In Octavia Butler’s Kindred, the main character, Dana, interacts with her past and history in a way that embodies Walter Benjamin’s analysis of storytelling in “The Storyteller.” Benjamin begins his discussion by noting the differences between novels and storytelling. He writes, “Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn. And among those who have written down the tales, it is the great ones whose written version differs least from the speech of the many nameless storytellers” (Benjamin 84). Storytelling involves all of the experiences of the storyteller because they inform the way the storyteller first receives the story as well as how the storyteller tells the story. The story evolves with each telling as the experiences of each storyteller flow into and transform the story. Storytelling also involves the listener in direct communication with the storyteller, whereas the reader of a novel can completely separate the novel from the novelist. There is nothing to make the novelist real to the reader in the moments he or she reads the novel.
As Ben (not to be confused with Benjamin, the author of “The Storyteller”) notes in his blog post this week, Butler can be seen as a storyteller within the novel. I argue that Dana can also be seen as a storyteller herself when she travels back into the past, although not in the traditional sense that Benjamin envisions in his writing. Dana’s excursions to the past, her ancestors’ pasts, share similarities in how storytelling exists to connect to history and experience. In turn, Dana’s moments in the present, as well as our own moments in the present, represent the telling of a novel and that isolation that comes with that experience.
Benjamin argues that experience is crucial to storytelling, and storytellers must be able to connect his or her experiences to the telling as well as connect the experiences of the past storytellers. In Kindred, Dana is literally able to connect her current experiences to the events of the past by time traveling back to the antebellum South. These trips to the past represent the art of storytelling by bringing these experiences of Dana’s ancestors into direct communication with her own experiences, developing and shaping Dana’s story in the process.
Dana’s experiences in the present, however, more closely resemble a novel because she does not have access to those previous experiences. Instead, she, as is the case for all the readers of Butler’s novel, can only create an imaginary connection to the past. We are isolated from the story of history via the progression of time. Benjamin’s explanation of the differences between the novel and other prose argues:
that it neither comes from oral tradition nor goes into it. This distinguishes it from storytelling in particular. The storyteller takes what he tells from experience… in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale. The novelist has isolated himself. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounseled, and cannot counsel others (87).
As the novelist has isolated himself from the collective that is storytelling, so have we, and Dana, isolated ourselves from the truths of experience from the past. Readers do not have that direct connection to the author that listeners have to the storyteller. That connection has the ability to affect the story itself, much like how a speaker in a presentation may adapt his or her presentation based on the instantaneous feedback from his or her audience. The listener of a story has the power to influence the story just as Dana, who takes part in the story by time traveling, is able to affect the events of the past. She continually saves the life of her ancestor, Rufus, who is the white son of a plantation slave owner. In order to ensure her own survival in the present, Dana must keep Rufus alive, at least until he gives Alice a daughter named Hagar. Dana also is the direct cause of Rufus’ death at the end of the novel, further “changing” or ensuring the course of the story.
As those who live in the present, we cannot change history. We may look back and analyze, theorize, and politicize the events of the past, but those events are permanent and already written down in history, much like how the events in novels are permanent and unable to be changed during the reading by the readers. Benjamin writes, “A man listening to a story is in the company of the storyteller… The reader of a novel, however, is isolated, more so than any other reader” (100). The reader and the novel are separate from the oral tradition that storytelling draws so heavily from. We read alone and experience the novel alone. Studying history can also be an isolating experience that involves guesswork due to the lack of experience that is shared to the reader.
Because of this isolation, “In this solitude of his, the reader of a novel seizes upon his material more jealously than anyone else. He is ready to make it completely his own, to devour it, as it were. Indeed he destroys, he swallows up the material as the fire devours logs in the fireplace” (Benjamin 100). We look upon the past and try to make it ours, use it for our own gain, destroying the past in favor of our own representations of the past, and fighting anyone who tells us otherwise. In this situation, I am reminded of the phrase “history is written by the winners.” Looking back at our separate and limited views of history, we can make black and white decisions of events, people, places, and ideas. Dana’s trips to the past shatter these perceptions, exposing the gray area where most of the past actually lives. The slave owners could show some honesty, compassion, or honor, and Butler depicts Alice as imperfect and just as prone to feelings like jealousy and mean-spiritedness.
Through those experiences linked to storytelling, a recurring theme that is a staple to the entirety of storytelling is the idea of death. Because storytelling draws from the past, “Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death. In other words, it is natural history to which his stories refer back” (Benjamin 94). Dana’s experiences in the past take the connection to death all too literally with the deaths of Alice and Rufus along with many others. More generally, the past is the past essentially because those times are now metaphorically dead. Dana’s time travelling “refer[s] back” to natural history, as Benjamin puts it. Storytelling makes the dead living again for the moment because of its direct connection to the past. Novels, on the other hand, can only refer back to those dead moments but cannot bring them back to life.
Benjamin ends “The Storyteller” by writing, “The storyteller is the figure in which the righteous man encounters himself” (109). Dana encounters herself in these trips to the past through the various people she meets like Rufus and Alice. She learns as much about herself as she does other people. These trips also change her relationship to her white husband, Kevin. They learn more about each other in the process, not always for the better, and must move forward with these realizations. The best stories stick with us and change us, just as Dana’s travels have done for her.