Orality, and Writing

Orality & Literacy / Intimacy & Alienation: the eternal, internal, contradictions of teaching composition



                        Mary saw in Benjamin's illness the chance of giving him a better education, and decided to tutor him herself. They read Shakespeare and Dickens; and since she had a little Latin, she borrowed a grammar and dictionary from the vicar and a few of the easier texts - Caesar and Tacitus, Cicero and Virgil - although the Odes of Horace were beyond them.

                        When Amos tried to object she cut him short: "Come now: surely you can allow one bookworm in the family?"  But he shrugged and said, "No good'll come of it."  Education as such, he did not mind.  What annoyed him was the thought of his sons growing up with educated accents, and wanting to leave the farm.


                                                -Bruce Chatwin, On the Black Hill (65)



            Haunting my first classroom discussion is an image from my childhood. It is a six year old boy in his best school clothes looking out from under a neighbor's car, looking out at his mother running from his house toward him, his new pants streaked with dirt, the back of his white shirt patched with grease from the under body of the car. In spite of his efforts to stop them, his eyes tear and streak his cheeks. The boy, of course, is me.

            I had gone out alone to wait for the bus; I was, after all, a responsible child who had expressed enthusiasm for school, who had already learned the alphabet, knew how to read some simple words. My mother had stood watching at the living room window offering her reassurance by that presence at the window and her confidence in me by her absence from the bus stop. When I saw the yellow bus approaching I needed more than that reassurance to keep me there. My mind accepted the need for school; my body told me I wanted nothing to do with going away to school.

            I ran, slid under the nearest car, and waited for the bus to go on without me.  The bus did go on. My mother came for me. Embarrassed she pulled me out from under the neighbor's car, cleaned me up, and we went to that same neighbor to ask if she would drive us to school.

            The next few days my mother stood with me waiting for the bus. Eventually, I learned to wait by myself, and when I looked back to the house I could not  see her at the window.  Perhaps my mother, the bus driver, and the neighbor thought I had learned how to please them, that I had matured. What I know now, as I knew then but could not articulate, is that what I had learned was how to police myself.

            I was coerced into accepting the need for school. To varying degrees, with different stratagems, we were all coerced into the world of literacy. Crossing that line separating home from school, separating language learned by passionate chaotic spoken interaction from language learned through detached disciplined acts of surrender, involves a trauma. And since the line of literacy ever moves beyond us as we try to become more accomplished writers, the trauma, lessening to the degree we accept the necessity for delayed gratification, accompanies us.

            As we get older, our maturity is measured by our acceptance of the need for deferring immediate satisfactions for future ones. Sometimes, rare times, we convince ourselves that writing itself needs no deference to a self split into the future: the act of writing is itself an act of immediate satisfaction. Such times are few and valued beyond measure by any writer. Such times are a return to bliss. And it is then that our maturity is measured by the extent to which we realize that there is no return at all to orality except by going forward through literacy.



Literature, Orature, and Composition


            With a request that the students put away pens, pencils, and paper, I begin my first class in English composition. I welcome them to the class, introduce myself, and make certain some students have not wandered into the wrong classroom. And I tell a story.

            I have an anthropologist friend who assisted with the land claim payments for Indian tribes displaced when their lands were flooded by the government of Quebec to build dams to produce electric power for export to New England. My friend told me about the Cree Indians now resettled on reservations in communities resembling suburban housing developments, single family homes with electricity, modern plumbing, television, and a new school to which the children would be bussed.  He spoke about the problems with the Indians getting just compensation for their lands, but I was most interested in his accounts of the Indians' social life.

            He said that what saddened him most was the rampant alcoholism. There was widespread unemployment, and many of the young people had little to do but sit around and drink.  But it was worse with the old people. Nearly all of them were drunks. He offered several reasons why alcohol was a problem: the different housing arrangements meant less communal living and more isolation, lack of meaningful work, living in a new land, too much disposable income given to individuals without appropriate tribal safeguards.

