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Module 1: Orality and Literacy

Note di Apprendimento
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Imagine, if everybody compared the sun to a red rose or a flower or the yolk of an egg. If the poet constantly gives reference to the sun like a yolk of an egg, then the audience would be tremendously bored and would not like it. So, therefore the poet has to refer to the sun in various forms and that is the repertoire of the epithets. But there is no one to one correspondence. At various points of times it is like an array.
It is like a buffet of epithets that are there in the poet’s mind- I have to talk about the sun now, I have to talk about the river now, I have to talk about the snow now. So, he picks up whatever epithet that comes to his mind which he can better apply. And that is what differentiated good poets from bad poets. As to what kind of epithets they use, that is true even today in the state of written poetry. Only thing is, in written poetry, once it is written down it gets finalized and fixed.
That is what a certain poet has written. It will not change once it is printed and passed on and sealed.
Whereas, in the case of oral poetry rendition and oral storytelling, the epithets would keep on altering.
Now, the second point is that epithets will also have to be for various meters. So, there are various metrical patterns of poetry so that, the way we talk has a certain rhythm to it. So there is a tune which goes up and down and that's what makes it pleasant to the ear. Now, some meters are at a faster rhythm, some meters are at a slower rhythm, some meters are at a stacko rhythm, and some meters are at a more harmonious rhythm.
The epithets will also have to match the meter of that particular point. That is very important. Because if there is no variation in the meter of the poem by the poet of the story in storytelling, then it is again something that is not going to be very interesting to the audience. So imagine that some poet tells poetry or story only in one rhythm, then it is not something that is interesting at all.
So you have to vary the rhythm. Good songs are ones which move fast then go slow, and then move fast and then go slow and vary their rhythm at various points of time. So, as the rhythm that is occurring at that moment of time of storytelling the epithet has to match. So, all I am trying to assert is that memory is not a verbatim memory of the entire poem.
A full epic could be hundreds and thousands of lines long. But that does not mean that in oral form, the poet remembered each and everything. They remembered a hell of a lot. And they did not have any written record to fall back upon. But they did not have verbatim memory. So, every rendition would vary from the previous rendition. That is exactly what I am trying to tell you. Then, let us move on, to discuss the need for repetition.
(Refer Slide Time 12:40)

Because nothing was written down, the only way to ensure the continuity of a text was repetition. That if I heard something, I need to remember it, repeat it again and again in order to make sure that I do not forget about it. And this is very specific, very important to understand because the way in which the memory, brain and neurons actually operate. This is something that we are going to pick on later in the course when you try to understand the changes that are being brought about due to digital media. But for now, let us understand that every time we encounter a certain new idea, it produces certain changes in the chemical and physical patterns of the neurons within the brain.
The neurons at the synapses ally with each other in very different ways each time. And that is how the brain actually remembers. Now, what happens is once you have heard something and you hear it again, that synapse sort of gets solidified a little bit more and then that synapse gets solidified a little bit more the next time there is a revision so then that is why when one is learning something, one is practicing something those are the things that are getting formed. Now, if we are not repeating something for a very long period of time we tend to forget it.
This is because, once the synapse is not being used it gets used for other things, and that synapse is sort of lost. But when we again remember it there is a sort of etching mark which is there on the synapse. It grows and falls back on it. So, this is the process through which memory operates. Human memory actually operates as a physical memory as well- something that we need to understand.
So therefore knowledge once acquired within the oral domain had to be kept alive by constant repetition.
There is also another aspect to this. Because we understand without the presence of written text or written document or scripted document, knowledge could pass from one generation to another only through repetition. It is only by through this process of memory that text could pass forward.
So therefore, you have in traditional societies, rituals where these oral texts have a very important meaning. They have to be repeated each time and for conventional understanding it is given the status of something sacred: that the repetition creates some important sort of changes. It has some magical powers which is something that we need not be concerned about right now.
But what is important is that the very act of repetition of these texts keep these texts into being. But another point that we need to also know, is that this act of repetition is not like a photocopy. It is not like a mechanical copy where the same impression is brought about in the next generations. Through each repetition, through each circulation, the text undergoes certain mutations. There are interpolations that are brought in. We just saw in the previous point that even for the same oral storyteller, every new rendering of a story is unique.
So therefore, it is too much to expect that across generations, or across geography when a story gets repeated and recounted, it would continue to be the same. So, across space and time, stories keep changing.