Neil Big 

IH 51 Faculty Seminar

 March 22, 1993


    At first reading, Sundiata seems far afield in theme, structure, composition, cultural details and "textual reliability" from other IH 51 texts, with their individual authors or canonical written sources. These disparities and problems in teaching Sundiata involve three main aspects:

    (1) The nature of an oral tradition: Sundiata is an oral epic, passed from griot to griot, without written manuscripts. Griots recited and highlighted themes from the epic tradition according to the audience and communicative needs of the occasion. Its usefulness as cultural heritage depends upon those who transmit, hear, use and reproduce its tradition. In fact, these participants in the transmission process form part of the heritage itself, so much so that the notion of "text" becomes closely linked with its tellers, their audience, and the changing interpretations that each produce in the name of faithful cultural reproduction. So we have disparities between the notions of written and oral texts, author in written and oral tradition, as well as audience in written and oral traditions, and the social importance of performance in an oral based or written based culture. These disparities provoke larger questions about history and historical fact. With our notions of written history, how can we find factual reliability in a tradition that depends on individual human memories, vagaries of performance distortions, and secret information incompletely transmitted?

    (2) Problems of written textual sources and distortion: Our English prose version is translated from a French reconstruction of an oral performance recorded in the field. The French version was published in the prestigious academic journal Présence Africaine around 1960, the epoch of Malian independence from France. Not only is our version third hand, but it's meant to be read privately by individuals, not heard publicly in the magic immediacy of a live performance, with the griot interacting with his musicians, dignitaries and other members of the audience who, by their presence, incarnate or symbolize, a larger community.

    The translators seemed to have sacrificed performance texture for recognizable story line format, communicative richness for flat generic familiarity, uniqueness of live artistic performance for written homogeneity of vision expressed in a form that we can understand, according to our own methods of learning. Their goal, to demonstrate that each tradition is as deep and valid as our own, might be laudable, if a bit dated and neo-colonialist for our tastes, but their method provokes questions about cultural authenticity. And yet, could the European intellectual audience of the 1960's and our own freshman and sophomore readers appreciate the technical transcriptions of oral performances, with repetitions, stereotyped mnemonic cues and responses, musical markers, intersections from the audience and untranslatable words? We're left with a philological and hermeneutic dilemma. Paradoxically, textual authenticity here blocks many of our students' interpretive imagination, while the distortions of our version let them engage in textual hermeneutics, suspending beliefs to imagine, however imperfectly, the life-world of the epic.

    (3) Problems of cultural and sociological uniqueness: Our version, however distorted, contains a wealth of Mandinko kinship names, practices, customs of hospitality and precedence, local animistic beliefs, references to secret knowledge, sorcery, magic or special powers, places, clans, tribes and local legendary heroes, and culturally specific ideas of human nature and wisdom. It also contains a Muslim overlay in which Islam cohabits comfortably with indigenous animistic beliefs, spirits and powers. All of these terms are unfamiliar, dense and detailed enough to intimidate the non-specialist, whether teacher or student.


    I've found that a key to success is to turn disparities into points of departure for comparing and making thematic connections:

    (1) On oral tradition: I begin by explaining how reading Sundiata will let us compare oral and written ways to transmit knowledge. Each tradition has its notion of truth, community, the relationship of individual to community, the relative importance of cultural universalism or uniqueness, and what constitutes history. In an oral tradition such as the one represented by Sundiata, we can see that truth and knowledge are not public, and not democratically available to all educated thinkers endowed with logical prowess. Instead, truth and knowledge are secret, sacred, and valuable, to be guarded and passed down from generation to generation following kinship or occupational caste secrets, and publicized only on a need-to-know basis. Truth and knowledge, moreover, are oriented to support the king and the principle of traditional continuity itself. Even when the griot and leaders introduce cultural innovations, they do so in the name of traditional continuity.

    The notion of community in such a tradition is geographically localized and specific to the clans, tribes and social groups mentioned in it. History is not universal but specific. One tells history orally to know where one's words, customs, roles, and identity come from. The epic tells the history of one's ancestors and one's idealized relationship to them. The present moment enacts and re-enacts the ideal tradition represented in the oral history. The idealized present griot and leader enact roles handed to them by their parents, and re-enact roles represented in the epic itself, whose heroes are supposed to be ancestors. History isn't just the record of unique events with details, circumstances and complications to be documented, verified and analyzed. It's the resource of a sense of continuity with the past, linking the present community to those preceding it.

    In an oral tradition, the individual's community role is usually not to create a new kind of persona, original and unprecedented, such as Madonna, Michael Jackson, or Martha Graham. Instead, individuals try to enact traditional roles of parents and ancestors. Originality occurs when people adapt or personalize traditional roles to meet new circumstances, or when they take traditional roles to new Political, social, and economic contexts, as did rural griots who tried to continue their political influence in independent Mali by migrating to cities or adapting their small group international style to radio, television, and theatrical performance standards.

