English - Francais - UNESCO

Defending Threaten Cultures
by Juan Goytisolo  
Chairman of the International Jury

            To get a firm grasp on the relationship between oral and written cultures we must first examine our historical knowledge of both before we consider the changes introduced by the invention of typography in 1440 and the modern revolution in computing.

            While the existence of homo sapiens and appearance of language can be traced back some forty or fifty thousand years according to information I have to hand, the first evidence of writing is from 3500 B.C., the date of the Sumerian inscriptions in Mesopotamia. The period which encompasses primary orality – to borrow Walter Ong’s term – is consequently ten times the length of the era of writing. We must add to these figures which reveal the antiquity of the oral patrimony of humanity other factors that can help us understand the interaction between the oral tradition and written forms of expression today characterised by a growing disequilibrium. Only seventy-eight of the three thousand languages now spoken in the world possess a living literature based on one of the hundred and six alphabets created throughout history. In other words, hundreds and hundreds of languages used today on our planet have no written form and their communication is exclusively oral.

            Acquiring knowledge of this primary orality is an anthropological task that goes way beyond my modest incursions in the field of literature and oral narrative. If all cultures are based on language, that is, on a combination of spoken and heard sounds, this oral communication – involving, as we shall see, numerous kinetic or corporal elements – has undergone over the centuries a series of changes as the existence of writing and awareness of the latter have gradually changed the mentality of bards or narrators. In the present world of mass communication it is difficult to find continuers of an oral tradition entirely ‘unpolluted’ by writing and its technological and visual extensions. As I have learned from my custom of listening in the Square of Marrakesh, the halakis (story-tellers) perform in the framework of a changing society anxious for instruction and constantly looking over its shoulder at those who – outside an education almost exclusively linked to the practice of the competitive norms ruling the Global Village – preserve and memorise for the future the narratives of the past. Obviously this mistaken, limited perception of the oral tradition arises from a confusion we must be very critical of: culture and education are not identical terms, and consequently the holders of oral knowledge can be and at times are more cultured than their compatriots versed only in the use of audio-visual and computing techniques. But in a world subjugated by these ubiquitous techniques, oral culture, whether primary or hybrid, is seriously endangered and warrants an international mobilisation to save it from gradual extinction.

            In this spirit I will refer to the halka of Djemaa el Fna, as I found it a quarter of a century ago. The continuers of the oral tradition were already fully aware of their limitations in relation to written culture and this awareness was translated in a wide range of situations which arose from the overwhelming influence of the written on the oral. The bards and story-tellers in Berber – whose four spoken variants have no common alphabet and practically no written form except in Arabic characters – were usually illiterate and their religious knowledge was limited to the memorisation of the main suras of the Koran. The gnauas, descendants of the ancient brotherhoods of slaves in sub-Saharan Africa, mixed – and mix –Arabic and Bemba in their hymns and ritual prayers. But the Berbers from the Atlas and the Suss and the gnaua listened to the radio, owned radio-cassette players and began to get used to television. ‘Pollution’ from new technologies thus created one of those hybrid phases which we now find in a variety of forms throughout the planet.

            I will mention three story-tellers by way of illustration: whilst Cherkaui – he of the halka ‘of the pigeons’ – is practically illiterate and his ‘dialogue of the birds’ reproduces a subject memorised with ‘the Blindman’ his master, Abdeslam, better known by the name of Saruk, studied as a child in a zawiya until he became a fiqh (a learned specialist in the Islamic book of revelation) and would interweave stories he had invented or based on his experience with verses from the Koran. As for the ‘Insect Doctor’, whose verbal wit and narrative gift entranced his audience for two decades, he loved to parody the wooden language of his country’s radio and television newscasters. Thus, in the Square of Marrakesh, there were and still are semi-illiterate narrators and bards, owners of a rich oral tradition sometimes based on written, codified texts, and others who made or make use of graphic culture to inject new life into their stories.

            This broad range of contacts and osmosis between primary orality and the diverse expressions of writing, printing and the new technologies with their oral extensions (radio, television, cassettes…) was a great stimulus to me in that it helped me abandon rigid schema and fixed frontiers between the primitive oral tradition and that originated by the Arabic alphabet. On some occasions, I have heard a recital of written texts – albeit of oral origins – memorised word by word (The Thousand and One Nights, epic poems like the Antariyya...). At others, traditional Berber and gnaua narratives and prayers as well as improvisations on issues of the day more or less connected with the technology of ‘secondary orality’, as it is dubbed by Walter Ong. This secondary orality was often accompanied in turn by an intangible art that sprang from the tangible, concrete context of the halka: grimaces, gestures, pauses, laughter, sorrow, all the bodily paralinguistic movements that belong to a situation which isn’t exclusively oral and that are part of an extraordinary intangible heritage linked to public performance. As Cervantes pointed out, there are stories whose wit derives from the way they are told, and that is why the popularity of the halaki depends less on the plot, almost always familiar to his audience, than on the tricks of their artistic trade as improvisers. In my novel Makbara I set out as well as I could the protean character of this spectacle that appeals to all our senses:

