Howdy. here are some more mutterings and additions to an ongoing essay regarding the oral tradition and the literary traditions.The 'real' piece is much more developed and fleshed out-this is really just an excuse to show some interesting quotes, and recognise that even 'literature' has many cultural connotations. This short edit offers not much in the way of synthesis of the two but is more of a call to paradox and not getting too hysterical and polarised over the two streams of story.Its kind of dry, so have a glass of water handy. One day i will put the whole thing up but too much needs tinkering with.Please take a look at the WHEEL OF STORY flyer-it promises to be rich.Looking forward to THE GREEN BREASTED MOTHER AND THE FLINTY MOUNTAIN FATHER school of myth gathering this weekend-new and deep leaps ahead.
SO: How does one stay true to the tradition of oral narrative whilst commiting to a written exegesis of the same stories to paper?
A paradox is something that appears self-contradictory, a thing that at some time, or from some point of view, appears to be what it is not…our ability to accept this ambiguity is also fundamental to our recognition and signification of change.
(1) A. David Napier, Masks, Transformation, and Paradox, (University of California, 1986) p1
(As a figure in mythology) Coyote’s movement through the worlds is both potent and fractured.. He diffuses righteousness, laughs at tribalism, steals fire from the gods and is ever present as circumstance, cultures and weather patterns jostle
with the inevitable changes of time. (Through study of Native American myths) we know that Coyote is a decentralized zone, that his life force exists in the tip of his nose and tail,not the broad central plain. We see he is elusive in texture and not located in geographical location or specific point in history but remains epistemic .Brian Maussmi refers to his footprints as nomadic thought. (2) Shaw, Lightning Tree.
If Trickster is the god of the storytellers then the above quote intimates a decentralised position for oral telling, that it resists anchoring too avidly to a written form, that it retains a freshness by living on the un-scripted tongue rather than page. However, it is almost entirely due to literature that we have these stories at all, so it is unwise to attack it too harshly. A tension does arise in the aspiration of both mediums however. Literature has often defined, marked out and emboldened both the author and culture it arises from. In the deliberate assemblage of words an agenda appears, an agenda that is defined and pristine within the mind of the writer.
Writing is discourse as intention-to-say and that writing is a direct inscription of this intention, even if, historically and psychologically, writing began with the graphic translation of the signs of speech. This emancipation of writing, which places the latter at the site of speech, is the birth of the text.
(3)Ricoeur, P. From Text to Action, Northwestern universities, 1986, p107
Of course the issue of ownership arises, the compartmentalising of wild image, the aspiration of empire. We have the strange thought of the upheaval and then preservation of oral stories in the literary tradition of the conquerors. This instigates grief but also a gratitude that we are able to experience them at all, even if it feels we are peering through glass. Myth offers secret histories; the geographical, religious and political developments of a particular region. Even when we encounter effectively the same story in a variety of landscapes, certain moments will rise and fall in emphasis, which offer valuable perspectives on the concerns and desires of that society, as opposed to their neighbours. James M. Taggart’s previously mentioned “The Bear and His Sons” is a good example of tracing such a process through differing languages and culture.
A concern is that the strongly muscled history of literature loses these inflections; there is only one version of ‘The Serpent and the Bear’ and this is its only interpretation. The story now bears the ambition of the writer, often without others in the community who have held the story most of their lives.
Dialogue is an exchange of questions and answers; there is no exchange of this sort between the writer and the reader. The writer does not respond to the reader. Rather, the book divides the act of writing and the act of reading into two sides, between which there is no communication…the text thus produces a double eclipse of the reader and the writer. It thereby replaces the relation of dialogue, which directly connects the voice of one to the hearing of the other.
(4)Ricouer.P. Ibid, p107
However, what it lacks in dialogue it may gain in sharpness of execution; certain processes of thought require expanded, uninterrupted plains of exegesis; a constant back-and-forth may dilute or subvert the original question. The book can also be utilised as a source of discussion when read by a number of readers. Ricouer is correct, however, in his initial sense of division between writer and reader. Writing is also more than just the transcribing of the oral to the page. As any public speaker will attest, the phrasing of effective oratory can be quite different to the inflections delivered to the written word. Literature offers other opportunities with language; it can sustain complexities that delivered orally would be almost impossible to digest. The reader also has the luxury of returning to certain key phrases, the integration of ideas can be slowed, repeated. Both offer related but different processes.
