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Aura in Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations Essay

In Walter Benjamin’s book Illuminations, two particular chapters are relevant to the corpus of works that make up film study. “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproductions” and “The Storyteller” outline a progressive history from oral traditions to the modern traditions such as film that resulted and the bumps that have been encountered along the way. Central to these two chapters is the idea of aura. Aura, though difficult to define, is a concept that is easy to perceive because of its engaging qualities.

From oral to written to visual representations including film, the story is the nucleus that produces entertainment and ideally educates the audience. To be entertained does not require much of the audience, but education is an engaging process that preserves culture and maintains the aura. Because of the absence of proverbs, morals, or other trite composite statements, the effective storyteller is kin to the guru. The advice the storyteller offers is found throughout the course of the story and the listener or reader is able to draw the meaning out from the speech or pages of their own accord.

As a patient fisherman learns at the end of a long day, not all adventures are fruitful. The timeless quality of the works of Nicolai Leskov can encourage the reader to lose track of the parts of the story that, when later assembled, can be taken as advice. In this way, an attentive reader may find advice or counsel for many situations and the story can continue to unfold through the suggestions that good counsel offers. The “White Eagle” encourages quotation of different passages in order for a summary to be made and offered as a sacrifice to the luke-warm reader.

However, the storyteller’s traditional place is not one of summaries, annotated bibliographies, or cliff notes. Time was meant to be integral in the creation of a story which is only preserved in the social fabric of history. The uniqueness of any event, object, or idea depends upon its temporal qualities. Time and space dictate absolutely everything according to Quantum Physicists who are considered to be on the forefront of the combination of all knowledge.

These revolutionary inter-disciplinarians have shown that gravity depends on time and space, that speed depends on time and space, and that even decisions depend on time and space[1]. The decision to tell a story depends on the time, traditionally evening when there is less work to be done, and the space, made up of gathering people encouraging the story to be told. Without these two conditions, ample time to tell the story and one’s willingness to listen, a story cannot take place.

Because storytelling is an interchange between the one telling the story and the one who is destined to re-tell the story, the oral tradition is dependent upon listeners for its survival. However, since the transference of the events of the tale are not verbatim, the re-telling is in fact an original telling because the details have been molded to fit the circumstances of the re-telling. If the audience is comprised of mainly children, perhaps more attention will be made to the magical parts of the story.

If the audience is teenage boys, more emphasis and elaboration may be made on the graphic images in the story. In the best case scenario “the perfect narrative is derived through the layers of a variety of retellings” (Benjamin p. 93). When a storyteller chooses to relay some advice that has been intertwined in the fabric of a story which is dependent on the social fabric of the group without an audience present for the telling, the unraveling of oral traditions begins. Written history has certainly provided benefits to society that are too numerous to even attempt to summarize.

The unfortunate fact is that none of the advancements resulting from changing production methods have benefited the beautiful intergenerational tapestry of storytelling. A common misconception is that a novel is in continuity with oral tradition when it is, in fact, quite a discontinuity. The novel has different properties and different purposes. For one, the novel is composed in solidarity, far from the social fabric where meaning was derived and solely existed. The reader is forced into solidarity as well and his interpretations may no longer have any bearing on those around him.

That is not to say that personal meanings are unimportant, only that writing signifies the beginning of a new timeline in tradition whose grand purpose is “to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life” (Benjamin p. 87). As personal importance and interpretation is difficult to verify, society centralizes on information which depends on its verifiability for survival. Writing is the conveyance of information and in modern times information is of paramount importance. The outcome of wars or the accrual of wealth often results from the timely reception of pertinent information.

Reported events are subject to immediate verifiability which causes most contemporary novelists to tread lightly when including supernatural or mystical events in their novels. As the transference of quick and efficient information is increasing, “the communicability of experience is decreasing” (Benjamin p. 86). Storytelling in a social context was recreating the enjoyable social setting the storyteller once experienced that was moving enough for him or her that he or she decided to provide the same experience for future generations. Even further back in the tradition are the actual events themselves.

A character in the story was once a person who, through fortuitous circumstances, participated in the events that produced the story. Although exaggerations have been added for entertainment value and alterations have been made, the attempt was always to communicate an awesome experience. In Leskov’s “The Left Handed Craftsman,” the namesake is not by far the protagonist, but his involvement with the steel flea from Brittan resurrected the tale which was, among many other things, a tribute to ancient craftsmen. The relationship of the storyteller to his material is that of a craftsman to his medium.

