Opening Remarks at ‘Reimagining Cultural Citizenship’ Lecture

This is the first of several brief talks I gave which I’d like to share to a bigger audience through this blog.

When we have guests here for a lecture, I always imagine the event being a gathering to hear stories and what immediately comes to mind is Walter Benjamin’s essay on the storyteller. In it, Benjamin distinguishes between storytelling and the sharing of information, favoring the former of course and saying that storytelling has lost its place in the life of the community due so much to the new form of communication that is in the form of ‘dissemination of information’. 

Written in the 1920s, Benjamin’s essay still resonates strongly today. ‘Every morning’, he says, ‘brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information’ (Benjamin 89). But ‘the value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new’ says Benjamin. ‘It lives only at that moment… 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’ (90).

At this point I’d like to share one such story told by Benjamin himself in his Selected Writings but which I heard from another storyteller, Freddie Rokem, in 2007.

‘In a Hassidic village, so the story goes, Jews were sitting together in a shabby inn one Sabbath evening. They were all local people, with the exception of one person no one knew, a very poor, ragged man who was squatting in a dark corner at the back of the room. All sorts of things were discussed, and then it was suggested that everyone should tell what wish he would make if one were granted him. One man wanted money; another wished for a son-in-law; a third dreamed of a new carpenter’s bench; and so each spoke in turn. After they had finished, only the beggar in his dark corner was left. Reluctantly and hesitantly he answered the question. ‘I wish I were a powerful king reigning over a big country. Then, some night while I was asleep in my palace, an enemy would invade my country, and by dawn his horsemen would penetrate to my castle and meet with no resistance. Roused from my sleep, I wouldn’t have time even to dress and I would have to flee in my shirt. Rushing over hill and dale and through forests day and night, I would finally arrive safely right here at the bench in this corner. This is my wish.’ The others exchanged uncomprehending glances. ‘And what good would this wish have done you?’ someone asked. ‘I’d have a shirt,’ was the answer’ (Selected Writings 1977, 433).

We need stories and storytellers, very much so now in the twenty-first century for, as Benjamin says, ‘the storyteller is the figure in which the righteous man encounters himself’ (109) – and we need this kind of encounter with ourselves, assuming we are ‘righteous’ humans interrogating ‘righteousness’ itself in a world increasingly grown complex and terrifying, often because we find ourselves or our kin displaced in it. In today’s talk, for instance, we will be hearing about ‘diasporic intimacies’ and how the nuances of artistic work by Filipino Canadian artists might be producing knowledge of cultural citizenship in Canada that ‘unsettles’ common and official understandings, perhaps, may I suggest, very much like the beggar in Benjamin’s story who confounds his listeners with his wish.

Today, we are fortunate to have another edition in our ongoing program of guest lectures by eminent academics and artists in the arts and humanities. I say these lectures are a mark of our good standing in the world academic community, telling of how far and wide is the reach of our network of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, but, more importantly, these are ways for the Lasallian community to gather around and learn together from great minds and in the presence of earnest and passionate seekers of knowledges and truths. And, as I said earlier, we come to listen to storytellers whose power will not be only for the moment. In the end, perhaps if we listen closely, we’ll see more than just the shirt. 

Welcome and thank you, everyone, for attending today. Welcome and warm thanks to our guest, Dr. Robert Diaz. Good afternoon.

22 February 2016 | Yuchengco 408 | De La Salle University

Works Cited:

Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’ . Translated by Harry Zohn. In Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935-1938, edited by Howard Eiland and Michel W. Jennings, 143-66, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University. Originally published in 1936 in Orient und Occident; republished in 1977 as ‘Der Erzahler Betrachtungen zum Week Nikolai Lesskows’, in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 2, 438-65 (frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp). A later version can be found here: https://arl.human.cornell.edu/linked%20docs/Walter%20Benjamin%20Storyteller.pdf

Rokem, Freddie (2007). ‘Wishes, Promises and Threats: Walter Benjamin as Storyteller’. Keynote Talk at the Storytelling in Contemporary Theatre Conference on 15-17 November 2007 at the Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland. The essay that he shared can be found in Mateusz Borowski and Małgorzata Sugiera (eds), Words: Storytelling in Contemporary Theatre and Playwriting, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010, pp. 13-29. Access a book sample here: https://www.cambridgescholars.com/download/sample/61547 and here: https://books.google.com.ph/booksid=6VAaBwAAQBAJ&printsec=copyright&source=gbs_pub_info_r#v=onepage&q&f=false

Published by Jazmin Llana

Hello, I am Jazmin Llana. I work in higher education in the Philippines with arts and humanities as my subject area. Here you can find links to my published essays and current projects.

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