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Authenticities East and West
March 30 - April 1, 2001

Crying Out in the Ancient Lyric: Comparing "O!"s, "Ah!"s and Animal Sounds in Ancient Greek and Chinese Poetry
J.T. Anderson ( )
Department of Comparative Literature, University of California at Berkeley

In this paper, I examine how words like "o!" and "ah!" work in two radically different lyric traditions-the ancient Greek and the ancient Chinese-to produce voice in early textual poetry. These words, which I call 'vocables', occupy a strange linguistic space. Unlike words that depend for their meaning, as Saussure observes, upon their difference from other words in a linguistic system, vocables depend upon an indexical relationship with the situation that occasioned them. That is to say, the utterance "o!" has meaning only in as much as it applies to a particular event. Outside of that event, it is meaningless.

Of course, it is only unuttered vocables-vocables that are written down-that run the risk of meaninglessness. The very act of voicing a vocable creates occasion precisely because one speaks the sound within a particular physical environment. By contrast, writing down a vocable removes the sound from the physical environment that occasioned it and places it within a system of written language in which the vocable can only derive meaning from its relationship to other words. The written vocable thus presents a paradox: while its uttered counterpart does not derive meaning by differing from other words, the written vocable can and must do so.

This question of what happens when a vocable is textualized is, on a smaller scale, the question of what happens when an oral poem is written down. Vocables mark a tension in "oral texts"– they point to the problems and paradoxes textualizing poetry engenders, to the simultaneous possibility and impossibility of transcribing the oral lyric. For this reason, vocables provide an excellent means of comparing early Greek and Chinese lyric forms; they are also a small enough unit to make such a potentially unmanageable comparison manageable. Ultimately, by examining how vocables work in early textual Greek and Chinese lyric poetry, I hope to point to significant differences in the impact of literacy on these ancient poetic traditions.

In specific, my paper compares how vocables operate in a poem from the Shi Jing (Mao #121) and in an ancient Greek poem by Simonides (Diehl 130). Although I undoubtedly will alter and refine my conclusions for presentation, I contend that a comparative study of vocables reveals in the Chinese poem an evolving relationship between a character-based writing system and the affective-expressive model of the Chinese lyric. In contrast, early Greek "created" or "made" poetry results– at least in part– from an alphabetic textualization of sound.

What a comparative study of vocables also makes clear is a fundamental difference in Chinese and Greek cultures' understanding of the relationship of human sound to the world around it. I argue that human sounds are produced within the ancient poetry of the Shi Jing in relation to and as part of the natural world: human-uttered vocables ally themselves, for instance, with animal sounds. In contrast, human-uttered vocables in the Greek poem I consider mark a disruption between the human and natural worlds. They point to a moment of crisis between these two realms.

In summary, I believe the comparative work I attempt here is useful on two levels. One, it can challenge current orality/literacy studies which often focus solely on the ramifications of alphabetic literacy. Second, it can reveal significant cultural differences that contribute to the making of these two important literary traditions.

Julie Anderson is currently a Townsend Fellow at U.C. Berkeley and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature. Her research interests focus on the development of voice in ancient Eastern and Western lyric poetry. Specifi c authors and works she looks at include Sappho, Simonides, Catullus, Ovid, Tao Qian, the Shi Jing, and the Chu-ci. She is currently finishing a dissertation entitled From Orality to Literacy: Transformations of the Lyric Voice in Ancient Greek, Roman, and Chinese Poetry.

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