Thursday, April 1, 2010

On The Reliability of Oral Tradition*

For a couple of weeks I’ve been trying to put together some thoughts on the role of oral tradition in human society, with no success. This failure has been caused by the need to do a great deal of research before pretending I know what I’m talking about, and then to sift through the data, theories and speculations of others to try to make sense of it all.

It occurs to me that I don’t have the time to do this, nor, given the amount of rubbish written on the subject, do I have the interest to work my way through it all, so I offer a kind of stream of consciousness piece, a random, swirling collection of thoughts that come into my mind when I think about the question, and which are just as likely to be nonsense as much of what I have read.

A friend of mine, who does know a lot about narrative tradition, and has done the research, happens to be preparing a lecture/paper on this very subject, including cognitive and neurological aspects, but I shan’t pinch his ideas, so you’ll have to make do with mine.

We like to hear stories, to be told stories and to a lesser extent to create stories. Stories entertain us, they help to pass the time. Stories help us to escape from life, to believe that somewhere, better, more fun lives are being led, and to imagine that one day we might be part of them. Those who create stories can have a great deal of power. Those who control the creators of stories can have a great deal more. But stories were not invented to be used as a tool by those who sought power; that would, I think, be too great a conceptual leap for human intelligence to make, dangerous as it is to rule out such possibilities. No, the desire for stories, for ornamental falsehood, is instinctive to the human mind, and I want to consider why this is so, and how this instinct serves us, and serves to control us.

As I have said many times before here and in other places (the pub mostly, and also in my unpublished collected works) we need to believe things to be true, but we are not very good at seeking it out, and we are often afraid of what it might turn out to be. So we invent things we would like to be true, and we call them truths. Often we do not invent them ourselves, but rather we take them from others, who may not be telling us their real beliefs, but giving us stories that it is useful to them to have us accept as true. Most people cannot distinguish truth from belief, or understand that there are categories of truth, each applicable to a different type of understanding.

Anyhow, oral tradition. One of the original uses of story-telling, as shown by primitive tribes even today, is to provide a sense of identity, to describe the origins of a people and establish a foundation for its behaviour and customs, including its concept of right and wrong. In the absence of recorded history- a very recent phenomenon and still limited in geographical range- the imagination of some of the tribe provides a past, a sense of superiority and justification, of possession, both of the tribe with respect to other tribes, and of each individual within the tribe. The hierarchies quickly learn that these stories are a way of creating truth and reinforcing their authority, of instilling courage in the warriors and fear in the underclass, and they are used as such.

The enemies change, the sense of self changes, what the present requires of the past changes, the leaders change, the fashion for entertainment changes- even around the tribal camp-fire- new traditions need new stories. New story-tellers give new stories or new twists to the old stories, either because they want to make them their own or because they are genuinely interested in the creative process. In this light, when you look to the politics of modern industrialized nations, the uneasy conspiracy between journalists and politicians to create an apparently coherent narrative that they can call the truth is not at all surprising. It's not even much more sophisticated. Sadly, we don't require them to try very hard to fool us.

Stories that are not written down will change very quickly, from generation to generation or more quickly still as events require, and no reliance whatsoever can be placed on the factual accuracy of stories that are told even about the supposedly very recent past. Although they purport to represent truth, they exist for quite different reasons than the transmission of any objective truth, and mean nothing whatever from the perspective of academic history.

Once they’re written down, or put into verse, with metre and broader structure, they are more likely to be preserved in something closer to the form they had when first written or versified, but they can still change, and of course, we can know nothing of their pre-literate history.

The essential elements of an oral narrative are, of course, the characters, not as names but as symbols, of qualities or institutions, mainly, and the events, which are also symbolic. Once it is in writing or in verse, the structure becomes as important as, or more important than, the symbolism of the story, and much harder to change. If the original context is lost, which will always happen eventually when they are put into writing or verse, and can happen even with oral transmission in some circumstances (for example, when the story is held to be beautiful in itself, and is deliberately preserved without change for long enough for the reason for its having that form to be forgotten) it is then no longer its transparent narrative symbols which are open to manipulation through direct change, but the interpretation of events and symbols whose originally meaning is no longer clear.

This, broadly speaking, is why oral tradition matters, how it is used and abused, and why it is not history.

*The title of this post has been changed on the advice of someone with taste.

4 comments:

Vincent said...

Very tasty, even with the blander title. So you employ an editor/critic for your posts?

Or even an amanuensis? I imagine you pacing back and forth, dictating your thesis on oral traditions to a severely-dressed young lady. She objects to your proposed title on the grounds that there are some things no girl could or would do for herself. You fail to note the shy but intense gleam behind those thick-rimmed glasses.

CIngram said...

Alas, the truth is far less interesting. It occured to me to experiment with titles that might attract people searching for quite different material, but on reflection it struck me as in poor taste, and also rather bad form to, in effect, spam myself. No young ladies, however severe of dress or thick rimmed of spectacle, were caused to blush by the production of this post.

Perhaps I could have called it 'Things we do with the tongue' and so covered all the bases!

I hope you found something of interest, by the way, as it was a discussion over on your blog which set me thinking about the subject.

Vincent said...

I was guiltily aware that I hadn't covered the actual content of your post. Now I am wondering which discussion over at my blog may have set you thinking.

The way you represent the oral tradition makes me prefer the written tradition, because it is more fixed. It carries more faithfully the flavour of when it was created.

I'm very interested in connecting to the past but it is difficult. The past is too much mediated by its curators, as in museums, the National Trust, who like to restore things, owners of old buildings and so on. Even the Bible: I would like to gain from it some insight into how it was in days gone by, when its stories were written, or narrated under a desert sky before being written. But such is the influence of a Christian upbringing that I can only breathe the atmosphere of Scripture lessons and the aroma of ancient churches, and the intonation of lay readers reading an extract from Isaiah from a lectern.

My concern for archaeology was established as a boy. I still want to commune with my ancestors, as it were, in order to exorcise the baleful influence of the living.

I am grateful to you for a clear-eyed critique of the oral tradition.

CIngram said...

I can't find, on your blog, the comments section that set me thinking. Perhaps it was somewhere else, after all. Memory is very unreliable, especially mine.