptom of decay,” let alone a “modern” symptom.
It is, rather, only a concomitant symptom of the secular productive forces of history, a concomitant that has quite gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech and at the same time is making it possible to see a new beauty in what is vanishing. The dissemination of the novel became possible only with the invention of printing.
The earliest symptom of a process whose end is the decline of storytelling is the rise of the novel at the beginning of modern times. What can be handed on orally, the wealth of the epic, is of a different kind from what constitutes the stock in trade of the novel.
What differentiates the novel from all other forms of prose literature — the fairy tale, the legend, even the novella — is that it neither comes from oral tradition nor goes into it.