Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Tolstoy of the Zulus

"Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I'd be glad to read them."
--Saul Bellow, New York Times Magazine (1988)

"Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus--unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership."
--Ralph Wiley, Dark Witness (1996)
The term "orature" was coined by the Ugandan linguist and literary theorist Pio Zirimu. He used it as early as 1970; at first interchangeably with "oral literature", but later defined more precisely to mean "the use of utterance as an aesthetic means of expression". (See Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams by Ngugi wa Thiong'o.)

The primacy of orature over literature is one of the distinguishing features of non-literate societies such as the Zulus and the Papuans compared to 19th Century and early 20th Century Russia and France. So whilst there may well have been a Zulu Tolstoy and a Papuan Proust nobody would have been able to read them.

Other relevant features of these non-literate societies were their concepts of identity and property--both tended to be communal and collective in nature. Consequently, virtually all artisitic works such as songs, proverbs, stories, plays, and so forth were associated not with their individual authors but with their communities. Thus, in such societies, wise sayings for instance were commonly attributed to society as a whole, as evidenced by the typical introductory phrasing of proverbs: "The Zulus say..." and so forth.

Another issue worth considering on this topic: How do you untangle the heredity of an intellectual artifact like a novel or a sing or an Internet? To take the last item, the Internet, as an example: The Internet, as we know,, would be impossible without integrated circuits (an American invention); which would be impossible without Boolean algebra (which is of British extraction); which would be impossible without Arabic numerals, particularly ones and zeros (Arabic, get it?); which would be impossible without the numerical concept of zero (which owes its existence to Ancient Indian mathematicians).

No comments: