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November 15, 2005

Literature and Literacy in Ancient Greece II: Caging the Muses

Davison, J.A. “Literature and Literacy in Ancient Greece II: Caging the Muses.” Phoenix 16.4 (Winter 1962). 219-233.

In this subsequent essay, Davison traces the rise of bookselling and collecting. He finds the earliest reference to a bookselling quarter in Aristophanes’ Birds from 414, and notes that bookselling became an export industry by the end of that century (219). Of course, private book collectors also began to develop their personal libraries around this time, and the libraries of Euripedes, Euthydemus, and Eucleides were apparently notable. A predictable second-hand book trade also existed, as did dealers in rare books (221).

In the fourth century, books became more commonplace, and so did the literary critic. Multiple editions of works abounded, produced with the cooperations of rhapsodes. Discrepancies were rife between the editions (most notably those of Homer), and it wasn't until much later that the critics managed to wrangle them into something approaching a definitive edition. By the middle of the second century BC, Greeks had begun to develop a true literary culture, one sufficient to be passed on to the Romans.

Most importantly for my larger project, Davison briefly examines the implications that the rise of the book had for intellectual property and publication. While our ideas of “publication” don’t map onto the sort of publication that was possible then, we do begin to see page layout begin to be considered, as well as basic usability. Authors were still not conscious of the need to create works of standard length, but the physical producers of work were beginning to standardize their trade (232). The author says “there is no suggestion that I can find of any idea that an author might have had any property in his writings or of anything like a law of copyright,“ and he doubts that they would have accepted money for their works either, given Plato’s admonitions against accepting money for teaching (232).

Posted by at 5:52 PM | Articles | Greek | Literacy | Publishing

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November 14, 2005

Literature and Literacy in Ancient Greece

Davison, J.A. “Literature and Literacy in Ancient Greece.” Phoenix 16.3 (Autumn 1962). 141-156.

Davison begins this two-part essay by clarifying his interests: “‘What makes authors tick?’ and ‘How do authors eat?’“ For these frank, simple questions, and for his conversational style, I’ve developed a special affection for his work.

His discussion of the importance of oral memory is much the same as Havelock’s much later work, although Havelock cites him only once in passing in The Muse Learns to Write. He discusses the use of storage language (without using precisely that term) as a ritualized, narrative practice, most often in the form of song (145) and in competitions (153). A fair amount of space is devoted to the fourth canon, particularly as a support for improvisation. Interestingly, he notes that the Muses often appear as “the guardians of factual tradition, the divine record office as it were to which the poet can appeal for information on matters outside his own knowledge” (145). The Muses are not always to depended on, though: “not all the Muses are as honest as she who visited Demodocus; Hesiod’s Muses put the telling of lies like to truth first among the things which they know, and only tell true tales when they feel like it” (146). Thus, Muses are not a reliable substitute for memory.

He also makes the point that writing a book or copying another’s work was not equivalent with preparing it for publication in the 8th century BC (149). Writing technologies were expensive (a papyrus cost 2 drachmas in the 5th century BC) and mass reproduction was nearly impossible. Copies were necessarily limited: the author himself, and his representatives might have copies. The fact that copies were offered as dowry points to a sense of absolute ownership in copies, if not in the content (151). “Such stories suggest that the author was confident that there was no other copy of the poem in existence, and that the exclusive right of recitation thus conferred might prove ... valuable” (151).

Unlike Havelock, he supposes that the transition from oral to literate culture took place in the course of a generation. In the process of tracing the rise of the alphabet and literacy in attic Greece, Davison makes an interesting observation: just because people are fully literate does not necessarily mean they spend much time reading, or that it is a preferred means of transmitting information or entertainment. He claims that most Athenians were not ‘great readers’s, preferring to get their content aurally much current audiences prefer radio or podcasts. While the alphabet was demonstrably in use by the end of the eighth century BC, reading as pasttime does not appear until the last quarter of the fifth century (143). He sees the first record of reading for leisure and respite in Euripides’ Erechtheus, which tells of a soldier coming home from war and sitting down to read a book. When such men are many, publication and the bookselling trade can begin to flourish.

Posted by at 1:48 PM | Articles | Greek | Literacy | Publishing

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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:

  1. [Homeric epics] were framed in a society free from any literate contact or contamination.
  2. The society was politically and socially autonomous both in its oral and literate periods and consequently possessed a firm consciousness of its own identity.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
Havelock claims that “no other instance of transition from orality to literacy can meet all these five requirements” (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.

Posted by at 2:34 PM | Books | Greek | Literacy