Convincing Through Fiction in the 20th Century: Reconciling Walter Benjamin and Albert Camus

Walter Benjamin and Albert Camus
Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) at left; Albert Camus (1913-1960) at right

In 1882 Nietzsche famously declared that “God is dead.” His statement epitomized the changing worldviews of the time and anticipated the challenges the 20th century would bring to our conceptions of reality. The monumental shifts that the world underwent—World War I, Industrialization, rise of totalitarianism, and general apostasy—forced people to rethink their definitions of morality and justice. With the diminishing belief in divine order came the questioning of judicial and legal systems. Law is no longer asserted but doubted; justice is no longer enforced but critiqued and thought unfair.

For the German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin, the 20th century is also one during which we witness the death of storytelling. He argued that the art of telling stories to instill moral values was lost due World War I and the arrival of information. Yet fiction has since the earliest civilizations—for the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Mayans alike—been a means to discuss justice. And it still seemed to be a way for novelists like Albert Camus to grapple with contemporary moral questions and fight for the abolition of the death penalty in France in the 1940s. Indeed, his novel L’Etranger, published in 1942 (literally The Stranger, often translated at The Outsider) enacts many of the points he makes in his 1963 essay “Reflections on the Guillotine” So how do we reconcile Benjamin’s argument with Camus’s use of fiction to convince his reader?

In light of Walter Benjamin’s take on storytelling, this paper argues that Camus uses the novel’s limits in order to stand against injustice: L’Etranger’s ability to denounce the incoherence and criminality of the death penalty lies within the protagonist’s inability to communicate.

As its title suggests, Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Storyteller, Reflection on the Works of Nikolai Leskov” mainly focused on the Russian writer’s oeuvre. However, it is well known today due to its much broader argument: the inability to exchange experience in modern society. Benjamin explains that the figure of the storyteller is disappearing, that he “has already become something remote from us and something that is getting even more distant” (1). He ascribes this fall to the incommunicability of human experiences that results from two phenomena: World War I and the overwhelming appearance and distribution of information.

The essay tells us that World War I, humankind’s first experience of such a global conflict and mechanized warfare, left people unable to articulate their shock, thoughts and emotions, “poorer in communicating experience” (1). This was particularly the case for those who fought during the war and then returned to their homes:

“For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of forces of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human life” (1).

Benjamin argues that this inability to share experience was never overcome. And for him, sharing experience is the nature and starting point of storytelling itself. If people are no longer able to relate their own experience, then stories are no longer passed on from one person to another. This concerns the storyteller as much as it concerns those who are no longer interested by stories, “embarrassed” by them after having gone through such traumatic times (1).

Another factor that led to the fall of the storyteller was the massive outburst of information, which became the “new form of communication”(3). With developing technologies, people were progressively, unnoticeably submerged by an ever increasing amount of immediate, raw data. This satisfied and encouraged a need for fast, accurate knowledge of what was happening in the world. Benjamin explains that this new expectation for immediacy and plausibility limited the sharing of human experiences and turned people away from the art of storytelling. It became more important to know facts than to listen to tales. He tells us that if stories left room for interpretation and survived throughout time, these facts had already “been shot through with explanation” and were only relevant as long as they were news (4).

With the loss of this interpretation, we have also lost the ability to share and receive the story’s usefulness, its moral purpose or advice. Benjamin tells us that whatever this advice was, “in every case the storyteller is a man who had counsel for his readers,” and explains that people were no longer able to integrate this counsel into their own lives (which is how he defines wisdom). Narratives become very different from the fairy tales, which Benjamin describes as not only important for children’s education but as “tutor[s] of mankind,” and which he argues belong to a tradition we have lost.

