About two years ago, while working through the issues of Oral Tradition in Ong’s library, I took the time to read Lauri Hanko’s “Epics Along the Silk Roads: Mental Text, Performance, and Written Codification” (Oral Tradition 11.1 (1996): 1-17), which seems to intersect with a number of issues I’m trying to work on regarding memory and composition.

In this first passage, I see echoes of Flower and Hayes work with memory and composing. I need to go back and look at those essays:

“To accept memorization as the key to epic composition would be tantamount to saying that excellent singers are poor memorizers. On the other hand, memory is their world and instrument at the same time. They are capable of displaying great accuracy of memory, if need arises. Singers of oral poetry may easily master a store of tradition much larger than is usual in a culture dominated by literacy. Thus the aim in their work of composing epics cannot be a word-for-word reproduction of something. Such a verbatim reproduction may occur in sacred texts, for example in charms, incantations, and prayers, but even there objective accuracy may prove an illusion. On the other hand, the singer may claim the ‘sameness’ of renditions that are far from identical.

“To be able to understand the production of a text in an actual performance, it seems necessary to postulate a kind of ‘pre-narrative,’ a pre-textual frame, that is, an organized collection of relevant consciousness and unconscious material present in the singer’s mind. This material consists of (1) textual elements and (2) generic rules for reproduction; we may call it a ‘mental text.’ It is not as fixed as its documented manifestations may suggest, but it is only through its fixed manifestations that we can try to construct components of a particular mental text.

“The apparent fixity of verbalizations proves to be transparent and fluid when we analyze their variation at the levels of texture (language), text (content), and structure. The concept of textual similarity is different from the textual one, since similar content may be conveyed by linguistically dissimilar expressions. The same relation may be observed between content and structure: different structures may reside behind similar contents and dissimilar textual contents may reveal the same structure. The singer’s concept of ‘sameness’ may reside on the content level, whereas our observation of ‘differences’ between two texts may be based on textual or linguistic criteria” (4-5).

And in this next passage, especially the second paragraph, I’m interested in the idea of composing with images and the need to practice mediating between the image and the verbal:

“As we try to conceptualize a ‘mental text’ it may be useful, at least in the beginning of our analysis, to avoid the textural level of ‘textual elements’ evident in the available renditions of the story in question. Since fixed verbalization is the final result of epic composition, we should not start there but look for more basic elements, which we may discern through a variety of manifestations of the same narrative. In other words, we may try to proceed in the same order as the singer and begin with what he seems to consider first when preparing a performance.

“Let us assume that memory works by mental images and units of meaning rather than by verbal expressions. The images may be lucid and powerful regardless of what their verbal description will be in actual performance. It is the power of mental images that translates into word power. Image power cannot be exhausted by particular words. Hence the variation of linguistic means becomes a method of reaching toward maximal expression, a goal that can be reached only momentarily. The force of an image may be pressed into a particular function for a moment, but when the actual intact to its original and polyvalent form of existence in the human consciousness.

“Mental images may, just like verbal expressions or for that matter models of mime and gesture, coexist in fairly free and loose order in the human mind. As such they need not ‘mean’ much. Units of meaning are created only when images are related to each other, combined in a particular way or put in a sequence. If we read an epic text from this point of view, what we find are sequences of traditional images. If one does not wish to postulate repeatable verbal expressions or ‘formulas’ as the basic units of epic composition, another possibility for the traditional ‘basis’ is prearranged sets of units of meaning. What Paul Ricoeur calls ’emplotment’ (1991): 21) may come close to the sequencing of traditional images by the performers or oral epics” (5-6). [Ricoeur, Paul. “Life in Quest of Narrative” in On Paul Ricoeur.]

James Fentress and Chris Wickham discuss image-based social memory in chapter 4 of Social Memory. Tibetan paper singers (John Miles Foley’s How to Read an Oral Poem) and the Scottish storyteller described in MacDonald, Donald A MacDonald’s “A Visual Memory” (Scottish Studies 22 (1978): 1-26) both see the action of their oral performances. The Scottish storyteller relies upon it to such a degree that if his focus is interrupted, he can loose the ‘movie’ and therefore the ability to continue with that performance. All this intersects with Kristie Fleckentein’s work on imagery and imageword, and, of course, medieval memory practice.

[tags]composition, memory, mnemonic practices, oral culture, social memory, Walter Ong[/tags]