Walter J. Ong, Jr., Orality and Literacy (1982): Freshman composition students – whose deficient prose has come in for praise during their progress from Kindergarten to high school by teachers who also write poorly and have no real grasp of grammar or syntax – believe firmly that writing differs not at all from speaking. They therefore “write” only what they would say, were they jawing with their dorm-buddies over some topical topic. (If, that is, they did jaw, but mainly they do not.) Ong’s Orality and Literacy explores the stark contrast between oral language and written language; or rather, between the thinking of those who live in what he calls primary oral cultures and those who live fully in the stream of literate, either chirographic or typographic, culture. Ong’s chapter on “Some Psychodynamics of Orality” lists the characteristics of a primary oral culture. In an early paragraph Ong remarks that “fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like, that is, a culture with no knowledge whatsoever of writing or even of the possibility of writing.” For one thing – an oral culture is also an aural culture. Speech is sound; it vanishes into silence in the same moment as it pronounces itself. Speech is time-bound. To attend to speech means to attend to persons, either orators or interlocutors; and both oratory and interlocution correspond to a performance. Oral cultures and literate cultures in fact share a need, namely to preserve the wisdom necessary for group survival, but in an oral culture this takes the form of proverbs and sayings, which are anything but discursive and strike literates as quaint and hackneyed. “In an oral culture,” as Ong writes, “experience is intellectualized mnemonically.” The young come under the obligation continuously to repeat the legal and customary formulas. Oral cultures will appear to literates as restrictive and redundant in their iteration, narrow in range, and sententious, traits that arise from an intrinsic limitation.
According to Ong, oral cultures are “additive rather than subordinative.” Speakers stitch items together with and… and… and… In parataxis, the story of indefinite episodes predominates. Logical analysis or causal review emerges only in rudimentary form with much hesitance or goes entirely missing, usually the latter. Oral cultures are, again, “aggregative rather than analytic,” “redundant or ‘copious,’” and “close to the human lifeworld.” Oral cultures are nevertheless competent, as long as they remain intact. Accepting that Homo sapiens has existed for something close to two hundred thousand years, then humanity’s period of literacy amounts to no more than the briefest fraction of that endurance. On the other hand, the emergence of literacy, especially of alphabetic literacy, marks a radical transformation of human life. As Ong argues, borrowing from the research of the classicist Eric Havelock, the Greek innovation of the alphabet brought into play a technology (both Havelock and Ong regard writing as technology) that altered the habits of thought and thus also the structure of mind. As Ong points out, within two hundred years of the alphabet’s invention, probably between 800 and 750, the spectrum of literary genres, and not just epic and lyric, had appeared: Philosophy, history, physics, logic, ethics, mathematics, and the rest. Whereas in orality knowledge remains auricular and time-bound, in literacy it becomes visual and achronic; and as text* it resists its own disappearance. The printed page gives rise to the opportunity of back-tracking, which impossible speech facilitates only with great difficulty or not at all. The printed page also presents itself in a non-personal way, reducing the agonistic strain inherent in spoken exchange.
The last seventy years of public education in North America have accomplished two disasters. Public education has gleefully destroyed an intact oral tradition that existed alongside the dominant typographic tradition. At the same time it has knocked the bases from under literacy (phonics, and rigorous instruction in grammar, to name but two) and, as the phrase puts it, has dumbed down the curriculum by swapping genuine matriculation for ideological indoctrination. Public education in effect abolished hypotaxis (subordination) and thereby mutilated thinking. The first-year college student, taking the freshman composition course, or any other course, finds himself doubly disoriented. He is, in one sense, a victim – of a very deliberate and deliberately disabling deprivation. The institutions have deprived him both of an intact orality and of a literate competency. He never reads, in part because he cannot read, cannot stay focused on the linearity of the printed page, and he therefore fails to grasp the causal order that only a book can reveal, whether as narrative or as analysis. He ought to sue, but he will never discover the swindle. It is something like the perfect crime.
Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato (1962): The scandal for modern readers of Plato’s Republic consists in the dialogue’s angry recurrence to the wickedness of poetry, which Socrates identifies with mimesis or “imitation,” which is, for him, and apparently also for Plato, itself a scandal. Modern readers of The Republic will also have read and greatly admired Homer and Hesiod, whom they regard as founders of a Western Literary Tradition – Homer especially being unsurpassed in his epic achievement. Why would Plato, himself a myth-maker, reject the myth-poets? Does it really boil down to a kind of Puritanism – that the gods of the epos behave badly and thus lower the moral bar for those who are supposed to follow their example? Havelock’s first stage in coming to terms with The Republic is to tackle the web of meanings in which Plato’s mimesis functions as a center. Far from being a vague term in the context of Plato’s discussion, Havelock regards mimesis as its fundamental topic. For Havelock, The Republic is less a political treatise than it is a pedagogical treatise. The dialogue represents Plato’s attempt to clarify an emergent cultural phenomenon in which his own work figured both as a consequence and as a furthering catalyst. Havelock performs an exemplary close reading of The Republic, requiring the full sequence of his fifteen chapters. In Chapter Two, “Mimesis,” Havelock writes that, in Plato’s unfolding argument, “mimesis has become the word par excellence for the over-all linguistic medium of the poet and his peculiar power through the use of this medium (meter and imagery are included in the attack) to render an account of reality.” Plato had recognized, as Havelock argues, that oral recitation, not being restricted to festive occasions, but permeating every aspect of communal existence, not least education, acted less as the transmission of inherited wisdom (although it indeed fulfilled that role) than as an obstacle preventing the development of an entirely new mode of thought.
Havelock presents Plato as the discoverer of the difference between an oral culture and a literate one, he himself bodying forth a new literate style of thinking that came necessarily into conflict with the tradition. Havelock supports his case by surveying the evidence concerning pedagogy in the Archaic period of Greek civilization. Omitting here the details and recurring to summary only, the evidence reveals to him the systematic inculcation, not of independent cogitation, but of an immersive oral-formulaic view of the world. That regime prevented the emergence of the individual from the social mass, diverted psychic energy to rote memorization, and restricted intellectual maturity to a paltry short term. It wasted human potential. Plato wanted, Havelock asserts, to wrest the new generation from its total orientation to the spoken word and reorient it to writing. For Plato, writes Havelock, “Poetry represented not something we call by that name, but an indoctrination which today would be comprised in a shelf of text books and works of reference.” One might add: Textbooks of the most rudimentary sort – for first-graders – and works of extraordinarily limited reference. In Havelock’s interpretation, Plato also objects to the oral paideia because it stirs up emotion rather than reflection and sustains a pervasive agitation in the society. One thinks of the character of Thrasymachus as the dialogue’s prime exemplar of the phenomenon. He lives in a perpetual agony, appropriate perhaps in the Heroic Age, but misplaced in the much-developed Athenian polis.
The famous Parable of the Cave appears in a new light under Havelock’s reading. The oral style tends to catalogue things; it remains mired in the disorganized world of the many, which it iterates apart from logical arrangement. Chained to his bench, the involuntary pupil views the sequence, in no particular order, of the shadowy images; he does so, moreover, in enforced company, with his fellow prisoners. Nothing differentiates him from them. They are one and all the products of mimesis. A worldview imposes on them; they internalize it, and in so doing remain prisoners. Under the grace of his liberation, the protagonist of the parable becomes, nascently at least, an individual. He then progresses, in the direction of light and upward, from the dumb iteration of the disparate images to the domain of the sole and central luminosity – or simply from the many to the one, the former symbolized by obscurity and the latter by the solar effulgence. Havelock writes: “So it is that the long sleep of man is interrupted and his self-consciousness, separating itself from the lazy play of the endless saga-series of events, begins to think and to be thought of, ‘itself of itself,’ and as it thinks and is thought, man in his new inner isolation confronts the phenomenon of his own autonomous personality and accepts it.” To take a step beyond Havelock, it required the Platonic critique of “poetry” in order that, liberated from phonic repetition, the subject might re-appropriate on a new level what at an earlier stage he had to reject.
