Mouvance and the Storyteller’s Art

On Feb. 18th I gave a paper (digital ofc) at a meeting of the fantastic Early Text Cultures reading group based at Oxford. Very excited and honored to be a part of the series “Writing Orality”; I highly recommend you check them out on Twitter and see what they have lined up, sign up to their email list, and think about participating! It is built for graduate students and early career scholars to share their work in an interdisciplinary setting. The feedback and questions I got were incredibly helpful. It is really startling the kinds of synchronisms between text cultures that become apparent in an interdisciplinary setting. This was driven home to me in working with my co-presenter (don’t think she has any social media, so I’ll wait to name her and say anything more specific!) who works on Japanese text culture. Anyway, if the mere phrase “early text cultures” makes you think, “That’s what I do!,” like it did for me, you know what to do!

As is usual nowadays, I drew from my work on the Demotic novella The Battle for the Prebend of Amun. The problem: how to account for the variation in the several published manuscripts of the novellas? I decided to apply the term mouvance, borrowed from romance literary studies, and suggest that there was more going on than copying, and even memory variants (the latter of which there is really strong evidence for in these manuscripts, by the way). I won’t go into the whole argument here, since it is still in process and finding expression in a dissertation chapter, but the gist is that I think manuscripts of literary works like this novella witness the creative work of storytellers, not improvising in new tellings of oral literature, but dealing with, interpreting even, written literature. As I put it in the paper:

As Jacqueline Jay notes (in her 2016 book Orality and Literacy in the Demotic Tales), written works of literature would have been composed with an oral realization, a performance, in mind: they are a kind of libretto. Building on this crucial insight, I will suggest that the mouvance seen among copies of The Battle for the Prebend of Amun witnesses to the life of an authored text, written to be delivered orally, its living textualization. I want to push the idea of oral residue further and attempt to locate a context for orality that goes beyond just the general features associated with performance and transmission in an oral context: to try and discover the orality inherent to the transmission of story, not just text. What I envision is not just scribes who are subject to the vicissitudes of memory, nor bard-like performers who can’t help but imbue a text with residual orality, rather, I envision storytellers engaged in reflection on the meaning of the story itself, in specific terms like plot and, especially, character. The key is to discover deliberate interventions into the story that make sense in the oral performance of a written text.

In discussion, my colleague and I realized—working with very different genres of literature I should add!—that we were articulating strategies to deal with a fundamental incompatibility of oral and written language, in order for the texts they were producing to realize their purpose in a written setting despite their connections to orality. As Hamlet says, “Suit the word to the action, the action to the word”! The incompatibility I tried to recover has to do with the challenge of embodying the words of characters as a dramatic reader, when you are working with a libretto:

Something that we initially recognized as an almost paradoxical willingness to sacrifice the original wording of an authored text, turned out to be a deliberate strategy to counteract the entropy of a written text inscribed as a libretto for concrete, living performance: in other words, a strategy to mitigate the inherent problem of writing orality. We all know very well the warning of Plato about the orphaned nature of written texts. The key to the scenario with the Battle for the Prebend of Amun is the inherent performative nature of Demotic novellas, requiring the storyteller to embody human figures in a coherent way with respect to their characterization and their embeddedness in the plot. At stake, in written versions of these stories, is the risk a storyteller necessarily takes of falling short of this performed embodiment by using the words of another. But by producing reworked, reauthored versions of The Battle for the Prebend of Amun, storytellers, and the scribes who recorded their versions for posterity, strategized a way to preserve a work of storytelling and allow it to be continually embodied and performed as such.

If you want to take a look at my handout, which gets into some more detail about the Prebend novella and tries to give examples of the mouvance in the manuscripts, you can take a look here.

This is a scene from the “Triumph of Horus” drama depicted on the walls of the temple of Edfu. It depicts a scene where a “cake” in the shape of a hippo (representing the vanquished Seth) is cut up, which, as dramatized, involves a lector priest (middle). In the text of the drama, the lector priest’s part is the same as the drama’s narrator. And as the editor of the drama, H.W. Fairman, notes, the lector priest is not only dressed as such (notice the lion skin), but also has the appearance of Imhotep, one of the most revered Egyptian sages. So, I’d like to think that the Egyptian storyteller/narrator thought highly of themselves! [image source]

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