ArticlePDF Available

Performed Being: Word Art as a Human Inheritance

Oral Tradition, 1/1 (1986):66-109
Performed Being:
Word Art as a Human Inheritance
Frederick Turner
The study of the oral tradition presently lies at the crossroads of
several new lines of research that promise to transform the shape of literary
criticism and critical theory forever. The nature of this change may perhaps
be indicated by an analogy with the revolution in the study of biology which
was wrought by the theory of evolution.
Before Darwin and Wallace proposed the mechanism of natural
selection, biology was essentially disconnected from the other sciences of
the physical world. Various strategies or approaches existed for the pursuit
of biological studies: the descriptive (corresponding to the common or
“garden-variety” descriptive criticism one nds in the standard surveys
of literature), the taxonomic (corresponding to classical genre study), the
functional (corresponding to the study of rhetoric and reader response), the
developmental (corresponding to biographical and historical criticism), the
anatomical (corresponding to the New Criticism and Structuralism), the
mystical/vitalist (corresponding to Deconstructionism), and the ecological
(corresponding to “in uence” criticism). But no single principle uni ed these
strategies; no way of relating living matter to other forms of organization
existed; no concrete connection appeared between higher and lower forms
of life; and no opportunity was offered for the use of mathematical models
on one hand and experimental analysis on the other, though these tools had
proved extremely powerful in understanding less complex physical entities
such as planetary motions and chemical compounds.
The evolutionary perspective, however, provided a single underlying
principle uniting all branches of biological science. It
opened the way for the development of biochemistry, which links nonliving
with living matter and derives the latter from the former. It showed how
the higher forms of life derived from the lower. It spawned population
genetics and the elegant statistical mathematics of gene pool models. And
it not only provided a starting point for biological experimentation, but
also demonstrated that many “experiments” already existed in the form of
isolated evolving ecosystems like the Galapagos Islands, or in the selective
breeding of domesticated species. Above all, evolutionary theory provided
the biological phenomena of the present moment with a deep history, so that
their signi cance sprang suddenly into three-dimensional clarity. The result
of these changes was to transform biology–as a discipline–from a hobby of
gentleman scholars to a central and vital element of public life and cultural
Would it not be a worthy goal for the literary scholar to seek an
equivalent unifying idea? The various schools of critical theory and practice
all have their successes, but taken together their differences cloud rather
than sharpen the student’s vision; we have no theory of the relation between
literature and the other arts, and those human activities such as religion and
politics; we have little coherent idea of the connections between “high”
literature and folk and popular literature; we have not seriously studied how
literature might be understood in terms of the organs which produce and
appreciate it, the linguistic and auditory systems of the brain; and we have no
way of constructing genuine literary experiments, because we have no basic
language for asking the questions experiments are designed to answer. (A
merely random reshuf ing of linguistic elements, which characterizes much
modern “experimental” literature, is not, for this reason, truly experimental
at all.) We do not know what existed before literature that made literature
come to be possible, and thus cannot recognize the relationship between its
archaic “grammar” and its expressive novelty. Literary study remains the
mandarin pursuit of a leisured minority, despite the pervasive importance of
the arts of words in the lives of all human beings.
Even the analogy of a unifying paradigm in natural science is
productive, in that it suggests requirements for a working body of knowledge
that have been neither exacted nor met in literary criticism. Perhaps, indeed,
the analogy should not be taken too far. Literary criticism is a eld of
humane studies, not a science.
But to the extent that the achievements of evolutionary theory in biology
provided that discipline with the humblest commonsense rational virtues–
consistency, unity of language, fertility of hypothesis, clear criteria of
signi cance–the stricture implicit in the analogy should not be rejected.
Perhaps literary criticism should never be an exact quanti ed science. But
then, neither should biology: life, after all, is itself a survival strategy of
nesse against the cold numbers of entropy, complexifying the molecular
game, raising the stakes, delaying the payment of physical debt, changing the
rules so as to keep ahead of the literalistic determinism of thermodynamics.
Evolutionary theory did not falsify by reduction the complex and qualitative
richness of the biosphere: rather, it helped us to reveal it.
Several characteristics qualify the oral tradition to be the Galapagos
Islands,1 so to speak, where a unifying literary theory may begin to take
shape. First, its antiquity: the roots of oral tradition reach back as far as
our scholarship can trace. Second, its association with ritual, a kind of
behavior which we share, in part, with other animals and which appears
to be fundamental to human nature. Third, its association, in practice, with
pleasure, on which there is now an increasing body of neurophysiological
research. Fourth, its use of psychic technologies such as rhythmic driving and
mnemonics. Fifth, its cultural universality, which points to a shared human
inheritance. Sixth, its nature as a tradition of performance: an activity now
increasingly recognized as having its own rules and structures, which may
in turn cast light on the literary arts in general. Seventh, its complex and
profound involvement with speech acts and performative utterances, forms
of language which linguistic philosophy has recently begun to explore and
which are in turn connected to the most fundamental questions of truth,
reality, and being.
The oral tradition is the one branch of literary studies which
reaches back far enough in time to invite a consideration of that crucial
period in human prehistory when biological evolution overlapped with
cultural evolution. During this epoch the physiological adaptations which
produced modern Homo Sapiens were not complete; but according to
paleoanthropology, there is unmistakable evidence that quite complex
behaviors, including speech, were already in place and in process of further
development. The length of this period is a matter of vigorous controversy
among anthropologists, archaeologists, and human
ethologists. The shortest estimates, however, are in at least hundreds of
thousands of years; many authorities would say millions.2
A large proportion
of those physical characteristics which are uniquely human and which mark
us off from the other primates evolved during that period of overlap; and–
most signi cantly of all, though the natural divisions between subdisciplines
have obscured it until recently–those human characteristics of body and
brain must have evolved under the strong in uence and selective pressure
of the earliest forms of culture. In other words, the human brain and body
are at least as much the product of human culture as human culture is the
product of the human body and brain! We are a domesticated species–self-
domesticated, or, better still, domesticated by culture even before we had
what we might truly call a human self. There was ample time for cultural
requirements to become genetically embodied in human tissue: and thus, of
course, we are hairless, oversexed, brainy, long-lived, infantile, and artistic.
Thus also, perhaps, we like stories and poetic rhythm. Of this more later.
The point is that we can no longer look at human cultural activity–
especially the very ancient kind, like oral performance–as simply arbitrary
in form and structure. There are, so to speak, real artistic rules, just as the
classical critics maintained (though for different reasons). Our brains and
bodies will be happy, facile, vigorous, and inventive–radiant and porous, as
Virginia Woolf (1957) puts it–when they use one kind of artistic structure,
and not when they use another kind. We are better at telling stories than at
saying concatenations of utterances that won’t make some kind of story.
Babies prefer nursery rhymes to other kinds of sounds. We are better at
reciting three-second chunks of language than eight-second chunks. And
perhaps the “rules” of human art are quite exact and complex, and are
discoverable, and may form the basis of a coherent literary criticism.
The oral tradition is linked to one of the most fundamental of human
activities: ritual. Indeed, it would be hard to think of an occasion in which a
traditional oral performance would not itself be part of a ritual occasion, and
nearly as dif cult to imagine a ritual without some kind of traditional oral
performance. However, the signi cance of this relationship has not been
entirely clear, largely because the oral tradition has been the province of
folklorists and literary scholars, while ritual has belonged to anthropology,
studies, and ethology. Furthermore, it is only fairly recently that certain
aspects of ritual have come to light, which have very exciting implications
for the oral tradition as well.
Ritual, until the last few years, was often regarded as little more than
superstitious, repetitive, neurotic, backward, and conservative behavior,
beneath the notice of humane scholars, and discussed by social scientists
as part of the ummery by which the harsh economic realities of society
were disguised. Now, however, ritual is increasingly considered as one of
our most vital, creative, and healthy activities. Three new discoveries have
helped bring about this change. First, in anthropology and religious studies,
it became clear that ritual, far from being a mindless activity, is often–
indeed in many societies, exclusively–the place where society stands back
from itself, considers its own value system, criticizes it, and engages in its
profoundest philosophical and religious commerce with what lies outside
it, whether divine, natural, or subconscious. In ritual, human beings decide
what they are and stipulate that identity for themselves, thereby asserting
the most fundamental freedom of all, the freedom to be what they choose.
The great life-crisis, calendrical, sacri cial, celebratory, and mystical
rituals propose counter-structures to the normal structures of society, as
Victor Turner has argued, and thereby constitute a large part of a society’s
evolutionary and adaptive potential (espec. V. Turner 1968, 1969). Like
the recombinations of genes which take place in sexual reproduction, they
introduce variability and hybrid vigor into their society. What Turner calls
“communitas”–the recognition of human siblinghood–comes to the fore in
rituals and is reinvigorated for the sake of social cohesion. Rituals, moreover,
are by no means static and unchanging, but are continually reinvented at
that fertile interface between the individual and the collectivity. Students of
the oral epic and the ballad will be quite familiar with this process.
Second, it is becoming obvious that human ritual is not entirely
unique but belongs to a set of ritualized behaviors to be found among many
species of higher animals. The great ethologists, Huxley, Lorenz, and others,
have shown how pervasive is that marvelous counterfactual activity we
call ritual among our fellow inhabitants of the planet (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1975,
Lorenz 1962, Huxley 1966). One of the chief priorities of contemporary
anthropology is to avoid drawing the obvious analogies between human
and other animal rituals. Mating, aggression, territory,
home-building, bonding, ranking, sexual maturity, birth: all have their ritual
behaviors, human and animal. In fact the only major aspects of the life of an
animal which are ritualized by human beings but not by other animals seem
to be time and death.
But there is another, much greater difference between human and
animal ritual. Animal rituals are passed down from one generation to another
by essentially genetic means. The speci c “ xed action patterns” that act as
mutual triggers in ritual interaction are either expressed automatically in a
healthy animal or lie ready to be released by some stimulus (such as hearing
the species-speci c birdsong of a conspeci c). The inborn ritual instincts
of animals can be distorted by natural or arti cial interference, but such
distortions can only lead to permanent changes in a species’ ritual if the new
behavior has a genetic basis and that genetic alteration confers a selective
advantage upon the breeding individuals that possess it.
Human ritual, on the other hand, is passed down, in its particular
details and even in many of its large structures, by means of tradition: a
process of teaching and learning which need not wait for genetic changes to
produce real novelty from one generation to the next. It may seem strange
to describe tradition as a means of rapid change: but compared to genetic
evolution, tradition is a positive hotbed of newfangledness. Some animals–
the classical example is the Japanese macaques (see Imarishi 1957, Frisch
1959, Kawai 1965, Itani 1958) which invented the art of potato-washing and
spread it through the whole population–can pass down simple technological
innovations from one generation to another by means of tradition. But only
humankind does so with ritual.
This does not mean that humankind does not inherit a genetic
predisposition to ritual behavior in general: its universality and its evident
psycho-physiological basis attest to an important genetic element. Further,
there are many particular behaviors and forms which seem to be common to
much human ritual and which are no doubt related to inherited anatomical,
neural, and behavioral features of our species: rhythmic chanting, body
decoration, communitas, tripartite structure, storytelling, and so on. But the
crucial point is that we do not genetically inherit particular rituals, as other
animals do, but rather a disposition to ritual in general and a fundamental
grammar and lexicon of ritual elements with which we can generate an
in nite variety of rituals. Moreover, we
can very rapidly change the rituals we already possess, through that
re exivity that the anthropologists have observed in ritual practice.
All the foregoing of course applies to the oral tradition. Beneath the
oral tradition we can dimly make out its roots in more general primate and
mammal ritualization; and if we look carefully we may begin to discern
the inherited grammar and lexicon that we unconsciously use to make oral
performances, and perhaps to make literary art.
Thus at the heart of human artistic performance we nd an archaic
genetic armature of mammalian/primate ritual. Surrounding this core we
nd a layer composed of the new, genetically-transmitted grammar and
lexicon of human ritual performance, created by the interplay of biological
and cultural evolution. Next, we nd the oral tradition itself: culturally
evolved but directly reliant on the genetic structures which it itself imposed
by selective pressure upon the species. Next above that is the recorded
tradition, in which the limits of human memory are transcended by the
technology of writing and print. Finally we encounter the realm of exegesis,
criticism, and metacriticism, activities themselves conducted within the
subtle ritual space of literature. This structure which I have described here
is also the record of a historical development of increasing re exivity, and at
each point the leap from a more archaic system to a more sophisticated and
re exive one takes place through the needs and pressures of performance.
