I spent most of yesterday writing a preface for my collection of three essays about oral tradition, especially proverbs, in ancient Greece and Rome and in Gaelic Ireland. The little book should be available through my Amazon Author’s page in a day or two. I don’t have much fuel left in the tank this morning… but it has occurred to me that I might post excerpts this time and next time from that preface, for there’s some good stuff in it.
To begin at the beginning, I was aware that my cataloguing of proverbs from the classical world was fragmentary, with sources like Plutarch and Diogenes Laertius heavily represented while Pindar, Xenophon, and others were scarcely mentioned. No less clear to me, however, was that I was running out of time. I had long passed the point where such research would be of any material benefit to my career as a professor; and the subsequent career that I hoped to enjoy as a writer, however it might unfold, was not pointing me toward further years of meticulous combing through the classical compendium just to bring to light a few (or a lot) more proverbial nuggets.
I had resolved, then, to offer the fruits of my labors thus far to the general public for whatever good they might do. I think such good indeed exists. The distinction between the oral-traditional worldview or “noosphere” and the literate-progressive one is real, though probably much more flexible in its reality than we appreciate in the ivory tower. I know that we scholars tend to exaggerate it, as we seem to exaggerate all distinctions. (One of my favorite Sanskrit aphorisms runs, “The learned have many names for the One”: I don’t believe a compliment is intended.) Thanks to the insularity of academic life, the scholarly class usually lives in isolation from manual laborers, rural populations, sales representatives, and other demographic groups wherein lively verbal exchanges account for as much daily intellectual activity as the printed word. At best, such groups are viewed as intellectually insignificant and hence beneath worthiness of note; yet the same scholar who embraces this supercilious attitude will hop a flight to go hold a tape recorder in front of a Saharan goatherd or an aboriginal shaman!
Even we academics are more “oral” (in a very broad sense) than we realize. We have a high propensity, I have observed, for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—which might be parsed as an attraction to superstitious ritual. On the whole, our class disdains Western culture’s reverend bequest of beliefs in metaphysical reality—yet more than a few among us look wistfully at Earth worship or ecstasies induced by hallucinogens as the missing piece of our life’s puzzle. As for verbal formulas, we don’t retreat to them for the same reasons as would a pre-literate raconteur; yet in our zeal to be politically correct at all times, we saturate our professional routine with unexamined mumbo-jumbo, and even view the abrogation of free speech on our campuses as a kind of tribal duty.
So with a deep bow to Ruth Finnegan, I vigorously concede that the oral/literate interface is emphatically not some sound barrier the crossing of whose boundary is loudly announced by a cultural roar. We dance back and forth across the line daily, and perhaps hourly. Nevertheless, the line exists, scuffed up though it surely is. Most of the time, most people reared in an oral-tribal setting do not conceive of reality quite as we do. I lately happened on the phrase o’r blaen in a nineteenth-century Welsh text to refer to events in the past: “in front of us”. The Welsh farmer cum antiquarian Evan Jones imagined the past to lie opened up straight before him! An esteemed classicist once assured me that Homeric Greeks also viewed themselves as facing the past and having their backs to the future (a proposition that I find entirely plausible, though I never located exactly what words of Homer left him with this impression). Nothing could be further from the contemporary Western concept of the future: hence my use of the compound adjective “literate-progressive” above, which I have employed in classes for years. Many of us, indeed, so depend upon our species’ evolving—through deliberate, technologically engineered choices—in generations to come that a kind of Star Trek cult of the visionary has supplanted the religious faith of our immediate ancestors, who lavished devotion on a now-irrelevant (as we see it) past. In French literary circles of about a century ago, this new faith in the “divinity of the human race’s mission” was termed unanisme by figures like Jules Romains. Since Darwin, we literates have gravitated toward it like an Aztec to solar worship.
My studies in the traditional mind, as I think and hope, have helped in a minuscule way to flesh out such cultural and psychological differences. Walter Ong was my intellectual godfather in this endeavor; yet even Fr. Ong, at times, is perhaps excessively rigid in drawing patterns of influence. Our culture is not our jailer—only our interpreter; and culture has always been so, for all people. Indeed, one of the most pressing justifications for studying the oral/literate interface must be the strong potential of such studies to shed light upon homicidal and multiplying conflicts between the industrial, progressive West and the pastoral, atavistic East. Bridge-building is perfectly possible—but not until we identify the contours of the chasm separating us from our adversaries. Were the traditional mindset as distant from us as the thought processes of an alien from another galaxy, reviewing points of disagreement would serve no purpose; but because we can most certainly hearken back to a more cyclical, communal, and deterministic way of assessing human experience (well evidenced by our often doing so in spite of ourselves, as I wrote earlier), we might actually find means of accommodating our culturally less “evolved” brethren (where “evolution” is understood as “immersed in technology”).
The task of initiating such compromise probably must fall to us, as well: a culture that has left behind “orality” to commit itself fully to literacy is much better equipped to contemplate its previous steps than a traditional culture is to imagine steps not yet taken. This is a position I advance, by the way, at the end of the final essay, with the additional suggestion that we might even profit from recovering some of the traditional ethos. Sometimes cultural change sweeps us, through no particular virtue of our own, into morally salutary habits… and then further cultural change sweeps us—through no deep fault of our own—right out of those habits. The relevant proverb has something to do with babies and bath water.