[Air-l] Plato meets the Blogroll

Rowin Cross rowin.cross at strath.ac.uk
Wed Jul 9 02:33:45 PDT 2003

Like so many on this list, this is a wonderful debate, which I've really
enjoyed following.  I hope nobody minds me adding a couple of kind-of
relevant (I hope) thoughts.

> > establishment of writing (away from oral).  "It [writing] will cause
> > us to forget" (roughly) . . .
> >
> > and in a way, it did. In the oral age, "literate" Greeks had
> > encyclopedic memories. Within 250 years after Plato, teachers of
> > rhetoric had to teach memory systems.
> >
> >
It's my understanding that oral histories are highly selective.  They're not
'encyclopedic' in the sense that they retain facts as independent entities,
but instead reflect that which it is expedient to remember.  I don't have
the reference, unfortunately, but I have read about research done amongst
oral communities, and it was found that the histories of twenty years before
had changed enormously, and that defeats in battles over land or other
incidents which did not contribute to the tribes' need to think of
themselves as a unified and successful unit were - ah - written out of
history: in other words, they weren't transmitted in the oral histories, and
so 'didn't exist' and 'hadn't happened' except in the notes of the
researchers who had transcribed these histories twenty years earlier.  Even
people who had been involved in these incidents apparently 'didn't remember'

Ong talks about research which suggests that oral texts were not remembered
exactly and transmitted exactly, but actually changed dramatically during
retellings - just as when these stories were written down they changed in
the retelling, and caused networks of manuscript traditions to emerge.
Devices such as rhyme and verbal patterning may have helped storytellers
remember the broader structure, but not the fine detail; the fine detail
didn't seem to matter until the Romantic 'cult of the author' focused on the
notion of a perfect, final text.  Printing certainly helped to 'fix' texts
in that a lot of identical texts could be produced, which was virtually
impossible before then, but the idea that something printed was unchangeable
is later: Caxton and his contemporaries changed the texts they printed

The Middle English _Prose Merlin_ (c.1450) has a scene in which many men are
killed in a great battle; all those who died are buried and their names
written on the graves except for the most important man killed as it is said
that there is no need to mark his grave as no one will ever forget whose
grave it is.  Yet it is stressed a number of times in the manuscript that
the story of Merlin itself only exists because he told it to his mentor, who
wrote it down, and because the scribe has read that written story in other
books.  Writing, and gaining power from having written things down, is a
motif which occurs quite often in that text.

Best wishes
Rowin Cross

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