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  • Print publication year: 1995
  • Online publication date: July 2010

2 - From Orality to Literacy: Oral Memory in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon


IN a frequently cited passage in Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates tells his young student an Egyptian tale to support his strong argument against writing. In the dialogue a king argues with the Egyptian god who invented writing, declaiming its detrimental effects on the human memory and the art of memory:

The fact is that this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves. So it's not a recipe for memory, but for reminding, that you have discovered. And as for wisdom, you're equipping your pupils with only a semblance of it, not with truth. Thanks to you and your invention, your pupils will be widely read without benefit of a teacher's instruction; in consequence, they'll entertain the delusion that they have wide knowledge, while they are, in fact, for the most part incapable of real judgment. They will also be difficult to get on with since they will have become wise merely in their own conceit, not genuinely so.

(1956, 68–9)

In addition to these Socratic arguments, many fourth and fifth century records mirror the stage when Greeks heatedly debated the use and influence of writing and alphabetic literacy in their culture. How the story ends is old news: writing wins a dominant role in the Western history of discourse, and speechmaking gradually loses its prominence in language pedagogy.