Why is the aggrandizing of character such a helpful mnemonic for storytellers?
Decades before the explosions of scholarly interest in orality and memory, Hector M. Chadwick introduced a valiant but flawed hypothesis entitled The Heroic Age (1912), considering why Epics like the Odyssey and Beowulf seem so similar despite the vast historical difference in their cultural origins. Essentially, Chadwick proposed that characteristics of heroic literature are developmental traits of a given society’s earliest literature, reflecting natural tendencies of storytellers who are progressing beyond orality. In Chadwick’s theory, the rise of any people group from orality to literacy is the hallmark of its own culture's “heroic age”. However, one of many things Chadwick did not treat significantly was the role of memory.
How did the limitations of human memory shape the tendencies of primitive storytelling?
Following Chadwick, many others delved into the formulaic mnemonics of Epic, especially in regards to several previously identified linguistic patterns in Homer – some key players being Milman Parry and Albert Lord in the 30’s, Cecil Bowra in ’52, and Bryan Hainsworth in ’91. Going back to Parry & Lord, John Miles Foley charted a new trajectory in the 80’s and 90’s, developing Oral-Formulaic Theory with less attention to Epic (or memory) per se, but focusing rather on the function of oral forms to enhance audience reception. (Fascinating though it is, Foley’s work seems to have cul-de-sac’d just a bit, though niche is nicer than ever these days.) Meanwhile, it was primarily the work of Eric Havelock and Walter Ong which delved more deeply into “the oral shaping of heroic literature” and which “identified the heroic notion as a hallmark of orality” (W.Kelber, 1983).
and Ong who first related “the heroic notion” directly to memory. Havelock
was considered reckless in
scholarship, his bold pronouncements are still cited and were apparently
aimed for the roots of the heroic literary dynamic, saying things like Havelock
“the saga, in order to… offer an effective paradigm of social law and custom, must deal with those acts which are conspicuous and political. And the actors who [fit such a paradigm] we designate as “heroes.” The reason for the heroic paradigm is [therefore] not romantic but functional and technical.” (Preface to Plato, p.168, 1963)And also:
“The psychology of oral memorization and oral record required the content of what is memorised to be a set of doings. This in turn presupposes actors or agents.” (Ibid, p.171)
did not provide sound proof of such
connections, the ideas themselves – ultimately, that Epic form followed social
function, or that narrative content was shaped by cognitive limitations –
were at least striking enough. A decade or so later, Walter Ong began to argue
that features of oral storytelling are restricted by the physical transience of
sound. The fact that speaking is immediately lost from the present, as opposed to
writing which persists into the future, creates natural limitations that
restrict human capacity for oral storytelling and thus privilege some modes or
features of narrative, far above others. In his 1982 masterpiece, Orality and Literacy, in a chapter
called “Some Psychodynamics in Orality”, Ong wrote two pages on the “noetic
role” of heroic figures, stating that the monumental, the marvelous and the
monstrous were just naturally more memorable: Havelock
“The same mnemonic or noetic economy enforces itself still where oral settings persist in literate cultures… the overpoweringly innocent Little Red Riding Hood, the unfathomably wicked wolf, the incredibly tall beanstalk that Jack has to climb – for non-human figures acquire heroic dimensions too.” (30th anniversary edition, 2012, p.69)
To the functional problem, Ong was brilliant (if perhaps obvious):
“in an oral noetic economy, mnemonic serviceability is a sine qua non, and, no matter what the other forces [which also influence narrative content or style], without proper mnemonic shaping of verbalization the figures will not survive.” (Ibid, p.69)
Like Hector Chadwick, Walter Ong observed that such features of “heroic” storytelling gradually become less prominent as a cultural body of literature matures. Like Eric Havelock, Ong believed certain aspects of the Epic formulas had been necessitated by the need to retain information via memory. With the rise of print literature, “you do not need a hero in the old sense to mobilize knowledge in story form.” (Ibid, p.70)
Despite all this, we must chart a new trajectory in the study of how memory advantages the hero-centered narrative.
By every practical measure, the heroic figure is hardly absent from contemporary narrative forms. Neither, of course, has enhancing memorability become less advantageous or desirable, despite being conveniently less necessary. While highbrow literature may frequently celebrate anti-heroes and the dramatization of commonplace situations, and while experimental histories have aimed toward collective biographies and have reoriented perspectives on past events “from below”, the most popular storytelling today, in 2014, is undoubtedly in television and film. Audio-visual storytelling (and text-visual, in the rise of comics & the graphic novel) has once again flipped the relationship between form and function, re-orienting medium and message (a la Marshall McLuhan). But even in strictly verbal print literature without imaging (fiction and non) the heroic figure remains popular in both novels and biographies, and perhaps most of all in our longitudinal method of providing introduction to History (on which, see Heroic History post #1).
Why does the memorial past remain, to some extent, best approached through “innumerable biographies”?
While the above scholars from Chadwick to Ong have addressed various aspects of how mnemonic limitations since the days of orality have advantaged narratives which feature “heroic” content, the question of remembering a single story is yet less involved than the question of remembering the countless stories which inevitably make up all of “History”. And while memory scholars like F.C. Bartlett and Narratologists like Mieke Bal have also established helpful strategies for understanding the retention in memory of any particular story, we face a different challenge altogether in understanding how people remember “the past”.
If remembering requires efficiency, above all, then how can we possibly set about to remembering the vast, unwieldy, cacophonous, and endlessly differentiated expanse of all that belongs to the entirety of “the past”?
There must be other mnemonic advantages of heroic orientation, other ways in which a systematically and repetitively biographical focus allows us to organize not just the information of one single story, but to organize all the possible stories which belong to every writeable history.
There must be some way in which biography, and biographies, assist us chronologically.
There must be some way in which Heroic History advantages the remembering of Time itself.
To be continued…