contributor.author: Slavica Rankovic

title.none: Amodio, ed., New Directions in Oral Theory (Slavica Rankovic)

identifier.other: baj9928.0702.010 07.02.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Slavica Rankovic, University of Bergen, slavica.rankovic@cms.uib.no

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Amodio, Mark C., ed. New Directions in Oral Theory: Essays on Ancient and Medieval Literatures. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, vol. 287. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2005. Pp. 341. $40.00 978-0-86698-330-3. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.02.10

Amodio, Mark C., ed. New Directions in Oral Theory: Essays on Ancient and Medieval Literatures. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, vol. 287. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2005. Pp. 341. $40.00 978-0-86698-330-3. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Slavica Rankovic
University of Bergen
slavica.rankovic@cms.uib.no

If the title New Directions in Oral Theory leads the readers of this book to expect a series of revolutionary, paradigm-shifting theoretical arguments, matching in their freshness those made by Parry and Lord when they first appeared, they might find themselves somewhat disappointed.[1] If, however, they settle for diverse and edifying explorations of the relationship between various modes of orality and literacy, they will find they have struck a very good bargain indeed.

Enveloping the two parts of the book (the first dealing with ancient, and the second with medieval literatures) is "Unbinding Proteus," the introductory essay by the editor, Mark C. Amodio. It provides a brief history of oral theory and a succinct yet information-packed demarcation of the field as it is now. This will, no doubt, be of good use to both students and more advanced scholars. The omission of Walter J. Ong in the discussion of the orality-literacy relationship seems a bit odd, however (even allowing for the space limitations (2)), and consignment of Ruth Finnegan to a footnote (4) even more so. Finnegan was a crucial figure in articulating the concept that is at the very heart of this volume, that of the orality-literacy continuum, and was also among the first to offer a constructive critique of the Parry-Lord conception of oral poetry (1978).

John Foley's essay ("Fieldwork on Homer"), which opens Part I of the book, exudes the kind of elegance and confidence that stems from its author's deep and thorough understanding of his subject. Using the metaphor of fieldwork to emphasize the importance of cultural context in the interpretation of traditional idioms, Foley engages in a playful yet illuminating exploration of the "expressive ecology" (27) of two Homeric formulaic phrases, "boundless ransom" (Iliad) and "day of return" (Odyssey). Tracing their "traditional referentiality," [2] Foley shows how their metonymic relation with the tradition as a whole reveals additional layers of meaning that enrich, and sometimes even contest (32-33) those that can be denoted from any of their particular appearances and immediate contexts. The fieldwork metaphor, however, feels a bit stretched at times, especially when our "informant" is no longer just Homer (tradition), but Agamemnon as well (39-40). I am also not sure whether traditional phrases indeed "prescribe" their horizons of expectation (29). As Foley's essay itself demonstrates, such phrases are adaptable, and while delineating (but perhaps not prescribing) them, tradition is capable of shifting, and even transgressing, its own horizons of expectation. These are minor quibbles, however. The interpretative strategy exemplified here has already had an impact on some of the contributors to this volume and will, no doubt, profitably occupy generations of scholars working with various kinds of traditional texts for years to come. In his studious essay, Steve Reece challenges the explanatory power of the evolutionary model when it comes to the origins of the Iliad and Odyssey (as we have them now), as well as its current supremacy over the oral-dictation model. As Homeric epics do not fall within my immediate area of expertise, I cannot engage with details of Reece's arguments, which is a pity, since this is precisely the level at which the author himself wishes to engage his reader. I have, however, some concerns of a more general nature and they are related to the assumptions about tradition and evolution that seem to underpin some of Reece's arguments. For example, the fact that the two Greek epics exhibit a great narrative unity, that "episodes are not heaped one upon the other" (54), does not in itself exclude the possibility of their complex structure being shaped by the evolving tradition (oral and textual). Evolution and tradition usually come up with beautiful and intricate designs: our bodies are hardly heaps of limbs, tissue and cells, and neither are oral epics heaps of episodes in the mouths of talented traditional singers, regardless of whether they were composed in performance or in dictation. While it is not certain that arguments offered here manage to overturn the current situation, in Reece's rendering the oral-dictation model gains greater currency nevertheless.