The performance of the ancient genetic rituals led to their imitation, with
variation, by the young, and the birth of the ritual tradition. The performance
of the traditional rituals exerted selective pressure on the nervous systems
of our ancestors–those who could not perform the rituals would not get a
mate or even survive–which ingrained the performance “grammar” into the
genes. In turn the demand of the priest-actors for external memory storage
of complex ritual dramas led to the development of literary recording; and
the performance of literary productions led to the need for exegesis and
criticism, as recorded directorial notes to the actors, so to speak.
From this perspective it becomes clear that the arts should properly
be regarded as the most uid, sophisticated, and re exive subset of the
broad general category of ritual performance, and the oral tradition as one
of the crucial areas connecting the arts with the rest of the ritual continuum.
The implications of this way of
looking at the arts are especially striking for literary criticism, as we shall
The third exciting development in the study of ritual has been the
recognition that ritual activity is tuned to observable mechanisms in the
human brain and nervous system. The pathbreaking book The Spectrum
of Ritual: A Biogenetic Structuralist Perspective (d’Aquili et al. 1979) has
explored ritual trance and the massive cognitive, emotional, perceptual,
somatic, and social changes it involves, and shown that it performs
indispensable functions for the human individual as well as the group.
Further, the book describes speci c ritual techniques by which the trance
state–whether light and barely noticeable or heavy and obvious–is brought
about; the varieties of types of trance ranging from meditation to frenzy;
and their characteristics in terms of brain chemistry, brain rhythms,
and the functions of the ergotrophic, trophotropic, sympathetic, and
parasympathetic systems, and the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
Most interesting of all, perhaps, for our purposes, are two points: the close
resemblance between the subjective effects of ritual trance and aesthetic
pleasure; and the observation that the rhythmic driving of an endogenous
brain rhythm by a synchronized external beat is one of the chief means by
which those changes in brain state are produced. I and Ernst Pöppel, the
German psychophysicist, have investigated the curious fact that all human
poetry possesses regular lines that take roughly three seconds to recite,
and have recently published our ndings in an article entitled “The Neural
Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time” (Pöppel and Turner 1983). We
concluded that poetic meter is a way of inducing much larger regions of the
brain than the left-brain linguistic centers to co-operate in the poetic process
of world-construction, and that one of the chief techniques of that world-
construction is the creation and maintenance of a hierarchy of temporal
periodicities which makes sense of past events and is powerfully predictive
of future ones. Recent work on the preferences of babies for nursery rhymes
has con rmed our ndings (Glenn and Cunningham 1983).
One of the most interesting questions in the contemporary study
of the biology of aesthetics concerns the biological basis and evolutionary
necessity of pleasure in general and aesthetic pleasure in particular. We
participate in oral performances, just as we look at sculpture or listen to
music, not primarily to be informed or edi ed, but to be delighted. To an
evolutionary biologist pleasure,
like any other activity of an organism, serves an adaptive function; in this case,
reward. The neuropsychologist James Olds (1976) and others (Routtenberg
1980, Snyder 1977, Guillemin 1978, Konner 1962) have begun a close study
of the reward systems of the brains of higher animals, with special attention
to human beings. Other investigations in the same eld, such as Lionel Tiger
(1979; see also Willer et al. 1981), have discovered an extensive group of
very large peptide molecules which the brain can produce and in turn take up,
and which are associated with the various subjective sensations of pleasure,
ranging from high arousal to deep relaxation. These peptide molecules are
large enough–only one step removed from the proteins–to carry information
on their own account. Like most great scienti c discoveries, this one was in a
sense obvious, but only once it was pointed out. All it took was the question
“Why do opium derivatives, cocaine, and other drugs produce such great
pleasure?” Obviously our species could derive no adaptive advantage from
consuming the resins of certain oriental poppies or South American shrubs,
nor were they available to most members of the species. Thus the presence
of the speci c receptors in the brain which respond so sensitively to these
chemicals cannot have anything to do with poppies or coca as such. They
must then be designed to respond to internally generated chemicals which
are crudely mimicked in structure by those herbal resins.
It soon became obvious that the internally generated brain rewards
were more powerful, by many orders of magnitude, than the conventional
motivators proposed by crude materialists and behaviorists. Rats will ignore
the pangs of extreme hunger and thirst, and the presence of strong sexual
stimuli, in order to press a bar which will either deliver the chemicals of
delight or electrically stimulate their own brains to do so. If even rats do not
live by bread alone, a fortiori neither do humans.
It is becoming clear that the “higher pleasures” of creative mental
effort, of beauty, of goodness, of truth are indeed independent pleasures
of their own and not merely perverted or sublimated versions of sexual
or nourishment drives. The endorphins, as the endogenous brain chemicals
are called, are clearly involved in aesthetic pleasure. Let us now return to
our earlier question: what is the adaptive signi cance of aesthetic pleasure?
Why should we be designed to appreciate beauty, and to enjoy it with an
intensity which is potentially much greater than that of hunger or lust?
One clue is afforded us by the fact that the “pleasure-chemicals”
are by no means “sure- re” in their effect. Indeed they can even apparently
be painful if administered without warning and without the control of the
subject (Valenstein 1974). Thus these pleasures must be associated with
the autonomy, the power over the future, and the predictive capacities of
the organism. Yet the sense of beauty is not the same as the exultation of
power, though it can resemble it. We associate beauty with a certain set of
perceived objects, and with a certain manner of perception, cognition, and
emotional comprehension, but not necessarily with action as such; some
of our strongest experiences of beauty take place in response to our own
endogenous imagery of dream, fantasy, or memory. The feeling of beauty,
then, is a reward for a certain autonomous activity of the brain, one which
gives the brain a grip on the future, which is, however, not necessarily
involved with immediate external actions to change the environment. We are
rewarded powerfully by the pleasures of taste and sex, for the metabolically
expensive activities of foraging and reproducing ourselves; otherwise we
might not bother. But the creation and appreciation of beauty is much more
metabolically expensive, and is rewarded by a pleasure which, according to
neurochemistry, is fty times stronger than heroin, for which in turn human
beings will happily neglect the delights of sex and eating. What activity can
be so much more important than nourishment and reproduction?
The answer to this question necessitates an understanding of the
ethological term Umwelt, in the special sense that Von Uexkull (1909) used
it when describing the behavior and perception of animals. Every animal has
a species-speci c world, a set of relevant factors in its enviroment which its
receptors–its senses–are designed to detect and its effectors–its limbs and
other active organs–to act upon. Outside that world, that umwelt, nothing
exists as far as that animal is concerned: for instance, visual phenomena have
no existence for an eyeless species, nor subterranean ones for an animal not
equipped for digging. For those animals with simpler nervous systems, the
umwelt is a crude one containing only a few unrelated elements: there is a
fairly direct link between stimulus and action, without much intermediate
interpretation of the various sensory inputs. For advanced species, on the
other hand, with a much higher ratio of nervous tissue to body weight, and
with complex cortical development, the evidence
from many receptors is continuously integrated into a coherent universe of
enduring objects in motion relative to each other and to the organism, with
their own smell, sound, taste, and touch and their own sensitivity to each
other and to the organism that perceives them. Now nowhere in physics
is it asserted that such entities as enduring objects exist. They come into
existence, as far as we know, as the highly elegant constructs of the brains
of higher animals: physics knows only a complex interplay of the four
fundamental forces at various intensities, wavelengths, and vectors. The
concrete universe of objects as we, the higher animals, know it is just the most
parsimonious, ordered, powerful, coherent, and comprehensive hypothesis
that will reconcile our inherited expectations with our experience.
When we encounter words like “elegant,” “parsimonious,” “ordered,”
“powerful,” “coherent,” and “comprehensive,” we are already in aesthetic
territory. There is no reason, logical or empirical, why the world should
be elegantly and economically organized, nor is it necessarily better, in a
moral sense, that it should be. It is simply more beautiful that way; and can
therefore be more ef ciently dealt with. Before a species can reproduce itself
or even eat, it must enter a consistent working relationship with its world,
its umwelt, which will generate con rmable or decon rmable predictions.
Such a relationship is the harder to maintain, the more information an
organism is capable of absorbing, and the more it is capable of doing–the
human brain uses about one-third of the body’s oxygen and nutrients. Thus
this world-constructing, cosmogenetic activity must be provided with a very
powerful inducement and motivation. World-creation is hard work, and has
high rewards.
Now what distinguishes artistic performance from ritual in general
is that the sense of beauty, the aesthetic, is more directly and speci cally
involved in the former. Thus we may say of oral performance, which lies
toward the artistic end of the ritual spectrum, that it is a cosmogenetic
activity, perhaps vital to the maintenance of the human umwelt. Further,
we might speculate that because the human umwelt is itself much more
learned than inherited–though we inherit a predisposition to learn a complex
umwelt–the activity of world construction is for humans much more vital,
much more dif cult, and much more highly rewarded than it is among the
other animals, whose umwelt is relatively more inherent in their genes. Thus
the tradition of oral
performance may be much more closely tied to our survival as a species
than we think, since it is our specialization to create worlds to be tested
against sensory experience, as it is the mole’s to dig and the bird’s to y.
It should, moreover, be stressed that “world-creation” is not a
metaphor, or rather not a metaphor only. As we know from quantum physics,
the precise characteristics of the fundamental constituents of the physical
universe are not decided until they are registered or measured by some
other system that is selectively sensitive to those characteristics themselves
(Wheeler 1977, Finkelstein 1982). This in fact follows, as does relativity
theory, from the basic scienti c principle that the only things that can be
said to exist are those things which are measurable. All entities selectively
measure each other, and thus we can say that the universe is exactly and
only what its constituents appear to each other to be. Thus human world-
construction is a perfectly genuine activity, with as much ontological
legitimacy as the reaction of any particle to any other particle: indeed, more,
because human perception and cognition sifts out much more severely than
does an elementary particle any phenomena that are not highly probable and
mutually con rming. Of course, human world-construction is more effective
if it has already, by scienti c observation and experiment, canvassed the
reactions of a good sample of non-human entities and placed itself in a
position which can be construed as being in agreement with them, or at least
not in contradiction. But anything about which the universe is not already
in agreement with itself is not yet decided: and there remains an in nite
number of topics which have not yet come up for consideration. Human
ritual, performance, and art are ways of setting the stage, creating the frame,
arranging the agenda, and picking the topic in such a way as to give human
beings a home ground advantage in making the ontological contract. Much
human art and ritual does not even need, and would be embarrassed by,
con rmation by non-human participants: ction is explicitly counterfactual
as are the phantom antagonists in the triumph-ceremony of the geese; and a
congregation would be rightly horri ed to nd the contents of the chalice to
be arterial red, sticky, and liable to swift clotting.
But how exactly are the brains of individuals prepared and
synchronized with each other to work the marvelous transubstantiation of
artistic and ritual performance? Here the
study of oral tradition is especially valuable.
We have already touched on the power of rhythmic repetition as
a psychic technology. Perhaps the fundamental characteristic of the oral
tradition is its use of rhythmic language. At its crudest level, chanting is a
form of rhythmic driving, affecting the limbic system of the brain. A strobe
light tuned to a 10 cps period can produce trance states and even epileptic-
like seizures, by “driving” the brain’s alpha rhythm. Likewise, as Pöppel and
I (1983) discovered, the three-second period of chants and poetry is tuned
to the largest periodicity in the hearing-system: the subjective present, the
basic “chunk” in which the auditory cortex digests and processes acoustic
information. The effects of this “driving” stimulation include trancelike
feelings, joy, peace, harmony, certainty, a coherent mood, and even mystical
elevation. More interesting still was the use of rhythmic variation within
the three-second unit: when the line differs in rhythm from the metrical
expectation, that difference itself carries information (as a carrier-wave is
distorted by the message it transmits). But the kind of information it carries
is not linguistic, and is not accessible to left-brain linguistic/temporal
processing. Instead, it is registered and interpreted in the right-brain mode,
as a gestalt, like a musical melody or a pictorial image. Thus metered poetry
and chanting force the brain to operate in a “stereo” mode, so to speak,
integrating left and right brain channels of information and translating them
into each other. Rhythmic metered language–”numbers” as the neoclassicists
were wont to say–brings to bear not only the limbic system but also the right
brain on its verbal, left-brain content. There are two consequences of these
effects. One is social: it enables a community to become synchronized,
“on each other’s wavelength” as we say, or “in synch,” so that signi cant
variation is instantly perceived as meaningful by all participants; and the
feelings of pleasure and love produced by the endorphin reward help weld
the individuals together. The other is spiritual: by extending the region of the
brain that is at work on its integrative, cosmogenetic functions, it prepares
us for that active inventive imposition on the world of our own cultural
umwelt, our own construction of it.
