Oral lock

Amphora with red-figure painting of a rhapsode, an oral performer of poetry (490–480 BCE). British Museum 1843,1103.34. Image via the British Museum.

Some of the best books should have never been written. Some of the world’s best stories should have never been put in writing.

When I was a child, my parents read a poem to me so many times I became, for a very short while, a local star. Their friends, acquintances and a couple of celebrity writers were flocking to hear me recite hundreds of lines. In the grown-up world of book readers, I represented the lost art of memory and orality. They all wished they’d been able to memorise and deliver from memory, line by line, some of Romania’s finest epic poetry. As soon as I learned to read, which was soon after my rise to provincial stardom, I lost it all.

So that is why I say, controversially and polemically, that some stories should have never been written. Trapped as I was, as a preliterate listener, in oral lock, I made those poems truly mine. I didn’t really understand them, but neither did many of the ancient bards who recited the epics of the preliterate world.

A great deal of ancient literature was like this, created and transmitted orally, by word of mouth, literally.

Stories survive as long as they are being told and retold. Ancient myth was retold so many times it became something else each time. The war of Troy was told in so many ways that folklorists and ethnographers wouldn’t even be able to keep up, had those stories been told today the way they used to be.

The Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the stories about the gods and the heroes of the Mediterranean, to focus only on those, had a long lease of life until books started to package them neatly into beautiful narratives – and to suck the life out of them. On the one hand, that ensured their survival beyond the cultures which produced them (in both space and time); but on the other hand, books put an end to their constant metamorphosis. Scholarship replaced auricular transmission. The manuscript page muted the living story.

Long before the video killed the radio star, the book had killed the passionate bard.

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