            I told him I thought the reason was much different. I said, the Indians have been turned into drunks because of Sesame Street.

            Tribal life before widespread literacy was centered on the practical knowledge and long lived experience of the old people. The elders were the center of the community.  The elders told the stories that made daily life possible. They explained the ways to do tasks: planting, hunting, weaving, cooking, all the work necessary for survival, for communal prosperity.  The elders told the stories upon which the religion was based. They told the stories that entertained as well as instructed. The elders, in short, were teachers, preachers, and entertainers all in one.

            After the tribes were forcefully introduced to writing, the most useful of the tribe, the old people, were suddenly useless. No longer were they wise elders; they were simply old.  Learning came from the new books not the old people. And learning was primarily for the young.  One and two-year olds sat before the television. Five and six-year olds went away to school.  For the old people society had turned upside down and inside out. They were no longer at the top of the tribal structure, revered, looked up to. They were the new discards, quaint and interesting perhaps, especially to anthropologists, but no longer essential for the survival of the community. They were no longer at the center of the tribe, the source of knowledge, religion, and entertainment. They were on the outside, marginal to the tribe's survival not even in serious competition with books and television for information, practical or abstract. Alcohol seems an appropriate response to such a situation.

            Writing had made the young the source of knowledge, and the elders had not only lost their privileged place in society, they lost everything. Why not drink? Alcohol gives the immediate satisfaction, allowing the elders to forget what is in order to remember what was, to dream, to tell stories if only to oneself, to reclaim the inner voice that once connected them to each other and to the gods. Alcoholic spirits substitute for the spiritual.

            My anthropologist friend was hardly amused, certainly not convinced. The answer to the problem of tribal alcoholism is not so simple. I agree. The displacing of the elders from the center of group learning based on oral teachings to the periphery of the cultural life of the community now based on literacy cannot be explained only one way; I suggested, though, that it is an explanation most neglected, most informative, and most inclusive.

            The effects of literacy are not at all simple; they are the most profound effects we can imagine. In fact, as Walter Ong reminds us, we cannot imagine them all because literacy has altered our way of thinking so that we can never think like those who once lived in an oral world. But, since we have anthropologists' accounts, historical records, conversations with individuals still immersed in a largely oral community, and our own lives as children in the pre-literate world to draw upon, we can capture some of the differences between the oral world and the literate. And the knowledge of such differences can lead the student of writing to the motivation necessary for becoming a better writer. 

            Before I recount my students' reaction to my story I should mention some reasons for telling it, reasons not as obvious as the illustration of the effects of literacy on a community so radically different from that of the students' own. More so than the students at the universities and the private college I have taught at, so many students I have taught in community colleges and university branch campuses resent taking the required English courses. These students feel extremely insecure about their writing ability.

            For many years, often from the very beginning of their schooling in the elementary grades, they have suffered severe negative judgments about their writing. English, critical writing and interpretive reading, appears to them as their biggest obstacle to completing a course of studies they are now just beginning. Some have managed to postpone their composition class until their last semester in college, but most are first year students who see the class as an initiation, a test of abilities they have failed at too many times in the past.

            The students cannot articulate what they know, but they know in their bodies that they have been had. They started elementary school with enthusiasm, suspecting but with no way of understanding, that they would have to surrender their oral, tribal, personal and inherently practical world of childhood for the promise of the isolating, impersonal, and abstract knowledge only attainable from books. Those who have not been successful in learning how to attain that knowledge have been given next to nothing in return for the deal they did not, could not, know they were making.

            And these students are right. But, we have all been had--even those of us who have been quite successful in disciplining ourselves to the requirements necessary for literacy. All of us need to be more aware of the price we have paid for literacy if we can exploit its benefits. My students need to understand that their resistance to learning to read and write critically is perhaps the only thing natural to a process that is inherently artificial.