A prime example of this shift would be Franz Kafka’s short stories, which were the focus of a large part of Benjamin’s literary criticism. Qualified by their absurdity, Kafka’s stories are very far from offering the direct advice that fairy tales offered in their dénouement. In his essay “Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of his death (1969),” and in letters exchanged with the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, Benjamin discusses Kafka’s obscure, abstract writings. Although these are usually referred to as parables, they do not exactly fall within this genre. Encyclopedia Britannica defines the parable as a short story that has as its explicit purpose the illustration of a doctrine or standard of conduct. Despite the many efforts that have been made to make sense of his stories or decipher its symbols, there is no general agreement on what Kafka meant. It is possible that he did not have a specific meaning in mind, but the themes he tackles—whether it is justice in The Trial or alienation in “Metamorphosis”—place him far from an embodiment of Théophile Gautier’s “Art for Art’s Sake.” As Benjamin remarks, this is because Kafka “took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings” (124).  He tells us that Kafka’s works illustrate the failure of language to convey meaning:

“They are not parables, and yet they do not want to be taken at their face value; they lend themselves to quotation and can be told for clarification. But do we have the doctrine which Kafka’s parables interpret and which Kafka’s postures and the gestures of his animals clarify? It does not exist; all we can say is that here and there we have an allusion to it. Kafka might have said that these are relics transmitting the doctrine, although we could regard them just as well as precursors preparing the doctrine” (122).

Benjamin clearly articulates the difficulty we experience while reading Kafka’s works: we know that he is hinting at some kind of truth or argument, but can only suggest our own ideas of what this truth may be. The hypothetical nature of this critique demonstrates that this was also the case for prominent literary figures. Indeed, Kafka’s narratives, filled with holes and ambiguities, trigger questions instead of providing the advice that traditional storytellers would provide.

In “Before the Law,” published first as a short story in 1915 and then told within the plot of his 1925 novel The Trial, a man tries to access the Law that lies behind a series of gates, but is stopped by the first gate’s doorkeeper. Despite the simple, short sentences and very straightforward syntax that Kafka employs, the reader struggles to grasp the meaning of this story. This is not only due to its abstract nature or to the allegorical representation of the Law. The detached, purely descriptive tone makes it very hard to relate to this man of whom we know nothing: all we are told about him is that he is a man of the country, but we have no sense of who he is or why he is trying to access the Law. We do not even know his name. The same can be said for the doorkeeper who consistently discourages the man without physically stopping him from entering through the gate. Like many of Kafka’s texts, the spatiotemporal frame of this story is extremely vague. All we know is that the man and the doorkeeper stands “Before the Law” and remains there for years as he ages and until he dies. The combination of these different elements makes it hard for the reader to hold on to a specific message or, in Benjamin’s words, to gain “wisdom” from Kafka’s “counsel.” He or she is left conjecturing, wondering about who the characters are, where they are, what they are trying to do and why, Unlike the instructional resolution of fairy tales, the ending of this story offers very little clarification:

“The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and, to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: ‘No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it’” (256).

These last words offer no explanation as to why the gate was only made for this unique man from the country, no particular moral as to what our attitude towards the law should or shouldn’t be. Instead, they open the door to a wide array of interpretations and definitions of what the law is, and of who has a right to it. The enigmatic symbols of the gate being shut, and the doorkeeper himself, incite interpretation without granting it. In fact, Kafka suggests multiple interpretations himself. The incorporation of “Before the Law” in The Trial is an instance of mise en abyme, which allows the characters, Joseph K and the priest, to discuss what the story could mean. Like the reader, they do not come to a specific conclusion but several possibilities.

Thus, Kafka’s works reflect, both in their contents (alienation is a central theme, as embodied by Gregor Samsa in “Metamorphosis”) and in their forms, this 20th century incommunicability of experience that Benjamin discusses.

If some will argue that fiction remained very present in the 20th century, notably through the increasing publication of novels, Benjamin anticipates by stating that the novel was one of the noticeable “symptoms” of the decline of storytelling. He explains that this flourishing of published novels is due in part to technology (printing) and also results from this inability to share experience with other people. Unlike storytelling, which was based on an oral tradition that necessarily put people in contact with one another, the novel is inherently individualistic, both for the author and the reader. If the best storyteller is he who imbues his own experience into his stories to be experienced by others, the novelist, by contrast, separates himself from the world in order to write: “The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounseled and cannot counsel others”( 4). Therefore, much like information, the novel prevents the sharing of experience. It was born of the traumatic, fast-paced first decades of the 20th century, and it is also reinforcing the inability to communicate.