Unlike the oral tradition, the literary tale was written down to be read in private, although, in some cases, the fairy tales were read aloud in parlors. However, the book enabled the reader to withdraw from his or her society and be alone with a tale. This privatisation violated the communal aspect of the folk tale, but the very printing of a fairy tale was already a violation since it was based on a separation of social classes. Extremely few people could read, and the fairy tale in form and content furthered notions of elitism and separation. (5)Zipes. J Breaking the Disney Spell,p335
However, he goes onto add:
In some cases, the literary tales presented new material that was transformed through the oral tradition and returned later to literature by a writer who remembered hearing a particular story...There was always tension between the literary and oral traditions. The oral tales have continued to threaten the more conventional and classical tales because they can question, dislodge, and deconstruct the written tales. (6)p338
In some complicated form, both traditions are now feeding the other. There have been great losses on the side of the spoken word, but in the same moment it is literature that carries the skeleton of stories to a new generation. It is the job of the storyteller to continually reanimate these literary ‘bones’, with a linguistically mutable oral re-telling of these very stories.
It is an academic artifice to imagine that a Lakota Native American cannot derive pleasure from a written Jungian commentary of a traditional story; the world of the primary peoples (indigenous cultures) are in just a state of rapid movement and influence as what we call ‘the west’. In five years of travelling with oral narratives, my experience is that humans of all cultural backgrounds seek connections between self and story, recognise shared mythic symbolism when it emerges, and can be quietly open to the mutable aspect of mythic consciousness.
However, caution is recommended in the generalisation of the word ‘literature’,
Native American poet Paula Gunn Allen (7) Allen. P.G. Symposium of the whole, university of california press, 1983,p174), opens its associations from her cultural perspective;
American Indian literature is not similar to western literature because the basic assumptions about the universe, and, therefore, the basic reality experienced by tribal peoples and westerners are not the same, even at the level of ‘folk lore’…the purpose…is never one of pure self- expression. The “private soul at any public wall” is a concept that is so alien to native thought as to constitute an absurdity.
The tribes do not celebrate the individual’s ability to feel emotion, for it is assumed all people are able to do so, making expression of this basic ability arrogant, presumptuous, and gratuitous…the tribes seek, through song, ceremony, legend, sacred story (myths), and tales to embody, articulate, and share reality, to bring the isolated private self into harmony and balance with this reality.
This does superficially appear to strike a different note to the cry for individuation we locate in the European myth of Parzival (8)Eschenbach. Wolfram Von, Parzival, trans.A. T. Hatto, Penguin,1980) -the great Grail story of Western literature: featuring the leaving of Camelot (the tribe), the rejecting of shared values and advice in the seeking of ones own vision, and the notion that true empathy can only arise from that search and elucidation of that vision in the world. That is, until you recognise its similarity to the process of the Vision Quest, an act that much of Native American religious life is suffused in.
The point of contrast is the world the initiate returns to.
In some regards, Allens sense of the Native approach to literature seems rather like the oral traditions position as opposed to early eighteenth century French literature in Jack Zipes essay, ‘Breaking the Disney Spell’; (9)Zipes, J. ibid, p332-352)
The emphasis in most folk tales was on communal harmony. A narrator or narrators old tales to bring members of a group or tribe closer together and to provide them with a sense of mission, a telos. With the rise of literacy and the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, the oral tradition of storytelling underwent an immense revolution…(p333)
Zipes then goes onto to write about the move towards individuation, solitude and hierarchy we have already noted. Allen’s oddly monotheistic appraisal suggests that the personal awakening of the Native ‘quester’ can still be easily integrated into the wider pantheon of song, ritual and story, whereas the westener is far more likely to be at odds with the society at large they return too, even if the experience was very similar.
Could it be that at this point in time western literature requires more of an emphasis on the individual to actually allow a more radical, inter-relational dialogue with the earth to emerge, because, unlike Allen’s picture of the American Indian world, it lacks the binding glue of “song, ceremony, legend?” It may be that this essay, which is truly Allen’s reviled “self-expression”, is seeking to open a door to a series of values she would understand very well, and that within the paradoxical collision of literature (in all its forms), oral narrative, and art practice is to orientate towards a ground of research that appears lest polarised, and open to new expressions of what myth could mean for us today.
Story is quite capable of accommodating both the communal and the solitary, (village and forest) and the twenty first century mind is able to comprehend the subtle differences of experience that both offer. It is quite correct to offer caution in the way both Zipes and Allen do, and at the same time hold that the contrary spirit of myth finds ways to flourish in both and possibly as yet unimagined configurations.
What is needed is, not the merely logical, but the mytho-logical-a leaping consciousness, the generative tension…between the “unspeakable visions of the individual” and “the reconstructed tale of the tribe” (10)Deardorff.D. Ibid. p40)