The Muse Learns to Write

Eric A. Havelock, whose significant work on this subject dates back to his well-known Preface to Plato (1963), offers in The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present a concise study of the relationship between orality and literacy, especially in Greek literature. Those familiar with questions of Greek orality and with Havelock’s previous contributions to this topic will appreciate the excellent overview this very personal book provides of the problem in general and of the author’s own intellectual development in particular. Simultaneously, this book also serves as an excellent resource for those seeking an introduction to an extremely complex topic. The issues raised in this study go beyond the field of Greek literature and have ramifications in the broader areas of language, linguistics, and even epistemology.

As a point of departure for his overview of the modern discovery of orality and its implications for literacy, Havelock draws the reader’s attention to a remarkable example of convergence: In 1962 and 1963, roughly within the span of a year, five seminal texts bearing on issues of orality and literacy were published, by scholars who were largely unaware of one another’s work. The appearance of these five works marked the beginning of an “explosion of interest” in the role of spoken as opposed to written language.

One of these five works was The Savage Mind (1962) by Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose structuralist theory of myths exposes for Havelock an important relationship between the logic of tribal myths and oral language. A second seminal work, Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), with its emphasis on the invention of printing in movable type in the fifteenth century and on the reintroduction of acoustic forms of communication through the electronic revolution of the twentieth century, did the most to bring these issues into popular currency. Major differences between orality and literacy were outlined in the third of the five works noted by Havelock, “The Consequences of Literacy” by Jack Goody and Ian Watt, an extended article which later appeared in book form in Literacy in Traditional Societies (1968). The effects of literacy on orality and the importance of memory in maintaining an oral culture, which Goody and Watt trace especially in Africa, are placed in a Greek context in The Muse Learns to Write. The fourth of the five works cited, Ernst Mayr’s Animal Species and Evolution (1963), may seem to be far afield, but Havelock draws a persuasive and thought-provoking parallel between Mayr’s discussion of human language as the cultural equivalent of genetic information and scholarship concerning the role of poetry in a nonliterate society. Finally, Havelock’s Preface to Plato, mentioned above, was a pioneering work in its emphasis on the consequences of the literate revolution in Greece.

If these five works suggest the range of the modern discovery of orality, the roots of The Muse Learns to Write may be said to lie in the infamous “Homeric question,” a perennial debate over the authorship of the Iliad and the Odyssey, traditionally attributed to Homer. Modern scholars have been divided into two broad factions on this issue: The unitarians emphasize the organic unity of each poem and argue for composition by a single, literate poet, while the separatists emphasize the long oral poetic tradition in Greece and insist that these poems are consequently the creation of more than one person. Havelock has deflected the debate away from the number of authors to the process of transcription of the poems from an oral to a written medium. A central act in the creation of the Homeric corpus was the writing down of these oral poems, portions of which, according to Havelock, appeared as early as the early seventh century b.c.e. but which did not exist in final form until as late as the middle sixth century b.c.e. Most significant for Havelock, this transition from oral to written form was gradual, not sudden (as is usually assumed), and implies a long period in Greece when oral poetry existed in an increasingly literate culture.


(The entire section is 1764 words.)


Choice. XXIV, March, 1987, p. 1050.