Benjamin’s essay put forth that in modern society, still very much impacted by the War and in the midst of the information frenzy, humankind lost the ability to relate life and to share counsel. And in a time devoid of the communication of experiences, the novel is not a solution, but is part of the problem. So how does Camus find a way to overcome these limitations intrinsic to the novel? How is he able, in his novel L’Etranger, to convince his reader of the serious flaws of the death penalty? To begin with, one must understand the key points that form Camus’s argument.

These are explicitly presented in his essay “Reflection on the Guillotine,” which was published in 1957, decades before the death penalty was abolished in France in 1981. Camus does not base his argument on the sympathy one could feel for the convicted but on reasoning, logic, and statistics. In doing so, he demonstrates that capital punishment is perhaps an easier option for the government in dealing with its felons, but it is an unethical and dangerous one wherein judicial errors have had irrevocable consequences. He combines this reasoning with more personal reactions, such as his father’s, whose opinion on the death penalty is reversed after assisting a public execution. And if later the executions are no longer public but hidden, they are even more criminal and shameful. For Camus, sentencing someone to death is nothing but vengeance, and makes the society who tolerates and encourages it as criminal as the convicted himself.

His essay also insists on the flawed logic of using death penalty as a means to discourage crime. Firstly, it argues that because of death’s inevitability, because it is a fate shared by all, it is not as frightening as it would need to be in order to dissuade criminals. More importantly, Camus tells us that the logic of the death penalty relies on the fact that most crimes are premeditated, and he argues that this is not the case for a majority of criminals:

“To begin with, capital punishment could not intimidate the man who doesn’t know that he is going to kill, who makes up his mind to it in a flash and commits his crime in a state of frenzy or obsession, nor the man who, going to an appointment to have it out with someone, takes along a weapon to frighten the opponent and uses it although he didn’t want to or didn’t think he wanted to. In other words, it could not intimidate the man who is hurled into crime as if into a calamity. This is tantamount to saying that it is powerless in the majority of cases. (143).”

This argument is central to Camus’s accusation and is also what reconciles Benjamin’s statement about novels that we previously explained with Camus’s statement in his novel L’Etranger.

Published in 1942, L’Etranger is set in the city of Algiers a few years before World War II. Meursault, a French Algerian citizen, loses his mother and is shortly thereafter sentenced to death after having shot an Arab man for no clear reason. In the story, Meursault testifies in court against a young woman whom his friend Raymond had dated. A few days later, the young woman’s brother and his Arab friend follow and threaten Meursault and Raymond. Before their second encounter on the beach, Meursault takes Raymond’s gun in order to stop him from hurting anyone, but ends up shooting the Arab man himself. The first person narrative in which the story is written tricks the reader into expecting that he or she will understand Meursault, empathize with him through his viewpoint, or at least make sense of why he has killed the man. Yet by the end of the novel, both the jury in charge of Meursault’s case and the reader still don’t know why he has committed this crime. The murder itself is part of the first person narration, there is no use of ellipsis, and yet we are still unable to relate to this character in any way, to understand what he experienced. The only thing that Meursault communicates as he tells the reader about the crime, or as he tries to explain in his trial, is that he was extremely bothered by the heat and sunlight.

Meursault is therefore a prime illustration of Benjamin’s argument on the incommunicability of experiences in the 20th century: from the beginning to the end of the novel, he remains a stranger to his society and to the reader. The following extracts show that this distance set between Meursault and the rest of his society (and, consequently, between him and the reader) exists very early on and is only is only widened as the novel progresses.

“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.
“The Home for Aged Persons is at Marengo, some fifty miles from Algiers. With the two o’clock bus I should get there well before nightfall. Then I can spend the night there, keeping the usual vigil beside the body, and be back here by tomorrow evening. I have fixed up with my employer for two days’ leave; obviously, under the circumstances, he couldn’t refuse. Still, I had an idea he looked annoyed, and I said, without thinking: ‘Sorry, sir, but it’s not my fault, you know.’ Afterwards it struck me I needn’t have said that. I had no reason to excuse myself; it was up to him to express his sympathy and so forth. Probably he will do so the day after tomorrow, when he sees me in black. For the present, it’s almost as if Mother weren’t really dead. The funeral will bring it home to me, put an official seal on it, so to speak” (1).