There is increasing evidence (Levy 1974, 1984, forthcoming) that
it is the exchange of information between right-brain and left-brain modes
which constitutes what various researchers have called the human “cognitive
imperative,” the “aha” or “eureka”
moment, “monocausotaxophilia,” or the “what is it” syndrome: the human
capacity to make sense of the world. At present fascinating research is being
done by Colwyn Trevarthen, Robert Turner, and others, using new Nuclear
Magnetic Resonance Scanning techniques to examine the myelinization
(that is, the activation of neural bers by acquisition of a coating of myelin)
of the corpus callosum, the body that connects the left with the right side
of the brain. This research may show how acculturation actually changes
the structure of the brain, wiring together various brain elements across the
But the cooperation of left and right brain which is sponsored by
rhythmic language not only makes us more intelligent and creative, but
also enormously increases the power of our memory. Here we may note
a remarkable convergence between the work of the psychophysiologists
on the bilateral asymmetry of brain function, the brilliant investigations
of traditional mnemonic systems by Frances Yates and others, and the
pathbreaking work of Parry, Lord, and their modern followers on methods
by which illiterate epic poets are able to perform thousands of lines of
Yates (1969) describes the Renaissance system as essentially a
mapping of the discourse to be remembered onto the interior of a large
house with many rooms, upon each of whose walls there are niches (or
places, the “commonplaces” of a common-place book) which contain
objects associated with the topics of the discourse. By imaginatively walking
around this “memory theater” in a particular order of rooms, an orator can
recall a highly complex series of points with great exactness, and even be
able to retrace his steps or take a different route.
A brain scientist would instantly recognize this procedure as a way
of translating left-brain temporal sequence, for which we have a very poor
memory–telephone numbers are only seven digits long because any more
would overload our short-term memory buffer–into the right-brain spatial
gestalt mode. We can remember very complex locations and images, and
with some subjects, for instance dwelling-places, our powers of recall and
recognition of spatial patterns are astonishing. Thus mnemonic systems
remedy the de ciency of left-brain memory by means of the pattern-
recognition talents of the right brain.
Oddly enough, the procedure of memorizing a sequence by mapping
it onto a series of rooms in a house has also been
described to me independently by a amenco guitarist and a jazz musician,
when asked how they remember musical compositions. On the other hand,
a composer has told me that he sometimes records a musical phrase in his
memory by associating it with the rhythm of a quotation from the Bible
that he knows by heart. Here a right-brain pattern is remembered by its
connection with a left-brain sequence. Perhaps the fundamental point is that
any memory is safer if kept in both modes, left and right. We might go so far
as to say we only know something truly when we have translated it back and
forth between the two sides of the brain a few times. The great authority on
lateral brain function, Jerre Levy, has indeed said just this (1984: 31-33).
Do we not nd a similar basic strategy in the techniques of the oral
epic (see Parry 1971 and Lord 1960)? Homer and the Yugoslav epic poets
evidently strung formulaic half-lines upon the melodic gestalt geography
of a plotline, reinforcing the mnemonic properties of their words by poetic
rhythm, calling into play by the “driving” mechanism the affective capacities
of the midbrain, and activating the right brain by means of signi cant
metrical variation. The muses may indeed be daughters of memory, in this
In such a perspective plot, or story, becomes crucially important.
The “unity of action” Aristotle talks about–the homecoming of Odysseus,
the wrath of Achilles, the avenging of Agamemnon–functions as a sort of
connected series of rooms, containing places for memory storage. Plot,
moreover, with its capacity to organize large units of time, extends the
harmonious patterning of temporal periodicities that we nd in poetic meter
to larger and larger scales, organizing a voluminous body of material and
broadening the temporal horizon of memory and expectation. The “now”
or present moment of a story (if “now” is, say, Odysseus’ journey home)
can cover a length of many years. Once the “now” of a story reaches out
to include even the death of the hero or heroine, tragedy, and the highest
forms of literary art, become possible. What makes us human, what enables
us to transcend the worldviews of other animals, is our greater capacity to
organize and comprehend time (see Fraser 1975). Perhaps this is the reason
why rituals of temporality and funeral are unique to human beings.
Plot not only unites right-brain pattern recognition with the left-
brain capacity to deal with large units of time; it also connects
these cortical functions in turn with the limbic system and its powerful
rewards. It does this by the process of identi cation. If the self is the
governing subset of mental relations, including a set of symbols re exively
representative of that subset, then other persons whom I know, including
characters in a story or drama, are smaller subsets with their own symbol
clusters. The integrative activity of relating those subsets with each other
and especially with one’s self-subset is rewarded neurochemically by the
subjective feelings of love, sympathy, insight, pity, or satiric triumph.
Further, the self is the focus of those sensations of fear, desire, anger, and so
on with which the organism responds to its environment, sensations under
the control of the limbic system. Identi cation, as we all know who have
followed the fate of a character in an adventure with bated breath, makes us
feel the character’s emotions as if they were our own. Thus plot promotes
and exercises the relations between cortical world-construction and limbic
reward. We shall return to the issue of plot later on, in a literary-critical
context; suf ce it to say here that the modernist tendency to dispense with
or demote plot may have been a grave mistake.
The fact that comprehension and memory demand the literal
cooperation of both sides of the brain, and that the cortex as a whole is
motivated and rewarded by the limbic system, may afford us fascinating
insights into the nature of symbolism. The arts inherited the technique
of symbolism from earlier forms of ritual, where it served a purpose not
unlike that of rhythmic meter. On the cortical level a symbol evidently acts
as a connective between a left-brain linguistic proposition, or network of
propositions, and a right-brain image or image cluster. This may explain
why the more obvious forms of allegory and emblem are sometimes
tiresome, unmemorable, and insipid, for they connect only linguistic with
linguistic, left-brain with left-brain information, and do not possess the
fertile suggestive tension and memorability which comes about when the
corpus callosum must translate, with only partial success, from one mode
to the other.
Symbols also, as Victor Turner has pointed out (1967), connect
the higher brain with the lower. Symbols possess two poles: ideological
(cortical) and orectic (limbic). The great ritual and artistic symbols are
reward systems of their own, relating pleasurable emotion or sensation with
the higher values, and priming the pump of self-reward.
In a memory system symbols correspond to the suggestive objects
which are to be found in the niches or places of the memory theater. From
the analysis it follows that mere images in themselves, without a left-brain
discursive component, will be insigni cant and insipid; and that symbolism
only makes sense when it is set in the context of a comprehensible and
reproducible sequence of places, rather than jumbled up together as in much
modernist literature. To the extent that symbolists and imagists abandoned
argument, plot, and discursive reason, to that extent they broke the mysterious
and fertile connection between left cortex, right cortex, and limbic system.
Eliot’s phrase in The Wasteland, “a heap of broken images,” is very apt: and
we may now see this poem, despite the disorganizing interference of Ezra
Pound, as an attempt to restring those images together upon the primeval
sequences of ancient myth. And to turn from heroic pathology to heroic
health, consider the Shield of Achilles passage in the Iliad, or even the
whole of the Divine Comedy, as a memory theater within which symbols,
themselves memorably uniting left with right and higher with lower, are in
turn memorably and signi cantly positioned in a varied metrical medium
along a temporal plotline and within a spatial, gestalt geography. These
passages are summative statements of the healthy and productive human
psyche, and also of the cosmos that is generated by the performative at of
such a psyche, and apparently they have delivered to generations of reader/
performers the sweet shock of endorphin reward.
It may be that modern literary criticism, by treating literature as
if it were merely a linguistic left-brain art–with the authority, one might
speculate, of Lessing’s Laocoon, which insisted on purity of medium in the
arts–was doing literature a grave disservice. Once literature becomes only a
pattern of “differences,” of words translating other words, and the left brain
is cut off from the right and from the limbic system, then the way is open to
the vacuity and anti-cosmos that the deconstructionists perceive at the heart
of all literary art. It is interesting that this was also the period in which the
poetic narrative was replaced by more exclusively left-brain prose genres,
the plotless “new novel” replaced the traditional “page-turner” of Austen
and Tolstoy and free verse replaced metered poetry. Story and rhythm, plot
and image, image and rhythm, were increasingly separated. Meanwhile, in
the visual arts the Renaissance dictum ut pictura poesis–a
bilateral epigram–was set aside, as, in modernist music, tonality, melody,
recognizable rhythm, and articulated temporal structures were often
abandoned. Even in modern architecture there has been what almost seems
to be a conspiracy to detach the left brain from the right, by creating spatial
structures which are so uniform and repetitious that pattern-recognition
becomes impossible and we are reduced to counting to nd our way through
them. And “functionalism” sometimes appears to be a way of denying the
viewer the comfortable and organic rewards that are provided to the limbic
system. No wonder, perhaps, so many of the younger generation turned to
arti cial substitutes for the endorphins.
The neurological perspective also offers insights into the matter of
discursive argument and logical persuasion in literature. In Plato’s Dialogues,
which at points are little removed from the philosophical exchanges in
Sophocles and Euripides, we can clearly see that the origins of argument and
discourse may be found in plot and story. Argument is basically a kind of
story, the story of a war of words between heroic verbal antagonists. As such
it possesses the integrating properties, in neural terms, that I have already
described. Like a story, a good argument is memorable, and transcends,
because of its hierarchical organization of larger and larger temporal units,
the left-brain weakness in recalling mere lists (the limitation that the spatial
mapping of the memory system is designed to overcome). What follows
from this analysis is that when the treatise succeeds the dialogue we have
stepped away from the integrative properties of a plotline. We only hear
one side of the story, so to speak; and unlike Plato, Aristotle must replace
the gestalt structuring of plot with a sort of geometrical structure of logical
dependence. Aristotle, without the continuing story of the actors in the
dialogue, cannot afford those delightful wayward changes of subject which
we nd in Plato, unless he has already prepared a logical place for the new
block of discursive masonry. Yet even the stonemason Socrates, the oral
philosopher, is one step away from the agonistic story of the Atreides.
The lessons to be learned for literature, if we are to preserve its
ancient ritual powers of psychic and cosmic integration, are that discursive
argument has a vital place in literature, as long as it preserves its primal ties
with story, or else replaces those ties with powerful integrative symbolism.
It might be argued that despite evolution, ethology, and brain
chemistry, the study and practice of oral performance does not
necessarily require a “deep grammar,” a set of natural classical rules, an
explanatory evolutionary paradigm, such as I am postulating here. However,
a serious consideration of the matter from a cross-cultural perspective
reveals, across a wide range of human activities and types of culture and
social organization, an extraordinary unanimity of cultural forms that points
to a powerful and signi cant common inheritance. I quote a remarkable
list, compiled by the anthropologist George Peter Murdock (1968: 231) “of
items . . . which occur, so far as the author’s knowledge goes, in every
culture known to history or ethnography”: “. . . age-grading, athletic sports,
bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organization,
cooking, cooperative labor, cosmology, courtship, dancing, decorative art,
divination, division of labor, dream interpretation, education, eschatology,
ethics, ethnobotany, etiquette, faith healing, family, feasting, remaking,
folklore, food taboos, funeral rites, housing, hygiene, incest taboos,
inheritance rules, joking, kin-groups, kinship nomenclature, language,
law, luck superstitions, magic, marriage, mealtimes, medicine, modesty
concerning natural functions, mourning, music, mythology, natal care,
pregnancy usages, property rights, propitiation of supernatural beings,
puberty customs, religious ritual, residence rules, sexual restrictions,
soul concepts, status differentiation, surgery, tool making, trade, visiting,
weaning, and weather control.”