Daniel F. Melia makes a most interesting connection between the questions arising from Aristotle's Poetics and Art of Rhetoric that had been puzzling generations of students and specialists alike, and what he sees as Aristotle's underlying aesthetics of orality. While he was himself immersed in writing and created his two major works for the benefit of literate/literary authors, Aristotle still lived in the world that was oral in many senses. As Melia convincingly demonstrates, this world strongly informed Aristotle's attitude to literary texts, and his writing indexes "an unexamined bias toward the norms of oral-traditional aesthetics rather than a recognition of potentially new standards of fixed texts" (99). Melia's take on the orality-literacy relationship is very refreshing as he engages it at a more fundamental, and less explored, level--that of the persisting habits of mind, poetics and aesthetics, rather than the persisting formulaic phrases and narrative structures.

Alexandra Hennessey Olsen shows that "cultural diglossia" of the Middle Ages does not simply involve the influence of Latin on the vernacular languages, but that the opposite is also true. She detects features that characterize Old English poetry (alliteration, themes of Exile, the Sea Voyage, and Journey to Trial) in the correspondence (in Latin) of St. Boniface and the members of his mission. By carefully differentiating between, for example, the kind of sea imagery that turns up in the epistles by Boniface (and others) addressed to those in, and those outside the Anglo-Saxon circle, Hennessey Olsen demonstrates how the mission members sharing the same vernacular tradition (perhaps subconsciously) carry it over into their mutual correspondence in Latin, reinforcing in this way their sense of common ethnic and cultural belonging.

While recognizing the pronounced literariness of Latin poetry (e.g. intertextual allusions, concerns with the "anxiety of influence"), Jan M. Ziolkowski still emphasizes the importance of extemporaneous composition in making of Latin poetry. Even an authoritative figure of letters such as Virgil valued this mode of composing and had used the particularly successful variations (recorded by his secretary) to improve his earlier written versions. This way of composing poetry, Ziolkowski persuasively argues, bears resemblance to the oral-formulaic model, which is itself not always "genuinely improvisational" (136). An additional connection with oral composition concerns the very method of studying promoted in grammar schools in antiquity and in the Middle Ages: "repetition with variation" (147). While this essay is very engaging and the arguments presented sound, it would have perhaps benefited from also considering the limitations of the comparisons offered. For instance, rather than recreating (or at times simply remembering) as an oral singer does, grammar school pupils are required to memorize poetry (this implies a conscious effort, cf. Lord 1991), while, again unlike an oral singer, Virgil sets himself in pursuit of originality and measures the value of his improvised lines against a text that is a fixed entity.

Katherine O'Brian O'Keefe opens Part II of the book with a close analysis of the Death of Edward and the Death of Alfred, two poems considered to mark "the end of Old English verse." O'Brian O'Keefe clears them of the charge of being prosaic and dull. Even when not a lively, enabling force in the active creation of the oral tradition, formulaic structures that underpin the Death of Edward would have still exerted the power of "traditional referentiality" and thus be usefully mobilized for particular political goals. O'Brian O'Keefe also shows how, pressed to find an adequate generic support to suit the humiliating death of King Alfred (the usual heroic and panegyric modes being inappropriate), the poet turns to the language of homilies to create a genre onto itself. The Death of Alfred is thus more usefully perceived as representing a transformation, a new beginning, rather than a death rattle of a once vigorous tradition.

Mark C. Amodio persuasively argues that written Anglo-Saxon texts evidence oral poetics whose relevance does not cease with the performative aspect of tradition being removed (or perhaps suppressed?). In other words, Amodio advocates "a non-performative oral poetics that is employed not by an oral poet in the crucible of performance but rather by a literate poet who composes pen-in-hand" (184). This essay is thought provoking, and indeed suggestive of "a new direction in oral theory," but is not without some problems and contradictions. For example, while Amodio claims that oral and literate poetics are "interdependent" (e.g. 200-201) this relationship still seems somewhat one-sided. The literate culture is presented as one that monopolizes and manipulates oral tradition (mainly its register and the figure of the singer), while the ways in which that tradition in return conditions the "literate sensibilities" (186) of the early authors and scribes are not elaborated upon. Also, being grounded in Parry-Lord's findings almost exclusively, the concept of "oral poetics" (in this, but in quite a few other essays in this volume) comes across as monolithic and could do with some modifications. From Vuk Karadzic in the nineteenth-century to Ruth Finnegan and the folklorists working today, fieldwork teaches us that oral poetics vary from tradition to tradition, from region to region and even from singer to singer.

