I am continuing with my notes on reading Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy, with some sidesteps to look at authors, whose work Ong references: Milman Parry and Albert Lord whose Singer of Tales is a fascinating study not only of the structure of Homer's Illiad and The Odyssey but also the important use of mnemonic devices in works that are orally performed and transmitted. So here are the key interesting ideas for me:
Milman Parry analyzing Homer's Illiad and The Odyssey discover that every distinctive feature of Homer's poetry is due to the economy enforced on it by oral methods of composition. These were never performed the same, as poets in an oral culture do not "memorize" the text, but "stitched together prefabricated parts." They recognized a collection of epithets (so many versions of "the wine-red sea") that had different meter lengths and could be used anywhere in the text as the poetry required. This certainly makes sense to me where both epics and tales were highly patterned -- usually the only consistent feature of different collected variants of the same epic or story. According to Harold Scheub's observations, even a child of five can be a reasonable good storyteller because she will have learned the patterning of the narrative, having it heard it repeated with every telling.
Ong argues: "Homeric Greeks valued cliches because not only poets but the entire oral noetic world or thought-world relied upon the formulaic constitution of thought. In an oral culture, knowledge once acquired, had to be constantly repeated or would be lost." However, I would add, that the repetition itself, needed to be evocative and interesting, eliciting a variety of emotions out of the listener to engage them and that is when repetition becomes art, rather than a list of items to be recalled. Ong expresses David Bynum's ideas, (The Daemon in the Wood,1978) that "the clusters constitute the organizing principles of the formulas so that the essential idea is not subject to clear, straightforward formulation but is rather a kind of fictional complex held together largely in the unconscious." And so strong is the idea of the formulaic portions of storytelling that "they ride deep in the conscious and unconscious" and don't vanish the moment literacy is introduced, but often are reproduced even in early written form by those from the oral culture who have learned to write --mimicking at times the oral performance. (Amos Tutuola's brilliant The Palm Wine Drinkard is an excellent example of this -- although in Nigeria he received criticism, mainly from educated Nigerians because of what was perceived as low-class, uneducated English.)
I find this particularly interesting because when a fairy tale transforms from its oral version (which ironically we can only read in transcribed texts) into a literary tale, it runs the risk of losing its profound evocative nature. Repetition and patterning into forms organize the details of the story, creating tension when the human and the fantastic interact -- emphasizing not just the surface movement of the tale, but all the complicated feelings such arrangement of images brings forth to the listener. In some ways, it is closer to music (or indeed, singing the tale) -- we are aware of the patterning, the phrases, the way they move from introduction to increasing complicated arrangements and then a coda which feels like the beginning but isn't because of the experience of the journey to get to the end. There is for the analyst the social message -- what is the story trying to tell us? I think it's more a case of how is the story making the audience experience through its techniques, our lives as lived in that moment of the telling, and because our lives are always changing, allows us to hear the same tale over and over, and find in it something new.
Photo: "Griot" © Emile Snyder, 1963, Tittia Frasciotti, Galekea Women, 1988.