Walter Benjamin, in an essay on Leskov (pdf, Google cache), makes a point that rings true for me and provides a rationale for my lack of interest in much “psychological” fiction:

When the Egyptian king Psammenitus had been beaten and captured by the Persian king Cambyses, Cambyses was bent on humbling his prisoner. He gave orders to place Psammenitus on the road along which the Persian triumphal procession was to pass. And he further arranged that the prisoner should see his daughter pass by as a maid going to the well with her pitcher. While all the Egyptians were lamenting and bewailing this spectacle, Psammenitus stood alone, mute and motionless, his eyes fixed on the ground; and when presently he saw his son, who was being taken along in the procession to be executed, he likewise remained unmoved. But when afterwords he recognized one of his servants, an old, impoverished man, in the ranks of the prisoners, he beat his fists against his head and gave all the signs of deepest mourning.
From this story it may be seen what the nature of true storytelling is. The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time. Thus Montaigne referred to this Egyptian king and asked himself why he mourned only when he caught sight of his servant. Montaigne answers: “Since he was already overfull of grief, it took only the smallest increase for it to burst through its dams.” Thus Montaigne. But one could also say: The king is not moved by the fate of those of royal blood, for it is his own fate. Or: We are moved by much on the stage that does not move us in real life; to the king, this servant is only an actor. Or: Great grief is pent up and breaks forth only with relaxation. Seeing this servant was the relaxation. Herodotus offers no explanations. His report is the driest. That is why this story from ancient Egypt is still capable after thousands of years of arousing astonishment and thoughtfulness. It resembles the seeds of grain which have lain for centuries in the chambers of the pyramids shut up airtight and have retained their germinative power to this day.
There is nothing that commends a story to memory more effectively than that chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis. And the more natural the process by which the storyteller forgoes psychological shading, the greater becomes the story’s claim to a place in the memory of the listener, the more completely is it integrated into his own experience, the greater will be his inclination to repeat it to someone else someday, sooner or later….

A nice sentence from later in the essay: “A proverb, one might say, is a ruin which stands on the site of an old story and in which a moral twines about a happening like ivy around a wall.” (Via wood s lot.)

I can’t resist another quote, this time from “Unverhofftes Wiedersehen,” by the writer Benjamin calls “the incomparable Johann Peter Hebel“; Benjamin says “When Hebel, in the course of this story, was confronted with the necessity of making this long period of years graphic, he did so in the following sentences:”

In the meantime the city of Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake, and the Seven Years’ War came and went, and Emperor Francis I died, and the Jesuit Order was abolished, and Poland was partitioned, and Empress Maria Theresa died, and Struensee was executed. America became independent, and the united French and Spanish forces were unable to capture Gibraltar. The Turks locked up General Stein in the Veteraner Cave in Hungary, and Emperor Joseph died also. King Gustavus of Sweden conquered Russian Finland, and the French Revolution and the long war began, and Emperor Leopold II went to his grave too. Napoleon captured Prussia, and the English bombarded Copenhagen, and the peasants sowed and harvested. The millers ground, the smiths hammered, and the miners dug for veins of ore in their underground workshops. But when in 180[9] the miners at Falun . . .
[Unterdessen wurde die Stadt Lissabon in Portugal durch ein Erdbeben zerstört, und der Siebenjährige Krieg ging vorüber, und Kaiser Franz der Erste starb, und der Jesuitenorden wurde aufgehoben und Polen geteilt, und die Kaiserin Maria Theresia starb, und der Struensee wurde hingerichtet, Amerika wurde frei, und die vereinigte französische und spanische Macht konnte Gibraltar nicht erobern. Die Türken schlossen den General Stein in der Veteraner Höhle in Ungarn ein, und der Kaiser Joseph starb auch. Der König Gustav von Schweden eroberte russisch Finnland, und die französische Revolution und der lange Krieg fing an, und der Kaiser Leopold der Zweite ging auch ins Grab. Napoleon eroberte Preussen, und die Engländer bombardierten Kopenhagen, und die Ackerleute säeten und schnitten. Der Müller mahlte, und die Schmiede hämmerten, und die Bergleute gruben nach den Metalladern in ihrer unterirdischen Werkstatt. Als aber die Bergleute in Falun im Jahr 1809 etwas vor oder nach Johannis zwischen zwei Schachten eine Öffnung durchgraben wollten…]