Murdock would probably not object if we added to this list
the additional cultural forms of combat, mime, friendship, lying, love,
storytelling, murder taboos, and poetic meter; and it would be tempting
to propose that a work of literary art can be fairly accurately gauged for
greatness of quality by the number of these items it contains, embodies, and
thematizes. They are all in the Iliad, The Divine Comedy, King Lear, and
War and Peace; and most of them can be found in relatively short works of
major literature, like Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode, or Milton’s Nativity
Ode, or even–very compressed–in Yeats’ “Among School Children.” These
topics indeed virtually exhaust the content of the oral tradition; taken
together they constitute a sort of deep syntax and deep lexicon of human
culture. It is the function of the oral tradition to preserve, integrate, and
continually renew this deep syntax and lexicon, while using it to construct
coherent world-hypotheses. Literature, which is to the oral tradition as the
oral tradition is to ritual, extends these functions by means of that
greater re exiveness and sophistication obtained by the technological
prosthesis of script and books, so that those world-hypotheses gain in power,
predictiveness, and beauty.
The relative universality of a given theme or form in human linguistic
art can serve to test its legitimacy as a correct usage of the genetically
inherited cultural grammar and lexicon. If we nd a story (the descent
into the underworld, say) or a technique (metrical variation, for instance)
which is repeated in hunter-gatherer, peasant, city-state, and technopolitan
cultures, then we know that we have encountered a paradigm declension
or de nition of a pan-human verbal artistic element. Further, as artists, and
even as critics searching for a way to describe an unusual literary work,
we can use the rich variety of types in human verbal art as a storehouse of
sound, handy, and vital ideas. Cultural universals are to our new ontological
criticism what Darwin’s voluminous collection of examples of adaptation in
nature were to his theory of natural selection.
For instance, the study of poetic meter conducted by Pöppel and
myself showed the three-second line (or rather, lines of about 2-4 seconds,
with a strong peak at three) in English, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, French,
German, Spanish, Italian, Hungarian, Ancient Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese,
New Guinea Eipo, Ancient Greek, Latin, and African Ndembu poetry.
Syllable-counts suggest the same for Finnish, Russian, and some Amerindian
cultures. More remarkable still, I am informed by Deborah Wasserman, the
authority on mime, that a phrase or beat in mime is usually about three
seconds long, a fact which suggests either that the three-second period is the
“specious present” not only of the auditory information processing system,
but also of human temporal information processing in general; or that mime
is paradoxically a partly, if implicitly, linguistic art. An interesting test
would be to time the intervals between pauses in congenitally deaf users of
standard American Sign Language, using as controls signers who were once
able to hear, and signers with perfect hearing.
What a poet or critic will learn from this is that very probably the
peculiar bene ts of metered poetry will be lost if the line is too long, too
short, or too irregular in length. And since every example of verse studied
by us has metrical features–rhyme, assonance, syllable count, stress pattern,
tone pattern, even syntax–repeated from line to line, even free verse in three-
second lines would not retain the qualities created by strict adherence to
the deep syntax of poetic meter.
Perhaps we can see the same phenomenon at work in the remarkable
similarity of mythic story elements from all over the world. Joseph
Campbell’s magisterial new atlas of human mythology extends his earlier
important work on “the hero with a thousand faces” to many other mythic
ingredients than the hero (1983). James Frazer (1911), Claude Lévi-Strauss
(1969), and David Bynum (1978) have explored in depth yet other themes.
Perhaps the instinct of some of the greater modernists–Yeats, Joyce, Eliot,
Lawrence, Mann–to seek in ancient myth the coherence that the modern
world did not seem to offer, was a wise one. However, it seems to me that the
kind of grasping for a mythic lifebelt that we nd, say, in “Sweeney Among
the Nightingales” is not entirely healthy. The ebullient mythopoeia, the easy
and cavalier luxuriance of mythic invention, that is characteristic of the
better contemporary science ction, such as Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus
(1920), Herbert’s Dune (1965), Wolfe’s New Sun tetralogy (1980-81), and
Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is to my mind the sign of a much-
healed culture. Like the classical Greeks, late medieval Florentines, and
Renaissance Elizabethans, such writers naturally and con dently adapt the
old mythic grammar and lexicon to new uses. Science- ction has its own
vocabulary of critical terms, one of which is “time-binding.” The phrase is
almost untranslatable into ordinary critical language, but it is unmistakably
referring to the mapping of left-brain temporal modes of understanding onto
right-brain spatial gestalt modes, and vice versa.
But we need not even go out into ancient or foreign cultures to nd
rich sources of insight into the “deep language” of human word art. The
oral tradition continues in our own culture in at least two realms: liturgy
and theater. Liturgy and theater can serve the same function for our new
ontological theory of criticism that the practices of domestication and
selective breeding served for Darwin’s theory of evolution. They are, as
it were, a vast experiment lying close at hand, familiar to all, and even a
warrant in advance of the practical applications of the theory. And when
we consider in these contexts the practice of rehearsal, the relationship
between script (whether a text or a verbal tradition) and performance, the
structure and articulation of a performance, the relationship between actor
and audience, priest and congregation, the special uses of dramatic and
liturgical language,
the nature of dramatic and liturgical suspense, the relationship between actor
and role, the changes in mental state during performance, the relationship
between actuality and possibility in church or theater, and between theme
and variation, we may see many elements which have remained unchanged
since prehistoric times and which can serve as a framework and animating
principle for a truly ontological criticism.
The crucial idea here is performance. It was pointed out earlier that
it is performance that drives the re exive, innovative, and evolutionary
tendency of human ritual and art. And now that we are privileged to have
had a half-century of subtle research into the nature of performance, by such
gures as Stanislavsky (1936), Jerzy Grotowski (1968), Richard Schechner
(1977, 1981), and Victor Turner (1974, 1981), we possess the materials for
a new integration of literary criticism based on the very de nite structures,
effects, and requirements of successful performance.
Perhaps the most prosaic requirement for effective performance
is the fundamental triadic structure, described by Aristotle as beginning,
middle, and end, and by Victor Turner as the ritual sequence of separation–
liminal period–re-aggregation. Simple as this structure seems, it has
profound implications. One is that if an audience, or even a single reader,
is not introduced into a work by a proper beginning, conducted out of it by
a satisfactory ending, or given a space in between and matter to play with
in that space, the grammar of human art is being violated, the carrier-wave
of signi cant communication is swamped with noise, and the endorphin
reward is aborted.
More interesting still, the sequence implies motion into, through,
and out of a concentric entity, a passing through, a trial, a risk. The Latin
periculum, from which we get “peril,” is related to “experience,” and
“experiment”; the word is cognate with the Germanic “fear.” The beginning
and the end are the gates into and out of a realm which, by de nition,
cannot be of this world, and may be dangerous, but which is essential to our
sentient life. We nd the threefold structure elaborated in the ve acts of a
Shakespearean play, and in the sevenfold divisions of Greek tragedy; and
the concentric pattern is repeated in the architecture of the arenas, stupas,
temple-plots, shrines, and theaters where the performance event takes place.
The Globe Theater is paradigmatic. We nd it also in the mandala, a visual
instrument of meditation analogous to chanting, which is the corresponding
instrument. Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdoms in California, Florida, and
Tokyo have the same concentric labyrinthine shape. The deep meaning
of this shape is, I believe, re exivity: the beginning and the end are like
mathematical parentheses, or better, quotation marks, that distinguish
the unre exive “use” of a word from the re exive “mention” of it, as the
philosophers would say. One of the earliest strategies of living matter was
to envelop itself with a membrane of lipids which were hydrophobic at
one end and hydrophilic at the other, and which attracted each other at the
sides, thus constituting a cell. The cell is a sort of parenthetical comment
on the rest of physical reality, containing a controlled environment isolated
from the world by a semipermeable skin. The “three-act” structure is a full
experience of what life is, a passing through from the outside to an inside
and thence back to the outside; or it might even be more accurate to say that
the beginning and the end of an imaginative performance are where we pass
out of the common world and return into it. To the extent that we are not our
environment, each person is a little piece of not-world, of counterfactuality
guarded by a membrane, a seven-gated city with armed warriors–teeth or
antibodies or critical reason–on guard at the gates. Art can be a passport, or
the branch of golden leaves, that allows us to enter and to leave.
But to stand outside the wall and consider it as we are doing now
is to constitute ourselves as another outer wall, surrounding the inner wall.
What does this new outer wall look like from the outside? If we back up
to see, we make yet another wall beyond; the “I” that contemplates the
“myself” is in turn reduced to a “myself” that is contemplated by a new “I.”
Thus concentric structures tend to multiply themselves, as two mirrors will
when confronted with each other. If one mirror is square and one is round,
the shape one sees when one is in between is the shape of the mandala,
which possesses hypnotic qualities: the city is surrounded by many walls,
the living organism by a richer and richer integument of membranes, which
include senses, limbs, and nervous system. Or perhaps the elaboration of
skins takes place in an inward direction, and the neocortex is the innermost
skin of all. Consciousness is the moment-by-moment accumulation of
memory of one’s previous self, a continuous growing of new rings; and
subjective time is simply the experience of that growth. From the point of
view of the hearing system, each “ring” is three seconds thick, the length of
a moment, of an iambic pentameter.
These last two paragraphs might be taken as a kind of gloss on the
statement “all the world’s a stage.” There is a deep paradox in this statement
which points us to another universal element of performance, another rule
of human artistic language. Simply put, we cannot detach the sense of
“act” as “pretend, counterfeit” from the sense of “act” as “do.” To really
do something is by de nition not to merely counterfeit something; and yet
there is a terrifying wisdom in the stubborn resistance of the word “act”
to being claimed, as it were, by either of its two senses and thus losing
its strange logical tension. To do, says the word “act,” always involves a
pretense, just as to win a kingdom is rst to be a pretender to the throne.
Any true act we do is a pushing out into the realm of the unaccustomed
(otherwise it would not be an act but merely part of our regular being); it is
to step out of our previous identity and into another. The same ambiguity is
found in the word “perform”: “I pay you for performance, not to put on a
performance.” So also a plot, a story, is also always a deceptive conspiracy.
The free play of a system, when it is doing what naturally is proper to it,
is after all only “play.” Every real stage we go through is only a stage. The
person is a mask; the character is only what is scratched or engraved onto a
surface to make it mean something it did not mean before. The agon is an
agony; agere means both to drive and to do; an agent is not necessarily the
real doer of a legal deed. To make something is to make it up; its makeup
or constitution is perhaps only makeup or cosmetics. “Art” itself implies
arti ce, even wiles and charms.
What we learn from this relentless pattern of lexical paradoxes is
that to pretend to be something is to go a long way toward becoming it. St.
Paul uses the normal word for dressing-up when he says “Put ye on Christ”;
by putting Him on the Christian becomes his Christ, a becoming garment
indeed. And all action involves a risk of deception, or even a perilous loss
of self. The “passing through” of experience is perhaps a proper cause for
fear. For the literary artist or critic one consequence is plain: a completely
honest literary art cannot exist, if honesty implies no ction, no “making
up,” no departure from the self as it is up to now. Literature is not a record of
experience, but an experience, if literature is true to its roots in performance.
To take us into it, a literary work must deceive us, take us in. The lyric poem
which honestly and accurately sets down the poet’s sensations or feelings
without arti ce is not in this sense art, or
poetry (which means, literally, “making up”), at all. And “real life” is the
same: the only way one attains a real autonomous self, if these linguistic
paradoxes are accurate, is to assume one, to play or act or play-act oneself
so convincingly that like the First Player in Hamlet one forces one’s soul to
one’s own conceit (Greenblatt 1980).
In this way the old Romantic problem, the con ict between spontaneity
and self-consciousness, is exploded. Consciousness, or re exivity, if it is
actively affecting the very person that is generating it, always immediately
loses itself and becomes spontaneous in the amplifying reverberations of its
own feedback system. It is the attempt to cling to an unre exive “natural”
self that is paralyzing; and this, not excessive consciousness, is the real
source of the malaise that Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats complain of.
