Saturday, November 13, 2010

Oral and Written Traditions

I've been thinking a bit about the difference between oral and written traditions lately. I've started reading Ellen Chen's wonderful translation with commentary of the Laozi, and she argues that, contrary to the more common opinion among modern scholars, that it is the creation of one person and that it was originally written down. This has shaken my previous belief that the Laozi is a collection of sayings from an oral tradition that was written down over time. Not having the ability to read ancient Chinese, I pretty much have to accept the authority of the scholars who do, which leaves me pretty much in the dark about what to think about the origins of the DDJ. If nothing else, it is an important lesson to learn that what we know we see "through a glass, darkly", to quote St. Paul.

Having said that, it doesn't undermine a pet theory of mine about the way oral and written traditions influence society. People have a modern belief that oral traditions involve bards and story-tellers memorizing their epics the way actors memorize the lines of a play. But in actual fact, I've read that ancient epics likes the Iliad, Odyssey, etc, were more improvisational than that. Bard and story tellers would know the basic outlines of the story---having heard it many times themselves when they were the apprentice running around with a bowl collecting money from listeners---and improvise their language as they recited. After years of practice, they were able to create rhythmn schemes in the same way that accomplished jazz musicians can follow chord progressions and key changes while noodling around with a theme or rhythmn.

What's interesting about this sort of "improvisational literature" is that it is fluid. That is to say that when a bard said something that really resonated well with the people listening, there was a tendency to include it or something like it in all future performances. Similarly, if someting didn't go over well, it tended to get discarded. And these changes tended to get passed onto the apprentices too, who would then make similar sorts of changes before their works were passed on to the next generation of bards. What was happening was a form of natural selection. Over generations and generations, I suspect that this process would be able to change just about anything into a great work of literature.

As an aside, this makes me wonder if maybe we should rethink the whole idea of "genius". Perhaps "Homer" wrote down a very, very old oral tradition that had been refined by generations of very good bards. Perhaps the bards took an "OK", but not great, poem by a fellow named "Homer" and refined it slowly into something amazing. Either way, it looks like there may not have been an enormously gifted blind poet who deserves most of the prase.

Even works that were written down instead of orally transmitted can go through this sort of process. In some cultures, at some times, all books were written by hand. If the books were copied by literate slaves, then probably the most one would get would be simply mistakes. But if people reading and enjoying texts were making copies for themselves or friends, then there had to be a tendency to change, add and remove bits as a form of "friendly editing". There is evidence of this in books from this stage of social evolution. For example, take a look at this discussion of the different elements that scholars have found in the book of Job in the Old Testament. That is, if we find copies of books that were created before the "standard edition" was created, we often find some significant differences between different versions. So some change can happen even at this stage, although I suspect hand-written books rarely evolve as much as oral traditions.

I think that this phenomenon is tremendously important to religions. That is because religious scriptures are tremendously important to the way the traditions develop. And I believe that in order for these traditions to stay relevant and true to the original spirit of the faith, they need to constantly adapt and evolve to the social and physical conditions that people find themselves in. As long as the unifying story and teachings of the faith are oral in nature, they can adapt to the needs of the people. But once they get written down, and especially when they get mechanically reproduced, the religion ceases to adapt to the needs of its followers and instead, the followers are forced to adapt to the words of the scripture.

This is a very bad thing. In fact, I recall hearing a teaching story about a Zen master who had inherited a mass of scriptures when he took over a Temple. He had the monks pile up these scriptures and burn them. When asked about why it was he was doing this, his answer was that he had to burn them in order to preserve them. I would suggest that this action and answer makes sense if you understand the way oral teachings can adapt to changing circumstances whereas written ones cannot. Let me repeat this in order to emphasize the point, to save the spirit of a teaching, you sometimes have to destroy its outward manifestation which is confining and perverting it.

