This post is half because I wanted an excuse to say something pseudo-academic about D&D, half because it has simply been waaaaaay too long since I posted here and I feel guilty, and half because I have just enough whiskey left to drink in this glass for some late-night musings (this blog always goes 150%). If you like Walter Benjamin and/or Dungeons & Dragons, read on! If not, you can at least have this adorable picture of whimsical goblinoids.
Onward, friends! Let our tales live in the songs of bards!
For a class I’m TAing right now, tonight I found myself reading Walter Benjamin’s “The Storyteller” (as it appears in Dorothy Hale’s edited volume, The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, 1900-2000, Blackwell 2006). Despite never having read it before, the essay felt like familiar ground, even to so armchair a Benjamin scholar as myself. In it, our favorite Frankfurter maps out a distinction between stories and information, storytelling and reporting, and interpretation and explanation, with each dyad serving as a different facet of the same conceptual binary. He finds greater value in the former term of each of these insofar as he sees storytelling as being the mode that connects narrative to history, his evergreen concern. Benjamin likens storytelling to an artisanal handicraft, sculpting the raw material of human experience into something that renews the meaning (ethically and functionally distinct from “explanation”) of that experience in the mind of the listener. Like trades that have been passed down over generations within guilds and the like, this mode of narrative has history sedimented within it while still remaining actively in the present moment of its telling. Unsurprisingly, Benjamin states at the outset that storytelling is almost extinct in the modern age, though it’s worth noting he doesn’t want to lay the blame entirely on modernity’s doorstep; he claims the decline of storytelling is already latent in the epic form, and therefore can trace its lineage far before modernity.
Nevertheless, it is the material conditions of modernity – namely the printing press and the genre of the novel it brings about – that accelerate this decline. In the novelist and the novel reader, Benjamin identifies a fundamentally lonely, alienated orientation toward experience. Rather than narrative that is embedded in the social, the novel’s narrative is intensely, neurotically individual; it is a solitary act of vampirism in which the metaphorical life of the narrative characters is consumed in order to arrive at the meaning of life for the reader. We have the implicit understanding that a moment of revelation will be revealed to us at novel’s end and, if we correctly understand that moment, we will gain an insight into the meaning of life. We thus hurry the characters toward their final destinations so that, in their passing, we may glimpse that explanation. In death, the character grasps their life laid out behind them as an external thing. The pinnacle of alienation and the split of subjectivity, the subject’s own life becomes an object of their analysis. This hermetic seal between life’s meaning and the living of it comes from a new relationship to eternity (read: death) ushered in partly by World War I, in Benjamin’s mind. The world of the novel is ahistorical, closed off from the lived experience of both the novelist and the reader. For Benjamin, this seems to be a huge loss of the narrative fabric of collective human experience.
I wonder what Benjamin would have thought of a bunch of nerds gathered around a dining room table engaging in what I often describe as collaborative storytelling? For the past few months, I’ve managed to cajole a few of my friends into playing Dungeons & Dragons with me, and once a week, for about three hours, we sit around weaving a serial narratives of high fantasy adventure. The characters and stories of this narrative live within the minds of each of us – and different for each of us – and we don’t really have a definite “end” in mind. I like to think Benjamin would like that. The narrative is open-ended and thus connected to our experience of life. Granted, this is a much different kind of connection than the sorts of stories to which Benjamin generally refers in his essay, but perhaps no less valuable for their fantastical-ness. Indeed, fairy tales are explicitly one of the valuable forms of storytelling that he names, and The Arabian Nights (which served as one of the models for our campaign setting) a paragon of the collective labor of storyteller-craftspeople that Benjamin sees as comprising the value of stories. The fantastic is allowed to remain fantastic, unexplained by rationalist (that is to say, non-human) “information” Benjamin thinks is disenchanting our narratives. There is no explanation for anything that happens in our shared world, only interpretations.
I’m not really going anywhere profound with this post, only ruminating on the idea that D&D and all its TTRPG cousins could be considered part of a lineage of some of the oldest forms of storytelling known to our species. Much of this, to be sure, is by design: Gygax and Arneson were big enough nerds for the medieval that I think it infects the form of the game as well as its thematic content. And maybe this helps explain why the stories we tell about D&D exploits remain so vivid for us. If, as Benjamin says, storytelling keeps narrative lively for us in a way that the thanato-form genre of the novel cannot, then the narratives we create around the RPG table are more a part of our lives than even the greatest works of the greatest novelists. This is interesting to think about, too, in the context of a study some RPG folks claim was published showing that the same neural centers are active when we’re remembering D&D stories as when we’re remembering things that we personally really experienced. In an arguably very real sense, then, our exploits in a D&D campaign are very much a part of our lived experience, and they actively contribute to our histories of ourselves. Something to think about the next time you’re chucking d20s.
But now my whiskey has run out, and I must teach early in the morning. Good night, all, and may all your attack rolls be criticals.