The highest kind of “ ow,” to adopt the language of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
(1975), who contrasts the spontaneity of “ ow” with the re exiveness of
“frame,” occurs when re exiveness itself has reached its speci c “speed
of light” and is so total that it has lost the awkwardness of ordinary self-
consciousness. Stage actors describe this experience as being like ying, and
insist that it occurs only and essentially in performance (O’Brien 1985). Yet
readers too report the same near-breathlessness, the slight rising of the hair
and goose esh, the pricking of incipient tears, the mixture of total control
with total freedom as the limits of one’s consciousness-system are reached,
transcended, and re-created. Is reading, at its best, a kind of performance,
then? If so, our critical theory must be largely overhauled.
Theatrical or ritual performance usually involves the cooperation
of a relatively more active priest or artist, and a relatively less active
congregation or audience (though both are necessary). What kind of a
performance, then, is reading?
Literature is not usually referred to as a “performing” or “lively”
art at all. But the perspective we have developed here would deny that
distinction. If literary art is truly descended from the oral tradition, then
indeed it is performed. The performer in this case is two persons: the writer
and the reader; the critic is the virtuoso performer, whose criticism is a sort
of master-class.
Given the conception of reader as performer, another central element
of performance becomes crucially important. What Stanislavsky showed
was that an actor must have a clear, single objective (even if it is a very
profound one) in order to perform
convincingly. Modern literary criticism, with its love of ambiguity, multiple
meanings, dialectical hermeneutics, and deconstructive unraveling of
contradictory signi cance, has provided every work of literature, as a text,
with a divine plenum of viable interpretations. The text is an in nite and
eternal set of possibilities. Like an electron before it is detected, which
can only be described as a nite (if usually in nitesimal) likelihood of an
electron-type event spread throughout the entire universe from its beginning
to its end, with a strong peak of probability in a particular region, the text
for a modern critic is essentially indeterminate, unactualized, and perhaps
But a reading–like a reading on an instrument designed to make an
electron declare itself–if it is a true performance, must choose an objective
and must sacri ce the divine indeterminacy and in nitude of possibility
for the tragic and concrete nitude of actuality. It is simply impossible to
perform a reading and keep the text of the modern critic. The text dies into
its reading as the divine incarnate victim dies into the eucharistic sacrament.
The honor, the sadness, and the glory of true theatrical performance lies
partly in the consciousness of all the participants that the work of art is
dying with each reverberation into the air at the very moment that it is
What are the implications for the critic? Perhaps if he or she is a
virtuoso performer, it is to give so lucid, so de nite a reading that the work
is actualized and made concrete before us, and reincarnated into the deepest
idiom and costume and dialect of our own time.
Perhaps ambiguity is less of a virtue than we thought it was. The
universe began as a soup of chance, and its evolution into the exquisite
forms of life and intelligence was a cumulative process of greater and greater
lawfulness, de niteness, and certainty, carrying with it, of course, greater and
greater gradients of possible fall-back into the ambiguous chaos of its origins
(Eigen and Winkler 1981). Anything ordered, beautiful, actual, and concrete
stands tragically high above the precipice of undifferentiated “hermeneutic
richness.” Great literature is the achievement of an unmistakable clarity and
intelligibility in the teeth of the proclivity of every word, every sentence,
to collapse entropically into divine indeterminacy. The only legitimate
use of ambiguity in literature is perhaps as part of a nesse toward greater
actuality of coherent meaning: as sandcastle makers may, to achieve greater
wet the sand they use with the very element that will destroy their creation
when the tide comes in. In a performance multiple meanings only work
if they redundantly resonate the carrier wave of its lawfulness; the proper
contradictions of literary language, like the ones implicit in Shakespeare’s
use of the word “act,” are like the facing mirrors in a laser that organize the
plenum of wavelengths and phases in a light beam into a coherent pulse of
energy. Only with such an instrument can truly three-dimensional images
be wrung like ghosts from the plot, rhythm, symbolism, and argument of a
literary work, as a laser beam can actualize the image implicit in the grooves
of a hologram.
Recent developments in the philosophy of language lend unexpected
con rmation to the theory of criticism that is implied here. Modernist
philosophy was based on the brilliant skepticism of the seventeenth century:
Bacon’s, which resulted in empiricism, and Descartes’, which resulted in
rationalism. It is beginning to look now as if even that skepticism itself
was a presumptuous and implicitly metaphysical act of faith. The kind
of certainty which that skepticism found so disappointingly absent in the
traditional view of reality now appears meaningless and nonsensical, for
instead of a world of objects and a world of knowledge about them (which
should correspond) we now confront a world in which knowledge is another
kind of object, and objects are made up of the knowledge other objects have
of them.3 Descartes’ and Hume’s powerful critiques of empirical knowledge
have been seconded by Karl Popper, who de nes empirical knowledge, as
such, as knowledge which is falsi able (1959). We deal regularly in physics
with events which would have been quite different had we come to know
them in a different way (Heisenberg 1958). The neurological description of
the brain as a damped, driven feedback system whose capacity for enormous
variation resulting from miniscule differences in initial conditions, and
whose active role in the construction of reality makes impartial objective
observation impossible, is profoundly subversive to the requirements of
empirical knowledge. The very complexity of the brain, with its ten to
the billionth power possible brain states (Fraser 1980:153), exceeds the
theoretical computing capacity of the rest of the physical universe; thus no
objective check on the legitimacy of its activities could be carried out.
This is not to say that empirical knowledge, knowledge by experience
and the evidence of the senses, is invalid. But its
validity cannot be sought within itself: if we know something empirically,
we cannot empirically know that we know it. Strangely enough, the same
kind of problem arises even for rational knowledge, that inner sanctum of
certainty to which Descartes retreated. I oversimplify, but I shall here take
rational knowledge to be the same thing as logical truth, truth by de nition,
or analytic truth. An example is that a plane triangle contains 180 degrees in
its interior angles. Another is that bachelors are unmarried. But the problem
with rational knowledge is, as Gödel (1962) showed, that there is no system
of axioms which is capable of proving the truth of its own axioms. Every
system of logic rich enough to make meaningful propositions will contain
a proposition of this form: “This statement is not provable”: a statement
which is true but not provable, and which therefore distinguishes truth from
provability within the system. One must leave the system in order to be
able to assert the proposition’s truth. In doing philosophy in language, for
instance, where do we stand when asked to give a de nition of the word
“de nition”?–or of the word “refer”?
Thus the twin foundations of modern knowledge seem to be no
longer foundations at all, but perhaps, like the seeming-solid planet earth
itself, in free fall. What kind of knowledge can we believe in for sure? Is
the “knowledge” model of language-use the most accurate one anyway?
Suppose language-use were conceived less as a collection of cognitive
propositions, and more as a set of actions?
The philosopher J. L. Austin (1962) identi ed an interesting group
of utterances which he characterized as “performative” statements, which
are closely related to speech acts, in which the speaker performs an action
by what he or she says, rather than states a belief or a piece of knowledge.
Performative utterances rely neither on an unreliable correspondence with
empirical fact, nor on the unreliable truth of a set of unprovable axioms.
My own favorite example is the dealer in a poker game who stipulates
that in the game she is dealing, red threes will be wild. Once she makes
this statement, red threes are indeed wild; yet they are in no sense wild by
de nition (another dealer could choose one-eyed Jacks instead), nor would
her statement yield to empirical falsi cation. No player could check his hand
and complain that he had a red three that happened not to be wild. A poker
chip could conceivably fall upward, as a result of some extraordinary
cosmological freak of gravity or quantum-statistical freak of probability; or
a whole group of poker players might hallucinate it falling upwards. But the
red three is wild.
In other words, performative truth can be more reliable than
empirical or logical truth in certain situations. Those situations are often very
important: though the stipulation of game-rules may be the purest example,
promising and contract-making are also performative, as are marrying,
legislating, religious invocations and sacraments, and perhaps even the
scienti c decision to base a system of measurement upon a particular type
of question asked of the physical universe. An instance here is the stipulation
of radioactive cesium decay as the basis of time measurement, replacing
astronomical measures.
In what circumstances can a performative statement legitimately
be made? First of all, there must be what I shall call a “performative
community”: a universe of beings for whom a performative utterance shall be
true. Performative truth pays for its certainty by giving up its claim to apply
to entities outside its community. Secondly, the utterer must be empowered
by that community to make the performative stipulation. Third, the
performative utterance can stipulate reality only where previous legislation
within the performative community and still in force is not declared to be
in contradiction with it. These limitations introduce an intriguing feature of
performative truths: they are always certain, but they can vary in strength
and effectiveness, depending on the size of their performative community.
To win and keep a large community, a performative must be in a relation
with the past constitution of its universe that is parsimonious, consistent,
coherent, powerful, predictive, and elegant–in a word, beautiful. Beauty is
the fourth requirement of performative truth.
At this point we may see how empirical truth and logical truth nd
a place within a broader framework of performatives which restores to
them much of the legitimacy they have lost to rigorous twentieth-century
analysis. (Ironic that Reason, inductive and deductive, must be rescued by
an appeal to the fundamental principle underlying the medieval ideas of
faith, authority, and revelation!) Empirical observation and experiment can
now be seen not as an independent source of truth value, but as a way of
enlarging the performative community so as to include not only persons but
also non-personal and non-living organisms; and of establishing what kind
of utterance can be true for them.
Newton’s inverse square law of gravitation relied on the establishment of
a performative community including the moon, the planets, apples, and
dropping cannonballs, which had a language in common. In a sense it did not
matter how the law itself was proposed: in any case it would have constituted
a de nition of space. Newton wished to keep space at and Euclidean: so
he made the gravitational attraction proportional to the inverse square of the
distance. Einstein, on the other hand, preferred to make the gravitational
attraction constant and vary the curvature of space. Which explanation we
choose depends nally on how beautiful–as already de ned–the resulting
universe game is.
Rational or logical truth also nds a place within the performative
universe. When we state an axiom we are in fact making a performative
utterance. “A straight line is the shortest distance between two points”
cannot be tested for logical consistency with its axioms: it is an axiom. If we
are in the performative community of the geometer, we accept his dictum
here; and what persuades us to join and remain in that community is partly
the beauty of the universe generated by that axiom. By their fruits, not their
grounds, we shall judge them: for there are no grounds. The universe, our
cosmologists tell us, began in chaos and nonexistence, so the nal ground
of any appeal is utterly unreliable (Guth and Steinhardt 1984:128); and the
world won its way to such consistency as it has through a long and bitter
process of selection by consequences. In this light the American pragmatist
tradition of philosophy is quite consistent with the performative view of
truth: we make, or even make up, the truth and keep it if it works. William
James’ conception of the “will to believe” (James 1979; see also Thayer
1983), in which he defends ungrounded faith by arguing that it can bring
about the reality it stipulates, is essentially a performative one.
Perhaps those quantum measurements of electrons, which force
them to declare their position or energy, and the use of polarizing lters to
make photons “make up their mind” which orientation they are vibrating in,
are performative communications with nature. Indeed, there is an element in
any coherent scienti c experiment which consists of a declaration of ground-
rules, a delimitation of the region of signi cant events. Though science is
a process of questioning, it is scientists who decide what questions to ask
(Kuhn 1962).
It should already be clear that there is a close relationship
between performative utterance and performance in literature, in the oral
tradition, and in ritual, human and even animal. Mating rituals among
animals stipulate not previously existent beings (the “enemy” in the triumph
ceremony) and bring into being a real entity, the pair bond, as well as a
new individual of the species. At a Catholic mass, the bread and wine
performatively are the body and blood of Christ (for the faithful, that is
one of the things that the word “Christ” means, and they after all have a
right to decide what a word means for them). When a storyteller says “Once
upon a time” or “I sing of that man skilled in all ways of contending,” the
subjunctive world is welded to this one and becomes part of it, yielding up
its divine infantile indeterminacy as an electron does when it is measured.
When a poet writes and an actor speaks the line, he “gives to airy nothing/A
local habitation and a name” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.i.16-17)—he
performs new being into existence.
