Sat on these notes for over a month. Time to let it go.
Narrative Without Inscription
Most humans who have lived have been illiterate. They/we still told stories, a very small sample of which have been fossilized for observation today. These transcriptions and translations have kept the shape of those spoken specimens, but some of the connective tissue is missing- let alone the ecosystem that gave them the form that they had at fossilization.
Fossilized specimens are not alive. Beowulf the text is an instantiation of a Beowulf story that was told by memory, mnemonics, formula, personal style, and audience feedback- a living story that evolved and adapted across tellings, possibly highly variant like the weather but with some common salient features that drifted much more slowly, like climate.
In a recent re-reading of the Iliad that I rediscovered that the Trojan Horse wasn’t in the Iliad at all! The poem ends before the war ends- instead, the pseudo-sequel transcription of The Odyssey feeds that to us as mid-story flashback. One could imagine in a later Iliad retelling, maybe not long before or after the version we got, Homer actually went a bit further in his Iliad retelling and did indeed tell his audience about the Trojan Horse within the frame of A Poem About Ilium. It wasn’t a well-defined Intellectual Property- Homer didn’t own the story, and the boundaries of the story were probably often in flux.
The author of Before Literature: Narrative without the written word is interested in the study of Preliterature in order to pull us out of the water that we all swim in- the literate culture we presumably share, since you’re reading this. There are innumerate preliterate cultures with their unique stories, but there are common cheap tricks and forced moves that we ought to expect in the oral form, and this is the focus of her book.
Common Features of Pre-lit Epics
In his recent Mark Twain Award acceptance speech, Dave Chapelle talks about his mother’s suggestion that he should be a ‘griot’ [sic] (see 5:00-5:45)
Human brains are extremely lossy and have limited bandwidth, so the challenges of what to pass down and how to pass it down must be significant. Some of the considerations I’m about to list, especially the first few, are obvious, but some of them I think are under-considered when we think about why these stories are shaped the way they are.
- Time: History is not yet considered as an itemized list of events causing one another, because there are no tools to reliably impose this chronosense. There are clear patterns they/we have long recognized- infancy to adulthood, or seasons that cycle in years that might actually be countable- but events in the oral mythology don’t occur at a particular time necessarily. They’re instead “once upon a time”, and often the story starts en medias res. The Iliad as we’ve fossilized it begins nine years into the Trojan War already, and bounces back and forth in time- as flashbacks or as fated future outcomes- as information becomes pertinent.
- No surprises and subversion: The intended audience knows the broad outcomes of the story while it’s still being told anyway, as they’ve heard it before (because otherwise, how does the story survive?). Even within the story itself, Hector and Achilles have been informed they will die. The Illiad ends before Achilles himself actually dies, but we know that he will with certainty anyway. Surprising the audience or subverting expectations is not a reliable mechanic when stories have to be told and retold in order to be maintained, anyway.
- Collective Ownership: Stories are not private events or private property. The words pass through the air and are gone, so of course telling a story always involves a speaker and one or more listeners. History is explicitly a social thing, Our Story, tied the audience of the oral history, their ancestors and homeland. There is some personal craft but the story is not a personal meditation and can’t be maintained as one.
- Anchored to the Audience: There are long lists of Related Links and genealogies. These lists are social and political- who is related, where are they from, these are the parts we often glaze over as modern readers but to the intended audience this is live and relevant content that has to do with them. I remember the fan service applause in the Raimi Spiderman films whenever there was some hackneyed “This is New Yawk” moments. Peter Parker is from Queens, I know where that is and what it looks and feels like. I am from Queens (sort of- I’m a traveling tradesman who can’t be trusted, not rooted Queens volk)- Spiderman is my guy. (DC comics don’t do this as well, Metropolis and Gotham are just backdrops). The point being that to this audience, these are our Gods and heroes, our history.
- Call and response: In live form, the Orator is often not the only contributor to the auditory landscape. The story is not a broadcast.
- Episodic: “and then […] and then […].” Freytag triangles don’t exist here. Instead, like a Transformers movie, there is constant movement, constant fan service of one kind or another, if it’s identity-based cameos or lurid, excessive violence or slapstick comedy or intense bathos.
