Last Friday I was rereading Walter Benjamin’s essay "The Task of the Storyteller" when a highly successful advertising executive from my home town threw himself from a hotel window and plunged to his death. In the week that followed I heard or read several stories surrounding this unfortunate man’s death, but no coherent picture of the man emerged. He was a beloved family man, a widely-admired executive with several high-profile advertising campaigns to his credit. He was an alcoholic bully despised by his underlings for his abusive management style. He left behind a wife and two young daughters. He left behind a mistress. The stress of heading up the creative department of a major advertising agency killed him. Getting thrown out of his house killed him. Bloggers killed him.
One version of the story can be found here. Note the widow’s terse and enigmatic comment.
A couple of nights ago my wife received a call from a friend of hers whose husband is also the head of the creative department of a major advertising agency and lives in a North Shore suburb very near where the dead man lived. The woman’s husband was shaken up, as were a lot of people in the Chicago advertising community. It was from this woman that I heard the first confirmation that all was not well with the suicide victim’s life. Listening to her, I thought, any number of people had motive to kill him. From her we learned, for instance, that he threw himself from the Fairmont Hotel because he was living there after being thrown out by his wife when she discovered his affair with another advertising executive. In this version, his death was a kind of retribution for being a thoughtless, arrogant jerk. Advertising didn’t kill him. Living amongst high-strung, fiercely competitive haute bourgeoisie didn’t kill him. He lived recklessly. He was a drunk. In this version of the story his case was isolated–nothing to do with anyone else or the industry in which he worked.
Immediately after she hung up my wife and I Googled the man and found a maelstrom of recriminations and expressions of grief. An uncle of the dead man claimed attacks from bloggers drove his nephew to kill himself. In this version, the advertising executive was a blameless victim of a pack of hyenas bent on his destruction. The uncle made this claim in a blog.
In "Task of the Storyteller" Benjamin considers the state of storytelling in his time, a condition he links to the state of experience. Before the advent of the novel and the mass media, when stories were primarily passed on by word of mouth, the storyteller related "experience from afar" that nevertheless was instantly comprehensible to his or her audience because they had a common base of experience. The novel, according to Benjamin, doesn’t have this shared sense of experience; a novel is a wholly self-contained world the reader must enter as an outside observer. The ability to exchange experiences is further degraded in newspapers, which convey information without wisdom, "the epic side of truth." We get news from all over the world as it happens, but our historical knowledge is paltry because none of this news is memorable. It’s too far outside our experience, which has become so routinized that we’d rather forget what happens to us than explore it in depth.
What’s interesting about the stories I heard about the advertising executive’s suicide was that instead of trying to enter it, to appeal to a shared experience, people were trying to extricate themselves from it. The man’s death was a chockerlebnis, a shock experience, for many people. In his later writings Benjamin placed shock experience at the center of Baudelaire’s poetic practice and, by extension, at the center of modern literature and modern life. Every person effected by the suicide last Friday is busy trying to construct a narrative that places someone else besides themselves in that hotel room. As a shock experience, however, the narrative processing will never end because the experience itself is traumatic. Therefore, it can never enter language directly. It can only be approached again and again from different directions, but never cracked open. Each person tells their own story, but they can’t get anyone else to believe it because we’ve lost our ability to share experiences and incorporate them into our memories. "Only by virtue of a comprehensive memory," Benjamin writes, "can epic writing absorb the course of events on the one hand and, with the passing of these, make its peace with the power of death on the other."
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