Death and the Storyteller

Walter Benjamin’s essay, The Storyteller 1 has been widely celebrated for many decades now. And yet amidst that celebration I have come across little direct or focused engagement with the position death plays within Benjamin’s considerations. 2 It is an understandable omission, as death is certainly not the focus of the essay, and yet the position which it occupies within the text is significant. Death is no less than the source of the storyteller’s authority. The power of the storyteller is gifted by death. As the ethnographer’s authority arises from an authentic claim of being-there, of having the eyes and experiences of the witness, the storyteller’s authority arises from that which is beyond, from the dead, from that which in traditional metaphysical schemas is-not. In contrast to the ethnographer’s empirical authority which arises from the positive act of being-there, the storyteller’s hauntological authority arises from the domain that is traditionally ascribed to the negativity and negation of not-being.

 

Benjamin writes, “Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death.” 3 These words, amongst other considerations on death which we will begin to discuss below, are far reaching and nuanced.  What is offered here is no more than a sketch towards outlining their potential significance.

 

That death is the sanction of all the storyteller can do speaks of the story as an unfolding of poesis. The story is not the mere conveying of information, the transmission of signification between two points within a fixed series of reference points. The story goes beyond information. Its expressive modality, that is its enunciation and articulation, its telling, reaches beyond the limits of mere information. It is not simply a series of facts to be conveyed from one subject to another, a simple transference occurring between two points in a system which is already entirely understood and established. The story unfolds in its telling as a dimension of communication which exceeds instrumentalised relations, it is a dimension of communication that cannot be explained away, and it is precisely from this inexplicability that it draws its force. The power of the story flourishes from inexplicable ground. Its power emerges of its engagement with that which cannot reduced to rigid discursive or linguistic schemas.

 

In this way the storyteller reaches to something beyond the words which they use. Language here does not encase the entire significance of the story. A mechanistic structuralism cannot reveal the significance of the story, as though the meaning simply rested behind the words in transparent relationship between signifier and signified, a relationship where the bar in the equation Sf/Sd is a line of simple passage, a line of direct and unproblematic correlation. Rather, language here reaches to something beyond the conveyance of information. As Benjamin writes, this may “in one case, consist in a moral; in another, in some practical advice; in a third, in a proverb or maxim.” 4 The story offers counsel, but it is not a counsel that can be explained away as information. Rather it engages that dimension of linguistic experience which Lacan referred to as lalangue 5–the modality of language that is itself run through with enjoyment, that does not function in the communicative role in as much as that communicative role entails the conveyance of information.

 

Rather, what communication does occur here does not occur in the sense of the conveyance of information, but in the sense of the powerful communication which, following from Georges Bataille, I have drawn upon previously as “the persistent insistence of experience, consciousness and subjectivity within the space of another, the compulsion of interiority to go beyond itself, to find its possibility beyond itself.” 6 This powerful communication is a mode of communication which exceeds the linguistic and semiotic. Engaging this domain the storyteller calls us beyond ourselves, into a space where communication does not occur between two bounded subjects, but occurs through the force of the dead. In this way, the storyteller draws upon the fact that the living are always conditioned by the dead, that the boundary of a life is always formed by that which is beyond it and at the extreme which reaches beyond even life in general.

 

Thus, there is a craft to storytelling. The craft persists, in part, in engaging this domain of the dead, the domain that exists beyond the boundedness of the living. And the storyteller must continually work at their craft because it cannot be reduced to a form of mechanistic ontology, to a mode of systemic thought where all is needed is a knowledge of certain components to predict others. There is no end point where the storyteller will be absolute master of their craft, but as with the poet, they will always be able to go further, to reach further, to that domain of dead that is the beyond of the living. Engaging with the dead, revealing how the living are conditioned by and suspended in the dead, will remain a craft and art, an imperfect practices that remains able to sit with the ambiguity  and fluidity of the boundaries between the living and the dead. There is an inherent unpredictability to the story.  An unpredictability of its affect. An unpredictability of the affective results of powerful communication. An unpredictability of interpretation, translation and transformation.

 

Thus the craft of storytelling engages lalangue, which “affects us first of all by everything it brings with it by way of effects that are affects.” 7 And with the unpredictability of affect calls us beyond ourselves into those domains that escape absolute rationalisation. But we are increasingly intolerant of these ambiguous and transient boundaries, of the persistence of misosophy and the entanglement of knowledge in nonknowledge. These ambiguous boundaries confront us with the infinite nothingness that lies beyond the delimitation of life, that reveal that the living are always already conditioned by the dead, entangled in the dead, and cannot escape the dead. So,  As Benjamin writes, “In the course of modern times dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living.” 8 The dying not only present us with our own mortality, the mortality of an individuated being, but also with our own myopia, with our immovable inability to know. They present us with the infinite in the sense of that nothingness that lies beyond the limits of a being. The dying cannot be tolerated because they remain a riddle. They are segregated, instrumentalised, and pathologised. And yet for all our pathological determinations the is-ness of death remains unfound precisely because it cannot be found. Death cannot be defined in instrumentalist, mechanistic of functional terms, just as the story cannot be reduced to the mere conveyance of information.

 

The dominance of economism, the science of finalist death, persist in marginalising all that cannot be read through the static cipher of general equivalency, of the evaluation that reduces all to the same value system. And thus it cannot tolerate the indeterminate possibilities of our association to the infinite that expresses itself in death and the story. We are no longer permitted to confront the infinite and eternal, the boundlessness of death, but only the measurable, productive and functionalised. Benjamin continues, “the idea of eternity has ever had its strongest source in death. If this idea declines… the face of death must have changed.” 9 The face of death has been transformed in that the association to the infinite is pushed out of sight. Unable to tolerate the myopia, powerlessness and humility that death thrusts upon us, we turn our backs upon the eternal and infinite in favour of the soft anesthesias of arrogant comfort, of our own narcissistic sense of superiority–our dominance over all that is ascribed to the domain of nature. We increasingly favour information, that is finite, measurable and exchangeable, the mode of communication that is reducible to points within a preordained system. What lies beyond that system, the domain of death that is the infinite nothingness beyond the limits of each being and which is probed by the storyteller in their craft, is pushed further from sight. That our age lacks stories and abounds with information speaks of our foolish attempt to turn our backs on death. The only myths we are left with are those that are not told. The face of death has indeed changed, and the image of the infinite along with it.

Notes:

  1. Benjamin, Walter (1999) ‘The Storyteller: reflections on the works of Nikolai Leskov’ in Illuminations, p. 83-107, London: Pimlico 
  2. One notable exception is Micheal Taussig who variously engages with the question of death in The Storyteller, and particularly in Beauty and the Beast, 2012, London: University of Chicago Press
  3. Benjamin, Walter Op. Cit. p. 93
  4. Op. Cit. p. 86 
  5. Lacan, Jacques (1972-3) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book XX, available online at http://www.lacaninireland.com
  6. Austin Locke, Toby (2016) The Living and the Dead, London: Repeater Books, p.91
  7. Lacan, Jacques Op. Cit.
  8. Benjamin, Walter Op. Cit. p. 93
  9. Benjamin, Walter Op. Cit. p. 92

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