The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki (Fourteenth Century —Translated by Jessie Byock): The Icelandic sagas fascinate in part because they base themselves on oral traditions going back to the insular settlement of the “Taking of the Land” in the Ninth Century and because, more so than Homeric or Medieval epic, they break free from the restrictions of verse and inaugurate a new style of prose narration. The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki can lay claim to another qualification. It is one of those epoi, like the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey and the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, that scholarship long regarded as pure fiction but that archaeology has revealed to possess an historical basis, however minimal. Hrolf Kraki and Beowulf in fact converge. King Hroar in the former corresponds to King Hrothgar in the latter. Diggings at Lejre in Zealand, Denmark, have uncovered the remains of a large mead hall that might well be the Heorot of Beowulf. The relationship of Hrolf Kraki and Beowulf also suggests that while on one level Norsemen and Englishmen lived in considerable bellicose tension with one another, on another level they participated in an overlapping artistic milieu, with many crossing influences. (In Beowulf, when the bard initiates a recital in order to celebrate the hero’s defeat of the marsh-stepper Grendel, he sings of the endeavors of Sigurd the Volsung, who figures prominently in his own Icelandic saga.) As translator Jessie Byock notes in his Introduction, in being one of the later sagas, Hrolf Kraki is also one of the more literary sagas. This entails something of a paradox, or at any rate an irony, namely that this story of characters and events from a remote era (the late Fifth and early Sixth Centuries), reads like a proto-novel more than it does like a primitive recitation. Indeed, the commercial writer Poul Anderson once adapted Hrolf Kraki as a sword-and-sorcery adventure, under the title Hrolf Kraki’s Saga (1973).
Hrolf Kraki offers the reader not only a fast-paced tale of heroic ordeals, covering several generations, but also a fascinating and rich anthropological panoply. As does Beowulf in his story, a number of characters in Hrolf Kraki, including the protagonist, participate in the ancient Scandinavian warrior-tradition of the berserker. The berserker foreshadows the comic book character of the Incredible Hulk. A devotee of Odin, through the bear-cult sponsored by that god, the berserker (notice the first syllable, ber!) can, on the eve of battle, transform himself into a near-indestructible and near-unstoppable raging animal-man, on analogy with a werewolf, except that werewolves cannot transform voluntarily. Ferocity in battle is one of the berserker’s talents, but, through his communion with Odin, he also deals in prophecy and in visionary access. One of Hrolf’s ancestors, Bjorn (in Norse, a bear) refuses the romantic suit of the thoroughly nasty Queen Hvit. She insults him; he slaps her. She then places a curse on him to live his life as a bear. A woman named Bera (in Norse, a female bear) wanders through a forest and sees “a savage bear.” At the same time “she thought she recognized in the eyes of the bear the eyes of Bjorn, the king’s son.” Bera follows Bjorn to his cave, entering which he reverts to human form. The two fall in love. At intervals Bera gives birth to three sons, the third bearing the descriptive moniker of Bodvar Bjarki (Bjarki – in Norse, a bear-cub). Bodvar comes into the employ of Hrolf and proves himself a great champion. He recruits his brothers, who have the traits one of an elk and the other of a wolf. Bodvar defeats the much-vaunted berserkers of King Adils the Swede, who might, like Hrothgar and Hrolf, have a historical basis.
Hrolf Kraki features numerous fantastic elements centering themselves on berserker-dom, but it conforms in other ways to the reality of Norse society when it first emerges into legend and history. Feudalism takes its name because feud dominates relations within the community and between communities. Just about every Icelandic saga takes the form of a long sequence of feudal murders. The pattern of offense, ambush, torture, and murder repeats itself in a seemingly endless cycle, spreading through the society like a cancer and involving parties who had no truck with the instigators. The sagas affirm the mimetic nature of human violence. In this too they offer the reader rich anthropological nourishment. Hrolf Kraki, under the influence of Christian morality, links feudalism in the gross sense of rippling revenge, to the heathen status of its heroes, whom the author seems genuinely to admire. Now excess belongs to feud. Hrolf, in responding to provocations, commits excess so that the cycle returns to him implacably. He stands with his warriors, including Bodvar Bjarki, while his enemies, having achieved surprise, cut down the defending ranks. A Christian observer, a missionary, named Master Galterus, remains unharmed. He says to the king: “Events have come out as expected… Human strength cannot withstand such fiendish power, unless the strength of God is employed against it.” As Galterus explains: “That alone stood between you and victory, King Hrolf [that] you had no knowledge of your Creator.”
Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death (1849 – Translated by Alastair Hannay): In one of the peculiarities of inveterate and omnivorous reading, books that on first sight cannot possibly enjoy a relation to one another nevertheless converge and intercommunicate. The Sickness unto Death, appearing under the pseudonym of Anti-Climacus, communicates, of course, with what Kierkegaard called his “authorship.” It goes beyond that, however. The Sickness carries on Kierkegaard’s project of a New Socraticism in the service, not of Christendom, which the Dane despised, but of Christianity, which he rigorously differentiated from a nominally Christian society, and to which he dedicated his massive apologetics. The Sickness fashions itself, as do many of Kierkegaard’s works, on the model of an extended sermon. The sermon qualifies as a paradoxical genre. The homilist delivers it as oratory, but he secures its foundation in Scripture. The New Testament of Scripture, like the dialogues of Plato, originates in and celebrates a Master who never wrote, but who only spoke, whose word lives and vivifies, but, to the dead-of-soul, lies apparently inert on the page. As a dialectical treatment of speech and writing, of life and death, of the return of death into life, The Sickness, quite apart from its author’s intention, communicates with Ong’s Orality and Literacy and Havelock’s Preface to Plato – men and their respective works that Kierkegaard could not have known because he predeceased them. Kierkegaard puts forward as the major thesis of The Sickness that, in endowing men and women with life, God wishes them to realize their individuality as much as possible, a task quite high in the degree of its challenge, so much so that most people despair of it and lapse thus into sin. Kierkegaard defines sin as “being unconscious in despair of having a self,” “not wanting in despair to be oneself,” and “wanting in despair to be oneself.”
The above constitutes a minimal summary, whose inadequacy readers may take for granted. Kierkegaard’s treatment is subtle in the extreme and relentlessly “dialectical” in his anti-Hegelian sense of that term. Consider, however, by way of a detour, the scriptural or literary basis of Kierkegaard’s idea of the self – and consider it doubly in light of Ong and Havelock. In a famous sentence-sequence at the beginning of The Sickness, Kierkegaard writes: “The human being is a spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. The self is a relation that relates itself to itself, or that in the relation which is relating itself to itself. The self is not the relation but the relation’s relating to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.” A first-time reader of The Sickness will likely be baffled by the involutions of Kierkegaard’s thought and prose in the quoted passage, but by the time he turns the last page, he will have overcome somewhat the vertigo that the involutions first inspire. But not entirely and never entirely. The involutions, which could only occur in written language, resist full resolution. Yet that irresolution perfectly symbolizes the necessary incompleteness of the spiritual adventure, with its numerous deadly pitfalls, of this mortal existence. For Kierkegaard, the true Self that the brave Christian endeavors to attain in order to honor God, always backs off from full appropriation. It stands ahead of the seeker perpetually. The concept of the Self, of the person, while it originates in the Living Word, requires scripture (with or without the capital S) or text (that much-abused word) for its comprehensible articulation.*
The human subject becomes truly a subject when he stands outside himself and reads himself objectively as though he were critiquing a written argument. According to Havelock, Plato had arrived at a similar conclusion. The spoken word, however inspired it might be at its first utterance, can die; it can become the equivalent of a dead letter. The rote-paideia based on phonic repetition had ceased to vivify (supposing that it ever had vivified), as Plato saw things; if men were to graduate from purveyors of opinion to independent seekers after wisdom, it would be through the mediation of writing. Ong’s idea that writing, especially alphabetic writing, restructured consciousness seems apposite. Letting Kierkegaard, Havelock, and Ong freely associate – one might venture the thought that God has revealed himself in stages and that the ultimate stage has to do with the emergence first of the chirographic and then of the typographic page, or scroll, or book. St. Augustine approached conversion by stages, one of which consisted in reading the Platonic literature, which he characterizes as a precursor to the Gospel and as part of a larger revelation. What of those poor freshmen in the basic composition course? Are they not, as Kierkegaard puts it, “being unconscious in despair of having a self”? And is not their functional illiteracy part and parcel of a petulant resistance to instruction; that is, of their collective not wanting in despair to be themselves because they enjoy the maternal coziness of the coddling opinion-world more than the prospect of redeeming their debt to the Creator-Savior?
*The word text is somewhat unwelcome here at The Orthosphere because Pomo-speak bandies it about, but it might be time to redeem the term; it is useful.