            When I say (when I write) that we all have been had, I mean that all of us were removed from the oral world of childhood with little consideration for its effects upon us. Our first classroom experience mimicked the home to a large degree. We were free to mingle with classmates; we could talk when we wanted.  We were instructed orally as a group, often seated in a circle. Each year, as we became increasingly literate, the instruction that made such literacy possible removed us further and further from the warm, interactive, communal oral world characteristic of tribal peoples, and of our childhood, and moved us into the cold, isolated, individual literate world where less and less information came from a living teacher but came more and more from inanimate books.

            All of us made a Faustian bargain with the (literate) devil. We agreed to enter the world of literacy; many of us were encouraged by our parents who could not fully understand why we good students isolated ourselves in our rooms to get the quiet necessary for homework, to read silently the assigned texts, but who reluctantly excused us from housework in order that we study. And entering that world of literacy we necessarily left behind the world of childhood, the oral world characterized much like the Indians' tribal world is characterized, by intimacy, essential interactions with non-judgmental people, practical knowledge, conversation, and seemingly chaotic social relationships.

            That early chaos of learning where we learned to speak our language became an ordered rigid environment as we learned to write the language, a language that became less and less our own, more and more foreign as the rules tightened on our speech based writing. Eventually our social relationships came to resemble the dominant characteristics of the means of instruction.  Just like the book laid out in rows and lines, we were arranged in ordered desks. We were being prepared for the even more ordered rows and lines of the army and the corporate office. Our handwriting and drawing classes were judged by the degree to which we stayed in line. Every lesson became a lesson in waiting. We learned self-control. In the same person, we split ourselves; we became both police and prisoner. In the world of schooling, the world of literacy, we were the successes.

            The failures were those, some of them appearing in my classes, who refused to accept the bargain or who accepted it more reluctantly than we did. Claude Levi-Strauss came to understand the bargain (in theory) when he studied Indians in the Brazilian jungle:

            The only phenomenon with which writing has always been concomitant is the creation of cities and empires, that is the integration of large numbers of individuals into a political system, and their grading into castes or classes....My hypothesis, if correct, would oblige us to recognize the fact that the primary function of written communication is to facilitate slavery.  The use of writing for disinterested purposes, and as a sense of intellectual and aesthetic pleasure, is a secondary result, and more often than not it may even be turned into a means of strengthening, justifying or concealing the other.  (Tristes Tropiques 299)


            Perhaps Levi-Strauss refused to see or accept the contradiction of his own position, expounding in writing upon the enslavement made possible only by writing, praising the oral tribal cultures that his writings helped doom to physical extinction or extinction through civilization (writing). But Levi-Strauss' contradictions are the contradictions inherent in literacy.   His studies on the savage (oral) mind ("The savage mind totalizes....") point out the terms of the Faustian bargain of literacy, not that we should not make the bargain. But we need to face up to the harsh realization that we and our students can never return to that oral world, nor would we want to, for the oral world is subsumed within the literate, always subordinate even if always attractive and compelling.

            My students are generally fascinated that literacy has consequences of such import.  Did it make sense that a society could be so transformed by a seemingly simple act as learning to read and write? Some think so. Some discuss examples from their own experience, talking about grandparents who could read little, or parents who abandoned their mother tongue and struggled to learn English. I suggested that they look at their young siblings to discover what of their behavior could be explained by their not yet being literate. 

            Someone invariably asks, "Will we be tested on this?"

            Reminding them not to pick up their pens and pencils, I quickly tell the students my name, office number, name of the required texts, office hours and some general remarks about the course requirements. I don't hesitate to induce in them anxieties I can quickly dispel.  We talk about writing and memory.

            I tell them to take out pens and paper, and I give them a very short assignment: Write three sentences, one each starting with the following words: I think, I believe, I feel.