Employing Foley's interpretative strategy of traditional referentiality in a most subtle and inventive manner, Jonathan Watson examines the use of the traditional phrase "Óðinn's storm" in two versions of Layamon's Brute. Through detailed analysis, Watson successfully demonstrates that these two versions occupy different places on the orality-literacy continuum. On balance, the Caligula version exploits the echoic nature of the traditional idiom more fully, while the Otho version evidences a more pronounced erosion of the traditional metonymic connections and connotations that "Óðinn's storm" must have evoked in an early Germanic and Old English template. Otho shows a stronger tendency to cater for the tastes of the Anglo-Norman audience and moves towards the new, more fashionable, romance models.

Similarly to Watson, Lori Ann Garner makes a convincing argument for putting two contemporaneous works, Havelok the Dane and Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde at different ends of the orality-literacy spectrum. She does so not by analyzing a particular phrase, but the use of proverbs. In Havelok, traditional truths are corroborated by the proverbs, while in Troilus they are questioned and made problematic. While in Garner's particular examples this might be the case, I think it is important not to over-generalize our attitude towards the use of proverbs in oral tradition. It is not only written culture that can question traditional truths, oral tradition is also capable of questioning its own wisdom, as well as achieving dramatic effects by exploiting the discrepancy between what "ought to be true" and what actually turns out to be true in a particular instance of the narrative. One such proverb recurring in Serbian oral epics (San je laÿa a Bog je istina /"A dream is a lie, God is the truth") immediately comes to mind. Whether it is used by a benevolent character to console the dreaming hero, or by a malicious one to lull him and make him less cautious, the unhappy dream will certainly come true. The poignancy of the tragic outcome hinges on the singers' recognition that what ought to be true is not so in actuality.

Joseph Falaky Nagy successfully demonstrates how poetry and prose in Welsh prosimetrum narratives display, contrary to expectations of current scholarship, a mutual tension (both formal and thematic), rather than cooperation (239). Oral traditional lore is, according to Nagy, in this way resisting rendering into a different medium, despite the skill and apparent confidence of the literate narrative composers.

Through a discourse analysis of the dialogue between the Maiden and the Dreamer in Pearl (its failure), Tim Machan, like Nagy earlier, draws our attention to the fact that while "the intimacy between the oral and the textual" can be aesthetically successful, it can also produce tensions (305). He in addition cautions against considering the orality-literacy relationship solely in terms of searching for "the oral residue" (cf. Ong 1982) in written forms. At least when textual representation of speech is concerned, reliance on the oral medium is "an inevitability" (304).

I find myself agreeing with Machan's claim that noting "the survival of earlier cultural forms in later cultural practices" (279) is not a novelty but an axiom nowadays. Indeed, there is no scholar working with traditional and medieval literature today that does not acknowledge the continuities between orality and literacy in one way or another. But I also agree with the editor of this volume in his assessment that this relationship is "tangled, and still not fully understood" (3). The contributors to this book go a long way in trying to disentangle some of the aspects of this correlation. There is still, however, much to be explored, both in terms of describing the variety of ways in which the oral and the textual interpenetrate in different texts (and traditions beyond the British Isles and ancient Europe!), and further theoretical probing of the very concept of the orality-literacy continuum. One paradox of the oral theory that could also be addressed is that, while it regards "pure orality" and "pure literacy" as abstractions not to be found in the actual works of verbal art, it still appears to assume that "we oralists" cannot have use of the current movements in literary criticism and theory. Perhaps some further "new directions in oral theory" will enable a more constructive and fruitful dialogue not only between the oral and the textual aspects of verbal artworks, but between the oral and textual theories as well. In these times of various interdisciplinary endeavours, they might even consider harnessing new findings in cognitive psychology, evolutionary theory of creativity, and sciences that deal with complex adaptive systems, of which oral tradition is a fascinating example.

NOTES [1] The qualifying subtitle, Essays in Ancient and Medieval Literature, is given in a considerably smaller print on the front jacket, and its graphic solution (blue lettering on a white stripe just above the main title) could strike the reader as the title of the edition series rather than the book itself.

[2] This concept was first introduced in Foley's Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic (1991).