Sunday, May 08, 2005

Havelock on Mnemosyne

"In the history of the Greek written word, the earliest Greek text composed throughout as a text may be that of Hesiod, and this despite the fact that his language is basically Homeric, retaining all the formulaic character of orally preserved verse. it is all the more remarkable that in his verse he seems able to retain a vivid awareness of the orality that preceded the writing of his text, and even to recognize what its basic functions were, namely the preservation of tradition in the living memory. He does this in describing the persons and functions of the Muses for whom he composes his introductory hymn. To begin with, they are the offspring of a union between Zeus and Mnemosune, usually translated as 'memory,' as though the word were equivalent to Mneme (the other Greek word for memory). The fuller form signifies the exercise of memory as an activity, that is, 'remembrance' or recall.

"Parental inheritance, when commemorated genealogically in oral verse, was used to give a person (often a warrior) his own identity, indicating his social status and role in the community. The Muses, through their assigned parentage, are to be perceived as the guardians of the social memory, and since their behavior as described is wholly oral, without any thought of writing, it is a memory as preserved in spoken speech—that is, the storage speech required. The reason for their existence is not inspirational, as it later became, but functional. Appropriately what they utter is summarized as 'the (things) of the present and before' (ta eonta, ta proeonta), and also of 'the to become' (ta essomena) which in its context which the other two particles refers not to novelty to be prophesied but a tradition which will continue and remain predictable (see above, chapter 7).

"It is of interest and relevance that this memory function commemorated by the early poet, but only symbolically and indirectly, achieved more explicit recognition later, after the passage of a century or more, at a time when the extended use of the alphabet had produced a rival means of remembrance in competition with the oral. One of the Promethean gifts to mankind is described as "compositions of grammata, Muse-mother, worker memory of all (things).' The grammata are 'inscriptions'; that is, written letters. In those, the storage memory is now preserved. It has been transformed to their guardianship from the custody of oral language and has become overtly recognizable as a 'memory' precisely because the letters as artifacts have objectified the memory by making it visible. But the fact that this is a transfer which still retains maternal orality, and not a completely new creation, is recognized in the phrase 'Muse-mother,' probably a recollection of Hesiod's genealogy. The term 'worker,' again, slight as it may be, recognizes for the first time that this language, whether oral or written, is something put to work; its role is functional, not inspirational uplift. The products of the alphabet (which included the Aeschyleon play in which these words were written) are something more than just 'literature' in our sense of the word.

"By the beginning of the fourth century, literate intellectuals began to attend to the act of memorization itself, considered as a necessary technique to be learned. The need would only occur to them as the result of delayed recognition of an exercise that was slowly but surely becoming obsolete in their own day, but which in the oral centuries, sustained by social pressure/ which was taken for granted, had itself been taken for granted, without achieved conscious recognition."

"To return to Hesiod: the memory language of his Muses is, of course, rhythmic and in his terms is uttered in epic hexameters. The metaphors applied to their speech dwell on its liquidity; it flows, it gushes in a steady stream. It is also a performance addressed to an audience—the gods in this particular case—on a variety of occasions, as in religious ritual (the hymn, which is what Hesiod is himself composing at the moment) or in a civic chorus (the dance) or as an epic recital, or as a song. The performers are musical, they have their accompanying instruments. The occasions are festive; you had a good time in feast or celebration or procession when the Muses spoke. These combined conditions are symbolically memorialized in the names that the nine are given: Cleio (Celebrator), Euterpe (Delightor), Thaleia (Luxuriator), Melphomene (Song Player), Terpsichore (Dance-Delighter), Erato (Enrapturer), Polyhmnia (Hymnal Player), Urania (Heaven Dweller), Calliope (Fair Speaker)" (79-81).

Havelock, Eric. The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.

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