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Eric A. Havelock:  The Muse Learns to Write:
reflections on orality and literacy from antiquity to the present
(Yale University Press: 1986)


“What has been called the ‘Literate Revolution’ in Greece is not one more programmed concept conjured out of the air. It is a theory which...explains meanings concealed in a thousand passages of Greek literature from Homer to Aristotle. It explains what Charles Segal has called the curious ‘dynamism,’ never since duplicated, of the high classic Greek vocabulary and syntax. It explains the Greek invention of philosophy. The word revolution, though convenient and fashionable, is one that can mislead if it is used to suggest the clear-cut substitution of one means of communication for another. The Muse never became the discarded mistress of Greece, She learned to write and read while still continuing to sing. The following pages seek to describe how this came about.”
(Havelock, pp.22-3)

“One of the difficulties of thinking about language is that you have to use language to think about it. A linguistic act has to be directed upon itself. Once written down, the act could be visualized and this visual thing could be separated from the act of speaking and laid out in a kind of visual map. But what was the nature and significance of the speaking act itself? What has been its role in man’s history?”
(Havelock, p.34)

As Eric Havelock explains in the first chapter of this deceptively slim book, he spent much of his long life attempting to explain a series of strange features found in all early Greek writings; most evident in the fragments of Pre-Socratic philosophers, but present throughout...only to die away during the fourth century B.C.E. Now, this may appear one of those harmless, yet erudite, pursuits that university professors are fabled for but, make no mistake... Havelock’s work was revolutionary in truth, and it has taken the Classics decades to begin accepting his conclusions, which chronicle a major shift in human history: the consequences of the Greek invention of the full alphabet from the Phoenician syllabary which preceded it.


“The art (or science?) of writing in the Near East had through millennia slowly promoted the invention of signs that had phonetic values, as distinct from the visual ones symbolized in early Egyptian hieroglyphs. Progress in this direction had got as far as identifying the syllables of a spoken tongue and assigning ‘characters’ to them. The number of syllables is tremendous, and the resultant sign system became difficult to memorize and cumbrous to use. The Phoenicians, searching for economy, cut down the number by inventing a shorthand, which grouped syllables in ‘sets,’ each set having a common denominator - or sign - representing the initial ‘consonant’ of the set.... The reader, therefore, who used the system had to decide for himself which vocalic to use out of the [set].... Drastic economy (you would easily memorize the names of such an ‘alphabet’) was purchased at the price of drastic ambiguity.”
(Havelock, pp.59-60)

“The Greek system got beyond empiricism, by abstracting the nonpronounceable, nonperceptible elements contained in the syllables. We now style these elements ‘con-sonants’.... Their creation separated out an unpronounceable component of linguistic sound and gave it visual identity. The Greeks did not ‘add vowels’ (a common misconception: vowel signs had already shown up in Mesopotamian Cuneiform and Linear B) but invented the (pure) consonant. In so doing, they for the first time supplied our species with a visual representation of linguistic noise that was both economical and exhaustive: a table of atomic elements which by grouping themselves in an inexhaustible variety of combinations can with reasonable accuracy represent any actual linguistic noise. The invention also supplied the first and last instrument perfectly constructed to reproduce the range of previous orality.”
(Havelock, p.60)

“To achieve a complete transfer to a system of visual recognition requires a comparable visual fluency. This the pre-Greek systems could not provide, and so they could not compete adequately with the oralism which they partially recorded, but which continued to flourish as the habit of a majority. Even today this seems to hold true in societies that are not officially alphabetized.”
(Havelock, p.100)

“That is why Greek orality requires its own special theory.... The Hebrew example furnished in the Old Testament is not a parallel case. The instrument of inscription was imperfect. It could not ‘hear’ the full richness of the original oral tradition. The vocabulary as it is written shows a steady tendency to economize and simplify both thought and action. This adds ritual dignity to the record, but at the cost of omitting the complexities of physical and psychological response.... The same holds true for the remains of the Sumerian and Babylonian so-called ‘epics.’...These versions were to be used and read and, maybe, intoned on ceremonious occasions by scribes, but not recited expansively in festivals of the people. Such scripts tend to ritualize their accounts of human experience and so simplify it and then make this simplified version authoritative. Primary orality by contrast controls and guides its society flexibly and intuitively, and its alphabetized version in Greek continued this flexibility.... There was no single institutionalized priesthood, and no attempt to form a canon out of what was being inscribed.”
(Havelock, p.91)

In an age of relativism with regard to cultural comparisons, this argument is likely to encounter strong resistance - albeit now on different grounds to that which attended its first statement. Yet, the evidence is clear enough - vocabulary counts are straightforward measures, and they strongly suggest a qualitative difference between these systems.

However, there are also other barriers. Many (unfairly) still associate Havelock’s careful work with the dubious notions of Marshall McLuhan - the infamous “lava lamp of cultural theory” - whose bombastic books still clog the shelves of secondhand book dealers worldwide. Here, Havelock politely acknowledges McLuhan’s praise, but also makes clear the fact that he does not share many of McLuhan’s ideas. Furthermore, he is also briskly dismissive of the usual suspects in the Humanities canon. Freud, Levi-Strauss, Derrida - all are briefly noted only to be dismissed, as their models are clearly irrelevant to the actual evidence Havelock is struggling with. And similarly, while he finds contemporary work from anthropology suggestive, he strongly denies that it can be seen as fully comparable:

“[Examples from anthropology] exemplify societies which either have never charged themselves with the responsibility of maintaining a developed and complex culture, or have ceased to do so.... In the latter [case], having come in contact with literate cultures which have either invaded or infiltrated them, they have surrendered control of their economic, military protection, and legal system to governements that are literate in their methods of management. The surviving orality of such societies...ceases to be functional, that is, to carry the responsibilities of a memorized code of behavior. The great epics, the chanted choruses, the ritualized performances slip into forgetfulness.... All that is left is residual entertainments...[and] the language used is no longer a governing language. It can, however, with the help of literacy, be modeled into forms that are attractive and interesting, and have an appeal both aesthetic and romantic.”
(Havelock, p.45)

Havelock does note the importance of the Parry-Lord hypothesis on the oral nature of Homer’s Illiad & Odyssey, however, but his own argument on that score - first outlined in the groundbreaking Preface to Plato (1963) - has far wider implications...


Preface to Plato sought to shift attention, so far as the original Greek epics were concerned, away from improvisation towardd recollection and remembrance, applied to content as well as style, and on a larger scale of reference, since what was now embraced was the whole tradition of the society for which the bard sang, something which it was his didactic purpose to conserve.”
(Havelock, p.11)

For while Parry and Lord have successfully convinced us that Homer was an oral poet, their analyses stopped well short of thinking through the full implications of this discovery, for the development of Greek thought, in a whole variety of areas, crucially set the stage for much that has come after. And if the ancient Greeks were less literate than we think, yet genuinely singular in their newly literate experience, just how did this connect with their startlingly original worldview(s)?


“The Homeric epics considered as records of the orally preserved word...meets the following criteria of authenticity: 1) they have been 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 preservable continued to be controlled by [native] speakers.”
(Havelock, pp.86-7)

Quite simply, there are no other cases that satisfy these criteria. The Greeks, as far as we know, never used the Phoenician syllabary they adapted, and we have also found no evidence of transplanted texts from the then more civilized Middle East during the lengthy (and crucial) development period. So, early “literate” Greece, quite simply, had nothing to read. Facing the full implications of this is very difficult - particularly for scholars who organize their lives around texts - but it is crucial to seeing that Havelock’s argument for literacy’s slow advance is not radical...it is the only conceivable one when the full situation is considered.

And, if this was the case, how did the earlier Greeks - and the other large-scale urban non-literate societies we find in history - organize and regulate the custom & law that made their society workable. This goes to the heart of the oralist question, which is quite other than we might superficially think...


“Unrehearsed conversational language...is astonishingly flexible and mobile, and it always has been. That is what talk is.... [But] oralist theory has to come to terms with communication, not as it is spontaneous and impermanent, but as it is preserved in lasting form. We become familiar with this form as it exists in our textbooks, our laws, our religious scriptures, our technologies, our history, philosophy, literature.... Of course, it can intrude into our daily talk, and often does. Any discussion of a serious topic is bound to use its terms, its vocabulary, its ideas. It slips so easily into our casual converse that when we cease to be casual, we normally do not think of the difference, but the difference is there - two idioms woven into one, but of separate genius, the one designed for immediate communication, the other for serious preserved communication.... The [latter] have to posess stability. They have to be repeated from generation to generation, and repetition must be faithful, or else the culture loses its coherence.... The solution discovered by the brain of early man was to convert thought into rhythmic talk.... Variable statements could then be woven into identical sound patterns to build up a special language system which was not only repeatable, but recallable for re-use.”
(Havelock, pp.64-71)

“So much of the Homeric narrative involves situations, scenes, and performance which are ritualized, that is, are not only described formulaically, but also rendered as typical of what the society always did under such circumstances.... Much of the thematic content noted by Lord turn out to occur in contexts that are social-political: they continually recall and itemize the rules of order to be followed in such things as holding an assembly, making a collective decision, conducting a banquet, arming for battle, issuing challenges, organizing funerals, and even carrying out such technical procedures as navigation, ship-building, house-building, and the like. The list is inexhaustible, even though in our imagination the narrative itself, kindled by the bard’s skill, takes precedence over it. Such was the evidence [that]...the intentions of the Homeric were bifocal. On the one hand they were recreational: the poetry was the product of an art designed to entertain, this being the preferred criterion by which modernity has judged them, usually adding the qualification that the entertainment is somehow mysteriously elevated. On the other, the poetry must also be seen as functional, a method for preserving an ‘encyclopedia’ of social habit and custom-law and convention, which constituted the Greek cultural tradition at the time when the poems were composed.”
(Havelock, p.58)

