Maranatha: Das Christentum, ein Lebenszeichen (mse)

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Walter J. Ong: Maranatha: Death and Life in the Text of the Book. In: Interfaces of the World. Ithaca 1977. Cornell UP

Schrift, Tod

Oral cultures, we all know, have a heavy investment in the past, which registers in their highly conservative institutions and in their verbal performances and poetic processes, which arc formulaic, relatively invariable, calculated to preserve the hard-won knowledge garnered out of past experience which, since there is no writing to record it, could otherwise slip away. A written work has a somewhat similar relationship to the past: it can fix on the page what an oral culture fixes in continually repeated formulas. The text preserves the past by recording it. But by contrast with oral visualization, a written or a printed work — textualized work, perhaps we might say, in the absence of any better term or concept to cover generally both writing and print — has a special kind of involvement with the past, namely, its textuality as such. Not just what a text says, but the physical text itself possesses a certain pastness. All texts are preterite. Unlike an utterance, a text is assimilated by the person who receives it not when it is being composed but after its utterance (its "outering") is over with. A text is not a living potential in the human interior as a remembered oral utterance is after the oral utterance has been uttered once and before it has been uttered again. A text is simply there, something over with, a thing out of the past.

A text as such is so much a thing of the past that it carries with it necessarily an aura of accomplished death. In our highly literate culture, where everyone who cannot read and write is considered defective, and culturally is indeed so, literacy is often superstitiously regarded as totally unexceptionable and thus a statement such as this, attributing to literacy a negative quality, associating writing with death, is quite scandalous. Nothing but good should be said about writing and reading as such. Of course, this suggests the Latin saying, De mortuis nil nisi bonum.

If, however, we dismantle our defenses and recognize that real words are always sounds, always events, which exist only while they are going out of existence, that real words are not marks on a surface, the truth about texts better appears. In oral or oral-aural communication both speaker and hearer must be alive. Without the speaker's living action, there are no real words. Without a living hearer, the words are ineffective, uneventful, inoperative, a movement toward nothing. This is as true today as it was before script was invented.

The case is quite different with writing. Once I have put a message into writing, it makes no difference so far as the text goes whether I am dead or alive. Once a poet has written out a poem, so far as the point goes, his own continued existence is irrelevant. Paul Ricouer has observed that he likes "to say sometimes that to read a book is to consider its author as already dead" and that to meet an author and speak with him about a book of his is to "experience a kind of disturbance." For this disturbance, however, it is not necessary that the author be previously unknown. This fact can he illustrated by a true anecdote. Not long ago I had occasion to telephone my secretary at home. The first thing she said was, "I interrupted reading a book of yours to answer this phone call and you cannot imagine the strange experience it is to hear your living voice. In the book, I was in a different world." (S. 232f)


Such is the virtue of texts, however, that their ability to absorb death makes death somehow less threatening. For, as already noted, the text assures a kind of life after death, which can readily he disguised as life without death.

Looking more closely at the psychodynamics at work in writ­ing, we may note that, however unobtrusively, death presides at both ends of a writing operation. The basic reason is that the person being addressed as present is in fact absent and because, obversely, the author is not present to the reader although his words will be. The writer of the letter may even be dead by the time his words arrive at the locale to which they are sent. Or the reader presumed to be at the receiving end of the scribal opera­tion may already be dead and buried when the letter is being penned to him by an unaware correspondent. (Curiously enough, during the very days when I was first working out these ideas, I drafted a letter to a correspondent who, as it tragically turned out, had already been dead two days at the time when I was composing my letter to him.)

Like writing, print is related to death, although the relationship is not exactly the same. It is even more definitive. Print comes in after death - that is, writing - has been accomplished. It works on the "body" of the written text which it treats with respect and reverence, as a dead body should be treated. The writer has produced a "body" because he has "executed" his work. (The word-play possible here is by no means coincidental: "execute," from Latin ex- and sequi, at root means follow through to the end). Printers, like editors, feel deeply that they must deal with an unalterable, fixed text, and not with the spoken word. The text is scaled off from life and change. What was the authors final intention, his closing choice, the end product? "Final," "closing," "end": these are editors' preoccupations. (S.238f)


In this sense, narrative is the primal way in which the human lifeworld is organized verbally and intellectually. All science itself is grounded somehow in narrative history: the phenomenon or experiment has first to be observed step-by-step and "written up." In other words, all knowledge is grounded in experience; experience is strung out in time; time sequence calls for narrative.

