In Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Storyteller,” he discusses the death of the figure of the storyteller in contemporary society. In this essay, which was written in 1936, Benjamin reflects on the work of Nikolai Leskov, a Russian writer, and the growing popularity of the novel. The rise of the novel, for Benjamin, was tied to the rise of bourgeois subjectivity and was, in turn, related to the decline of ‘community’ in modern society. Benjamin sees, “the communicability of experience,” as on the wane in modern literature. His notion of communicable experience is a key concept in this essay. Benjamin sees great value in the passing on of experience and stories are described here as the vehicle for experience. He elucidates his definition of experience through an example from Herodotus’ Histories. The ambiguity of the story is central to its translation of experience, the fact that we have to reflect on the events of the story and come up with our own reasoning for why king Psammenitus’ breaks down at the sight of his servant and not his children means that we are ‘experiencing’ rather than merely listening to facts. It is important to note that experience in this essay is translated from the German erfahrung and not erlebnis, the former implies a cognitive taking in of experience while the latter can be defined loosely as a lived, base experience. For Benjamin the storyteller communicates experience, erfahrung, and gives “counsel” and “wisdom” to his/her audience.
As an avid follower of The Golden Girls I recognize something of Benjamin’s concept of “communicating experience” at work in this sitcom. While the narrative aspects of the show are obvious and undeniable there is something else that contributes to the unique format of the show. The pilot is not the best episode to base this theory off of but if one is well acquainted with the series across its seven seasons it is easier to recognize erfahrung as a running theme. The best part of the show, for me, has always been the stories that the ladies tell. Sophia’s tales of traveling pepperoni salesman, Rose’s tangents about a circus of herring juggling tiny Ginsu knives and Blanche’s recounting of debauched escapades under numerous Magnolia trees frequently have absolutely nothing to do with the problem at hand or even the plot in general, yet are absolutely enthralling (at least to me) and central to the shows format.
The ladies’ stories are, in this sense, not entirely dissimilar to that of Herodotus’. There isn’t any obvious slant or moral advice but simply the translation of an experience. The stories are that of erfahrung rather than erlebnis. When Blanche, Dorothy or Rose go to Sophia for advice (which happens frequently) they are usually not given any direct, clear instructions but rather one of her stories. This communication of experience is a central theme of the show. What we, as the audience, are watching when the girls gather around a cheesecake is an instance of the storytelling that Benjamin describes in his essay.