the return of the story


It has been more than 70 years since Walter Benjamin, in his classic essay “The Storyteller,” declared that telling stories was obsolete. “Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly,” Benjamin complained. “It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.” For most of us in the western world, our first experience of our culture’s classic stories—Snow White, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood—does not come through a wise man or woman sitting before an audience, spellbinding us with words. It is in print or through images that we learn our culture’s foundational stories. This development has led to a certain nostalgia about the mere act of telling a story. In his novel The Storyteller, Mario Vargas Llosa writes lovingly about the raconteurs of the Machiguenga people, a remote Amazonian tribe that has had almost no contact with modern Peruvian civilisation. By reciting their people’s cosmogonies and myths, by bringing news from one far-flung group to another, the storyteller “remind[ed] each member of the tribe that the others were alive, that despite the great distances that separated them, they still formed a community, shared a tradition and beliefs.”

more from Adam Kirsch at Prospect Magazine here.