The roots of narrative are sunk in retrospectivity, where they run off in all directions in great tangles. Even a story purported to be cast in a future age is normally told in a past tense: "I went there in 1984" rather than "I will go there in 1984." This posteriority of an imagined future is so much taken for granted that it appears banal to call attention to it.

The reason for casting the narrative future in the cadre of the past is not far to seek. The future as such is not in fact strung out sequentially as the past is. Contingencies, which constitute the human future, do not have fixed antecedents. They are "if's" in the context of other "if's". The human future as such is at loose ends, and a narrative needs connections. Con­tingencies provide no story line, but branch out like computer charts. A narrative, even about the future, must therefore set up the future as a quasi-real concatenation of free acts, which can be really connected only if viewed as over with which is to say, as past. Even stringing together a series of connected events in clearly marked future tenses does not produce an effect much different from narration in the past tense: "She will go to her bedchamber. A frog will be sitting on her bed. He will beg her for a kiss. She will bestow the kiss on him, and he will become a handsome prince and carry her off to his mountain kingdom." Such narrative is still structured back from the last of the future events, the kingdom come. (S. 244f)


There is a vast literature and an even vaster general awareness concerning the limitless fecundity of texts. Where would culture be without writing? The accumulation of information, the growth of understanding, the network of human awareness that now unites mankind in what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin calls the "noosphere," the tremendous surge of consciousness which has brought together the human race across the globe and launched it into space — all this and immeasurably more that constitutes our human lifeworld would be unthinkable without writing practices that are deeply interiorized in the human psyche. The Bible itself, with which we are particularly con­cerned here, associates writing not only with death but also quite explicitly with redemption, liberation, and exuberant life. The Gospel according to John states at its close (20:31) that "these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name."

Writing has made possible the vast evolution of consciousness that marks the later stages of human history. Without writing, not only tightly plotted lengthy narrative but also the kind of mental processes which go with the composition of even an encyclopedia article, not to mention more massive scholarly and scientific treatises, would be unthinkable in the fullest sense of this terns. Oral cultures cannot organize information in this sequentiality. Writing has made possible not only development of science and technology as well as of the humanities (that is, the study of language, history, philosophy, theology, and other subjects having to do with man not as a physical being or an organism, but with man as a self-conscious being and thus with the life of the mind and with freedom); it has also made possible the complex relationships between large groups of people which a fully populated planet demands.

The thought processes of oral cultures are complex and beau­tiful, and they are never quite foregone by chirographic cultures but they have quite a different movement from those typical of chirographic cultures: oral poetic processes, as has already been pointed out, are typically formulaic and conservative of wholes, not analytic and dissecting. Without the mental processes imple­mented by writing and print, it is impossible even to discover that there are such things as oral cultures. The word reduced to an inscribed surface, silenced, then resurrected, has a potential, new fecundities, even regarding our relationship to the oral word, which are forever denied to the purely oral word. The word must die and be resurrected if it is to come into its own.

What this means is that what is true in other areas of exis­tence is also curiously true in the case of the human word. Death is fecund. We must die to one stage of our existence in order to achieve the next. The child entering school for the first time weeps, mourns, because he or she senses that the old life with mother, the security of the home, is gone forever. Without the mourning, the sadness, the death, there could he no growth. At a graduation, a marriage, the entering of the novitiate (from novus, new) of a religious order (I remember this well), there is sadness, there are tears, and there is death to the old, but this for the sake of the bracing newness – without such death, life is stagnated.

The fecundity of the text, however, is realizable only through its connections with the oral world. In this sense, text as text is essentially dead. For texts are there to produce words, which are irreducibly sounds, realized orally either in externalized utter­ance or in the interior imagination. The most elaborate computer program, which is simultaneously a vastly simplified and a vastly complicated text, becomes meaningful only at the point when a human being can link it to words, which are ultimately sounds. The huge computer banks put men on the moon, but only because of the teams of human beings constantly checking out everything in the universe of words which hold together their consciousness in today's noosphere.

