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Winged words

How a Jesuit priest helped recover the lost world of oral culture

DO THOSE WHO KNOW how to write think differentlyand more potentlythan those who don't? Certainly, our society's emphasis on book-learning leads us to think so. And yet nothing can humble a writer more than the thought that the most powerful words in human history have come not from the pens of scribes but from the lips of sages and storytellers. Socrates, Buddha, and Jesus were all literate (one hears) but never bothered to leave behind manuscripts with their bylines. For these peripatetic teachers, the best way to communicate was to go to some market or other crowded place and start a public conversation. The task of recording the wisdom that emerged from these open-air seminars was left to disciples and epigones.

Even today, oral cultures are typical of the human species: According to one estimate, a mere 78 of the 3,000 human languages boast written literatures. And yet only in recent decades has the spoken word received sustained scholarly attention. In the early decades of the 20th century, Milman Parry and Albert Lord pioneered the study of Homer as an oral story-teller. Rejecting the long-standing notion that Homer must have been literate, Parry and Lord showed that the Greek bardlike innumerable sages and shamansrelied on useful mnemonic techniques such as the use of highly rhythmic language, repeated formulas (``wily Ulysses''), and story lines and characters that were memorably conflict-filled and vivid.

The discovery that oral culture was bound by its own set of rules has had large consequences, and no one did more to pursue them than Father Walter J. Ong, the great Jesuit polymath at Saint Louis University who died last month at the age of 90. More than any other scholar, Father Ong codified disparate scholarly investigations into a coherent narrative of human history from the first spoken utterances to the Internet. Along with his close intellectual ally Marshall McLuhan, Ong also contributed to a crucial reorientation of Roman Catholic thought toward the complexities of the modern, media-saturated world. By studying how the traditions of oral liturgy might be revived with the aid of the newest communications technologies, these two innovative Roman Catholic thinkers encouraged their church to engage with modernity rather than simply oppose it.

. . .

Born to a devout Roman Catholic family in Kansas City in 1912, Ong spent his early youth working for newspapers and printers before joining the Society of Jesus in 1935. In 1938, while pursuing a master's degree in English at Saint Louis University, Ong met McLuhan, a young professor from Canada who had converted to Catholicism the previous year.

Although McLuhan would later gain fame as a media guru known for such delphic sound bites as ``The medium is the message'' and ``the Global Village,'' in the late 1930s he was a fresh-faced convert trying to unite his religious fervor and his fascination with modernist culture. Ong admired McLuhan for his sophisticated approach to everything from T.S. Eliot's poetry to film, radio, and comic books.

McLuhan's belief ``that everything in creation hangs together through all levels and that probing all connections is worthwhile,'' Ong later argued, derived from his religious faith that the created world, if examined correctly, would always testify to God's goodness. McLuhan crucially believed that technology was not inhuman or separate from God's creation. In Ong's words, ``Human beings interiorize their technologies by making them a part of themselves.''

In his examinations of popular culture, enlivened by the teaching he did in St. Louis's inner-city schools, Ong was impressed by the parallels between traditional oral societies and the media-rich environment of young Americans. He noted that there were similarities between Homer's oral world, where warriors prove themselves not just by their physical strength but also by their rhetorical prowess, and contemporary pseudo-sports such as professional wrestling and the African-American street game of ``the dozens,'' with its competitive insults and yo' mamas.

In studying potboilers alongside Eliot's poetry, McLuhan and Ong were going against the grain of their culturally conservative church. After all, Roman Catholicism at that time still lived under the shadow of Pius IX's 1864 ``Syllabus of Errors,'' which condemned the idea that ``the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself . . . with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.'' Influenced by the teaching of Pius, many early 20th-century Catholic intellectuals, notably G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, denigrated nearly all aspects of modern society and upheld the Middle Ages as an ideal.

Although McLuhan was on the right politically (he was even an admirer of Franco), he and Ong were both heartened by the new theology of Jacques Maritain, John Courtney Murray, and others who aimed to show that church teachings were compatible with contemporary ideas of democracy and pluralism. In his own realm of cultural studies, Ong prepared the way for the reforms of Vatican II, which he welcomed.

The fruits of his thinking can best be seen in Ong's best-known book, ``Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word,'' which appeared in 1982. Here, Ong sought to substantiate the notion that the spread of new technologies leads to large-scale changes in human cognition. Displaying an almost superhuman erudition, Ong integrated McLuhan's sometimes whimsical thinking with the sober work of anthropologists, sociologists, and literary theorists.

For Ong, human history represents an evolution from ``primary orality'' (his preferred term for a historical stage often known condescendingly as ``preliterate'') to the onset of literacy with script writing. But written language was a mixed blessing. Societies governed by primary orality were incapable of ornate syntax and abstraction, but they were rich with personal interaction. By contrast, writing was ``voiceless, immobile, devoid of all warmth, not interactive but isolated, not part of the human lifeworld but utterly above and beyond it.'' Ever since Plato, the written word has detached the speaker from the audience. The invention of movable type in the 15th century, along with the Protestant Reformation that followed, privileged the rigors of individual introspection over the riches of communal experience.

But Ong did not believe that history stopped there. In the 20th century, radio, television, sound recordings, and other electronic technologies heralded a new age of ``secondary orality.'' ``This new orality has striking resemblances to the old in its participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas,'' he wrote in ``Orality and Literacy.'' Still, there was no going back to the past. The new orality would be ``essentially a more deliberate and self-conscious orality, based permanently on the use of writing and print. . ..'' Contemporary scholars of the Web and cyberculture frequently cite Ong as they weigh the effects of new modes of language that combine the complexity of writing with the immediacy of speech.

Ong's thinking was both influential in the contemporary academy and in some respects alien to it. As a Roman Catholic priest, he was always conscious of the spiritual implications of his work. After all, we read in the Bible that with the incarnation of Christ, ``the Word was made flesh.'' Further, as Ong notes, for Roman Catholics, the church itself ``is the presence of the Word.''

By contrast, the French deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida questioned the very notion of ``presence'' and denied that the spoken word can carry meaning any more effectively than the written word. Today, Ong and McLuhan's hopes that new communications technologies would foster a warm connectedness can seem nave.

Certainly, McLuhan was given to flights of fancy in conjuring up visions of a unified global village. But Father Ong built his scholarly structures to last. By giving primacy to the story of how oral culture was supplanted by writing, Ong altered our understanding of human history.

While scholarship and faith are often seen as at odds, Ong's work shows how they can enrich each other. Even for those who cannot accept the divine presence in the Biblical word, Ong's own human words, encoded (ironically) in books, will have a continuing afterlife.

Jeet Heer is a regular contributor to the National Post of Canada and the Globe.

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