Myth, ritual and the oral (2010)

Update: A Feb. 21, 2014 New Yorker article is entitled: “Why is academic writing so academic?” [End of update]


In Myth, ritual and the oral (2010), Jack Goody discusses fiction and non-fiction, the role of narrative in oral and lecto-oral societies, and the history of novels and the theatre. In lecto-oral cultures, one finds what Goody characterizes as oral literature along with literacy. His discussion is sound and useful and non-Eurocentric.

A recurring theme is that “narrative and storytelling, even non-fictional, are hardly as central as is visualized by those seeking to reconstruct the forms of discourse in early literate culture and supposedly inherited from yet earlier purely oral ones” (p. 121).

His precise, “tighter” definition of narrative implies “a plot with a firm sequential structure, marked by a beginning, middle and an end in the Aristotelian manner” (p. 118). In everyday life, Goody argues (p. 151), “the stream of consciousness may be a closer representation of reality than the narrative.” Goody asserts, as well, that “In real life the narrative is rarely unchallenged. The legal/jural process is perhaps the touchstone since the narrative is part of the duel, the plaintiff tells his story, the defendant another; one is judged to be truthful, the other a lie (or at least not to be believed)” (p. 150).

Fiction as distinct from non-fiction adds another dimension in Goody’s formulation. Fiction at the surface level is not ‘true,’ and in this sense is a lie. That is, any form of re-presentation can give rise to doubts about the relationship between the representation and the original. Such doubts are “intrinsic to language, and therefore to narrative” (p. 152). In Goody’s view, the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is a sound one. In support of such a distinction, he expresses opposition to “a misguided, post-modern-influenced drive against ‘binarism” (p. 121).

The author also notes that rhetoric, “with an explicit body of written rules” (p. 44), developed as an influence of the written word on speech. He describes rhetoric as the later formal counterpart of oratory as practised in earlier purely oral cultures. The expert orator, in the latter cultures, developed fame and was awarded without recourse to rhetoric.

History of the novel and theatre

Goody notes that in cultural history, the novel is absent from oral cultures, having made a “late and sporadic appearance long after writing was introduced, followed by its great popularity despite the continued hostility it attracted up to the nineneeth century in Europe, later elsewhere” (pp. 134-5).

Goody remarks that “In Judaism and in Islam, and in early Christianity, ritual was performed but drama was proscribed. Only later did secular theatre re-emerge” (p. 51). He adds: “Like the novel, much poetry (for example, the sonnet), the encyclopedia, the dictionary and the theatre are products of the written rather than the purely spoken word” (pp. 51-2).

An account of events is never the events themselves

Goody emphasizes that any form of re-presentation can give rise to doubts about the relationship between the representation and the original: “A horse (word) is never a horse (animal). An account of events is never the events themselves” (p. 152).

Much of my reading involves non-fiction. I do enjoy reading fiction writers on rare occasions such as a close study of how Alice Munro uses language and how she goes about reading a short story. Mainly I read non-fiction. Goody’s discussion of the history of the novel helps one make sense of such a preference.

I am especially taken by the remark that “An account of events is never the events themselves” (p. 152). This is a fundamental aspect even of non-fiction, which to my mind consists of reports based on evidence as well as theoretical models that seek to explain evidence. Goody’s work includes “critiques of current therorical trends,” as a blurb on the back cover of his book affirms. Similary, Jeremy Black (2011) addresses the theoretical model of the Military Revolution, although he takes pains not to characterize his analysis as a critique.

Until I read Goody’s book, I had the sense that non-fiction is fiction by another name. On reflection, I realize that such a characterization is not useful given its vagueness. It’s more useful to bring precision to the task of evaluating what one reads. Given Goody’s overview, I now like to rate non-fiction in accordance with the clarity of the author’s use of language including clarity in definition of terms, and the apparent soundness of the evidence. Similarly, it’s useful to rate theoretical models, in works of non-fiction, in accordance with how well they appear to deal with evidence. It’s useful to keep in mind, as well, that an account of events is never the events themselves.


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