“Even at our literate level, the average adult would prefer to take a novel to bed with him, rather than a treatise.... The narrative format invites attention because narrative is for most people the most pleasurable form that language, spoken or written, takes. Its content is not ideology but action, and those situations which action creates. Action in turn requires agents who are doing something or saying something about what they are doing, or having something done to them. A language of action rather than reflection appears to be a prerequisite for oral memorization.... We tend to think of the oral storyteller as concerned with his overall ‘subject’ (a literate term) for which he creates a narrative ‘structure’ (again a literate term). The more fundamental fact of his linguistic operation is that all subjects of statements have to be narrativised, that is, they must be names of agents who do things, whether actual persons or other forces which are personified. The predicates to which they attach themselves must be predicates of action or of situation present in action, never of essence or existence.... One law of narrative syntax in oral poetry, noted by specialists, takes the form of parataxis: the language is additive, as image is connected to image by ‘and’ rather than subordinated in some thoughtful relationship. But the parataxis habit is only the tip of the iceberg or (a better metaphor) the set of clothing which contains the living body of the language. This living body is a flow of sound, symbolizing a river of actions, a continual dynamism, expressed in a behavioral syntax, or (if the language of modernistic philosophy is preferred) a ‘performative’ syntax. Recognition of it is crucial to the formation of a true general theory of primary orality, one which also prepares us to confront a profound transformation that has since occurred in the nonperformative language we use today.”
(Havelock, pp.75-7)

But while the range of evidence Havelock brings to bear is formidable, and cross-disciplinary without making a show of it, to me at least his comparisons of modern “translations” of ancient Greek texts with their literal counterparts remain the most startling - and convincing - proofs that something revolutionary did take place way back then, and that language was genuinely different before literacy gradually changed the way we think:


“Translation of the high classical language into a modern literary tongue, when the effect is compared with the original, at once brings out the dynamics of the oral tongue and what has happened in the transfer to a literate syntax. Oedipus opens the play that bears his name with a public address in which he describes the city’s condition: ‘The town is heavy with a mingled burden of sounds and smells’ (Grene 1954). In the English of this widely used modern version...the grammatical structure is atomistic, item is added to item using the connections supplied by the verb ‘to be’ and the preposition ‘with.’ The whole effect is static. Meaning is accumulated piece by piece. The original Greek says: ‘The city altogether bulges with incense burnings.’”
(Havelock, p.95)

Although there has been a considerable amount of work done on the oral/literate transition, resistance to the importance of this idea has seemingly been highest amongst Classicists, with the unfortunate consequence that the most original scholar in the area - Havelock - has been little read by those outside the discipline, despite the crucial importance of the ancient Greek experience - the most original, prolonged, and intriguing transition of this kind in human history.

With major implications for the development of our intellectual approaches, not to mention the concept of selfhood itself, Havelock’s work can be profitably juxtaposed with that of important theorists in a variety of disciplines, from Mikhail Bakhtin, Ernest Gellner, Merlin Donald and Peter J. Wilson - the potential list is inexhaustible - a process which would enrich all. But Eric Havelock, sadly, will not be available to aid in this process. The Muse Learns to Write was his swansong, composed in his eighties in a last attempt to sum up his findings...and raise interest in them outside his recalcitrant profession. So...move beyond cultural relativist & gendered language sensitivities - since these have no real bearing on the actual dispute at hand - and listen to him. Because this is a major piece of the human puzzle yet to be fully integrated into our broader understandings...


“In the Greek case...we face the paradox that, whereas the alphabet by its phonetic efficiency was designed to relace orality by literacy, the first historic task assigned to it was to render an account of orality itself before it was replaced. Since the replacement was slow, the invention continued to be used to inscribe an orality which was slowly modifying itself in order to become a language of literacy.”
(Havelock, p.90)

“The absence of any linguistic framework for the statement of abstract principle confers on the high classic tongue a curious and enviable directness, an absence of hypocrisy. The particularism of orally remembered speech has the continual effect of calling a spade a spade, rather than an implement designed for excavation. The speech will praise or blame but not in terms of moral approval and moral disapproval based on abstract and manufactured principles.... [But] it is far easier to translate Plato. The propositional idiom with the copula which we continually fall into is precisely what Plato wished the Greek language to be converted to, and he spent his entire writing life trying to do this. When he turns against poetry it is precisely its dynamism, its fluidity, its concreteness, its particularity that he deplores.”
(Havelock, p.94)

“Yet there is another side to the coin. Alphabetized speech offered its own forms of freedom, even of excitement. Oralism had favored the traditional and the familiar, both in content and style. The need to conserve in memory required that the content of memory be economical. You added to it only cautiously, slowly, and often with the loss of previous material to make room for addition in what was a drastically limited capacity. Oral information was packaged tightly (to use an anachronistic metaphor). The resources of documentation were by contrast wide open.... Alphabetized speech, given its ready fluency of recognition, now allowed of novel language and of novel statement (should individual minds be tempted to indulge in such) which a reader, scanning as he read, could recognize at leisure and ‘take in’ and ‘think over.’”
(Havelock, p.109-10)



John Henry Calvinist