            The only sound is from the pens' movement across the paper. I, too, write while they do and am struck by what a unique situation this is for me. It has been many years since I sat with a group all sitting in silence writing together but each of us isolated from the other.  Before I dismiss the class I give them a handout with the syllabus. For a couple minutes they read.  Except for the sound of papers being turned and the occasional comment, the room again is quiet.  The students have isolated themselves each with her or his thoughts about the course requirements, thoughts about their future in this class, thoughts about the person standing before them, an individual, certainly, but by virtue of being a teacher, an English teacher, so much like all the others who have stood before them in so many other classrooms.

            I am thinking about school also but not about my first college English class like I usually do sometime during the first class meeting; I am thinking about the child I was, a boy of six running from the school bus, his mother chasing him, coaxing, then with some embarrassment pulling him out from his hiding place under the neighbor's car.

            It's still a few minutes early, but I tell them they can leave. As they file out, I hand each of them a paper.  


Assignment One - Choose one of the following:

            1 - Write a one or two paragraph account of how you felt when you were asked to put away your pens and pencils. Remember, how you felt, not what you were thinking.

            2 - Write a one or two paragraph account of what you observed about the class as a group. What happened to the group feeling as everyone picked up his or her pens and pencils and began to write?

            3 - Write an account of how you would verify the information presented in the first class meeting if you were not given the handout, and you were told that at the next class meeting you would be tested on the information given you. How would you check whether or not you correctly remembered the information?

            4 - Write an account of why you are taking this class. Are there any reasons that are not abstract? What practical reasons are there? Why do you consider them practical?



            The following day we discuss some of the implications of the students' observations.  What would be some of the distinguishing characteristics of a society organized around group confirmation of their knowledge? Where is the individual in such a society?  How would an individual even think in such a society? Are there implications here that we can notice from this first simple exercise that can show us what we have gone through in our gradual and continual transition from a tribal non-literate to an individualized adult literate in a democratic society?  What might be the connections between literacy and democracy? Non-literacy and tribal forms of government such as socialism and communism?

            I mention something that used to puzzle me about my readings in early American history.  I always wondered why it was that Indians who were forced to leave their tribes became hopelessly depressed when they left the tribal boundaries. The books I read, as I remembered them, always presented the Indians as being foolish, childish, the image of a child in a fit of unreason, when removed from the familiar surroundings. Perhaps there is some connection between these examples. The children were tribal, and the Indians were not childish.  With no writing to sustain them, no writing to help maintain their identity and connect them to the larger social group, how could they maintain composure while they travel into the unknown?  For the Indians the land itself was like a book to be read, a religious book that contained, that guaranteed, their connection with each other and the divine. Unknown lands were foreign languages to them.

            Some of my students have read Jerry Mander's In the Absence of the Sacred, The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations. For those who accept Mander's basic argument, that faith in technology has led to the near annihilation of native societies, reading that writing is the most important technology is most difficult.

            I present some of my ideas about democracy and Indian societies to provoke discussion that might tie these ideas to the child's, and the college student's, leaving the familiar life at home for the unknown life of school. I mention the image of the clinging child holding tight to her parent's legs when in a strange place. Does this clinging have less to due to something we loosely label immaturity than it does to the fact that without the "refuge" of literacy, the driver's license, the various ID cards, charge cards, etc., we, too, would be more clinging in our relationships, much less likely to face any unknown situation with courage or a sense of our own assuredness of success? What might be the implications of literacy to mobility? To what extent can literacy explain the U.S. automobile industry? Can literacy explain the development of capitalism itself?  Literacy and democracy? What about the emphasis on family in rural societies?  What about their feelings on leaving home for school the first time, and this time?

            Such is the nature of some discussions; such are some of the possibilities.  The discussion is meant only to be provocative, only to explore some possibilities, meant to also confuse and put us all off balance in our previous certainties but also to provoke wonder. The remainder of the course will attempt to develop the implications of literacy through the students' own writing.  The belief that motivates this attempt is that students, if they understand the manifold ways that literacy transforms society and transforms them, will become more understanding of themselves as writers within society. They will become more self-critical and more response/able as writers and as individuals in a world literate society.



