Archive for April 2012
Alan Dundes’ “Holy Writ as Oral Lit” & “Fables of the Ancients?” + “Music of the Prieuré” played by Rosemary Nott
JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO PAGE
One of my intellectual mentors was the late Edith Fowke. Her name is unlikely to be recognized outside the country, but within Canada it is not only recognized but well respected. (Her name is what is called “an aptonym,” for “Fowke” is close to “folk,” so that anyone hearing it for the first time would automatically equates the woman with the discipline – and rightly so: Edith Fowke, folklorist.) In her later years she served as the country’s leading folklorist, for she devoted the second half of her professional life to recording, collecting, documenting, and publishing folk songs and traditional tales, including myths and legends, notably Native ones – Inuit and Indian.
Edith encouraged me to compile, annotate, and publish collections of Canadian “trivia” on the principle that “one man’s trivia is another man’s treasure.” She was not prolific but she was precise and passionate. The first half of her life was spent as a political and social activist who espoused the cause of organized labour and democratic socialism. An argument with the Lewises – David and his son Stephen – who dominated the national socialist party for two generations – led her to her seek new fields of endeavour, and to train and then work as a folklorist. She was no stranger to national radio broadcasting, and she ultimately joined the Humanities Division of York University in Toronto where she taught the folklore subjects. Upset by the direction the Lewis’s were taking the CCF/NDP, she had decided that if she could not influence our future, she could reveal the shape of our past.
She was a little woman who always wore pink – coats, jackets, blouses, scarves, trousers, skirts – and her favourite hymn was Blake’s “Jerusalem.” I had the honour to lead the hundred or so mourners and colleagues in singing Parry’s version of that visionary anthem at the “celebration of her life” held at York University in Toronto. She died suddenly on March 18, 1996, at the age of eighty-three, but nobody who ever met her ever really forgot her.
Alan Dundes (photo Saaxon Donnelly)
I always remembered Edith’s enthusiasm for the work of the late Alan Dundes. He was a Professor of Anthropology and Folklore at the University of California, Berkeley, and until his death in 2005 at the age of seventy-one, he brought to wide public attention the cultural and psychological insights brought about by his study of “folkloristics.” He saw the discipline as one that shed light on the customs of the past and the present, but also on cultural lore and human psychology and behaviour. He caused a stir when he wrote at length about the homoerotics of American football. He did more than anyone to familiarize the North American public with the prevalence of “urban legends” so that the Vanishing Hitchhiker, the Cat in the Microwave, and the Wife on the Flight are recognized for the fabrications that they are. He argued that repeating them expressed deep-seated human needs. He published a half-dozen collections of these legends, with amusing and informed commentaries.
Readers of this web-blog will probably be interested in the themes of two of Dundes’ lesser-known books. It was Edith’s delight in Dundes’ work in general that drew me to seek out his writings and these related studies in particular. They are of concern to people who have a curiosity about the construction and constitution of world’s Holy Scriptures. The two books are available in trade paperback editions published by a lesser-known imprint: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (The company, with offices in Maryland and Oxford, has a website.) The books have quite arresting titles.
The first book is called “Holy Writ as Oral Lit” (1999) and the second is called “Fables of the Ancients?” (2003). While I usually like to paraphrase the contents of the books that I review for this website, here I will merely summarize the author’s arguments and suggest their importance. Then I will turn my attention to a newly published item that is of direct interest to the readers of this web-blog.
The subtitle of “Holy Writ as Oral Lit” is simplicity itself – “The Bible as Folklore.” Dundes argues that the Bible – by which he means the King James Version, but his approach applies to any translation or version of the Old and New Testaments – contains an immense amount of what he calls “folklore,” perhaps 20 percent by his estimate. In under 130 pages he reviews this “lore” in scripture and in very clearly, scholarly prose he notes the presence of the hallmarks of folklore – multiplicity and variety – that are characteristics of the Bible.
The biblical accounts are retellings of oral tales and the retellings differ in predictable ways. Yet far from being proof that the Bible is riddled with falsehoods, its nature attests to the value of the book as a record of the beliefs of the ancient Israelites and the early Christians, and it alludes to the problems that the texts present to scribes and scholiasts and redacteurs who have tried repeatedly to preserve them and then interpret them.
Dundas looks at how it is impossible to reconcile internal textual repetitions and variations in terms of number, name, and sequence. As well, there is duplication of texts in the various books of the Bible. Sequences of action are inconsistent. There is no agreed-upon text of the Ten Commandments, the names of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, the names of the Twelve Disciples, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sermon on the Mount … I could go on.
What had long puzzled me was the Creation myth described in Genesis. Which came first, “the heaven and the earth” or “the earth and the heavens”? The answer depends on whether one prioritizes or privileges (to use vogue phrases) Genesis 1:1 or Genesis 2:4. And why is the word “heaven” in the singular when it next appears as “heavens” in the plural? Dundes offers almost one hundred instances of such “confusions.” It is enough to give pause to the reader of “the Bible as living literature,” and it should cause conniptions for the “true believer” who holds to the theory of “the inerrancy” of the Holy Scripture. Biblical scholars, whether rabbis or priests, have evolved ways around these problems. Yet to Dundes, such concerns are proof that the Bible is a human document and a tribute to “the voice of the people” (to use an expression that he himself eschews). He concludes with the statement that the Bible may well be “the greatest book in the world,” but “it is truly folklore, and it is high time that it is recognized as such.”
