oral transmission: motivation and memorization

jkcowart at io-online.com jkcowart at io-online.com
Tue Jun 17 08:09:02 UTC 1997

At 10:50 PM 6/13/97 BST, Frances Pritchett wrote:
On Tue, 10 Jun 1997, J. Kingston Cowart wrote:

>>Capote had trained his memory for the interviews by memorizing the
>> entire phone book.

>The more I think about this, the more it sounds like a fascinating piece
>of urban folklore.  Maybe Mr. Cowart can give us more information?

This anecdote was presented during a television discussion of Capote's
peculiarities some time ago. I do not remember the specific program.

The veracity of the account could be checked by inquiring with Capote's
publisher and among book editors and reporters active at the time.  

Although subsequent postings attesting to the possibility of such feats 
would seem to obviate the need for inquiry, inasmuch as I brought the 
story into the thread I will see what I can come up with this summer if 
anyone is still interested in Capote per se.

The catch with respect to these purported incidents--and the issue of
oral transmission in particular--is that one must be careful not to accept 
them simply because one is motivated by a desire that they be true.  On 
the other hand one must be careful not to reject them simply out of the 
desire that they be false.

We may or may not be able to find witnesses regarding Capote.  How do 
we find them with regard to original oral transmissions of Sanskrit texts?  
We don't.

Nor is it easy to set up lab experiments to test these issues because the 
motivations and talents involved are either internal--and quite possibly 
idiosyncratic--to begin with, or are tied to cultural supports which are not 
transferrable to laboratory settings.  Typical field studies, for their
only show what is being handed down today.

If Capote's memory task actually occurred, then it represents an original
memorization--and the real test, were we able to devise it, would be how 
well sufficiently motivated successors transmitted it orally throughout 
subsequent generations.

It seems unlikely that either indologists or others will find a way to 
conduct a longitudinal field study like that--but it would be interesting.

J. Kingston Cowart
San Diego, California
<jkcowart at io-online.com>

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