Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Blinded by the Written Word


Lacking the written word, how does a culture transmit knowledge? Without written language, how does a culture build upon the direct observations of the world? How does that culture’s collective memory survive? Specifically, I consider the Cherokees. Their comprehension of the movement of the sun, stars and planets was not like mine. Deprived of the benefit of the written word, I wouldn't know what to expect when I look up at the night sky. It would be a random and unpredictable bunch of lights. Without having read about astronomy, or without having heard from others who had read about astronomy, I would be at a loss to understand it. The Cherokees, on the other hand, recognized patterns to the movement of the moon and stars, collecting a body of knowledge that allowed them to anticipate the events that occurred overhead. In a similar way, they knew the uses for hundreds of plants. This could not have resulted from a trial and error process begun anew by each generation. The obvious answer is oral tradition…but even this explanation doesn’t seem wholly satisfactory. Not if the oral tradition is limited to a recitation of facts, a listing of observable characteristics, and accounts of personal experience. Was it for the sake of survival that fanciful tales were told, mysterious stories that reached a deeper subconscious level and had greater mnemonic power? What about the ability of movement and gesture to "imprint" information on the consciousness? And to what degree does aesthetic sensibility serve a functional role? Concepts of human beauty developed from a recognition of the qualities associated with a fertile or a protective partner. Over time, did a similar innate sense develop so that, for instance, different plants would elicit different aesthetic responses, and thus allow for the plants to be used more effectively? The written word has brought us much. But I wonder at the capacities and powers that have atrophied as a result of our reliance on the written word. And I wonder what it would be like to experience these mountains with the benefit of those capacities and powers.

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