Toward the end of The Origin of Species Darwin permitted himself
a metaphor–that of the branching tree of life, whose every twig was a
species and whose branches represented ancient genera, families, classes,
and kingdoms (1962:121). Freud, too, illustrated his theory of the psyche
in society with a myth: that of the primal horde (1961:46-48). Socrates
began the practice, perhaps, and it is originally on his authority that a sort of
Gedankenexperiment or myth is offered here.
The function of the myth is to bring together the various perspectives
explored in this essay: human evolution’s role in the development of the
linguistic arts; ritual as the root of the oral tradition and ultimately of
literature; the adaptation of brain chemistry, structure, and function to the
forms and substance of those arts; their cultural universality; their essential
nature as types of performance; and their philosophically performative
validity. The myth is also intended to dispel any suspicion that the theory
proposed here is a reductionist one–that is, behaviorally or biologically
determinist. At the same time the myth rejects the opposite view, which has
in fact cooperated with the reductionist view in preserving a sterile dualism:
that is, the conception of literary art as sui generis, without connection with
the vital history of our species. The myth also takes up anew the fertile
Renaissance debate about the relationship between nature and art which
was aborted in the seventeenth century by the rise of Reason, rational and
empirical, and in the nineteenth by the
romantic idea of Nature as innocent and unre exive; but the debate is now
enriched by the greater effectiveness of our technology, by the collapse of
epistemology and ontology in quantum theory, and by the full elaboration
of the theory of evolution.
Once upon a time, then, there was a clever race of apes. Like many
other species of higher animals, they possessed a sophisticated though
instinctual system of vocal communication; they engaged in play activity
when unoccupied; they possessed elaborate instinctual rituals, especially
surrounding the functions of reproduction; their ranking system promoted
wide variations in reproductive success; and like other higher primates they
used rudimentary tools and passed their use down to the next generation by
instruction as well as by genetic inheritance.
It took only one individual to combine these capacities in such a
way that the Word became incarnate as a seed of culture and began to mold
its host species into a suitable soil for it to ourish in. The competition
for mates was intense, a competition which in other species had evolved
structures as impractical as the antlers of the giant elk and the feathers of
the peacock, and behaviors as contrary to survival as the mating dance of
March hares or the courtship of the blue satin bowerbird. At the same time
the border between play behavior and mating behavior was paper-thin.
One individual, then, discovered that the desired mate responded favorably
to playlike variation in the instinctual mating ritual: it was an improved
lovesong that began the human race, for their mating ritual already involved
a prominent vocal element.
This rst pair was imitated by others, and those which did so achieved
greater reproductive success. They were in turn imitated by their young,
which had inherited a slightly improved capacity to override the genetic
hardwiring of their ritual inheritance by playlike variation on it. (This
contrast between inherited norm and playlike variation will be preserved
later in the general information processing system of human beings, where
a regular carrier wave is systematically distorted to carry meaning; and
speci cally where a regular poetic meter is tensed against the rhythm of the
spoken sentence, or musical meter is stretched or compacted by rubato, or
even where visual symmetry is partly broken by the pleasing proportions of
the golden section.)
Thus was born what we might call the Freedom and Dignity Game;
for as it became elaborated, it developed vocal forms which,
like the phantom opponent of the triumphal geese, had at the time no
referents: Honor, Soul, Purpose, Good, Love, the Future, Freedom, Dignity,
the Gods, and so on. But those vocal forms were performative utterances,
and so for the performative community of the tribe those mysterious entities
actually came into existence, in the fashion that the knight’s move in chess
came into being by at. As if they were real all along, those abstract entities
became independent sources of active determination, even though the
medium of their being and of their continuity was no more than a communal
convention. But after all, our bodily structures are maintained as realities
not by themselves but by a mere arrangement of genes.
The ritual game indeed rapidly evolved. It developed cells of active
re exivity and self-criticism. Each generation altered it competitively,
introducing new complexities: kinship classi cation, decorative art, food
taboos, hygiene, household conventions, law, storytelling, and all the rest.
And in turn these complexities exerted irresistible selective pressure upon
those wise apes. They developed an adolescence, with special hormones to
promote rebellion against the traditional ritual. Infancy was protracted, to
help develop and program the huge brain that was required to handle the
complexities of the ritual, and lifespan was prolonged to accommodate the
extra programming-time. A massive sexualization took place in the species,
so that male and female were continuously in heat, females experienced
orgasm like males, and they copulated face to face, thus transforming sex into
a form of communication. The reward system of the brain was recalibrated to
respond most powerfully to beauty, which is the quality which characterizes
the ritual’s dynamic relationship of stability and increasing coherent
complexity. Body decoration and clothing banished body hair. The hands
turned into expressive instruments. The otolaryngeal system was elaborated
into an exquisitely sensitive medium of communication and expression. The
two sides of the brain became specialized, one for recognizing and holding
an existing context in place, the other for acting upon it and transforming
it in time. The indeterminacy of the world was lumped together into a new
concept, the Future, which was carried by the dissonance between right
brain pattern and left brain sequence. The Present was born, as the realm
of the Act.
At a certain point in the Neolithic, the performative began to expand
beyond the limits of the genus–which we may already recognize as Homo.
Certain plants and animals–emmer,
dogs–had joined the performative community in subordinate roles, their
gene structures changing in response to the human ritual game. It was, in
comparison with the ve million years the ritual had existed, but a moment
before large regions of physics, chemistry, and biology had joined the human
game and had been taught by scienti c experimentation and instrumentation
to speak the same language as we. Contemporary technology is the concrete
continuation of the performative at with which we began.
But the moment that other, non-human entities began to join the
game, the selective pressure it had exerted upon its performative community
ceased, for the bookkeeping function which the game had relegated to the
genes could now be taken up by our servants the plants, the animals, and
the minerals. Reproductive success no longer depended on pro ciency in
the game, and eventually there arose a celibate priesthood which entrusted
its entire informational inheritance not to its genes but to the prosthetic
seeds–semen, semantics–of music, writing, and the visual arts.
Our genetic inheritance, then, was frozen at the point it had reached
in the Neolithic, and thus its fundamental grammar must be ours. For us
to use the marvelous instrument of our brains properly we must nd that
grammar out. And when we have done so we may be able to reinvigorate that
pallid, decadent, and degenerate–but most direct–descendant of the Great
Ritual, literature, with an infusion of the wild stock. We may do so partly
by the mediation of the oral tradition, a healthy strain even in advanced
technological culture, partly by breeding from our own performance and
performative genres, and partly by hybridization with the ritual play of
other cultures all over the world.
Nor will this work be only a recuperation, an attempt to recover in
part what has been lost. Rather, it will represent a new phase of evolution in
the Great Game, the phase in which it contemplates itself as a whole with the
most meticulous scholarship, and directly guides its own development using
what it has learned. In so doing it will have taken to itself the powers once
allocated in hope and terror to uncontrolled deities which were neither kind
nor humane, and will have begun to ful ll the promise of many religions, of
the incarnation of the Word as reality rather than just as a seed. Nor need we
fear that the process of the spirit will become tame and commonplace, for
the more we know ourselves, the more radically the knower is thrust
into the unfathomable mystery surrounding the cosmos, in the attempt to
step back to get a better view. There is no con ict between consciousness
and spontaneity; it is only the consciousness which holds back from full
commitment that is impotent.
What are the immediate consequences for literary criticism of the
new theory of the word arts as it emerges?
First, perhaps, a dethroning of the text as the central locus of the act
of literary art. Thus hermeneutics loses its speci c relationship to literary
studies and becomes a branch of the general process of analysis as it is
used in the sciences, the social sciences, engineering, linguistics, and so on.
Hermeneutics remains a useful but unprivileged technique among others
in the study and appreciation of literature. But the emphasis will shift to
literary performance; in non-oral literature, that performance is curiously
divided between the writer and the reader, and the text that connects them
oats in a limbo of potentiality. The interest that the text may possess as
a complex structure in itself may be great, but it is of no different kind
than the interest that a living cell, a complex polymer, or an atomic nucleus
possesses. The interesting involution of structure may in fact have little
to do with its actual value as a work of literary art: Finnegan’s Wake is
surely more complicated, and a lesser work of art, than the Iliad; The Faerie
Queene than King Lear. Instead of the text we shall be most interested,
as literary folk, in the instantiation of the work in performance. One good
sign that a person truly possesses a work of literature is that he remembers,
without having consciously memorized them, large passages of the work,
and that those passages occur to him at those moments in his life when they
can make it more lucid and meaningful. The capacity to go through the
work and do a hermeneutic or structural analysis of it may have nothing to
do with this real possession of it.
An aspect of literary study which has been largely ignored by the
theorists becomes important here: oral performance. One activity which
really fastens a work of literature to a human life is reading it aloud, and
learning to do that well may be more important than the technique of critical
analysis (though good recitation will surely involve, as a subordinate activity,
some analysis). Literary activity takes place largely in the classroom: there
is no harm in this, but given our altered view of literature, the classroom
situation appears in a new light. The classroom is to the literary ritual as the
temple or shrine is to religious ritual,
or as the theater is to drama. The place should ideally be festively and
solemnly prepared, even if only by the respect shown to it that a member of
a martial arts school will show to the practice-ground. The teacher should
recognize that something of the probity of a priest and the charisma of the
actor is required of him. The class should enter into the spirit of comedy
when a comedy is the subject, and there should be in the classroom that
slight touch of danger, of the possibility of personal transformation that one
nds in real performances and ritual action. When Paulina in Shakespeare’s
The Winter’s Tale, about to bring the statue to life, says “Those that think
it is unlawful business I am about, let them depart,” the full force of that
statement should be felt in the classroom as it should be in the theater.
It ought to be dangerous to bring the dead to life; and the real drama is
doing precisely that, by performative at, just as in the eucharist the bread
performatively becomes the esh of Christ.
More, the reading of literature in the classroom ought to be explicitly
related to the life values of the individuals present, and of the community
as a whole. The performances of Aristophanes and Sophocles at the feast
of Dionysus in Athens, which implicitly joined the debate about the
Peloponnesian War, are models in this sense.
This is not to say that the other half of the performance–the writer’s
own strange quiet frenzy over the page–should be ignored. A large part of
literary study should be reconstructive, that is, it should most carefully enter
the imaginative world of the author and reconstruct, with him, the work
of literature as he composes it, just as a priest at a Mass will reenact the
movements and words of Jesus as he broke the bread, or as the priest/actor
in an Indonesian ritual drama will take on the role and actions of Hanuman
the Monkey-God, or even as the Dalai Lama is all previous Dalai Lamas
reincarnated. Standing where Shakespeare stands in the original composing
and performing of The Tempest or where Woolf stands delivering A Room
of One’s Own will do more to help us comprehend them than any amount
of hermeneutics, though hermeneutics may be one way of helping us get to
that place. But even the word “comprehend” is not entirely right. One does
not necessarily “comprehend” one’s own eye or one’s own hand, and a great
work of art can be as valuable, as intimate, an organ.
Another consequence of the new view of literature applies
especially to us who are the heirs of modernism. Great literary art calls us
back to the work of making ourselves human and remaking the world so
that it more richly expresses itself. Religion, literature, legislation, science,
and technological choice are all parts of the same world-constructing
activity. We modernists, like angry, indolent, rebellious adolescents, have
neglected that work for many decades, and have gone after anything which
did not seem as if it might be of enduring human value. The result has
been a systematic deprivation of the inner pleasures, those brain rewards
that are associated with cosmogenesis. Perhaps, on a mythological level,
we have turned to narcotics and to nuclear weapons for exactly the same
reason: to provide by arti cial means the sense of crucial value, value worth
sacri cing for, that we gave up when we rejected the human ritual and the
oral tradition. It is indeed part of our heritage that we should rebel, that we
should alter the ritual, generation by generation. But the illumination occurs
when both sides of the brain, so to speak–the innovative and the pattern-
holding–are mutually translated, when the new material of the world is
grafted so cunningly with the old than the seam cannot be detected.4
We are on the verge of a new classicism, what I shall call “natural
classicism,” based upon the deep lexicon and syntax of human artistic nature
as we are now coming to understand it. That new classicism, unlike the old,
will not conceive of standards as an eternal and ideal perfection which can
only asymptotically be approached, but rather as an aura, a mysterious and
ghostly scaffold that precedes the growing edge, the concrescence of the
world as it is performed into actual being. But there will be standards; and
they will not be either relative or pluralist in their fundamental character,
though they will be so richly generative that they will perhaps appear to
exemplify pluralism and relativism. Consider the myriad musics, poetries,
and paintings of the world’s cultures: how wholesome they are in the main;
how recognizable they are, as human, to an anthropologically educated
person; how they obey the deep laws of proportion, color, meter, and tone;
and how they embody those essential human interests, in kinship, cookery,
and the soul, yet how diverse they are. The new classicism will be a single
house, but a house of many mansions. And it will be also a house which is
growing, to which wings are continually being added; it will be hierarchical,
but the hierarchy of its values and genres will not signify a static Chain of
Being but a
dynamic evolutionary tree of life.