            Perhaps it is the image of myself as a young boy hiding under the car to keep from going off to school, perhaps it is a developing awareness of the choice I make each time I pick up a book or sit to write-life or literacy (and perhaps this awareness accelerates with age along with the awareness that there are fewer choices available); perhaps it is simply an accident that I discovered on sale a book with the title I had considered using: Writing and the Body; perhaps it is because of all of this that I searched out in the library the writings of Franz Kafka.

            I have never read a story as chilling as "Metamorphosis." Gregor Samsa, the young clerk working extra hard to please his father, to support the family, awakes to the discovery that he has turned into an insect. When I first read the story I think I must have considered it an allegory applying to my own refusal to interview with some business firm, to go on to graduate school, to not support in any way the war the government was waging in Vietnam. I read it as I did Melville's "Billy Budd." I knew an allegorical reading was not sufficient; I wasn't concerned about my mis-reading that privileged action over reflection. But it was the image from that story, and from those turbulent years, that convinced me it was Kafka who was most important for me to understand the sacrifice of writing, to understand the motives of the young boy hiding under the car. It was the image of Gregor Samsa trying to hide the shell that is his body under the couch in his room to keep from upsetting his sister who cares for him. 



Kafka:  To Felice, [Felice Bauer, twice Kafka broke off engagements to her]

                        November 1:(1912)


                        My life consists, and basically always has consisted, of attempts at writing, mostly unsuccessful. But when I didn't write, I was at once flat on the floor, fit for the dustbin.... I once drew up a detailed list of the things I have sacrificed to writing, as well as the things that were taken from me for the sake of writing, or rather whose loss was only made bearable by this explanation. (Glatzer 55)


            It is easy, perhaps it is necessary, to dismiss Kafka's choice (writing over living) (not-writing and being “flat on the floor, fit for the dustbin”) as an exaggeration, to dismiss Kafka as an aberration. He saw the need to choose because of his unhappy home life. It was a reaction to his unloving father. None of us, those of us who are healthy, need feel any compulsion to see life as opposed to writing. Or, if there is opposition, some sickness must be responsible for choosing to sacrifice life to writing.


To Felice, January 14-15 (1913)


            You once said you would like to sit beside me while I wrote. Listen, in that case I could not write.... I could not write at all. For writing means revealing oneself to excess; that utmost of self-revelation and surrender, in which a human being, when involved with others, would feel he was losing himself, and from which, therefore, he will always shrink as long as he is in his right mind-for every one wants to live as long as he is alive-even that degree of self-revelation and surrender is not enough for writing. Writing that springs from the surface of existence-when there is no other way and the deeper wells have dried up-is nothing, and collapses the moment a truer emotion makes the surface shake. This is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around when one writes, why even night is not night enough....I have often thought that the best mode of life for me would be to sit in the innermost room of a spacious locked cellar with my writing things and a lamp.... (72)


            ...why even night is not night enough....  I could argue Kafka's essential healthiness.  I could point to the call for a spacious room, and, of course, a lamp, as being more than a recognition of necessity, but of signs of another recognition, that writing that is worth the name, alive writing, is writing that accepts the essential mark of writing-isolation, isolation and death.


To Felice, June 7 (July 7) (1913)


            I cannot live with people,...It is just that I cannot abide communal life; what's more, I hardly have the energy to regard it as a misfortune.... (88)


            Kafka exposes writing's alternative, not silence but the group bonded together through speech. Before the rise of Hitler, Kafka exposes the dictator as one who persuades through speaking. The terms are laid out: speech and slavery, writing and freedom.


July 21 (1913)

Summary of all the arguments for and against my marriage.


