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Contemporary Issues

The first and foremost area of uncertainty in oral literature research has to do directly with two key words—oral and traditional —as they were first used


by the classicist Milman Parry in referring to Homer's Iliad and Odyssey .[2] To take the latter first, note what Parry wrote in 1928 about the nature of Homeric language:

To establish in the Iliad and the Odyssey the existence of an artificial language is to prove that Homeric style, in so far as it makes use of that language, is traditional. For the character of that language reveals that it is a work beyond the powers of a single man, or even of a single generation of poets; consequently we know that we are in the presence of a stylistic element which is the product of a tradition and which every bard of Homer's time must have used. (1928a, in 1971, 6)

Parry is describing a formulaic language,[3] a diction which from our text-centered point of view is repetitive or recurrent, and he is deriving from the existence of that diction a poetic tradition . He does not mean by his use of that word what T. S. Eliot meant in his famous essay on what is finally an unrelated topic, nor does he mean (as he has often been accused of meaning) that Homer is trapped or conditioned by his language. The poetic tradition properly understood is not at all a limiting but rather a connotatively explosive medium, a touchstone or nexus of indication and reference wholly different from the medium at the disposal of the "non-traditional" artist, for such a diction and narrative structure have obvious and necessary reference not only to the present poem, poet, and time but also to an enormous number of other poets, poems, and eras. Written diction and tradition, no matter how dense with allusions and inherited figures, can never command this open connotative field of reference.[4]

Scholars reacting to Parry's original writings and to Albert Lord's later and equally masterful scholarship have seldom understood this special sense of traditional . They have too often perceived the language and narrative weave of Homeric epic and other such works as closed systems, that is, as fully formed, mechanical complexes which the poet need only activate in order to re-create the poem. Analyses of traditional patterning have, in the great majority of instances, implicitly assumed a synchronic text, one which need merely be formulaically, narratively, or syntactically parsed in order to be explained and faithfully interpreted. What scholars have rarely recognized is


that a traditional text is not simply a synchronic latticework, but also a diachronic document of great age and depth. For tradition is nothing if not diachronic: it has roots which reach back into its pre-textual history and which inform the present avatar of its identity. Just as, given the insights of recent literary criticism, we cannot any longer settle for one-dimensional models of Jane Eyre or the works of Proust, so we cannot afford to countenance the reductive distortion of a poetic tradition to a closed synchronic system. We must actively affirm the historical and evolutionary nature of oral tradition, for this is a crucial aspect of its context.[5]

The variously construed term oral is nearly as important as traditional to our grasp of poetics. Should we agree with Parry and Lord in carefully limiting the textual sample to oral epic (usually from the Moslem rather than the Christian tradition) composed by entirely unlettered singers, or should we broaden our perspective—and if so, how much should it be broadened? The spirit of Ruth Finnegan's (1977) extension of the corpus of oral poetry beyond the epics of Yugoslavia, ancient Greece, and elsewhere to the myriad other genres composed and performed orally around the world can only mark a positive—even necessary—development, since we need to understand the larger context of oral poetry as well as the material on which we choose to focus. As I have tried to illustrate elsewhere (Foley 1980a), cross-cultural comparisons can quite usefully be drawn between members of genres other than epic; the Old English and Serbo-Croatian magical charms provide one opportunity for such an examination. What must be observed rigorously in every comparative undertaking, however, is the integrity of genre. One simply cannot expect a cogent analysis to come out of a comparison of, for example, riddles and epics; the generic assumptions implicit in the forms must be at variance, and this variance seriously reduces, if not actually invalidates, the legitimacy of the proposed comparison. If we wish to include a number of genres in our survey of an oral culture, we need to proceed in our analyses along methodological lines which respect the principle of genre-dependence .

The term oral also begs the question of what is to be included under its heading. Not only various genres but also various kinds of texts present themselves. Some of these, like the Serbo-Croatian epske pjesme recorded by Parry, and Lord,[6] arc known to be oral in origin and in execution; they contain no ambiguous elements possibly traceable to written composition and can confidently be classed as oral traditional texts in the truest sense of that rubric. Another kind of text, much more common and much more commented upon, is that which has come down to us in manuscript only. We may have a few hints about its recording, but these clues are often undependable or mutually contradictory. Often this second kind of text suffers from further complications,


such as the idiosyncrasy of its recording or editing (one thinks of the stitched-together Kalevala of Finland) or the fragmentary or multilingual nature of its remains (the Gilgamesh ). In light of the controversy over the formulaic test for orality and its frankly uneven application and results,[7] which of these manuscript texts do we admit to fellowship with known oral material, and which do we exclude?

Again I would recommend making some finer distinctions than are customarily pursued by those on either side of the controversy. The formulaic test as it has generally been carried out cannot prove oral provenance,[8] for as long as scholars commit the egregious philological sin of importing models and definitions directly from ancient Greek to other poetries without taking account of necessary differences in prosody and versification, nothing can be proved. By counterposing Homeric phraseology to the diction of Old English, Old French, or whatever other poetry one chooses as comparand, without making adjustment for the individual characteristics of each poetry, one simply calculates the extent to which the compared work is composed of Homeric Greek formulas, obviously a useless index. This simple principle of tradition-dependence , that is, of respect for a given literature's linguistic and prosodic integrity, has consistently been ignored by comparatists eager to achieve what may seem like ground-breaking results but which are actually based on flawed assumptions from the start. Along with genre-dependence, this attention to language-dependent features would clear away much of the confusion which presently impedes progress in oral literature research.

If the formulaic test for orality must be abandoned (at least in its present form),[9] then what can we do about categorizing our manuscript texts of uncertain provenance? Again I find the question as contemporarily phrased too exclusive and heavy-handed, too much like the Higher Critical battles of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries over the riddle of the Homeric Question. If we cannot in the present state of knowledge confidently pronounce a problematic text oral, then why not admit that inability and proceed from there? Scholars have shown us that the Chanson de Roland and Beowulf , for example, have oral traditional characteristics : both texts demonstrate a formulaic phraseology, an inventory of typical scenes, and so on.[10] If that information is not enough to prove beyond doubt their orality in the specific Parry-Lord sense of a guslar singing in a kafana , then so be it; certainly the demonstration of oral traditional characteristics is not entirely in vain.


But it is precisely this faulty conclusion—that is, that because a specific formula count or a certain kind of narrative recurrency is lacking we can cast a text back into the comfortable confines of a written, non-traditional literature—that constitutes a distortion fully as culpable as the overly ambitious assertion of orality that it seeks to correct. For it does not follow that tradition, even oral tradition, ends with the poet's or culture's first draught of literacy. What does end, unambiguously, is the oral tradition in its Ur-form, together with the possibility of recording the oral text in its Ur-form. What continues, just as unambiguously, even in the hands of a skilled writer of verse drawing on an earlier mode, is some vestige of orality and some vestige of tradition.[11] From this perspective, texts which exhibit undeniably oral traditional features, no matter how uncertain a provenance a fair examination of their known history may produce, cannot be treated as or classed with literary works of a much later time.[12] If we must then leave some of our manuscripts in an intermediate category, let us make sure that we opt for that more accurate (if finally indeterminate) characterization rather than settling for the apparently simple but imprecise model of "oral versus written" texts.

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