“The need to raise the voice, argue, polish up the come-on, perfect the gesture, exaggerate the grimace that will capture the attention of the passerby or irresistibly unleash his laughter: capering clowns, agile tumblers, gnaua drummers and dancers, shrieking monkeys, the pitches of healers and herb-sellers, the sudden bursts of sound from flutes and tambourines as the hat is passed: immobilizing, entertaining, seducing an eternally drifting audience seeking only to be diverted, magnetizing it little by little and attracting it to one’s own territory, wooing it away from a rival’s siren song, and finally extracting from it the shiny dirham that will be the reward for physical strength, perseverance, cleverness, virtuosity”.

(translated by Helen Lane, Makbara, Serpents Tail, 1980)

            The bard’s art requires the participation of eye and ear, but in the space of the Square, the crowd indulges all its senses, at the cheap food stalls savouring popular dishes and breathing in a variety of smells while the concrete, egalitarian, direct fraternity of the space disturbs urban atomisation and favours physical immediacy. The spectacle of Djemaa el Fna is repeated daily and each day it is different. Everything changes  – voices, sounds, gestures, the public which sees, listens, smells, tastes, touches. The oral tradition is framed by one much vaster – that we can call intangible. The Square, as a physical space, shelters a rich oral and intangible tradition.

            My experience, however miniscule in relation to the scale of the subject, nourished my interest in the study of the literary text and its protean connection with orality. The hybridity provoked by these two elements and the involvement of the five human senses in a popular creation like the halka, facilitated, by way of example, my grasp of the dynamic of the continuity between traditional pre-Homeric epic and the texts of The Iliad and The Odyssey we now read, links masterfully analysed by Milman Parry in his now classic work The Making of Homeric Verse.

            His conclusive demonstration that Homer’s hexameters were a result of the requirements of public recital in the agora – a specific situation that imposed recourse to easily remembered epithets, sayings, phrases and formulas – has opened the way, as we know, in recent decades to a fertile investigation of the origin and evolution of Vedic hymns, Biblical narrative and the European literatures of the early Middle Ages. This multidisciplinary perspective particularly enriched my reading of Spanish literature prior to the invention of the printing press: the bardic literature of the various popular Songbooks and the masterpiece that is the Archpriest of Hita’s Book of Good Love. In the Square of Marrakesh I could contextualise a few episodes from the latter and rescue it from the formaldehyde jar of erudition that may be necessary but which is clearly insufficient: the jokes of the bard (author or reciter) evidently transcend the format required by the poem’s orthographic norms.

            Although the imperatives of grammar and the arrangement of print on the pages of a book today require the author to visualise the written, that doesn’t exclude an acute awareness of prosody and the sonorous effect of words. If that is evident in the field of poetry (poets depend on their ear to a greater extent than prose-writers), to the point that great poets who have been subjected to inquisitorial violence by totalitarian States saved their verse thanks to it being memorised by relatives or friends (as in the case of Saint John of the Cross in sixteenth-century Spain and Osip Mandelstam in the defunct Soviet Union). Nor should we forget that some contemporary novelists, following Joyce, Arno Schmidt, Gadda, Guimaraes Rosa…, write polyphonic texts which would ideally be read out loud. Not now like medieval bards or the story-tellers of Marrakesh, but in the silence of a bedroom or study: a purely mental ambit that can be later realised in private or public readings. My novels Makbara and The Virtues of the Solitary Bird privilege this latent orality that persists in writing though it is totally dissimilar to that of the bards of today’s precarious oral tradition.

            The adoption by UNESCO of the new concept of an Intangible and Oral Heritage thus opens the way to preserve the oral culture of hundreds of languages lacking a grapholect and encourages diachronic study of the countless intersections and intermediary situations caused by the way it is influenced by writing, printing and modern audiovisual and computing media.

            It is a huge challenge, given the vast, complex mosaic of threatened languages and cultures in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. And we must undertake it fully aware of the risks that beset such an endeavour. These cultures and languages are a living inheritance and we must avoid the trap of museumising them and turning ourselves into anthropologists who, as a Mexican intellectual said, ‘see peoples as cultural fossils’. Our action must then be discreet and sensitive: to help protect the different cultural manifestations of the three thousand languages spoken on the planet and their ‘living treasures’ and excluding the creation of ‘indigenous reserves’ except in cases of dire necessity, say, the organising of a wake after the death agony has been recorded and filmed for the anthropology museums in the great metropolises of the First World.

            We must indeed be very conscious of the different degrees of primary orality we are facing and the hybridity of the oral and intangible patrimony preserved by tradition over the centuries. It is a challenge issued to all governmental and non-governmental organisations worried about the world’s biodiversity, a biodiversity seriously threatened by the uniformity imposed by the laws of the Global Village and the fundamentalism of scientific technology.

Speech delivered at the opening of the meeting of the Jury (15 May 2001)