Work with your Hands

by Bonnie Swift


The other day I sat down to tackle a long overdue sewing project, and as I started to thread the needle, noticed a feeling of restiveness creep upon me. The slow task of mending the holes in my socks appeared before me as a dull, slow, empty stretch of wasted time. I’m not used to the kind of mental space that mending socks brings. A product of my times, I am accustomed to a nearly constant stream of stimulating information. Though I like to think of myself as an old-fashioned, crafty kind of a person, I’m really not used to working with my hands. I long to have such patience.

When I need inspiration for reconnecting with that part of myself, I turn to the essays of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). Benjamin is best known “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which many undergraduates read at some point in their education. “The Storyteller” is another of his classic essays, and fits right in to our discussion on this blog.

In “The Work of Art” essay, Benjamin argues that factory-made objects of modern times are without the ‘auras’ of the handcrafted things of yore. In “The Storyteller,” he departs from the realm of objects and applies the same thinking to the realm of experience and speech. A storyteller, writes Benjamin, is someone who has the ability to communicate her own experience, and to exchange her experiences with others through her voice. But the storyteller, as Benjamin describes her, is in sharp decline. Benjamin’s diagnosis for this problem is dense and complicated. But a good diagnosis is the first step towards finding a cure. In other words, this essay’s many insights can help us find ways that we can recover the innate storytellers within ourselves. I will focus on one small part of Benjamin’s argument here, and leave to you discover the rest of this very rich essay yourself.

Benjamin’s unlikely champion of storytelling is boredom. He writes that the traditional university of storytelling was the artisan’s workshop, where tradesmen rubbed elbows and exchanged tales while they did their work. Their work was often repetitive, and the tedious nature of good craftsmanship was also the key to developing good storytelling. ‘Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience,’ writes Benjamin.

During hours of mundane tasks, the artisan’s mind had time to ruminate on his or her personal experience, then to formulate it into a well-tellable tale. They also had the time and repose to absorb the stories of others. By and large we are not the working artisans that we used to be, so storytelling, writes Benjamin, is coming to an end:

‘It is lost because there is no more weaving and spinning to go on while [stories] are being listened to. The more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply is what he listens to impressed upon his memory. When the rhythm of work has seized him, he listens to the tales in such a way that the gift of retelling them comes to him all by itself.’

If you are like me and you are sometimes seized by anxiety at the thought of working with your hands, try to remind yourself that the repetitive tasks of everyday life are useful in ways that might not at first seem obvious. While you are washing the dishes, folding the laundry, or mending the holes in your socks, you are also mulling over your days, formulating narrative structures that will later surface in your exchanges with others. The everyday practical work of life creates the time and space necessary for you to be present to the stories within and around you.

The Storyteller
Walter Benjamin, written in 1936, 24 pages
Translated by Harry Zohn, from Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt
Photo from Wikimedia Commons


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