One of the unifying principles in natural classicism will be the use
of poetic meter as a way of breaking the monopoly of the left temporal lobe
in literature. The new investigation and use of the integrative relationship
between biological and mental life will involve a re-innervation of the
limbic system, and even of the body as a whole, by the conscious cortex,
and a re-innervation of left with right sides of the brain. We shall reach back
to ancient technologies such as meter, as well as forward to the science
of neurology and the technology of prosthesis, to accomplish this act of
enlightenment. But we must recognize that like an athlete or an adept at
meditation, a skilled reader of verse requires training and discipline: training
and discipline of which our children have been increasingly deprived.
We shall, perhaps, reconcile ourselves to the fact that there is no
substitute for plot and story in literary art. If our valuation of character,
symbolism, imagery, theme, and imitative form replace our concern for the
fundamental value of plot–if we dismiss story as having been exhausted–
then we have taken a step toward relinquishing that mastery over time
which makes us peculiarly human. We know how to go on being a conscious
person, how to construct a moral existence, how to win meaning from the
fact of change, because we have stories that we can use as control-tests to
sift out signi cant variation in experience, and, even more important, to
resonate with signi cant constancies. Some writers, notably Deleuze and
Guattari (1972), suggest that freedom consists in abandoning the coherence
of self and of cosmos, and destroying the future as a signi cant conception.
Perhaps when we are no longer in danger of destroying the entire species
by such attitudes we can try them out. Voluntary prefrontal lobotomy would
be a good start, for it would abort our natural tendency to make sense of
the world. Meanwhile, we need stories to keep us alive, as David Bynum
(1978:27) puts it:
I know the chief use or function of fabulous narrative traditions
everywhere is to make men adaptable in their minds, to enlarge the
scope of their mental lives beyond the con nes of their actual experience
socially, psychically, and in every other way. I am so far persuaded of
this that I have come to think of fabulous story-telling, and even of the
stories so told in tradition, as proper aspects of human biology. . . .
We shall rediscover the value of the genres, as embodying anciently-tested
constellations of rules, whole syntaxes in themselves, tuned to the human
nervous system. We will no longer dismiss as technological coincidence the
independent rediscovery of epic, for instance, by the authors of Gilgamesh,
the Iliad, the Mahabharata, the Heike; or of tragic drama by the Japanese,
the Chinese, the Indonesians, the Greeks, and Aztecs. We shall perhaps, as
literary folk, take up once again the responsibility for singing the world into
being; and now our capacity to do this has been immensely strengthened
by the scienti c and technological enlargement of our performative
community to include large areas of nature. An ontological criticism implies
an ontological literary art: our stories will be histories, our metaphors will
be concrete realities, our acting will be action.
University of Texas, Dallas
1I refer, of course, to Darwin’s study of the ora and fauna of the Galapagos Islands,
especially the nches, which he undertook during the voyage of the Beagle and which demonstrated
to him the effects of adaptation within a closed system.
2For instance, depending on whether we con ne the term “human culture” to Homo erectus
and beyond, or include the pithecines, Lancaster (1975:53) would date the “overlap” from either one
or ve million years ago to about 12,000 years ago when the agricultural revolution began. Eccles
(1979:94) estimates that the period extended from one million to 100,000 years ago. Hallowell (1961)
proposes a protocultural stage of evolution, in which some but not all the cultural features of modern
humanity were in place, well before the major expansion of the brain, among the early hominids.
This could, according to some estimates, be as much as 25-50 million years ago. Sapir (1921) and
De Laguna (1963) believe that language and thus, a fortiori, culture were co-original with tool use,
which would give us a period of up to 15 million years. But Foster (1978) disagrees, placing the
origin of language only 50,000 years ago. But she does not rule out the possibility of prelinguistic
culture. Debetz (1961), the Soviet anthropologist, dates the origin of human culture to the origin of
tool-making, rather than tool use, which might give us three million years. Wilson (1980) also argues
that tool-making implies genuine human culture, and regards Homo habilis (1.9-3 million years ago)
as fully human in this sense. Perhaps the clearest and most unambiguous description of the origin of
distinctively human culture is Howell (1972). He asserts that the genus Homo is coterminous with
human culture, which would give about 3-5 million years of overlap between the nal phases of
human biological evolution and the early ages of cultural evolution.
3The history of this change is nicely charted in the evolution from Wittgenstein 1933 to
4See Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, IV.4.72-103.
Austin 1962
J. L. Austin. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bynum 1978
David E. Bynum. The Daemon in the Wood: A Study of Oral Narrative Patterns. Cambridge,
MA: Center for Oral Literature (dist. Harvard University Press).
Campbell 1983
Joseph Campbell. The Historical Atlas of World Mythology. New York: van der Merck
(dist. Harper and Row).
Csikszentmihalyi 1975
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The Experience of Play in Work and Games. San Francisco and
London: Jamey-Bass.
d’Aguili et al. 1979
E. G. d’Aquili et al., eds. The Spectrum of Ritual: A Biogenetic Structural Analysis. York:
Columbia University Press.
Darwin 1962
Charles Darwin. The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. New York:
Debetz 1961
G. F. Debetz. “The Social Life of Early Paleolithic Man as Seen through the Work of
the Soviet Anthropologists.” In Social Life of Early Man, ed. Sherwood L. Washburn.
Chicago: Aldine. pp. 137-49.
De Laguna 1963
Grace Andrus De Laguna. Speech: Its Function and Development. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press.
Deleuze and Guattari 1972
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. L’Anti-Oedipe. Paris: Editions de Minuit.
Eccles 1979
John C. Eccles. The Human Mystery. Berlin and New York: Springer.
Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1975
I. Eibl-Eibesfeldt. Ethology: The Biology of Behavior. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and
Eigen and Winkler 1981
Manfred Eigen and Ruthild Winkler. Laws of the Game: How the Principles of Nature
Govern Chance. New York: Knopf.
Finkelstein 1982
David Finkelstein. “Coherence and Possibility: The Logic of the Innermost Universe.”
Kenyon Review, n.s. 4,ii:95-112.
Foster 1978
Mary LeCron Foster. “The Symbolic Structure of Primordial Language.” In Human
Evolution: Biosocial Perspectives. Ed. by Sherwood L. Washburn and Elizabeth McCown.
Vol. 4 of Perspectives on Human Evolution. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings. pp.
Fraser 1975
J. T. Fraser. Of Time Passion, and Knowledge: Re ections on the Strategy of Existence.
New York: George Braziller.
Fraser 1980
__________. “Out of Plato’s Cave: The Natural History of Time.” Kenyon Review, n.s. 2,
Frazer 1911
James G. Frazer. The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings. London: Macmillan.
Freud 1961
Sigmund Freud. Civilization and its Discontents. New York: Norton.
Frisch 1959
John E. Frisch. “Research on Primate Behavior in Japan.” American Anthropologist,
Glenn and Cunningham 1983
S. M. Glenn and C. C. Cunningham. “What Do Babies Listen To Most?” Developmental
Psychology, 19:332-37.
Gödel 1962
Kurt Gödel. On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related
Systems. Trans. by B. Meltzer. New York: Basic Books.
Greenblatt 1980
Stephen Greenblatt. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Grotowski 1968
Jerzy Grotowski. Towards a Poor Theatre. Holstebro: Odin Teatrets Forlag.
Guillemin 1978
Roger Guillemin. “Peptides in the Brain: The New Endocrinology of the Neuron.” Science,
202 (27 Oct.):390-402.
Guth and Steinhardt 1984
Alan H. Guth and Paul J. Steinhardt. “The In ationary Universe.” Scienti c American, n.s.
250:v (May):116-28.
Hallowell 1961
A. Irving Hallowell. “The Protocultural Foundations of Human Evolution.” In Social Life
of Early Man. Ed. by Sherwood L. Washburn. Chicago: Aldine. pp. 236-55.
Heisenberg 1958
Werner Heisenberg. Physics and Philosophy. New York: Harper.
Herbert 1965
Frank Herbert. Dune. Philadelphia: Chilton.
Howell 1972
F. Clark Howell. “Recent Advances in Human Evolutionary Studies.” In Perspectives
on Human Evolution. Ed. by Sherwood L. Washburn and Phyllis Dolhinow. New York:
Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Vol. 2:51-128; rpt. from The Quarterly Review of Biology, 42
Huxley 1966
J. S. Huxley. “A Discussion on Ritualization of Behavior in Animals and Man.”
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series B, no. 772, vol. 251:247-526.
Imarishi 1957
Kinji Imarishi. “Social Behavior in Japanese Monkeys, Macaca fuscata.” Psychologia,
Itani 1958
J. Itani. “On the Acquisition and Propagation of a New Food Habit in the Troop of Japanese
Monkeys at Takasaluyama.” Primates, 1:84-98.
James 1979
William James. The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. In The Works
of William James. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kawai 1965
M. Kawai. “Newly Acquired Pre-cultural Behavior of the National Troop of Japanese
Monkeys on Koshima Island.” Primates, 6:1-30.
Konner 1962
Melvin Konner. “Joy.” In his The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human
Spirit. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. pp. 236-60.
Kuhn 1962
Thomas Kuhn. The Structure of Scienti c Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago
Lancaster 1975
Jane B. Lancaster. Primate Behavior and the Emergence of Human Culture. New York:
Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Le Guin 1969
Ursula K. Le Guin. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Harper and Row.
Lévi-Strauss 1969
Claude Lévi-Strauss. The Raw and the Cooked. New York: Harper and Row.
Levy 1974
Jerre Levy. “Psychobiological Implications of Bilateral Asymmetry.” In Hemisphere
Function in the Human Brain. Ed. by Stuart Dimond and J. Graham. New York: Wiley.
pp. 166-67.
Levy 1984
__________. “Interhemispheric Collaboration: Single-Mindedness in the Asymmetric
Brain.” In Developmental Neuropsychology and Education: Hemispheric Specialization
and Integration. Ed. by C. T. Best. New York: Academic Press. In press.
Levy forthcoming
__________. “Cerebral Asymmetry and Aesthetic Experience.” To be publ. in Biological
Aspects of Aesthetics. Ed. by D. Epstein et al. Forthcoming. First given as a paper at the
Biology and Esthetics Research Group meeting in January 1983, Werner Reimers Stiftung,
Bad Hamburg, West Germany.
Lindsay 1920
David Lindsay. A Voyage to Arcturus. London: Methuen; rpt. New York: Ballantine,
Lord 1960
Albert B. Lord. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; rpt. New
York: Atheneum, 1968 et seq.
Lorenz 1952
K. Lorenz. King Solomon’s Ring: New Light on Animal Ways. Trans. by M. K. Wilson.
London: Methuen.
Murdock 1968
George Peter Murdock. “The Common Denominator of Cultures.” In Perspectives on
Human Evolution. Ed. by Sherwood L. Washburn and Phyllis Dolhinow. Vol. 1. New
York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. p. 231.
O’Brien 1985
Ellen O’Brien. “Actors’ Perspectives on Trudy.” To be publ. in Shakespeare in Performance.
Ed. by B. Beckerman et al. London: Methuen. In press.
Olds 1976
James Olds. “Behavioral Studies of Hypothalmic Functions: Drives and Reinforcements.”
In Biological Foundations of Psychiatry. Vol. 1. Ed. by R. G. Grenell and S. Babay. New
York: Raven. pp. 321-447.
Parry 1971
Adam Parry, ed. The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry.
Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Pöppel and F. Turner 1983
Ernst Pöppel and Frederick Turner. “The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time.”
Poetry, 142 (August):277-309.
