Do You Really Have to Write That Down?

Room drawing made of written wordsWith a free day off, and deciding that I was going to have a real break, I went to a street festival on Memorial Day (for two hotdogs and two pieces of pie, and I don’t care), came home to a beer and a nap, then went to the bookstore, where I did some reading in The Illustrated World’s Religions by Huston Smith. I ended up reading chapter 9, “The Primal Religions”. I think the attraction of that section may have been because I’m looking for something basic or primal missing from my life (because, when you think about it, why was I alone in a bookstore on Memorial Day?).

An idea that interested me in the book concerned the difference between cultures that have writing and those that don’t, that is, oral cultures. Because I’m intensely literate by nature and education, I act as if a word isn’t real until I see it in writing, but I know that writing is an artificial invention, just like an axe or an elevator, and I know that writing only came into existence yesterday (maybe 4,000 years ago). So for tens of thousands of years, human communication has been based on speech.

Speech is ephemeral. The moment someone stops speaking, the words are gone except for memory, and memory can be a shaky source for information. For one thing, every person’s memory will be somewhat different, especially over time. For another, the person in the village with the most information eventually dies, and there it goes. Because writing can be put into forms that last a long time (and because writing is magic), written documents can come to seem like a more serious authority than any one person.

One idea of the “primal” religions I was reading about was that such religions existed only in an oral culture. A feeling of sacredness can be experienced through non-verbal methods. Have you ever stood in your garden or walked in the woods and felt there was something bigger than yourself about it, something spiritual? Or you might get that feeling from a song, from dancing, from watching a chipmunk. In contrast, religious writing takes on an importance that overwhelms other spiritual avenues. If you are a Christian or Muslim or Jew, you are not generally encouraged to discover for yourself what you think God is, based on your own feelings and experience, but rather you should read The Book to find out.

As I try to write about what an oral culture would be like, I realize I end up guessing about most of it. We’re surrounded by writing; even the clothes on our bodies and the trash on the ground have writing. People who don’t know how to read still live in a world with ideas shaped by writing. An oral society, for example, would have less knowledge, because for any given group, all of the knowledge in the world consisted of what the people standing there could remember. If someone died, and that person was the only one who knew which herbs to use for curing snake bites, oh well. Watch out for snakes. Only because of writing, and the accumulation of ideas that it makes possible, do we have electric lights, or democracy, or heart surgery. Or the Beatles (I want to keep a sense of perspective here).

I also start to guess that an oral society would be more prone to rumors and partial knowledge, but then I think that guess might be wrong. In our own society, there is authoritative writing that we can consult, but all those books (or magazines, or websites) are useless if people don’t actually consult them. Centuries of slowly learning things have given us enormous amounts of knowledge, and we’ve recorded it, and it’s freely available—and yet there are people who think global warming does not exist, the Holocaust did not happen, Elvis is still alive, and evolution is impossible because they personally don’t like it.

Writing also lends itself to rumor, false knowledge, and stupidity. Think of graffiti, Ku Klux Klan websites, or any communist newspaper. And in an age of blogs (not this one—this is all true), chat rooms, Twitter, Facebook postings, or something as quaint and old-fashioned as email, no small-village oral society can touch us for magnifying dumbass nonsense.

As I end this rambling, I can think of one enormously appealing advantage of an oral society: there would be no People magazine in the checkout line at the supermarket. Of course there would probably still be someone standing around saying, “Did you hear that Ogbert and Sheena broke up?”

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