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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Benjamin's Bards: Myth, Memory, and Zeitgeist in the Making of the Modern Storyteller

  • Author(s): Hertzog, Sue
  • Advisor(s): Doran, Sabine
  • et al.

In 1936, Walter Benjamin, fearful and frustrated with the traumatic residuals of the First World War and perhaps foreseeing a second one approaching, wrote an essay mourning what he perceived to be the loss of relevancy to storytelling in modern civilization. In this text entitled, "The Storyteller," Benjamin argued that the advent of modernization has alienated humanity from the histories and mythologies of their communities and has rendered the narrative and ultimately the storyteller, irrelevant to modern civilization. The storyteller, whose job was to pass on experience that allowed the community to deal with threatening "forces of nature" became irrelevant, because mankind was facing dangers it had never previous known and no amount of previous experience existed that properly equipped humanity to deal with the perils of modern warfare (102). Our stories no longer served their purpose of preparing us for any impending threat. Consequently, stories, which serve to define and interconnect communities, became ineffective because our modern technologies have distanced us from our traditions and, ultimately, from each other.

Through an examination into the art of mediating a story by considering not only Benjamin's definition of the storyteller, but equally his understanding of the story and its role in the community, it is this discussion's intent to illustrate that the role of the storyteller is still pertinent to modern culture. As Benjamin argued stories must evolve to meet the needs of the community, so must the manner in which the narrative is mediated. Technology, rather than alienating the community from its histories and mythologies, can through the medium of modern cinema fulfill this role of the bard in modern society. It will be illustrated that filmmakers can serve as modern bards that maintain ritual of keeping history alive through storytelling, counseling, advising and helping modern cultures to define themselves. This discussion will concentrate on the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Luc Besson, Terry Gilliam, Helma Sanders-Brahms, Christian Duguay, and Tim Burton. Each filmmaker addressed will respond to Benjamin's contention by illustrating the modern method of mediation by which history and mythology is accessed and kept a relevant force within our modern cultures.

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