Poets, Epos & CivilizationsPart 1
The Queen Of The Realm Words
We start with the realm, where the Muses first appeared and where they are, so to say at home. The realm of words, of phonetics and semantics, of names, verbs, adjectives, imperatives and conjunctives; that is the world of verbal communication and which most probably began with the dyadic (signals that draw attention to oneself) and triadic 1 (meant to attract attention to an outside entity) gestures, that may correspond to parallel development of grammar (accusative and dative), finger-pointing, mimic and sound utterances (not far removed from what we do, when we land up in a place, where they do not speak our language and we have never heard theirs before) and gradually evolving into primitive speech _ the ability to ... spew forth segmented bits of air into meaningful sequences, 2 archaic tongues and proto-languages and culminating into full fledged languages with their own specific structures and dynamic data-banks of vocabularies, in the recesses of the individuals mind (brain), the only hard-disc extant till the first appearance of cuneiform clay tablets.
The Muses were responsible for the evolution ... the worldwide practice of directing musical a speech toward human babies provides a temporary framework or scaffold that, among other functions, facilitates their eventual comprehension and production of speech, 3 and for the first compilations, expressions and exhibitions of these treasuries, in form of oral hymns, recitations and songs and finally as poetry, doubtlessly the queen of the realm Words. This occurred long before there were any scribes to note them down. Almost all pre-literate societies took recourse to rhymes and metrical forms, they being congenial to Lesmosyne, the memory and the mother of the Muses, or to put it in a more modern jargon, to the structure and functioning of human brain; to reflect upon life, to weave new seminal universes, recount the ones that were disappearing or retell the stories they had heard or experienced with the tools that the Muses put at their disposition. You could remember a rhyme of thousands of words for years, whereas you may not be able to recite a chapter of prose after a few days. Religions too have made use of this gift to preserve and radiate their insights.
In preliterate societies, the mind was naturally more biased toward the auditory aspects of the brain, whereas in the literate societies the emphasis shifted toward the visual cortex.4 Poetry was to certain extent, for the major period of human cultural evolution the main medium of verbal communication, that could cross the regional or class boundaries, for almost all the important cultural goods, that imparted an identity to a specific society and the self-awareness of its members. Poetry was liable to diffusion, as pop songs are today and due to lack of the printed media spread cumulative experiences from probably all phases of life, for which the humans possessed the words. This was no doubt a cumulative achievement of thousands of individuals. Great poets and philosophers all built superstructures on this common good. They all were born within the folds of a given conceptual universe of mental representations, which countless men and women had built upon i.e. they had full fledged languages at their disposal.
A theory can try to explain the whole known universe. A visual artwork can form a basis of a shared meaning within a community or reveal dimensions yet unknown to communal-mind. But it is hard to imagine, that they can ever form the basis or a framework for a complete civilization. Almost every civilization had its epics and poets or recited its history (oral tradition) in form of rhymes and had its courtly and wandering poets, rhapsodists and griots and hobos.
Unlike local gods or totems, poetry could integrate the archaic Geist in a geographically varied biotopes and tribal settlements, bypassing the constraints imposed by the heterogeneous variations (dialects) of a language and geography, and probably enriching the vocabulary of any language or dialect in more than one way, and through translations and half-translations possessed the capability to disseminate cultural goods, beyond the locality, where it may have initially evolved. It could for instance introduce a term for a cultural innovation or a species of a plant or recount a legend, history, spiritual experiences, or describe a place of significance thereby opening up the horizons of those who came in contact with it. And of course important for the course of history, it could influence character traits of persons, who left a significant impact on human history, even in literate societies and civilizations. Alexander is probably not the only person, to have had his Iliad with him, and that he honored much more than the dry treatise of his teacher Aristotle. It may not be far fetched to assume that Tamerlane too had heard some poets recite about wonders of the world outside, about great conquerors, about Darius or Alexander. Poets were the great adornments, the stars of many Asian royal assemblies. And imagine the post-Elizabethan English civilization without Shakespeare He may have played a far more important role in character formation of some England's many successful overseas conquerors and governors of the colonial provinces around the globe, than what one may have thought hitherto.
Poetry lost gradually this all encompassing function with the emergence of script and more rapidly with invention of printing. It has ceased to be the most significant medium for transmission of language and cultural goods though as late as Goethe, it did wrestle with the deeper innately human search for religious, individual, psychological and metaphysical issues of human destiny befitting the European enlightenment. Today you may discover, in a cyber-literature-café on the digital information highway, the attempts of many modern writers to make poetry visually palatable. This seems sometimes to be more aimed at the visual cortex rather than the auditory or those in-between realms of the mind. However, poetry did play a major role, as the prime medium of transmission of information, in the important formative ages of great civilizations and has left its mark in our vocabulary and terminologies and our conceptual awareness of the universe.
It is certainly hard to imagine that poetry will ever again reclaim it's old realms. Much of what goes under modern poetry at present in the western hemisphere are footnotes to Freud or Sappho, or foot-notes to one´s own post-industrial polluted numb over-informed ad-overdosed sex-obsessed info-saturated through-gadgets-steered albeit quite relevant, even if vague and hazy awareness of a lost metropolitan soul and a self-preoccupied ego or at its best, an ode for or a stifled cry at a gone-awry-environment; whereas the more encompassing renderings, open-eyed to sounds, smells and visual aesthetics of the planet are coming from far-flung islands of the globe and remote habitats. Eyes still alive for the wonder of creation.
- 1 Tomasello & Camaioni 1997 ( quotation from: Dean Falk 2 )
- 2 Dean Falk: Prelinguistic evolution in early hominins: Whence motherese?
Behavioral and Brain Sciemces (2004) 27, 491-541
- 3 Ibid.
- 4 See in this respect, the illuminating commentary of Anthony Campbell concerning the controversial nevertheless very original insights of Julian Jaynes and the work of psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, and their convergence to somewhat similar findings.