Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Thamus the Luddite
In Plato's Phaedrus, the Egyptian king Thamus famously disparages Thoth's invention of writing, claiming that it will tend to weaken the powers of memory, and give people the illusion of wisdom, simply because knowledge will be at their fingertips.

He had a point on both counts. For example, when I began to think about this topic my recollection was that it was Thoth, not Thamus, who disparaged writing - but a quick internet check soon corrected my bad memory. If I'd been writing in the pre-internet age, I'd have looked it up in my copy of the Collected Dialogues, which I can see from where I'm sitting. Either way, if I'd then chosen to write a post like this one it would have looked as if I'd known it all along, which would I suppose would have been deception of a sort. On the other hand, isn't it better that I'm not spreading misinformation?

Probably Thamus was too negative, looking at only one side of the equation and ignoring the extent to which knowledge is a communal possession and a community enterprise. Still, haven't I avoided getting satnav for precisely his reasons? And I didn't I feel justified in that stance the other day, when I was told of a woman who had visited the house in the Gower four times before letting drop a remark that revealed she believed herself to be in North Wales? Driving from England, she had blindly followed the satnav's instructions, and knew no better. I can hear Thamus scoffing now.

Digression: I assume that in illiterate societies mistakes do occur in the transmission of stories and learning, even well-trained memories being fallible. I wonder if they happen in universal and systematic ways, so that they can in principle be reverse-engineered from the ways that stories are told at later dates - rather as philologists are able to work out the form of long-dead languages by studying extant ones? Are there people who do that kind of thing, combining cognitive psychology and narratology? Palaeosemiologists, shall we call them? I assume Jacob Grimm had something of the kind in mind when he turned his mind to studying Teutonic mythology, but what became of that fledgeling science thereafter?

I assume that in illiterate societies mistakes do occur in the transmission of stories and learning, even well-trained memories being fallible. I wonder if they happen in universal and systematic ways, so that they can in principle be reverse-engineered from the ways that stories are told at later dates - rather as philologists are able to work out the form of long-dead languages by studying extant ones?

They don't seem to. (I mean, they don't seem to happen in systemic ways, rather than they don't happen at all. They definitely do, no matter how much the oral, memorised tradition is respected.) But by God, do people try. Hang out on Arthurnet sometime watching people try to recreate pagan myths out of medieval stories and feel my Celticist pain. ;)

I wonder how careful they've been about it? I absolutely accept that the systematic ways may not exist, but on the other hand I can easily see a lot of individuals getting individual bees in their individual bonnets, and grabbing the nearest ad hoc principle to hand - euhemerism, say - to give their instincts a shiny veneer of method. Has anyone tried to do the job properly?

That's mostly what they do, it seems, and since so many are armchair academics they're not very good at it. But at least in Welsh stuff, trying to form ur-stories out of corrupted texts has a long history, both amongst enthusiastic amateurs (Jessie Weston), genuine scholars (WJ Gruffudd, Ifor Williams) and people who just make shit up (Iolo Morganwg). Gruffudd is especially guilty; he starts off fairly sound and ends up building castles out of nothing.

Is it more tolerable to you if someone writes what's forthrightly a novel, imagining how they think it might have been?

Oh definitely; that is after all part of what novels are for and things like that are often utterly brilliant. I don't actually mind in the least people trying to reconstruct the stories, it's fascinating and quite good fun. I got the idea from the original post, and the comparison with philology (though reconstructed language can be a dodgy proposition too) that steepholm was talking about reconstructing an actual original rather than a possible one.

Yes,that is indeed what I was asking about - though as ever I'm happy to let the discussion wend where it will.

It's made me think about the version of Spoils of Annwn I want to write when all this thesis business is over. ;)

Originally it was about a trip to the Aberystwith Lidl.

That seems likely.

Our satnav sleeps a lot. When she wakes up she likes to take us along the narrowest, windiest roads she can find. Yesterday she took us down one which had grass growing down the middle.

Outsourcing your eyes is one thing, but keep your common sense in-house.

People have driven into ponds because the thing told them to. I wonder if they were watching the little screen instead of the road.

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