November 13, 2005
The Muse Learns to Write
Havelock, Eric A. The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.
Havelock devotes the first three-fourths of the book to a description of his long-term research agenda and a review of the relevant literature and prevailing views on the topic of orality. His “program of investigation” provides an excellent model for junior scholars who are in the process of developing their own research agendas. His overviews of Levi-Strauss, Goody and Watt, McLuhan, Mayr, and Preface to Plato consitute a solid introduction to 20th century orality/literacy research. This text would be a good one to position in the beginning weeks of a course on the subject.
The new research in this book actually begins in chapter eight, entitled “A General Theory of Orality.” Havelock draws a sharp distinction between ordinary, everyday language and the ‘storage language’ that characterizes the oral tradition. This second type is ritualized, rhythmic, and poetic and/or narrative in nature, providing a means of containing vital cultural information and passing it along in easily memorizable, relatively static forms (70-75). (This is the speech that orality theory focuses on, especially when linked to literacy theory, which concerns the written form of this information.) The emphasis here is on culture: “a general theory of orality must build upon a general theory of society. It requires communication to be understood as a social phenomenon, not a private transaction between individuals“ (68).
The Greek mnemones performed this function, but Havelock argues that Greek culture demands special theories of orality and literacy because of several distinguishing elements:
- [Homeric epics] were framed in a society free from any literate contact or contamination.
- The society was politically and socially autonomous both in its oral and literate periods and consequently possessed a firm consciousness of its own identity.
- As far as responsibility for the preservation of this consciousness rested upon language, that language had originally to be a matter of oral record with no exceptions.
- At the point where this language came to be transcribed the invention necessary for the purpose was supplied by the speakers of the language within the society itself.
- The application of the invention to transcribe anything and everything that might be both spoken and perservable continued to be controlled by Greek speakers (86-87).
Contrary to his earlier work in Preface to Plato, he now suggests that we cannot assume that a great, sudden rupture of literacy occurred in Athenian or Greek society. Rather, the move was gradual, and the alphabet encountered an initial long period of resistance after its invention (90). When it was finally accepted, written Greek preserved the flexibility of oral Greek, a phenomenon that stands in contrast with the simplification of other contemporaneous written languages. Havelock also theorizes that the shift to literacy transformed Greek thought, introducing the active verb (107), the concepts of selfhood (113) and psyche (114), and the notion of intellectualism (115). (See also Ong, “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” 1985.) Still, while all of this was going on, the oral remained partnered with the literate throughout Socrates’ and Plato’s lifespans (116).
I am under the impression that Havelock’s theories have become canonical (but not entirely undisputed) in the 20 years since the publication of this work. His work is pertinent to my project, since once knowledge is shifted from the oral commons and encapsulated in writing, it becomes much easier to think of it as a “thing” that can be owned. (This notion becomes much more pertinent on down the line, with the rise of the medieval scriptural economy and then the development of Caxon’s and Gutenberg’s presses.) The Muse Learns to Write is certainly relevant to the study of authorship in antiquity, since it gives us a way to consider how the shift toward encapsulated knowledge began.