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Literature as 'sacred space' in Oral and Visual Interaction

The article discusses literature's function as a vessel for mythical or 'sacred' transformation. In doing so, it outlines the shift from oral to visual interaction with literature and the consequential drift away from this transformative function.

As we have established, the realm of the archetypes is created through the interaction of the individual with their environment. For this establishment to be successful, it is necessary to pass on the knowledge of previous generations to subsequent ones. The common mode for this propagation is the myth and its more 'profane’ counterpart the story. In his book, The Gutenberg Galaxy Marshall McLuhan (2011) outlines the shift in the medium of the myth’s transition that has occurred over time. The hypothesis is that “Schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy”. (p. 32) captures McLuhan’s central argument: The transition from the long-existent oral (illiterate) mode of transmitting stories from one generation to the next to the visual (literate) mode that has found its way into our societies after the invention of Gutenberg’s mass printing technology has caused a split in the human mind. This split originates in the development of a one-dimensionality in the sense-ratio. For modern man, the visual mode of perception has become so dominant that he has fully detached from the auditory sense. Before this split, the oral-auditory-tactile trifecta dominated the ‘sensescape’ of man. This had multiple consequences: First, the main mode of reading was reading aloud. As McLuhan (2011) sufficiently discusses this would even be the case on occasions that we would typically associate with silent reading such as in monasteries or universities. Consequently, the content would be stored and recalled auditorily. Memory would be a skill much more useful than it is in today’s world. This explains the incredible capacities for memorisation we observe in modern university students coming from countries such as India or China where the domination of the visual sense is not fully established. McLuhan shows that there is a fundamental difference in how the literate and illiterate cultures perceive the world. In this context he refers to Mircea Eliade’s conceptualisation of the sacred and the profane that he developed based on Rudolf Otto’s notion of the holy and the numinous:

The abyss that divides the two modalities of experience—sacred and profane—will be apparent when we come to describe sacred space and the ritual building of the human habitation, or the varieties of the religious experience of time, or the relations of religious man to nature and the world of tools, or the consecration of human life itself, the sacrality with which man's vital functions (food, sex, work and so on) can be charged. Simply calling to mind what the city or the house, nature, tools, or work have become for modern and nonreligious man will show with the utmost vividness all that distinguishes such a man from a man belonging to any archaic society, or even from a peasant of Christian Europe. For modern consciousness, a physiological act—eating, sex and so on—is in some only an organic phenomenon, ... But for the primitive, such an act is never simply physiological; it is, or can become, a sacrament, that is, a communion with the sacred. The reader will very soon realize that sacred and profane are two modes of being in the world, two existential situations assumed by man in the course of his history. These modes of being in the world are not of concern only to the history of religions or to sociology; they are not the object only of historical, sociological, or ethnological study. In the last analysis, the sacred and profane modes of being depend upon the different positions that man has conquered in the cosmos; hence they are of concern both to the philosopher and to anyone seeking to discover the possible dimensions of human existence. (Eliade, pp. 14-15)

The detachment from the holistically sensual experience of the world marks the topographic man’s drift into profane space. One driving force behind this is the reduction of the sensual space and thus the literal shift in cognition that was forced upon man with the start of the mass availability of the print book. The entire reality that humans interacted with changed. McLuhan points out that “the art and scholarship of the past century and more have become a monotonous crescendo of archaic primitivism” (p. 78). This monotony is of course a consequence of the one-dimensionality of the tasks due to the one-dimensionality of modern man’s ‘sensescape’. If the visual sense is the only developed method of interacting with the world then only this method can be used to engage with the world. Psychologically, the shift from the oral-auditory-tactile to visual cognition was accompanied by increasing dominance of the intellect and the rational functions of the mind. Jung writes:

In dem Maße aber, als die Vernunft allmählich überwog, setzte sich der Intellekt durch und beanspruchte Autonomie. Und wie der Intellekt sich der Psyche bemächtigte, so auch der Natur, und er gebar ein wissenschaftlich-technisches Zeitalter, das dem natürlichen und irrationalen Menschen immer weniger Raum bot. (Jung, 1963, p. 311)

As Eliade describes it, the irrationality that is pushed aside denotes the ability to experience the sacred as an all-encompassing force. This causes a detachment from the core that had for a long time been experienced as the fundamental pillar of being human - namely the sacred narratives of our culture. In the oral traditions, these narratives are kept alive through the active participation of each individual in the sacred acts of re-living or re-playing those central narratives. The stories were transformed into lively drama the essence of which was kept alive through the active participation of the members of society. ‘Abstract’ stories do not remain abstract because they are given meaning by replaying them in adaptions that would fit the current circumstances of the place and time they are embedded in. As we have described above, this process of de-manifestation and re-manifestation is the central and purest method of distilling the archetypal narratives of society from the implicit interaction of humans and their environments. In this context, it has to be pointed out that oral transmission affects the (recent) concept of plagiarism. If the main way of conserving a text is by oral memory the content of the text will be shaped by each generation that the text surpasses. Since errors - intentional or accidental - occur both in the purely oral and in the manuscript tradition the nature of the author’s identity in these times may be very well questioned:

Plagiarism as we know it is very much the product of two major sociolinguistic changes in the past 700 years: the move from an oral to written culture and the wider availability of written texts following the invention of the printing press in the 1440s. When literature was oral, it existed only in performance and although much was remembered, there is no doubt that each performance of Beowulf was unique, with the performer altering the sequence of some half lines, omitting others and creating yet other new ones as he was reciting. No one knows who composed Beowulf or The Odyssey, whether there was a single author, how many mouths the narratives passed through, how many alterations they underwent, before they were recorded in written form. Even for the few who could read, the majority of classic texts were accessed in translation, often in translations of translations, so no special status was given to the ‘wording’, while the ideas the texts contained were seen to belong to the community rather than to any individual owner/author (Coulthard, Johnson, & Wright, 2016, p. 175)

In referring to E.P. Goldschmidt’s text Media Texts and Their First Appearance in Print McLuhan highlights that before the mass printing of books became possible, authorship was not only irrelevant and often disregarded, but texts were seen as mosaics that built up over time. This indifference is evident in the writers and the readers of the book. Writers would often not bother to quote the texts they implemented in their work and readers would not question the identity of the author at all. The concept that a book can be attributed to the specificities of its author appears to be alien to the medieval mind. In quoting Goldschmidt, we can read in McLuhan’s (2011) Gutenberg Galaxy :

It cannot be doubted that for many medieval writers the exact point at which they ceased to be ‘scribers’ and became ‘authors’ was not at all clear. What amount of ‘composition’ of acquired information entitled a man to claim the standing of an ‘author’ of a new unit in the chain of transmitted knowledge? We are guilty of an anachronism if we imagine that the medieval student regraded the contents of the books he read as the expression of another man’s personality and opinion. He looked upon them as part of that great total body of knowledge, the Scientia de Omni Scibilia, which had once been the property of the ancient sages. Whatever he read in a venerable old book he would take to be not somebody’s assertion but a small piece of knowledge acquired by someone long ago from someone else still more ancient (p. 153)

The next article will discuss the notion of participation in these central narratives and discuss its potential modern manifestation.


Coulthard, M., Johnson, A., & Wright, D. (2016).An introduction to forensic linguistics:

Language in evidence. Routledge.

Jung, C.G. (1964). Zur Psychologie westlicher und östlicher Religion.

Gesammelte Werke, XI. Band. Edition C.G. Jung

McLuhan, M., Gordon, W. T., Lamberti, E., & Scheffel-Dunand, D. (2011). The Gutenberg

galaxy: The making of typographic man. University of Toronto Press.


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