epics and oral traditions

Birgit Kellner kellner at ipc.hiroshima-u.ac.jp
Fri Jun 6 17:56:18 UTC 1997

(1) About pragmatics - (D. Thillaud)
What Parry did was to sit down (presumably), study a lengthy text,
discover certain features and derive, from this discovery, that the text
has oral origins. These features were mainly formulas - formulaic
expressions, grouped around standardized themes ("challenge", "council",
"hero's shield" etc.). From this, he inferred an oral origin of the
written text. What is to be established here is *that* the predominance
of certain stylistic features allows inferences about the originally
oral character of the text in question. Such an inquiry can be applied
to any written text, regardless of its

Whether the *literary* genres that we have transmitted, in *writing*,
have different pragmatics is thus immaterial to whether they did or did
not originate in oral "texts". Pragmatics are only relevant to *how* the
process of writing down took place, to *how* the original oral "text"
was memorized, by whom, etc. 

The question about Renou is not whether he was right or wrong, but how
he went about establishing his claims - that is (to repeat), whether he
and other Vedicists ever took Parry's work into account (whether they
subsequently found it inapplicable or not is an entirely different

(2) About mnemotechnics and stability of texts (written or oral) - 
one of the difficulties with oral transmission is that verbatim
memorization, that is, stability word for word, is impossible to prove
(or was, before the advent of recording technologies), and, one might
add, not particularly relevant to begin with. Ong refers to research
conducted amongst Serbian Bards. Most of them claimed that they recited
the very same oral text at every single performance. Recording different
performances proved them wrong; there were considerable differences. I
think Ong somewhere gives 60% as the most of reliability that was
attested so far. Methodologically, it is important to note that this
discrepance between perceived stability and proven stability surfaces
only when the oral text is somehow "dis-authenticated", that is,
stabilized by an extraneous medium (be it writing or taping). This is
simply due to the evanescence of sound and the irreproducability of
recitation. Ong illustrates the relevant difference between visual and
the auditory perception with a simple thought-experiment: Take a flow of
images, such as a film. Stop it, and you will still have a single image.
Take, on the other hand, a flow of sounds - stop it, and you have
nothing. The transmission of oral texts can therefore ONLY be
investigated indirectly. The advantage of written texts is not that they
are intrinsically more stable or infallible, but that they are
verifiable - the original and the copy can exist at the same time. This
is simply not the case for the spoken word. (Even the Chinese mentioned
by Dan Lusthaus could only verify the amazing memory of the pundit by
having people write the recitation down. By the way, how slow did he
have to speak so that they could follow him? Or were their writing
skills as fascinating as the pundit's memory? Just wondering)

The example given by Allen Thrasher (samhitas seemingly represent an
older form of Sanskrit than brahmanas, but shouldn't, according to
Lord/Parry/Ong) would deserve a closer look. If we find two texts
representing different stages of linguistic development side by side in
writing, the first obvious question is "how did they get there?". Did
somebody put two independent written texts together, or were the texts
recited together, in (approximately) the very form that we have them

Preservation of archaisms, that is, linguistic conservativism, has been
singled out as one important feature of oral transmission, so I'm not
sure why this would be strange according to Lord/Parry/Ong. That a
privileged class of "text-producers" handles different linguistic styles
for different purposes seems quite plausible to me (THIS would be an
instance of pragmatic factors accounting for the specific character of
transmitted orality). 

(3) About amazing memories etc. 

Arguments as to why the Indian resisted writing seem to me rather
fruitless. Unless we could provide (written!) records to the effect that
writing was, at an early stage, considered as a horrible disease (along
the lines of Plato), they can only be used polemically by Plato's
present-day followers, but cannot really help us in gaining a better
understanding of the formative processes of the written texts we have to
deal with. I myself am rather sceptical about amazing memory feats of
some legendary past, and would prefer diligent anthropological studies
carried out amongst those communities that, nowadays, are reknown for
their amazing textual memories (Tibetan monks or Dan Lusthaus' Koreans).
Are there any such studies? 

Birgit Kellner
Department for Indian Philosophy
Hiroshima University

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