    Compared to our written tradition, which lets us communicate to anyone using the same words, what oral tradition lacks in anonymous "universality," it gains by projecting a sense of concrete group membership. Our written universalism contains a dehumanizing anonymity and abstractness. Few readers can meet or envision the authors of the words they read, and few authors can know if readers understand the message as intended. In an oral tradition, the face-to-face nature of performance, communication, and personal authority can give individuals a personal stake in the enterprise of preserving, understanding, and applying cultural history. The tradition transmits an idea of community in which participants can imagine their place and role. This imagined community, represented in the epic and enacted in the performance, becomes incomplete without each listener, performer and participant.

    Oral community history, which loses details through distortions of individual memories and performances, is accurate in a way that written history can never be. Written history depends on documents, artifacts, traces, along with the means to decode the information. If any become unavailable - extinct computer hardware to handle obsolete computer tapes, lost or undecipherable languages, lost or destroyed time capsules, unfound archeological evidence or archives - the gaps in written history remain unfilled and incomplete. The memories these written traces were meant to preserve remain lost, despite the good intentions of those who left them. On the other hand, to stay alive, oral history needs only people to tell and retell culturally relevant information. The information transmitted carries the social or meaning of communicating a vision of the functional timeless ideal community, an eternal sense of group and individual identity, a concrete sense of membership to those keeping it alive. Oral history, then, doesn't communicate the same kind of information as written history. Communicating socially and culturally relevant information through living participants, oral history gives them a sense of their own place in that unbroken chain. In doing so, oral history might preserve cultural memories better than written history.

    There's another aspect about written and oral historical traditions: the racism and colonialism inherent to European contact with Africa. In many sophisticated African cultures, written or visual traces and signs functioned differently than in Europe. Sometimes they were mnemonic devices, completed through oral tradition, or stylized forms of art and visual symbolism, metaphorically understood by using knowledge from other parts of the culture. In Europe, writing was autonomous, universal, and bound only by the textual contents. So, the Europeans who colonized Africa found few, if any, traces of the written culture that they knew as civilization. In this sense, colonialism and racism demeaned and ignored the richness of African oral traditions, labeling African cultures as less worthy or sophisticated. (For a good overview of West African ideographs and their relation to artistic and performance traditions, see Robert Farris Thompson's Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy (NY: Random House, 1983; 1st Vintage ed., 1984), ch. 5, pp. 227?267, in the IH library.)

    (2) On oral performance and textual hermeneutics: Sometimes I give details about performances of Sundiata, for example those in Gordon Inness' Suniata: Three Mandinka Versions. (London: School of Oriental & African Studies, 1974) and John William Johnson's The Epic of Son-Jara: a West African Tradition. (Bloomington: Indian Univ. Press, 1986 & 1992). The latter, useful for background information, is in the IH library.

    (3) On cultural uniqueness and universality: Following Ken Dossar, I apply the notions of ashe, iwa, and itutu, as described by Thompson (1983 [1984], ch. 1, pp. 3?18) to characters in the epic. These concepts give students tools to analyze character, motivation, and human nature, comparing them to Greek, biblical, Koranic, Machiavellian and Shakespearean notions of human nature, and to the heroes in each text. I've also traced forms of power in Sundiata, focusing on Sundiata as an epic hero who increases his power by overcoming obstacles to fulfill his destiny, & on the women in Sundiata, exploring how each incarnates a type of power, pointing out how each male in Sundiata depends on women's power and identity. This exploration sets the stage for comparing the treatment of women in Sundiata and other texts.


    (1) Using Sundiata and "Oedipus the King", compare epic and tragedy. How does each deal with destiny, free will, knowledge (sacred or intellectual); the hero's role and identity, relationship to community and ancestors, and to pain and suffering; plot structures and emotions communicated to the audience?

    (2) How does Sundiata use themes from the Koran: Allah's will, God's order, righteousness, mercy, group membership? Compare quotes from the Koran & Sundiata.

    (3) Compare the treatment and roles of women in Sundiata to other IH 51 works: women in the Theban plays, or in the Old and New Testaments, or in the Koran. Be specific and detailed, using quotes. You can compare how women deal with political power, family loyalties, destiny and free will, sexuality or ambition.

    (4) Define and apply the notions of ashe, iwa and itutu. to several major characters in Sundiata. How does each demonstrate the different qualities, and are they in the proper balance with one another? Compare this understanding of human nature to those Plato, or Sophocles, Matthew, Machiavelli, or Shakespeare. Be specific, using quotes from both texts.

    (5) Explaining Machiavelli's ideas of power, justice, leadership and politics, apply them to a main character in Sundiata. Is the character a good leader, according to Machiavelli? If not, how does the character violate Machiavelli's principles? Does the character live by other principles of power, justice, ethics, and morals? If so, compare these principles with Machiavelli's and explain the similarities or differences in worldview between Machiavelli and your character. Be specific, using quotes from The Prince and Sundiata.