This passage is the very beginning of LEtranger, an opening that immediately creates a distance between the reader and Meursault. His extremely detached, straightforward tone—he seems more concerned with his schedule than with the fact that he has lost his mother—makes it hard for the reader to relate to him, to experience what he is going through. Some phrases, such as “which leaves the matter doubtful” or “so to speak” almost suggest dark humor. As Benjamin describes, there is no sense of what he is feeling, only descriptions of events. In this way, the passage is much closer to information than to storytelling. Its short sentences with very few adjectives focus on the facts. The difficulty the reader has in establishing a relationship with the protagonist, and thus to a certain extent with the story as a whole, lasts throughout the novel. Even when he knows he is going to die, his narration remains distant, logical, and cold. He remains isolated from anyone who approaches him, even those who seek to help him. For example, as he thinks about his lover Marie, he seems to be insensitive to their relationship and even to the possibility of her death. Once more, the loss of human connection discussed in “The Storyteller” is apparent through the casual tone and suppositions of Meursault:

She hadn’t written for ages; probably, I surmised, she had grown tired of being the mistress of a man sentenced to death. Or she might be ill, or dead. After all, such things happen. How could I have known about it, since, apart from our two bodies, separated now, there was no link between us, nothing to remind us of each other? Supposing she were dead, her memory would mean nothing; I couldn’t feel an interest in a dead girl. This seemed to me quite normal; just as I realized people would soon forget me once I was dead. I couldn’t even say that this was hard to stomach; really, there’s no idea to which one doesn’t get acclimatized in time (71).

Meursault is truly the “solitary individual,” and it is impossible for the reader to integrate his narrative into our own lives with such detached tones and thoughts. After all, it is not easy to identify with someone who admits never having been able to express guilt or remorse, let alone a criminal.

Roger Shattuck, an American writer and critic insists on Meursault’s criminality. How can Camus argue against death penalty with a criminal character? In his article “Guilt, Justice and Empathy in Melville and Camus,” Shattuck reminds us that Meursault is not a good man:

Camus in his last preface insists that Meursault is condemned for his sincerity. Camus conveniently overlooks that fact that his hero committed murder. I believe that Camus’s preface provides a case of an author who grievously misunderstands his own work and his most famous character.

Indeed, a series of moments in the story, including the two previous passages, point out Meursault’s indifference and amorality. He is not presented as a sincere character at all: he lies for his friend very early into the novel, and further, could not be qualified as sincere because he rarely expresses anything at all. When Meursault shoots the man again four times, we see that the crime was clearly not accidental. It is as if Meursault is suddenly brought to life, exhilarated by the crime and the realization of what he has done.

Tim Robbins’ movie Dead Man Walking (1995) also denounces capital punishment with the story of a horrible character. Matthew Poncelet, played by Sean Penn, finds himself on death row after having raped and murdered two teenagers. The recurrent, vivid flashbacks of the crime are a constant reminder of his inhumanity. And though his guilt is not confirmed until the end of the movie, when he finally admits the crime, we never admire this racist, sexist, and rude character. So how can this convince us against death penalty?

Firstly, it makes sense that both L’Etranger and Dead Man Walking center on dislikeable characters. After World War I, and especially World War II, people know that immoral criminals exist. The argument against capital punishment is all the more powerful because it does not rely on everyone being fundamentally good. Such a thought would not be accepted after mass genocide. These stories are therefore much closer to our world because they portray criminals. Their claim against capital punishment is even stronger because it does not depend on the crime, but is depicted as unacceptable in all cases. The last scene of Dead Man Walking, the spectacle of the lethal injection observed by the victim’s families, effectively portrays death penalty as a vengeful and criminal act itself.