3. I must be alone a great deal.  What I accomplished was only the result of being alone.

4. I hate everything that does not relate to literature....


            Is there not a point in every literate individual's life that literature is chosen as a way to avoid life? Hasn't everyone who reads, everyone who reads these words, made that choice? Continues to? The child, this child who was coerced from under the car, convinced by his mother's love to place his hope in the future promise that writing offers, this child is excused from doing the dishes and sweeping the floor. Allowances are made for him for not getting a job after school; he is studying. Books are a sign signifying something that is a nothing yet, a promise, a freedom.



To Max Brod, July 5:  (1922)


            ...A writer's life actually does depend on his desk; if he is to avoid going mad, really he should never leave his desk, he must cling to it like grim death.

            If I were to define the writer, such a writer, and explain his function, if he has a function, I would say: he is a scapegoat for humanity, he enables people to enjoy sin without-or almost without-a sense of guilt. (225)


To Brod from Plana, mid-September: (1922)


            ...Ultimately, loneliness is my only goal, my greatest attraction, my opportunity, and if I may speak of having "arranged" my life, then I always did so in such a way as to ensure that loneliness would feel at home in it. And yet this fear of the thing I love so much! (226)


            Kafka was not sick, and this is where he exhibits not only his essential healthiness but his recognition of the health of writing, for writing incorporates doubt, and the possibility of self-correction, within in its activity. Kafka is less of a pessimist and more of a realist than was Freud who saw repression, the denial of present freedom, essential to civilization (writing), the promise of future power. Like it was with Freud, Kafka's awareness is also, as it must be, his unease. He, however, better recognizes the price of his necessary sacrifice as well as the liberation of writing. It was written, after all, and after all it could come into being through writing, that "The truth shall make you free."


To Brod, from Berlin-Stegitz, mid-October: (1923)


            So I do not write, it is due primarily to "strategic considerations," which have come to govern my whole life of recent years; I no longer trust words and letters, not my words and letters, I want to share my feelings with people, but not with ghosts, who play with words, and read letters with total apathy. (234)


            Near the end of his life, especially, Kafka had reasons to be disappointed in audience. And he was a sick man and near to dying; he was unable to swallow. His own breath, in-spiration, translated simultaneously into pain. He had become, not perhaps the victim of the machine in "The Penal Colony," the machine which was a writing instrument that scribes the body unto death, but he had become an instrument for the great refusal. The night before he died he was reading proofs of his last book, A Hunger Artist.

            His last writing attempted to reach outside the realm of writing, to control the audience belonging only to speech and demagoguery. It was a request of his best friend that all of his writings be burned. Max Brod chose instead to be true to writing, knowing that the audience is always ghosts, and to betray Kafka's request, his written request. And in this betrayal he affirmed Kafka's writing, Kafka's choice to be a writer. If the split between life and writing is essential to writing, then Brod rescued Kafka from a weakness that only throws in relief his heroic choice to be a writer. Brod no more betrayed his friend than Kafka betrayed those he loved when he sacrificed them, and himself, to writing--the only way he could realize his love.  But neither was Kafka's best friend's choice easy or without contradiction when he, too, chose writing.  It is the choice we all have made, make daily, that I make as I write this, that we hope for our students to make, knowing the pain and the promise, to choose writing.


Works Cited


Chatwin, B. (1984)  On the Black Hill (New York, Penguin Books).

Glatzer, Nahum. ed. (1974) I Am a Memory Come Alive, autobiographical writings

 by Franz Kafka (New York, Schocken Books).

Josipovich, Gabriel. (1982) Writing and the Body (Princeton, N.J. Princeton University


Levi-Strauss, Claude. (1974) Tristes Tropiques (New York, Atheneum).

Mander, Jerry. (1992)  In the Absence of the Sacred, the Failure of Technology and

the Survival of the Indian Nations (San Francisco, Sierra Books).


[ in Changing English 9(1):67-76 · March 2002 ]