I wonder if perhaps the reason why the Black form of American Christianity sometimes seems so much more dynamic and progressive is because historically it has been a church composed of many illiterate people. (Think about it, who is the exemplar of Black Christianity: Martin Luther King Jr.? Who is of comparable stature in white Christianity? Jerry Falwell? Billy Graham?) At first, the slaves were forbidden to learn how to read or write. After emancipation, the rules of Jim Crow made if very hard for most blacks to get any sort of education. What this meant was that people were able to adapt and improvise their understanding and form of Christianity without having to bend and twist themselves to fit the confines of 2,000 years of church history.

I've thought a lot about this issue because of a sometimes angry debate in the scholarly community about the value of certain "versions" of the DDJ that have been written by people who have no understanding of ancient Chinese---and often no Chinese language at all. I probably find myself in the worst situation of all in that I have sympathy for both positions. On the one hand, I agree that it sounds preposterous that someone would write a version of the DDJ without knowing the original language. But on the other hand, I think that we are now entering into a new age where religious texts need to be freed up and become fluid again---like they were in oral traditions. It is a great thing that so many different takes on the DDJ have been published. Many, if not most of them are probably dreadful and will not survive the process of natural selection. But some of them will perhaps bring some new point of view, and new, more relevant spirit to the living tradition of Daoism.

I wish something similar could happen with all religious texts. Moreover, I wish people felt the courage to write new texts based upon their understanding of the divine. And I wish that people could enter into a form of collaboration---just like those ancient bards did with their audiences.

The funny thing is that modern technology actually makes this not only possible, but trivially easy. To that end, I've set up a wiki that is designed to facilitate the creation of collaborative religious scriptures. You can access it here. Feel free to upload new stuff, create new threads, change stuff I and other people have posted. And by all means invite other people to the site and put links to it for others. Change the artwork---go nuts! If someone wants to support the thing and move over to a better site or pay Wetpaint for a different type of wiki, contact me.

The site is a gift from me, the Cloudwalking Owl, to the entire human race. Use it and make something wonderful.


Jim714 said...

Dear CWO:

Interesting and thoughtful post. The constant change noted in the oral tradition is something which continues in written works, but at a slower pace. One of the ways this happens is through translation. I work in a spiritual bookstore and have two shelves of Bibles for sale. The translations diverge in significant ways. I'm sure you are aware that the same happens with the DDJ and any other spiritual work.

Even when a particular translation, such as King James, takes root and becomes a significant cultural influence, it still has to be updated and reviesed/renewed because our language changes, words drop out of usage, or completely change their designation.

The river of words keeps flowing and nothing can really keep it in place.


Anonymous said...

related to a prior post of yours critical of the "new atheists", i posted a comment with a snippet of an interview from several years ago with sam harris, showing he was generally friendly to spirituality/mysticism while being hostile to religion.

just stumbled across a more recent interview, where he talks more about these specific points, so i thought i'd let you know about it also:


Sam Harris Believes in God
The neuroscientist and rationalist has made his name attacking religious faith. Who knew he was so spiritual?



The Cloudwalking Owl said...


How right you are. I noticed this myself lately as I started to read Ellen Chen's translation and commentary on the DDJ. (It is very good, so good I ordered a copy for myself after reading the introduction on a libary copy.)

But having said that, the rate of evolution slows down dramatically and changes direction when you leave it only in the hands of people who write the sort of manuscripts that get published. Moreover, the whole relationship between readers as consumers who buy books from publishers is different from people who participate in the creation of the text through an oral tradition. What I would like to see is that barrier, which disempowers people, broken down.


Thanks for that link to that interesting article about Sam Harris. My read of the "new atheists" is that they---and a lot of the people who read them---are people who might be very interested in supporting a real, honest spirituality. Unfortunately, narrow-minded theism has "poisoned the well" for them. They are like angry divorced people who feel like they've been betrayed by someone that the once loved very much. They seem to be very moral, idealistic people who are digusted by the way so many religious leaders not only do not live up to the values of their faith, but routinely invert them in the name of God. I agree with Michael Dowd who says, for example, that Christians should consider the "New Atheists" genuine prophets.