“Fables of the Ancients?” is in many ways a more amazing study. At 90 pages it is a succinct study of (in the words of its subtitle) “Folklore in the ‘Qur’an.’” Dundes recalls that when he announced to his colleagues at the University of California that he was planning to continue his study of folklore in Holy Scripture by extending his analyses from the Bible to the “Qur’an,” he was warned that what he was undertaking might be dangerous to life, limb, and career. He was not deterred. “I soon discovered that there seemed to be many ‘formulas’ as well as several traditional stories, stories that were not simply retellings of narratives found in the Bible. To my knowledge, no folklorist has ever discussed the presence of both formulas and folktales in the ‘Qur’an.’” So Dundes is the first such commentator.
So far he seems to be the last, as well. No one has followed in his footsteps, though he does make this easy by pointing out that, unlike the Bible, which is recognized to be “the word of God” as vouchsafed to man, the “Qur’an” is considered to be the actual words of Allah orally transmitted by the Archangel Gabriel to Muhammed the Prophet. So the “Qur’an” is 100 percent folklore. It is admittedly an oral composition and one that is rich in tell-tale oral formulas and folktales. Dundes goes to great length to document these. Given more space (and time), I would identify these and discuss them. Dundes sidesteps the issue of the unusual origin of the “Qur’an,” content to comment on its oral rather than its linear construction.
The title of the book, complete with its question-mark, comes from the “Qur’an” itself. In Surah 6:25, unbelievers are quoted as dismissing the book with these words: “This is nothing but fables of the ancients.” Surah 8:31 repeats the formula: “Whenever Our revelations are recited to them, they say: ‘We have heard them. If we wished, we could say the like. They are but fables of the ancients.’” Dundes states that, given the oral nature of the “Qur’an,” it is inevitably replete with tale-types like The Seven Sleepers, Judgement of Solomon, and God’s Justice Vindicated. So the question-mark is supererogatory. He concludes: “In the ‘Qur’an there are indeed ‘fables of the ancients’ placed there by divine decree, full of worldly wisdom to be favoured and savoured for generations to come.”
The investigations of Alan Dundes would have met with the approval of Edith Fowke and of everyone else who has any experience with the composition and characteristics of the lore of the people. Indeed, it is probably a demonstrable fact that elements of folklore may be found in all literary works of any great length, from Greek epic poems to those lengthy compositions of our own day. The Modern period witnessed the composition of some very lengthy works of a sub-literary and supra-literary nature, including James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake,” Arnold Toynbee’s “A Study of History,” Oswald Spengler’s “The Decline of the West,” and G.I. Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales.” It would be rewarding to undertake a study of works like these from the perspective of folkloristics.
Movements: ( no date given)
Try as I might, I cannot contrive the ideal segue from these two books, written by Dundes, to the third item, a recently issued one, that has no known author but which I now want to discuss. (Come to think of it, Edith Fowke would have enjoyed it as well!) For one thing, the new work is both a booklet and a compact disk. For another, it more a souvenir of a place and period in time than it is an analysis of a powerful text studded with oral formulas, story-motifs, and story-types. The “book” to be discussed is titled “Music of the Prieuré” and it is credited to “Gurdjieff / de Hartmann” with Rosemary Nott at the piano.
The publisher is Dolmen Meadow Editions of Toronto, and the editors of Dolmen Meadow are to be congratulated for having overseen the production of an attractive, sepia-coloured “package.” It consists of one slipcase, one CD (released with the permission of Adam Nott), and one 16-page booklet (not in sepia), the text of which appears in English, French, and Spanish. The text explains what the “package” is all about.
It is a tribute to Rosemary Nott and it is a tribute from Mrs. Nott, who has been described as Gurdjieff’s “first American student.” Born in Houston, Texas, she studied the Eurhythmics of Emile Jaques-Dalcroze in Hellerau in 1922 when she first met Gurdjieff. She was a pianist and dancer in her own right. At the Prieuré, under Gurdjieff’s direction, she taught Movements, and there she had Thomas de Hartmann to guide her piano technique. Thereafter she performed the compositions she knew so well for groups in centres on both sides of the Atlantic. She died at the age of eighty-two in 1979 in London, England. She is well-loved for her dedication to the work.
Mrs. Nott recorded the “music of the Prieuré” on reel-to-reel tapes on a monaural studio recorder in London in 1974-75, and performances were “selected, digitized, and prepared for publication” by the well-known conductor and pianist Charles Ketcham, who himself has arranged and played the complete Gurdjieff-de Hartmann piano music. Illustrations to the package come from the collection of Gert-Jan Blom of Amsterdam and Mrs. Nott’s son Adam Nott.
There are twenty compositions on the CD disk and some of them have intriguing names. I have in mind “Orthodox Hymn from Asia Minor,” “The Sacred Goose,” “Lost Loves,” and “The Pythia.” With only a few years of piano practice and theory behind me, I would be hard-pressed to comment knowingly on the performances of these compositions, some of which are lodged in memory, others of which are strangers to my ears. Yet I was struck by the intentionality of the playing. “The Fall of the Priestess” and “The Great Prayer” are instances of this. Some tracks convey the impression of the loneliness of the pianist; other tracks transmit the sense of the company of other musicians. All the compositions sound alive yet ancient, or ancient yet alive.
The words “music of the Prieuré” were well chosen for they constitute a neat conceit (in the literary sense of the word). The next best thing to haunting the halls of Le Prieuré des Basses Loges at Fontainebleau-Avon is being overtaken by the airs, themes, and strains of Mrs. Nott’s piano.
John Robert Colombo is known across Canada as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of the lore and literature of the country. His current books include “Fascinating Canada” (a book of questions and answers) and “Jeepers Creepers” (a collection of told-as-true ghost stories). He has also published three volumes devoted to the life, work, and writings of Denis Saurat (who also “met Gurdjieff” and is discussed in “Gurdjieff in the Public Eye”). Colombo’s website is < http://www.colombo.ca >.