Benjamin asks “whether it is not his [the story teller or craftsman] very task to fashion the raw material of experience, his own and that of others, in a solid, useful, and unique way” (p. 108). If the writer is as acutely aware of his or her audience as an oral story teller would be, it is possible to craft a utilitarian product. The solitary production method of writing that removes the writer from his or her immediate context makes this very difficult to achieve. What is lost is the mystical aura that electrified and preserved oral storytelling for so many generations.

Writing by hand inevitably led to the printing press and other forms of art, such as visual art, which soon became easily reproducible. The degradation continues as the mode of production evolves. With the advent of the lithograph, whose origins lie in etching and engraving, works of art were beginning to lose their aura. Just as a written novel is not the same as the oral story from which it may have been derived, reproducing visual art leaves the third printing, especially when dealing with wood as was the case with etching and engraving, less clear than the first printing.

In rhythm with the march of advancement, technology made pictorial reproductions more effective and efficient in their representations of real life. The march continued past the incorrigibly life-like photograph to film, silent at first, then at a speed that could keep up with speech. In contemporary times, film reproductions of actual events are so accountable that they can be used as evidence in court cases. As wonderful (for the plaintiff) as that may be, the aura that was so present and integral to the authenticity of storytelling is vanishing into the background just as wood engraving has been subsumed by photography.

The ramifications of interest here are those of social orientation, specifically social perceptions. In film, the viewer is not allowed the uniqueness of visual perception that can be found when viewing a piece of art in a gallery. The perspective is derived from variations in the height of the viewer, distance of the viewer from the art, other people possibly surrounding the viewer and the background that changes in the case of traveling art pieces. Film, “being based on changes of place and focus which periodically assail the spectator,” gives the viewer only two options: eyes open or eyes closed.

To view is to give in to the filmmaker’s point of view. The social context that has been created is that the other viewers have given in as well. As for the integrity of the aura, the production method of film, which is far removed from the stage-like presentation of storytelling, is even more fabricated because of the fragmented production method of feature films. Additionally, the aura is lost to the audience of whom nothing more than keeping their eyes open is asked. In hopeful efforts one asks, can the aura be resurrected in film if a storyteller is united with the power of film?

Indigenous tribes in modern times are the least removed from their oral traditions and thus the most hopeful for a positive response to the above question. In terms of production, the “Video in the Villages Project”, headed by most notably Vincent Carelli, is a prime example. The project essentially taught indigenous people from various tribes throughout Brazil how to operate video equipment as well as to edit the final project. The indigenous people were the think tank and the executive board for the choosing of the subject of the separate films.

The aura was also lost in the final project which can neither be defined as a documentary or a feature film. The people in “A Day in the Village,” have chosen to show some of their daily routines. As the events are displayed in a fragmented way, one can assumed they were also taped in a fragmented manner. There is no central story, just the theme of activities of this tribe. As for the aura emanating from a guru like storyteller, there is none. A film like the Inuit produced and directed “The Fast Runner” is the telling of an Inuit tale in the context of a tribal gathering.

The storyteller is present throughout the whole tale but he is, obviously, on screen. With film, the context is always mutable because the same film can be shown simultaneously in innumerable locations. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Prague, and Minsk could all choose to premier a film at the exact same time but the social context is completely unique in each of these situations. The languages change and the people in the theater or viewing space are unique to that particular showing.

According to Benjamin “The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well” (p. 222). If the historical circumstances can be so easily changed, the meaning can also just as easily be changed. To the people in the sweat lodge hearing that story, the aura could have been part of the captivating presence that maintained the story and created a central meaning for that society. But to an urban citizen who has had no direct contact with these traditions, the aura is not engaging and the meaning, if any has been found, is personal.

The active participation of the audience is the same as any other film: unnecessary. There is no tradition in this context and the film will survive even if no viewer is enchanted to listen attentively enough to later replicate the story. The fragmented production of this feature film, like any other, degrades the aura of the original story to a level which is unnoticeable. This film’s attempts to be part of the Hollywood entertainment genre, which almost categorically excludes the necessarily engaging aspects of oral traditions from which the story derives, fails to maintain its original aura.

The lessons of our ancestors have always been an important aspect of physical and cultural survival. Through film and indigenous attempts at film, the aura has been lost and it does not seem that it can be resurrected. Cultures are being subsumed into “melting pots” that neglect individuality and suppress autonomy. Information is more important than the unique nuances a storyteller can combine with sound advice to preserve and at the same time progress a culture. If the good of all is in question, the storyteller must survive. The only issue is if there will be a context for the storyteller to survive in.


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