Hermann Beusinger, who died in 2021 at the age of 95, was an institution in southwest Germany: as a folklorist at the University of Tübingen, he made “experimental cultural studies” a model for success and delved deeply into the seemingly familiar mentality and soul structures of his countrymen.
Among his extensive research activities were field studies on storytelling. The oral tradition, which is slowly fading, is one of the most important things that folklorists study. In his latest book, Bausinger focused on “telling” individual articles and linking them together.
He approaches his subject through three different approaches: it is about storytelling as it appears in concrete contemporary everyday life, secondly on the narrative patterns that have developed in history, and finally on reflections on the nature of language in which the ambiguity of storytelling becomes apparent. : deception, manipulation, narcissistic tricks.
Bausinger offers a clear example. More than a dozen people sit around a large table, and there is a difference between normal contributions to a conversation – opinions or observations – and that moment when someone has a story to tell.
What it means for him to say his words, and that everyone else listens to for a while, what is necessary to build the story coherently: Pausinger explains it in great detail. He arrives at the astonishing image that the narrator is initially pressured to tell and has subsequently “liberated” himself from the story. Storytelling independence, which is often the problem, can take many different forms.
The moral villain of the story”
Of course, the middle chapter on the storytelling tradition is the basis of it all. Fairy tales and legends constitute the oldest traditions, and the Central European fairy tale corresponds to ancient legends, which are always diverse nowadays. Bausinger combines key research findings with a narrative tone—yes: humor.
The story of what became from the original French version of “Little Red Riding Hood” in the famous German version of the Brothers Grimm is very revealing. In the case of Charles Perrault, whose collection dates back to the 17th century, the wolf ate Little Red Riding Hood just like the grandmother before.
In the case of the Brothers Grimm, they were rescued from the belly of the wolf, and the wolf died, and this leads Pausinger to very divergent considerations about the nature of German morality and education, especially in the nineteenth century. The “witch” burning example earlier showed how demagogic narrative strategies can be used. The “moral of the story”, which then became the parable in German mythology, attempts to use the power of imagination for social and political purposes.
Thoughts about jokes, lies, the narrator’s self-representation, and the “narrative” or “staircase joke” frequently lead to surprising results. And one thing becomes crystal clear: storytelling isn’t harmless.