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Notes on Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy #2

(Following on a little tardily from May's notes)

Chapter 2: Modern discovery of Primary Oral Cultures

Early Awareness of Oral Tradition

  • Tradition of writing down sayings longlived:
    • Ecclesiastes 12:9-10
      "Besides being wise, Qoheleth taught the people knowledge, and weighed, scrutinized and arranged many proverbs. Qoheleth sought to find pleasing sayings, and write down true sayings with precision."
    • By the Middle Ages, many (e.g Erasmus), got their sayings not from spoken utterance but snipped them from other writings.
    • Then there was the Romantic Movement's concern for folk culture and their working over of parts of oral/quasi-oral tradition (e.g. Thos. Percy, Brothers Grimm, James McPherson, Francis James Child
  • And by the early 20th Century, writing was predominantly seen to represent spoken language in visible form (e.g. Saussure) (though Prague Circle did note some distinctions.)

The Homeric Question

  • Homeric question highlights what's new in our current understanding of orality
  • Since classical times, Iliad/Odyssey have been seen as the most exemplary poems in western heritage.
  • And since classical times, each age has tried to show how these poems did what their own poems were aiming for, but better.
  • An awareness slowly grew that Homeric epics might actually have been a bit of a hodge-podge:
  • Vico (1668-1744)thought that Homeric epics creations of whole people not just one man
  • Robert Wood (1717-71) suggested that Homer not literate, and that memory played a key role. Homer populist rather than learned.
  • The Analysts of the 19thc saw epics as combinations of other poems/fragments (and tried to analyse what came from where). But strikingly they still assumed that poems/fragments all written texts.
  • The Unitarians, echoed the whole Paley and the God as watchmaker idea, by suggesting that big old Homer's works were so well structured and uniform that could not be a succession of disorganised contributions but had to be the work of one single creator.

Milman Parry's Discovery

  • Parry (apparently unknowingly) fused a lot of extant work (e.g. Ellendt's, Duntzer's, van Gennep's, Murko's, and Jousse's) to create his own vision
  • And his groundbreaking discovery was this:
    virtually every distinctive feature of Homeric Poetry is a result of the economy enforced on it by oral methods of composition.
  • In other words, oral poets have an abundant repertoire of epithets. These are used to fit cope with any metrical exigency that arises as the poet stitches the story together. And the poems are different at each telling, since oral poets tend to memorise verbatim, but use these epithetic building blocks.
  • It doesn't sound much but it's got some BIG ramifications. For instance, the role of the poet was itself called into question. Poets were not "meant" to use prefabricated materials, but to be original and inspired. e.g. for the Romantics, "the perfect poet should be like God himself, creating ex nihilo". That Greek word rhapsodein (to stitch together) became more and more ominous.
    "Instead of a creator you had an assembly-line worker"
  • Cliches became things of value:
    "Homeric poems valued and somehow made capital of what later [literate] readers had been trained in principle to disvalue, namely, the set phrase, the formula, the expected qualifier - to put it more bluntly, the cliche.
  • Eric Havelock showed how fundamental the cliche was, not just to poets, but to the entire oral thought process.
    "In an oral culture, knowledge, once acquired, had to be constantly repeated or it would be lost: fixed, formulaic thought patterns were essential for wisdom and effective administration."
    [My note: as per proverbs, too many cooks, what's good for the goose, etc...]. Writing, and stored knowledge, and especially interiorised alphabetic literacy freed the mind allowing it more original, abstract thought. Hence Plato forbade poets in his Republic - their reverence for thought meccano ran agin everything the philosopher was trying to build.
  • Oral thought habits continued in literate ages till at least the Tudor ages in the West through the teaching of classical rhetoric, only really being obliterated by the Romantic movement in the 1800s.
  • Many literate societies still rely heavily on formulaic thought/have never fully internalised alphabetic literacy: e.g. Arabic culture,
    "Kahlil Gibran has made a career of providing oral formulary products in print to literate Americans who find novel the proverb-like utterances that, according to a Lebanese friend of mine, citizens of Beirut regard as commonplace."

Consequent and Related Work

  • Parry's work has affected a range of fields from literary history to anthropology.
  • Literary studies: e.g. Havelock (above); e.g. study of Serbo-Croatian oral performers (Lord); e.g. looking at African Epics (Isidore Okpewho) in this new light.
  • Anthropology: e.g. shifts from "magic" to "science"/prelogical to logical/Levi-Strauss's "savage mind" to domesticated thought can be more economically explained as shifts from orality to various stages of literacy [Jack Goody(quicktime)]
  • McLuhan and ear-eye contrasts: the medium is the message.

Amazing really how much one takes for granted, in terms of how one thinks, and how others think. And how prevalent that "cliche" idea is in oral media like music (mixing, refrains, what have you). Anyway, the next chapter is about the different psychodynamics of oral and literate cultures, and is great. Will post some notes when I get a chance.


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