David Rubin,

Memory in Oral Traditions

Reviewed by Alan Richardson


Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes. David C. Rubin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. xi + 385 pp. $45.00 cloth.

[Southern Humanities Review 31 (1997): 372-74]

Psychological literary criticism has for some time been dominated by psychoanalytical approaches, at least among English-speaking academic critics, to the exclusion of nearly every other contemporary tendency within the field. Yet psychoanalysis has become increasingly marginal to study of the mind-brain in psychology departments and in academic psychiatry. As is commonly remarked by bemused undergraduates, if you want a course on Freud, you'd better check with the English department. Meanwhile cognitive psychology has gained increasing prestige as a key field within the cognitive neurosciences, a multidisciplinary enterprise that, after two decades of dizzying progress, can lay claim to what must be the most exciting series of discoveries regarding the mind in human history. Academic literary critics, however, remain in near-perfect ignorance of the pathbreaking work of their colleagues downstairs or two buildings over, despite their evident interest in such matters as consciousness, agency, subject-formation, language acquisition, and the like. Fortunately, breaches have begun to appear of late in the wall that has grown between academic departments of literature and of psychology. Joining the handful of literary scholars--most prominently Norman Holland, Ellen Spolsky, and Mark Turner--who have been putting models and findings from the cognitive sciences to exemplary use, cognitive psychologists like Richard Gerrig, Raymond Gibbs, and now David Rubin have reached across the gap to present their work on narratology, poetics, and the reading process to students of literature as well as psychology.

Rubin's Memory in Oral Traditions is a landmark book, summing up and refining a whole tradition of empirical work on memory in cognitive psychology, and presenting to literary scholars one of the most compelling cases to date for the relevance of cognitive neuroscience to the study of poetic and narrative forms. Rubin establishes at the outset that oral traditions, dependent as they are on memory for their very existence, must take into account the peculiar strengths and limitations of human memory: those traditions (and those instances of each tradition) best adapted to mnemonic abilities and constraints will be the ones to survive in collective memory. The bulk of Rubin's study is devoted to a painstaking examination of those abilities and constraints, generously providing more information than is strictly necessary about the principles and methods of cognitive psychology as a kind of ongoing tutorial for the literary reader. At the same time, that reader is frequently returned to familiar ground as Rubin acknowledges (and more often than not endorses) the work of literary critics on the epic and ballad conventions that emerge from the oral traditions he studies.

Rubin also adopts some of the traditional categories of literary study--narrative and theme, imagery, rhyme and rhythm--which he claims are justified by empirical studies of cognitive performance and by recent advances in neuroanatomy. For Rubin these categories reflect distinct cognitive functions which are, moreover, associated with specific locations in the brain (or linked groups of such locations). Far from the blank slate of Lockean psychology, or the all-purpose learning device of behaviorism and its more fashionable cousin, social constructionism, the mind for Rubin is an evolved ensemble of functional modules, operating in different manners and together offering a varied (but highly constrained) set of resources for use in memorization. Imagery, for example, is tied to the visual system and may be analog in nature, whereas the verbal system seems to work quite differently, perhaps along digital lines. This for Rubin helps account for the immediacy and clarity of certain images, which can be made use of in remembering; to stand out from other stored images, the more bizarre (say, a Homeric spear protruding from an eyesocket, or a nut-brown maid with her rival's heart spitted on a dagger) the better. To hold a series of images together, however, a thematic plot (or schema) is deployed, in this case the more familiar in shape the easier to retain: thus the genres, sub-genres, types, and motifs familiar to students of that oxymoronic category "oral literature." Discrete units of very long forms like epic are partly built up from more or less detachable scripts (the stock scenarios for, say, banquets, athletic games, or one-on-one combat found throughout classical epic) and from the oral-formulaic phrases identified by the Parry-Lord school. Shorter forms, like ballads, are held together by standard meter and rhyme patterns as well as by conventionalized scenarios.

The power of multiple constraints is such that oral texts do not have to be remembered verbatim--a feat next to impossible for long texts in any case--but rather are "reconstructed" for each performance by a competent reciter, who draws on knowledge of the tradition and its conventions. (The same body of knowledge can be drawn upon in generating a new text within the same tradition.) Conventions and genres are not entirely arbitrary but tend to reflect the innate capacities of the mind-brain, although this is by no means to say that the texts of an oral tradition are "natural" products untouched by the social environment. The limited variation built into a given singing or recitation, which takes place by definition in a social setting and enacts a social function, allows for live revision in keeping with a given audience's perceived needs and responses. These changes may accrete over time such that ballads, for example, which generally retain the concrete over the abstract as they pass from singer to singer, may nevertheless gain moral tags in response to social rather than purely mnemonic considerations. The widely popular counting-rhyme that begins "Eenie meenie miney moe / Catch a tiger by the toe" owes its unforgetability to its poetics--the ample alliteration, the driving rhythm, the couplet rhymes (who ever misremembered "tiger by the tail" despite its idiomatic ring?), the seemingly universal "front to back" vowel progression in the first line (compare "fee fie fo fum"). But social as well as poetic/mnemonic considerations have shaped this rhyme's history as well. Children had, before the civil rights era, chanted "catch a nigger by the toe" and, under the pressure of social change, had experimented with "neighbor," "feller," "beatnik," and "baby" before settling on the poetically inevitable (if semantically unexpected) tiger.

Rubin worries toward the end of the book that literary critics will find parts of it "pedantic," and acknowledges that what cognitive psychology can add to the findings of literary criticism is not only more specific and more testable but also "considerably duller." His awareness of the expectations and needs of literary readers, however, along with his sense of the limits of quantitative analysis, do much to make a potentially alienating approach seem available and unintimidating. There is much in this book to stimulate and challenge literary scholars: its cognitive and evolutionary models of narrative and poetic forms and conventions, its engagement with neuroanatomy and physiology, its potentially revolutionary understanding of oral poetry in terms of an embodied brain-mind in a physical as well as social environment. As a carefully researched, deftly argued, and non-reductive example of how cognitive psychology can contribute to literary understanding, Memory in Oral Traditions demonstrates how much can be gained by bringing literary studies in touch with developments in the cognitive neurosciences.

Alan Richardson
Boston College

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