Walter Benjamin, in his great essay “The Storyteller,” written in the nineteen-thirties, argues that classic storytelling is structured around death. It is the fire at which listeners warm their hands. But these days, he suggests, that hearth is cold and empty. Benjamin notes that death has disappeared from contemporary life, safely shuffled away to the hospital, the morgue, the undertaker. Instead of the news of death, there is just news—the “information” that we get so easily in newspapers. “If the art of storytelling has become rare, the dissemination of information has had a decisive share in this state of affairs,” Benjamin writes. I sometimes think that the old leather couch Tolstoy kept in his study would be a good symbol of the mortal pulse that Benjamin was talking about. Tolstoy’s mother had given birth to him on this couch. She died when he was nearly two years old. Most of his thirteen children—five of whom died in childhood—were born on it, too. Was it not possible that one day he might lie on that same piece of furniture, and die there? It would be hard to write in such a study while oblivious of death as a life rhythm, of life as a death cycle.
more from James Wood at The New Yorker here.