The reestablishment of the written or printed word in the oral world means that the word must somehow be restored to the mouth, the oral cavities and apparatus where the word originated. This restoration is minimized, though real, in highly technologized print cultures. Technologized print cultures foster rapid reading, in which words are formed chiefly in the imagina­tion and often sketchily. They regard movement of the lips in reading as retrogradc or childish. The case was different in the highly oral cultures in which the biblical texts came into being, where reading was less deeply interiorized, that is to say, where reading called for a more conscious effort, was considered a greater achievement, and was less a determinant of psychic structures and personality, still basically oral in organization. (S. 256ff)

"Das Wort ist Fleisch geworden und hat unter uns gewohnt"

When the Christian thinks of the Word made flesh, in ac­cordance with the indications in the Bible, he or she thinks of the Word of God by analogy with our own human spoken word, not our own written word. The Father utters the Word, the Son. Nowhere do we find that he writes him. The Word of God become flesh in Jesus Christ is thus conceived of as what God the Father says to man, utters or "outers" to humankind, a Word who is also a living Person, the Son, distinct from and yet one with the Father, and now become man, entered into human history. Eo verbum quo filius, the theological logion goes: He is word by reason of that which makes him Son. God the Father is revealed in the Person of the Word, but also in the words the Word speaks and in the actions of the Word, which are in effect words, for whatever the Word is and does is a manifestation of the Father. "The words that I speak to you I speak not on my own authority. But the Father dwelling in , it is he who does the works" (John 14:10).

Had the incarnation of the Word been an event in a purely oral culture, the words that he spoke and his life itself would have entered into cotinunal memory and not into the Gospels. The support system for this memory - the oral equivalent of the books in the Bible other than the Gospels - would have been only other communal memory. Now, the entry of the Word into his­tory did in fact take place in a largely oral setting. Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, left no writing of his own, despite his evident literacy (Luke 4:16-25). To have left his proclama­tion of the Kingdom in writing would, it appears, at least have somewhat obscured the fact that he is the Word of his Father in a sense that refers to our spoken words, not to written words. The nascent Church was left with the orally recallable knowledge of his oral teaching. Out of oral recollection of his oral teaching came the Gospels, produced, according to common Christian doctrine, under the inspiration of the holy Spirit. The earlier support system for his teaching, the preparation for it in the consciousness of the Hebrews, had also an oral base, more so in some books of the Old Testament than in others, but in all of them to some extent. This support system, the Old Testament, had by Jesus' time been put into writing, and very shortly after his death and resurrection the texts of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament sprang into being, and the canon of the Old Testament also took relatively firm and final shape.

To the text of the Bible which has resulted, the Church has always given an immediate, unmediated kind of authority. Whatever explanation and interpretation the text may at one time or another require, the life of the Bible is in the biblical text, not in its oral antecedents and much less in later explanations or in­terpretations, however indispensable these may be. The result of this entry of the words of the Word into a text - for the Christian Bible centers in the Gospels, which are basically col­lections of the spoken words of the incarnate Word — is quite different from what it would have been had the Word become incarnate in a purely oral culture, where his words and actions would have entered immediately only into communal memory. The incarnation of the Word was primarily an event in the physical world, the event reported in the Gospels. The Word was made flesh in the actual physical world around us. But in the vital relationship with the text that followed in the wake of the physical incarnation, the incarnate Word entered into the evolution of the psychological world that dovetails into the physical. Entering not only into the orally retrievable communal memory but also with a special immediacy into the written text as well, the divine Word established itself in the life and evolution of man's mind and consciousness.

The text into which the Word entered is, in the senses earlier discussed, like all texts, something fixed and of itself dead. The access it has to life is through the present. A text, in the light of the reflections here, is no simple thing. It is not just a visual equivalent of speech, for there is no visual equivalent of speech, but only a set of visual patterns relatable to speech. In the text the Word is established in an artificial and always dated - which is to say historical - relationship to himself and to other actuality. Demythologizing the text is a minor problem. The larger prob­lem, toward which demythologizing can work, is to give the text present life, to complete the text today in actual discourse - for which, among other things, asceticism is required. For without present life, a text has no meaning. Like all texts, the Bible must be interpreted. It must he interpreted in terms of an intimate knowledge of the past where it came into being, but of the past as related to the present. Purely antiquarian knowledge is of itself useless. Like any text, the biblical text must he given meaning by being completed in actual discourse now. The only access the biblical text has to life is through the present. Here, in the present, and only here, it can produce at any moment real words, can be resurrected from the page into real speech, sounding within the real human lifeworld either aloud or in imagination. (S. 266ff)