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  • Between the Oral and the Literary:The Case of the Naxi Dongba Texts1
  • Duncan Poupard (bio)

"…it is not the case that words are one thing and the rite another.The uttering of the words itself is a ritual."

(Edmund Leach 1966:407)

Shafts of sunlight stream through the crooked rafters, piercing the heavy smoke from the fire. Before you sits a dongba ritualist. He reads from the beautifully written manuscript in his hands, singing of the Naxi ancestors and their encounters with spirits—good and ill. He closes his eyes, lost in memory. He has stopped reading, but he keeps on singing. This dongba ritualist, unlike the Tibetan paper singers, is fully literate; and unlike a priest reading a sermon from the Bible, he is versed in the craft of oral poetry. The book in front of him can, unlike the prop of the paper singer, be read, for it is a receptacle of the written word; but unlike the Bible, it can never be read with the same two combinations of words.

Research into oral traditions has long been centered on contrasting what is perceived to be "oral" with the "literary," as if the two stand on opposite sides of some unbridgeable chasm. This began in earnest with the work of Milman Parry,2 who divided literature precisely into these two forms: "the one part of literature is oral, the other written" (1933:180). Even today, after Derrida's opening up of the oral versus written dichotomy, and in spite of research on living oral traditions in cultures that use writing for other social interactions, the two forms are still perceived as essentially separate. They can co-exist, but can they co-exist within the same text? If so, how? And what if there was a tradition of literature that could be shown to bridge this divide?

It is my argument that not only can the ritual texts of the Naxi3 people of southwest China be proven to be demonstrably oral in nature, but that they also exist in a realm of potentiality that occupies the uncontested territory between the two extremes of oral and written: they are truly transitionary texts. Oral literature, in terms of Parry's Oral-Formulaic Theory,4 has traditionally been identified by its repeated phrases or "formulas," and this formulaic nature is key to its composition. In comparison, written texts have fewer repeated phrases, with unique lines and unusual words employed to non-standard effect. Parry's work has come to be regarded by a number of modern scholars as an outmoded phase in Homeric scholarship (and in the field of oral tradition that sprung from it). Some say that oral theory itself is a "myth," because the Homeric hexameter is dependent upon the written alphabet (Bellamy 1989:307), others that we can "put a pen in" Homer's hand (Shive 1987:139). This understanding does not resolve our problem: if "oral epics" are written and not oral, then we are no closer to discovering an in-between stage, texts that are demonstrably both oral and written.

The debate as to whether much literature that is perceived of today as "oral" was in fact orally composed is always hampered by the fact that we are reading and analyzing the texts in their written form. In essence, the pen is always hypothetically in Homer's hand. As Parry himself said: "If one wishes to think that Homer composed his poems orally, and then sat down and wrote them out, there is little that can be said in disproof, and little that needs to be said" (1930:144). The question we are asked to ponder here is whether or not Homer used the technology of writing to compose his epic poetry, and what effect might this have on our understanding of oral vs written composition. On this point, Merritt Sale has argued, "we may think it improbable, but an oral poet could have learned to write" (1996:375). But why is it improbable in the first place that a ("primitive") oral poet could write? It is our chirographic bias that teaches us so.

Jakobson and Bogatyrev made the famous claim that oral works...

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