Welcome back to Philosopher Fridays, a twice monthly series wherein I post my thoughts on various philosophers. Last time, I gave some background on Walter Benjamin, and this I’ll extend this analysis to two of his shorter essays. While I usually craft a larger narrative for entries like this, I’m going to take up the spirit of Benjamin’s ruins and present, without comment, only fragments of these pieces, both from the Schocken Books volume Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt.
These quotes are not quite “favorites” per se, but instead haunting echoes that I cannot shake. Going back over them now, five years after I read them for the first time, I clearly see that I’ve inherited more than just my penchant for dashes from Benjamin’s essays on books, collections, storytelling, history, narrative, and nostalgia.
From Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting
“Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. More than that: the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?” -p. 60
“To renew the old world – that is the collector’s deepest desire when he is drives to acquire new things, and that is why a collector of older books is closer to the wellsprings of collecting that the acquirer of luxury editions.” – p. 61
“…one of the finest memories of a collector is the moment when he rescued a book to which he might never have given a thought, much less a wishful look, because he found it lonely and abandoned on the market place and bought it to give it is freedom… To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves.” – p. 64
“O bliss the collector, bliss of the man of leisure! Of no one has less been expected, and no one has been able to carry on his disreputable existence in the mask of Spitzweg’s ‘Bookworm.’ For inside him there are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to it that for a collector – and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be – ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” – p. 67
From The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov
“Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the course from which all storytellers have drawn. And among those who have written down the tales, it is the great ones whose written versions differ least from the speech of the many nameless storytellers.” – p. 84
“The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out. This, however, is a process that has been going on for the long time. 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.” – p. 87
“Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it… It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.” – p. 89
“Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away. His nesting places – the activities that are intimately associated with boredom – are already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well. With this the gift for listening is lost and community of listeners disappears. For storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained. It is lost because there is no more saving and spinning to go on while they are being listened to. The more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply is what he listens to impressed upon his memory. When the rhythm of work has seized him, he listens to the tales in such a way that the gift of retelling them comes to him all by itself. This, then, is the nature of the web in which the gift of storytelling is cradled. This is how today it is becoming unraveled at all its ends after being woven thousands of the years ago in the ambience of the oldest forms of craftsmanship.” – p. 91
“…the difference between the writer of history, the historian, and the teller of it, the chronicler …[is that]… The historian is bound to explain in one way or another the happenings with which he deals; under no circumstances can he content himself with displaying them as models of the course of the world. But this is precisely what the chronicler does, especially in his classical representatives, the chroniclers of the Middle Ages, the precursors of the historians today. By basing their tales on a divine plan of salvation – an inscrutable one – they have from the very start lifted the burden of demonstrable explanation from their own shoulders. Its place is taken by interpretation, which is not concerned with an accurate concatenation of definite events, but with the way these events are embedded in the great inscrutable course of the world.” – p. 96
“The liberating magic which the fairy tale has at its disposal does not bring nature into play in a mythical way, but points to its complicity with liberated man. A mature man feels this complicity only occasionally, that is, when he is happy; but the child first meets it in fairy tales, and it makes him happy.” – p. 102
“The storyteller: he is the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story… The storyteller is the figure in which the righteous man encounters himself.” – p. 108, 109
It feels a little strange to leave these quotes without any final word, but I think I’m still too caught up with some of these fragments to give any commentary that I wouldn’t immediately wish to rescind. I will be returning Benjamin one last time the week after next to tackle his most famous essay: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, but until then I would love to hear your thoughts on, and impressions of, these quotes.