- Repetition is an obvious technique for increasing the longevity of certain ideas or images. If I had a dollar for every invocation of Rosy-fingered Dawn or the Wine Dark Sea.
- Exaggerated and clear characterization, often with excess praise or admonition involved. Subtle characterization will not survive the gap between tellings across generations.
- The bathos thing, again for emphasis. Despite constantly having the same titles and prefixes assigned to them, characters moods and behaviors swing wildly in a telenovela/soap opera style. It’s more memorable, less subtle, more immediately grokkable, and easier to transmit.
- Spectacular gruesomeness, because that shit sells. Obviously war stories are going to delight in this, but even non-war violence is often so wild that you could imagine the audience making oohs or maybe even laughing at the absurdity of it.
- Stories are nested and compressed across time. Stories contain meta moments for characters to tell pertinent stories and histories to other characters. Some stories probably survive exclusively as hangers-on of more viral stories in the epic universe. Oral epics will often have long asides, or sudden flashbacks. Some cultures use physical story aides of mnemonics to keep the key details in check, but otherwise one could imagine the orders and inclusions for be a bit different in each telling. You could imagine some of the strange diversions and references in old stories as being vestigial, or possible nodes to deviate on in other popular stories or tellings of the same story. I could imagine that this is what happened in the Book of Genesis as it was fossilized, when we’re told of a time where “The Nephilim were in the earth in those days” without any further explanation. The Nephilim cameo, I assume naively, must have been meaningful to the audiences of the Jewish Extended Universe at the time.
- Embodied objects: It’s an opportunity to transmit values or histories through special tools, weapons, or other items. This is probably more obvious in a world of scarcity where the provenance of things is more likely to be a concern to the audience anyway. In the Iliad, Hephaestus’ shield has a whole cosmology etched into it. A necklace gifted to Beowulf has a history that appears to connect it to other totems.
- No subtlety- not in the stuff that would survive, anyway. Symbolism and word choice is formulaic for a reason- the specific word choice will not necessarily survive the great cultural form of telephone, and after spoken they only exist in partial form across a few distributed brains, and so close readings are not going to be encouraged.
Some resulting common themes I want to emphasize:
- Formula: The idea of a work being formulaic is used pejoratively- Thomas Carlyle defined a formula with a “rule slavishly followed but not understood”, but contemporary medieval musician Benjamin Bagby argues that our real slavishness is our commitment to the written word- treating Beowulf (which he performs) as a single inelastic text. Without the crutch of literacy, how else to juggle such an immense poem, and flex it to appeal to each particular audience?
- Intersubjectivity: In the oral tradition the audience’s role is more prominent than our modern auteur-centered media life generally allows for. The audience’s history, tastes, and shared totems provide easy rewards for a storyteller to tap into. We could imagine stories shifting over time to piggyback on contemporary political and social biases. Contemporary oral cultures will twist genealogies in ways that are disputable to written records.
- Exteriority: Despite their frequent explicit characterizations, characters in the story are driven from external circumstances and social relations. Emotion here is not evidence of private feelings, but reflections of social relations. Shame, not guilt, is the overriding dread of the hero. Honor is likewise social. Grieving heroes are ABSOLUTE BABIES who rub themselves in dirt, tear at their hair, defiling themselves. A literal interpretation of this exteriority is the foundation of that Julian Jaynes thesis about consciousness itself (introspection etc.) being a very recent phenomenon.
- Totems, not symbols: Symbolism is an exercise for the reader. Totems, by contrast, are pre-known to their audience. Clear metonymies and culturally significant icons- we could use as our own totems stuff like the Cross, the White House, the Military Uniform, the Swastika, or visual attributes of the Catholic Saints.
As I get to it, muses permitting, I want to re-apply these notes to the concerns I will bring up in the immediate next post. I’d like to read more on them to present them as notes rather than random musings but there’s a shape of things that I think are interesting.
- Traces of Oral Culture in Visual Media
- Values in the Visual/Literature World that differ from values in the Auditory/Oral World
- Google Translate and the polyglot internet
- Salient differences in new epics vs the old stuff
- The anti-psychological plots of the oral world vs whatever we have now
- Were people in the recent past better at talking than educated people are today?