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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Socrates objected to written texts

You may recall a recent essay I wrote on this subject. Now I came across another point in favor of Socrates’ position, in a book called Nine Lives by William Dalrymple. He describes the life of an itinerant story teller in a Rajasthan village. In his essay on The Singer of Epics, Dalrymple refers to research done in 1930’s by Millman Parry who was trying to find out whether Homer’s works might have been based on an oral tradition. Millman Parry found one individual in Kosovo, by name Avdo Medodovich who could recite poems 15,000 to 16,000 lines long . This farmer had no education and could not read; but remembered several hundred poems.  Millman Parry was of the opinion that people who cannot read remember better!

We know that this makes neurological sense. We observe how people with poor vision use their other senses better and those with poor hearing are always alert visually.
We, in India know how we have several individuals who can recite the entire puranas (Bhagavathars who perform Kathakalakeshpam) , Bhagvat Gita, Ramayana and several Upanishads from memory. One difference is that many of them can also read. However we know that in earlier times, Vedas were passed down generations purely by oral tradition. Such performances have been documented in different cultures.
I distinctly remember one Mr.’AAndi Sundaram” in my ancestral village (Andikadu, Thanjavur District, Tamil Nadu). He used to tell us so many stories and recite so many witty poems and puzzles. I even remember two of them. He was not literate; but cultured! What a memory he had.
It is interesting to note Mr.Dalrymple refers to one Mr.Komal Kothari, a specialist in Indian folklore who has indeed shown that one of his subjects slowed down in his ability to learn songs when he learnt to read and write!
Another co-incidence is that I recently listened to a Professor of Eastern Studies who talked about how the original Arabian Nights in the oral tradition is totally different from the current versions of the Arabian Nights. The original had only 273 stories but the bards made up several side stories and elaborated some of them to suit the locale and the audience.  Most of the stories added to make them into 1,000 stories were from the western translators. Would you believe if I say that Alibaba and the forty thieves, and Sindbad, the sailor were not in the original version? If you want to read the original version in English, please go to: The Arabian Nights, translated by Husain Haddawy, WW Norton Edition from 1990.
If you are interested in the importance of story tellers in the evolution of cultures, please also read a remarkable fiction called the Story Teller by Mario Vargas Llosa.
Obviously, the conclusion should not be to turn the clock back! It cannot be done anyway. But, it is to realize that each cultural advancement comes with positive and negative effects. We need to be aware of them and adapt.