As Benjamin says, “Never has a storyteller embedded his report deeper in natural history than Hebel manages to do in this chronology. Read it carefully. Death appears in it with the same regularity as the Reaper does in the processions that pass around the cathedral clock at noon.”
(The translator had 1806 in the last sentence, but from the German it’s clearly 1809. Also, for anyone as persnickety about pronunciations as I am, the name of the unfortunate Struensee is three syllables, /’štru-ən-ze/; “ue” is not always equivalent to ü.)


  1. Interesting to see that the decapitation of Struensee (/-sə/ in comtemporary Danish) was a big enough deal to be listed along with the rest. I guess it’s hard to really understand the disgrace of royal infidelity in this day and age.
    I was lucky enough to catch a rerun of a documentary about the Terrorbombardment a coupla weeks back. Sadly, it doesn’t appear to be available online, but here’s a radioprogramme on the same theme

  2. Well, Herodotus does offer an explanation, directly afterwards:

    Now there were some who had been set to watch Psammenitus and see what he would do as each train went by; so these persons went and told Cambyses of his behaviour. Then he, astonished at what was done, sent a messenger to Psammenitus, and questioned him, saying, “Psammenitus, thy lord Cambyses asketh thee why, when thou sawest thy daughter brought to shame, and thy son on his way to death, thou didst neither utter cry nor shed tear, while to a beggar, who is, he hears, a stranger to thy race, thou gavest those marks of honour.” To this question Psammenitus made answer, “O son of Cyrus, my own misfortunes were too great for tears; but the woe of my friend deserved them. When a man falls from splendour and plenty into beggary at the threshold of old age, one may well weep for him.” When the messenger brought back this answer, Cambyses owned it was just; Croesus, likewise, the Egyptians say, burst into tears- for he too had come into Egypt with Cambyses- and the Persians who were present wept. Even Cambyses himself was touched with pity, and he forthwith gave an order that the son of Psammenitus should be spared from the number of those appointed to die, and Psammenitus himself brought from the suburb into his presence.

    Montaigne refers to the same explanation, at least in the essay “On Sorrow.”

  3. Tsk. Sloppy, Herr Benjamin, deplorably sloppy.

  4. Given that Benjamin was a brilliant and careful scholar, I’m having trouble believing that this wasn’t some sort of deliberate joke–or a suggestion to read between the lines in some way.

  5. David Marjanović says

    …wanted to dig an opening between two shafts a little before or after St John’s Day…
    Does the text really say Schachten rather than Schächten?
    In any case, America didn’t become “independent” but “free”…

  6. I’ve always disliked Benjamin’s use of the magisterial tone in his creative speculations. Common enough among Continentals, I think. I probably should go back and read some more things to see if I’ve changed my mind.

  7. David, the Grimms have this to say:

    SCHACHT, m. grube, tiefes grabloch, mhd. schaht, plur. schehte und schahte, auch in [Neuhochdeutsch] ist der plur. schwankend mit oder ohne umlaut gebildet, wie unten folgende beispiele ergeben; […]

    The plural with umlaut seems to be winning the struggle for Ghits™, though.

  8. Shouldn’t ‘afterwords’ be spelled ‘afterwards’?

  9. Yup, that document seems not to have been proofread.

  10. David Marjanović says

    Unlike, say, Standard French, Standard German has changed quite a bit since the Grimms. They are only of historical interest.

  11. @David Marjanović: Bof!

Speak Your Mind