The Storyteller Essays - Excerpt


Every morning, news reaches us from around the globe. And yet we lack remarkable stories. Why is this the case? It is because no incidents reach us any longer not already permeated with explanations. In other words: almost nothing occurs to the story’s benefit anymore, but instead it all serves information. In fact, at least half of the art of storytelling consists in keeping one’s tale free of explanation. The ancients were masters at this, Herodotus foremost among them. In chapter 14 of his third book of The Histories, there is the story of Psammenitus. After the Persian king Cambyses had conquered the Egyptian king Psammenitus and taken him captive, Cambyses was determined to humiliate him. He ordered that Psammenitus be made to stand on the side of the road along which the Persian triumphal procession was to pass. He also arranged for his captive’s daughter, dressed as a servant, to pass before him carrying a pitcher to fetch water from the well. Whereas all the Egyptians responded to this spectacle with wailing and lamentation, Psammenitus alone stood silent and immobile, his eyes fixed upon the ground. When, soon after, he saw his son being led to execution in a throng, Psammenitus again remained unmoved. But when he then recognized one of his attendants, an aged, destitute man, among the ranks of the prisoners, he began to strike his head and gave every sign of profound grief.— From this story, we can learn the nature of true storytelling. Information is valuable only for the moment in which it is new. It lives only in that moment. It must be completely subject to it and declare itself immediately without losing any time. A story is different: it does not use itself up. It preserves its inherent power, which it can then deploy 36 · WALTER BENJAMIN even after a long period of time has passed. Montaigne evoked the story of the Egyptian king and asked why Psammenitus gave way to grief only at the sight of his attendant and not before. To this Montaigne answered: “he was so replete with sorrow that the slightest additional burden broke the barriers of his endurance.” The story can be interpreted this way. Yet there is room for other explanations. Anyone can discover these by putting Montaigne’s question to a circle of friends. For example, one of mine said: “The king is not affected by the fate of the nobility, because it is his own.” Another said: “We are moved by many things that we see on the stage that don’t move us in our lives; this attendant is no more than an actor to the king.” Or a third: “Great suffering builds up and is released only through catharsis. The sight of his attendant was the catharsis.”—“If this story had taken place today,” a fourth said, “all the newspapers would claim that Psammenitus preferred his attendant to his children.” What is certain is that every reporter would come up with an explanation in the blink of an eye. Herodotus doesn’t offer a single word of explanation. His is the driest of accounts. That is why this story from ancient Egypt remains astonishing and thought-provoking after thousands of years. It resembles the seeds that retain their germinative power even after being shut up in the airtight chambers of the pyramids for millennia.

The Storyteller Essays Cover Image
By Walter Benjamin, Samuel Titan (Introduction by), Tess Lewis (Translated by), Samuel Titan (Editor)
ISBN: 9781681370583
Availability: available for order
Published: NYRB Classics - July 23rd, 2019