As part of preparing for my talk at Mythcon -- which will be focusing on the re-interpretation of myths in modern literature, especially as this is the anniversary of C. S. Lewis' brilliant novel Till We Have Faces, based on the myth of Cupid and Psyche -- I have been reading widely in the histories and structures of myth and oral narratives as a foundation. As an undergrad getting a degree in history, I was drawn to oral history, and later in graduate school, studied African oral narratives (under the very knowledgeable Harold Scheub). And then there is my own work as a writer -- and in doing academic reading again, I have been realizing how much my fiction has been shaped by oral narrative traditions.
True, I read the transcriptions of folktales in text (and often, translation) but was really moved when I combined the narratives with their cousins in songs and ballads -- which only come truly alive when sung. Whenever I have been in a gestational phase of writing, I am always singing to myself, to the dishes, to the knitting in my hands, to the folding of laundry...and without fail, some detail or image from singing and hearing the song, winds up in my work. It is an intimate conversation between the words, the tune, the past and whatever emotion fills my responding heart. It is such an odd, transcendent feeling -- the words on the page can not convey the same intensity of the words sung. And maybe it is just that -- the ephemeral nature of the utterance that makes us hang on it, that the emotional experience is in the moment of singing, not the contemplation of what it means afterward.
So I am reading Walter Ong -- whose insightful work Orality and Literacy has stood up very well over the last thirty years since its publication. In a style that is accessible, sharp, and witty, Ong examines the relationship between two camps -- traditional oral expression and the impact of literacy and the written word. Here are a few of the notes from the first chapter that I find most interesting:
1.The basic orality of language is permanent. Even in writing, words are made up of phonemes --functional sound units rather than letters. We reproduce the sound of the word (often in our head, especially if writing in a coffee shop) when it's read or written. So because of this connection of sound to text, writing can never dispense with orality. Writing is dependent upon a prior system of spoken language, but the oral expression can and has existed fully without any writing at all.
2. Written words are the residue (we can see and touch in texts) of oral speech transferred into grapholects, for in an oral society, when a story is not being told, all that exists is the potential in certain people to tell it. Writing gives rise to the ability to study, but in the oral tradition where texts do not exist, there is apprenticeship to actively transfer knowledge.
3. The term "oral literature" is an oxymoron arising out of an academic need to harness oral art to the more familiar act of writing. Yet, the word "literature" means "writing" in Latin, derived from "litera" -- or letter of the alphabet. ( Scheub argued this often, that the oral arts needed to be understood on their own terms, not as red-headed step-children to the written text.) Ong sums up the academic misdirection thus: "Thinking of oral tradition or a heritage of oral perfomance, genres, and styles as "oral literature" is rather like thinking of horses as automobiles without wheels."
4. There is a tension between the literate who can't imagine a world without the written word, the ability to store information (exactly as I am doing now), to look up words in a lexicon versus those of a truly oral society (though fewer now exist who have not been exposed to the dominance of literacy). It's true also, that oral languages have developed a high degree of grammatical complexity and elaborations without any help of written or visual translations of oral sounds.
5.There is a sadness in recognizing the diminishment of oral languages -- and with them the cultural legacies embodied in the oral performances. For members of an oral society to survive in the future, they must become literate -- and it then becomes even more important for literacy to restore memory and "to reconstruct for ourselves the pristine human consciousness which was not literate at all --at least to reconstruct this consciousness pretty well, though not perfectly... and bring a better understanding of what literacy has meant in shaping man's consciousness toward and in high-technological cultures."
Orality and Literacy, The Technologizing of the Word, Walter Ong, Routledge Press, 2002, Art: Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1888-1960), Susan Sorrell Hill, "Girl with Silver Hands," Gustaf Tenggren 1959, Svetlin Vassilev, Greek Myths.