Walter Benjamin: Death And The Storyteller


German cultural critic Walter Benjamin (pronounced Ben-ya-meen) is one of the patron saints of Sylvan Oswald’s Profanity.  His work and his life are both harvested to feed the drama of the play.

Little known during his lifetime, Benjamin is perhaps most recognized in America for two of his essays “The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction” and “The Storyteller.”

The former is a nearly bottomless work on the effects of modern technology (the cinema plays a key role) on our relation to and perception of works of art.  Though the presentation of history and commerce is fundamentally Marxist, “The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction” veers wildly into ontology and the matter of authenticity and auras associated with unique art objects.

“The Storyteller”, nominally a reflection on the work of Russian author Nikolai Leskov, expands into a consideration of the nature of storytelling and the changes history has wrought on man’s ability to communicate experience.  Characteristic of Benjamin’s writing, it is rich in context and analysis, and yet much of its power derives from gnomic statements littered like jewels upon the lawn.

“[The Storyteller] is the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story.”

“Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell.  He has borrowed his authority from death.”

Benjamin lived most of his life in Germany, witnessing the tumult and outright horrors of the first half of the twentieth century.  He died on the 26th of September 1940.  The story surrounding his death informs a central mystery of Profanity.

Benjamin had been living in exile in France during the rise of the Nazis, and, following the occupation of Paris, he fled to the Spanish border, hoping eventually to escape to the United States.  In the Catalonian town of Portbou, he took an overdose of morphine, possibly fearing Spanish authorities would return him to France.

This event was represented as one of three distinct plotlines in an earlier version of Profanity.  In the final script, Oswald has removed Benjamin’s literal presence, and yet the figure of his death hovers over the play, loaning it his authority, perhaps.

There is also the matter of the book.  In Profanity, Gersh, the eldest brother and chief living perpetrator of the real estate scheme the plot turns on, has been laboring on a “750 page manuscript, bound with twine.”

One possible reference here is the Torah – “this is the definition of, no, the substance of the bloodline,” Gersh writes.  He describes the book to Vivien as “kind of a history…and kind of a catalog.  And kind of about all this stuff that came before.”

Another potential reference is the Talmud, that compendium of Jewish law whose form greatly influenced the development of Profanity.

Lastly there is Walter Benjamin.  At the time of his attempted exodus, he was known to be carrying a black briefcase, heavier than it appeared it should be from the outside.  Within, he said, was his most important work.  “It is the manuscript that must be saved…it is more important than I am” (quoted in “Watler Benjamin’s Grave” by Michael Taussig).

Oswald’s character of Gersh treats his manuscript as if it will justify or save him, as if its survival may answer for his crimes.

One popular theory holds that the mysterious Benjamin manuscript – which was never recovered after his death – was a final version of his Arcades Project.  At one point called “Paris – Capital Of The 19th Century”, the Arcades Project metastasized in Benjamin’s imagination, becoming, according to Peter Osborne and Matthew Charles writing for The Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy, an attempt to  “philosophically comprehend the experience of metropolitan capitalism” via the “psychosocial space of 19th-century Paris.”

To put it more concretely, Benjamin made use of the covered streets of shops in Paris (the arcades) as an organizational starting point to critique urban culture of the 19th century and the shift to modern life.  The materials that appear in the final published version of The Arcades Project are divided into twenty-six bundles defined by an architectural object (like the arcade), a topic, a figure, an author, or combinations thereof.  It appears from Benjamin’s statements that he intended associations between these objects, topics, and figures to become a central method of constructing the work.

The Arcades Project became something wholly new, and, to this day, apparently modern: a literary collage.  The bulk of the text is quotations drawn from Benjamin’s extensive research, and so Benjamin embraced, far ahead of his time, the role of composer as curator.  The dialectical and intertextual model he employs finds echoes in the multi-generational arguments of Rabbis in the Talmud and maybe, too, in the unreliable realtor’s mysterious manuscript in Profanity.  When Esther finally reads the book, she says, “it’s just a bunch of scraps.  Newspaper and pictures…it’s not even a book.  You’re not even a writer.”

What history is Gersh assembling to weigh against his own betrayals?  What work was in the briefcase – so heavy to carry through the Pyrenees – that Benjamin wanted saved more than his own life?

So the spirit of Benjamin enters Sylvan Oswald’s play.  In the shape of a mystery.

-Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager

Profanity runs Wednesday-Saturday through October 12th.  This piece is taken from the Undermain Study Guide, available at every Undermain performance