In L’Etranger, it is Meursault’s crime that allows Camus to illustrate through fiction that the death penalty cannot prevent murder that has not been planned. Camus’s genius is that, here, incommunicability actually serves moral purpose. The entire point is that we do not understand Meursault. This makes us realize that nothing can explain his act of murder, and not even him, because he did not plan it. Despite what Shattuck writes, both Camus and the reader are very aware that Meursault is a murderer. It’s very efficient to have us experience this as a reader. We find ourselves frustrated, asking questions such as “Who is this man?” and “Why did he kill the man on the beach?” But these questions ultimately lead to the real ones: “Who are we to decide on a man’s life when we do not understand his motive, when we do not know who he is?” and, most importantly “How could death penalty prevent a crime that was never considered?” Even if we cannot exactly remember the story in its entirety or pass it on as storytellers would, the key experience here is to ask ourselves these questions. These questions are what we remember, and what allows us to bridge the gap between fiction and our own realities. They are the ones that we as readers, but also as citizens, have to answer. Just before his death, Meursault mentions the “benign indifference of the world” (76). Hopefully, acknowledging them and trying to answer them is a way to fight against this indifference, to fight against this loss in human exchange that both Benjamin and Camus deplore. Martha Nussbaum, philosopher and professor of Law and Ethics, explains that both law and literature “constitute, involve or otherwise rely upon an imaginative vision of human life and its possibilities.” In Poetic Justice: the Literary Imagination and Public Life, she states that lawyers can learn from literature as it will “enlarge their sensibilities.” And indeed, Camus manages to enlarge the reader’s sensibility and convinces him that no matter how criminal a man is, nothing justifies being able to take his life.

Camus manages to surmount what Benjamin describes as the limits of the novel. He uses the social phenomenon of incommunicability that “The Storyteller” discusses in order to instill moral values. Thus, Camus’s novel is both an example of Benjamin’s assessment and a proof that there is a way to overcome it. It is interesting to notice that Camus’s essay on the death penalty was published after the novel; perhaps he wanted to insist on or clarify his arguments. L’Etranger is a difficult text and, as we have seen, has been interpreted in very different ways. Nonetheless, L’Etranger is by far the better-known text. When French students today study Camus’s stance, they read the novel, as opposed to the essay. This proves that teaching and learning through fiction is still very relevant today. For Camus, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” And despite the generally pessimistic tone of Benjamin’s essay, we perceive his love for fiction as well: “thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks” (4).

In fact, I would argue that “The Storyteller” is not criticizing the modern world so much as it is praising the role and the importance of stories. We sense that Benjamin, like any other man who suffered through World War I, is completely disoriented and finds himself nostalgic for life as it was before—perhaps even more than most men, as he ultimately committed suicide in France when pursued by Nazis and after having failed to escape Europe on several occasions. Benjamin is right to say that society has undergone extreme change and that there was a moment when people did not know how to articulate events that they had never experienced before. However, this change did not mean permanent confusion and isolation; people were able to rebuild communication, found new ways to relate to one another. L’Etranger is an example of this: as opposed to prior myths and tales that provided answers or proclaimed morals, Camus asks questions, and invites us to answer them. In doing so, we consider arguments that we would not have thought of otherwise. Like Camus, many novelists and writers have proven that even after two abominable conflicts, it is still possible to reach your reader and allow him to question his reality through imaginary worlds. They prove that we can still rely on fiction to fight for justice in a very real world.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller”. The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900-2000. Hale, Dorothy J, Ed. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

Kafka, Franz. The Trial. New York: Knopf, 1957. Print.
(Extract used: ‘Before the Law)

Benjamin, Walter, Hannah Arendt, and Harry Zohn. Illuminations. New York: Schocken, 1969. Print. (Extract used: Franz Kafka: On the Tenth anniversary of his death)

Camus, Albert. L’Etranger. Paris: Gallimard, 1986. Print.

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Knopf, 1946. Print. Translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert

Camus, Albert. Reflections on the Guillotine, New York: The Modern Library, 1963. Translated from the French by Justin O’Brien

Shattuck, Roger. “Guilt, justice, and empathy in Melville and Camus” • 1996 Jul 01 Published in Journal Partisan Review. Volume 63. Issue 3. Page 430. Web 20 Apr. 2015

Dead Man Walking. Dir. Tim Robbins. Perf. Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, and Robert Prosky. Gramercy Pictures, 1995.

Nussbaum, Martha Poetic justice: the literary imagination and public life “An imaginative vision of human life and its possibilities. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1995.

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