Popper 1959
Karl Popper. The Logic of Scienti c Discovery. New York: Basic Books.
Routtenberg 1980
A. Routtenberg. Biology of Reinforcement: Facets of Brain Stimulation Reward. New
York: Academic Press.
Sapir 1921
Edward Sapir. Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. New York: Harcourt,
Brace, Jovanovich.
Schechner 1977
Richard Schechner. Essays on Performance Theory, 1970-76. New York: Drama Book
Schechner 1981
__________. “Performers and Spectators Transported and Transformed.” Kenyon Review,
n.s. 3,iv:83-113.
Snyder 1977
Solomon H. Snyder. “Opiate Receptors and Internal Opiates.” Scienti c American, n.s.
236:iii (March):44-57.
Stanislavsky 1936
Konstantin Stanislavsky. An Actor Prepares. Trans. by Elizabeth Reynolds. New York:
Theatre Arts Books.
Thayer 1983
H. S. Thayer. “The Right to Believe: William Jones’ Reinterpretation of the Function of
Religious Belief.” Kenyon Review, n.s. 5,i:89-105.
Tiger 1979
Lionel Tiger. Optimism: The Biology of Hope. New York: Simon and Schuster.
V. Turner 1967
Victor W. Turner. The Forest of Symbols. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
V. Turner 1968
__________. The Drums of Af iction. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
V. Turner 1969
__________. The Ritual Process. Chicago: Aldine.
V. Turner 1974
__________. Drama, Fields, and Metaphors. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
V. Turner 1981
__________. From Ritual to Theatre. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications.
Valenstein 1974
E. S. Valenstein. Brain Control. New York: Wiley.
von Uexkull 1909
Jakob von Uexkull. Umwelt and Innenwelt der Tiers. Berlin: Springer, rpt. 1921.
Wheeler 1977
J. A. Wheeler. Genesis and Observership. University of Western Ontario Series in the
Philosophy of Science. Ed. by R. Butts and J. Hintikka. Dordrecht: Reidel.
Willer et al. 1981
Jean Claude Willer et al. “Stress-Induced Analgesia in Human & Endogenous Opioids and
Naxolone-Reversible Depression of Pain Re exes.” Science, 212 (8 May):689-91.
Wilson 1980
Peter J. Wilson. Man, the Promising Primate. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Wittgenstein 1933
Ludwig Wittgenstein. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Trans. by C. K. Odgen. London:
Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Wittgenstein 1953
__________. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. by G. E. M. Anscombe. New York:
Wolfe 1980-81
Gene Wolfe. The Book of the New Sun. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Woolf 1957
Virginia Woolf. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
Yates 1969
Frances Yates. The Theatre of the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
... Vansina, 1965) [6]. For Turner (1986), it is one of branches of literary studies which reaches back far enough in time to invite a consideration of that crucial period in human prehistory when biological evolution overlapped with cultural evolution [7]. ...
... Vansina, 1965) [6]. For Turner (1986), it is one of branches of literary studies which reaches back far enough in time to invite a consideration of that crucial period in human prehistory when biological evolution overlapped with cultural evolution [7]. ...
Full-text available
1.Introduction Semiotics is a field of research that studies signs as an essential part of cultural life and communication. In semiotic terms, a sign system is a field of related things, and their meaning comes from how they relate to each other. Semiotic models look at communication as social interaction through messages. The central approach is to focus on how 'meaning' is generated and understood in a sign-system. Semiotics contributes to communication studies by providing a method for uncovering and analyzing how a whole system of signification works in a culture. Festivals are considered safety valves for the society. No folk dramas, songs or dances were performed purely for public entertainment. There was always a myth-ritual performance relationship in all of them. Folk worship and cults are associated with ritualistic theatre forms (Das, Varsha, 1992) [1]. Falassi, Allesandro in Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival (Alburquerque1987) describes festivals as " …a periodically recurrent, social occasion in which, through a multiplicity of forms and a series of coordinated events, all members of a whole community, participate directly or indirectly and to various degrees, united by ethnic, linguistic, religious, historical bonds, and a sharing a worldview." Gaan-Ngai is the main annual festival of the Zeliangrong Naga people who inhabit the State of Manipur, Assam and Nagaland. Gaan-ngai is the festival of lights and victory, victory over evil; Gaan meaning light and Ngai meaning festival. Another variation about the meaning of Gaan-Ngai is the festival of winter season. Chakaan means season, Gaan also means winter and Ngai means festival. This festival is also described as a New Year festival as it marks the end of the year and beginning of the New Year according to the traditional calendar. The New Year is marked by the production of new fire (Mairapmei) either by friction of wood and bamboos or friction of the flint. Gaan-Ngai was usually performed between the month of October and December depending on the state of the progress of agricultural operation. Later, Kabui Naga Association, the progenitor of the present Zeliangrong Union decided in 1947 that Gaan-Ngai be performed on the 13th day of the Meitei month of Wakching as per the Meitei Calendar (Chandrabda) of the lunar year. This festival now starts on the 13th day of the Manipuri lunar month of Wakching every year. The festival lasts for 5 to 7 days depending on local variation. It is mainly celebrated by the devotees of Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak (TRC) and the followers of Heraka religion living in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland. Dance, music and drama are integral parts of rituals performed during the Gaan-Ngai. They contain stories and legends about the presiding deity and their religious beliefs in which the whole village participates. Gaan-Ngai involves a wide range of cultural practices, including language, rituals, modes of dress, art works, myth and language. These practices are expressive of the culture. The festival presents a model of theatrical communication and explores promising areas of semiotic research-kinesics, proxemics, conventions, and audience reception. 2.Area Of Field Study The research on the semiotics of Gaan-Ngai covers the Zeliangrong area in Manipur. This state has a total area of 22,327 sq km. In which 92%and 8% areas are hills and valleys respectively [2]. Despite the influence of different religions, at present mainly two types of religious practices are found among the Zeliangrong i.e. traditional religion and Christianity, where Christian religion outnumbers the traditional (Tingkau Raguang) religion by 85%. [3] Gaan-Ngai is a festival based on traditional religion. Celebration in the hill areas where majority of the Zeliangrong Nagas have converted to Christianity has almost become non-existent. However it is celebrated with full pomp and fervor in the valley area of Manipur where the traditional religion is very strong. Abstract: Gaan-Ngai is the main annual festival of the Zeliangrong Naga people who inhabit the State of Manipur, Assam and Nagaland. The festival presents a model of theatrical communication and explores promising areas of semiotic research-kinesics, proxemics, conventions, and audience reception. The paper looks into the signs and symbols associated with the rites and rituals performed during the festival and its social significance. As a rich cultural phenomenon, the customary practices performed during Gaan-Ngai are symbolic of the cultural landscape of the Zeliangrong.
... Vansina [10] has defined oral traditions as "documents of the present" also inheriting "a message from the past." For Turner [9], it is one of the branches of literary studies which reaches back far enough in time to invite a consideration of that crucial period in human prehistory when biological evolution overlapped with cultural evolution (p. 68). ...
... However, we cannot say that oral tradition does not exist. As Turner [9] argues, the oral tradition continues in our own culture in at least two realms: liturgy and theater (p. 86). ...
... The second level can be 1 As referring to societies where the spoken word -unmediated by " modem " technology -is the major means, not just o f communication, but of storage and transmission o f knowledge (see Ong's state o f " primary orality " ; also Havelock, 1963). To the extent that this notion may be problcmatizcd (sec for example Street, 1986), it can no doubt be argued that it amounts to a theoretical abstraction. 2 In the sense o f the visual representation o f specific words (as opposed to " meaning " in a more general sense), particularly where such representation is phonetically based (sec Ong, 1982:83- 93). ...
Full-text available
This article investigates whether there is a theoretical framework for the notion of oral literature that is common to both oral theory and literary theory. The notion of oral literature has, within oral theory, generally been put to an anthropological - rather than literary - use. Because of particular difficulties involved with the appreciation of the textual properties of the oral text, a modernist approach proves unsatisfactory. A solution for the theoretical difficulty of integrating oral literature into literary theory is sought via a particular post-modernist view of literature, namely Anthony Easthope’s reconceptualisation of literary studies as study of signifying practice ("cultural studies") open to both literary and popular texts. Given the exclusivity of the notion of popular culture, centred on misconceptions relating to the constructedness of the oral text, the notion of oral literature continues, however, to operate in a theoretical void.
... However, we cannot say that oral tradition does not exist. As Turner (1986) argues, the oral tradition continues in our own culture in at least two realms: liturgy and theater (p. 86). ...
Oral tradition has become a domain of great interest to scholars of different disciplines of knowledge such as literature, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy. It has a huge scope for the discipline of communication too. This article presents an appraisal of oral tradition as a means of communication from one generation to another. While doing so, it deals with following issues: Can history be narrated based on oral traditions just as it is done with ‘written documents'? Are the oral traditions only the sources of historiography or do they have other implications too? It also discusses whether oral traditions can be taken as valid historical sources, and, if not, whether there are means for testing its reliability. DOI: 10.3126/bodhi.v3i1.2813 Bodhi Vol.3(1) 2009 p.61-68
This article exposes the principles of an ecosemiotic theory of oral poiesis, which conceives of singing as a highly specific habit or skilled practice within the human domain of languaging. It is claimed that oral poiesis may contribute to the semiotic alignment of human and nonhuman own-worlds (Umwelten), playing a role in processes of structural coupling within a habitat, understood as a hybrid assemblage or collective of multispecies inhabitants. The article describes how oral poiesis, as a modeling system, contributes to sustaining the various modes of identification that characterize collective human ontologies (animism, naturalism, totemism, analogism) through distinctive operations of symbolization (literality, metaphor, metonymy, analogy). These modes of ecopoetic symbolization serve to bring nonhumans, such as animals, plants, mountains, or rivers, into human own-worlds. Moreover, as one of many skilled practices of humans, oral poiesis is characterized by certain intrinsic features, such as attention, play, feeling, ritualization, musicality, or remembrance, which contribute to human sociality and hence to a system-wide relationality. All these elements constitute the foundations of a poetics of cohabitation.
This paper probes into the theory penned by Walter Benjamin in “The Storyteller,” that the rise of the novel at the beginning of modem times, marks the decline of storytelling and that it “neither comes from oral tradition nor goes into it” (Lodge 14). Benjamin also doubts the art of storytelling among people. This paper dismantles Benjamin’s claim by showing the strong link between oral tradition and the novel, analyzing Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, The Shadow Lines, Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, and In an Antique Land. Furthermore, I will apply Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism, heteroglossia, and the ancient Indian philosophy of rasa to establish the connections among oral tradition, storytelling, storyteller, and language. By establishing these connections, this paper aims to demonstrate how storytelling gives rise to distinct vernacular, which performs a living counter-history resulting from the multiplicity of overlapping associations of displacement. This paper highlights Ghosh’s concern with the movements of the marginalized-lascars, “girmitia,” boatmen, and housewives-so far figured as absent from the histories of nations, and who emerge as storytellers in his novels. Overall, the paper argues that storytelling technique can create an atmosphere for carnival in novels.
Full-text available
This paper investigates the role of education in fostering the relationships between humans, nature, and cultures for the sustainability of human life and the planet earth. The dominance of systemic thinking about education has been perpetuating knowledge that degenerates the environment and ecology for the sake of economic prosperity. This kind of educational approach seems less sensitive to ecological crises and more attuned to economic prosperity. This paper argues that education emerged from traditional wisdom heritage in South Asian context, which is often ignored in the Modern Education System,but can offer better approaches to foster collective and collaborative efforts to serve ecological responsibilities. Such an education system could lead to overcoming environmental, social and economic hazards, thereby establishing sustainable life on the planet. Using the theoretical referents of traditional wisdom heritage prevailing in South Asian communities, the paper uses three key ideas: a) interdependence b) coexistence and c) eco-spiritual pedagogy to prepare the future citizen to live in the safe and secure planet for all species.
Full-text available
The dissertation presents stand-up comedy as a genre of embodied verbal art and semiotic interaction. In particular, the study elaborates on how stand-up comics mediate themselves in a public arena and playfully thematize and reappropriate this self-mediation within a performance form founded on the ideals of immediacy, actuality, and self-presence.