In Honor of John Miles Foley
“Traditions: Oral and Beyond”
International Medieval Congress, 2012
Back in 1991-93, when I was John’s M.A. student at Mizzou, I used to glom on to him during the walk back from the Arts and Sciences building to Tate Hall. Or I would trail along with him over to the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition, and other times he and I would arrive at the parking garage at the same time and I would walk along with him to class. I must have been incredibly annoying, and it’s testament to John’s kindness and generosity that he never said “would you just leave me alone to walk to class without jabbering at me.”
And I’m so glad he didn’t, because I learned an awful lot in those walks. In particular, two things stand out, which are related to my contribution today on the theme of Tradition: Oral and Beyond.
The first thing that I learned on those walks was how important the comparative method was to John. I know when we look at his immense accomplishments that this point seems totally obvious, and I was certainly a bit of dullard, but it took me a long time to really understand all of what John was teaching and how important comparanda were to everything we would talk about. I had some crazy project in mind where I would go to Finland and collect tales (setting aside that Elias Lonnrot had already done this more than a century before, that I didn’t speak the language, and that a multitude of Finnish scholars were already way ahead of where I could hope to be). John didn’t laugh out loud at the project—which collapsed due to my inability to grasp 16 noun cases in the grammatical structure of Finnish—but instead just said quietly “not enough students realize that they really need to go somewhere and listen to oral works in their own cultural situation.” Although I never did go to Finland, I took in the core of that comment, which has two parts. The first, and the obvious, is that at some stage of your investigation you try to understand the work in the context of the situation in which a particular human being produced it, one of its many immediate cultural matrices. The second, which is less obvious but connected to my theme, is that to be a great scholar you need to stretch yourself, to go beyond what is right in front of you, to try to compare your object of study with others that might have something in common with it—because oral artforms share certain forms and dynamics—and to recognize that verbal artforms are different and particular because individual traditions have specific rules, what John identifies as tradition dependence. You can’t figure these things out without being a comparatist.
The second important thing I learned on those walks was the sheer intellectual power of the oral-traditional approach, which is really in some important ways now (though he would disavow this label) the John Foley approach. John often quoted a line from Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales: “Oral’ tells us how, but ‘traditional’ tells us ‘what’ and even more ‘of what kind’ and ‘of what force.’” The “oral” component of oral tradition was vitally important to John not only because, as he was fond of pointing the vast, vast majority of all verbal artforms produced in human history have been oral (yet we spend all our time studying texts), but also because John simply loved oral performances. He made us memorize and recite Caedmon’s Hymn before we could translate it, and its still his voice I hear in my head when I in turn teach it to my students this way. But oral is just a particular kind of tradition. John was particularly interested in the constellation of features and the particular constraints that came from the oral context, but anaphora, traditional referentiality, immanence, the influence of the performance arena and other phenomena he both documented and explained were relevant not only to the gigantic corpus of oral artforms, but to those in writing, non-verbal music, visual art and behavior as well. What I learned from John, tagging along with him back to Tate Hall, asking annoying questions about Old English and Beowulf and oral tradition, was that you could take the insights that John had into oral and oral-derived texts and use them to explain other traditional phenomena, and that traditions of all sorts had an awful lot of features in common. John at least once told me that these were just easier to see in oral traditions—but I think they were just easier to see because we had John pointing them out.
So when I say “oral and beyond” in my title for this appreciation, I want to call attention to the incredible value of John’s work for understanding how human cultures work. Because traditions are everywhere, and they operate in strikingly similar ways, and we understand them because John took the time to be comparative, to understand the poems and the texts in their own terms and in terms of the universal phenomena embodied in them. That is the genius of the comparative method, and of John’s work: learning more and more about South Slavic or Anglo-Saxon or Ancient Greek traditions, becoming as fully disciplinary in those fields as possible—learning the languages and the scholarship and forming opinions on the disputed questions—gives you insight into the way the world works. And the beauty of this approach is the wide range of insights we get into the ways these processes work themselves out in disparate traditions throughout the world.
I don’t know if I ever talked with John about Darwinian approaches to culture when he was my teacher, though in editing my first article for Oral Tradition he pushed me very hard—as perhaps only a beloved teacher and mentor can— to cut, to clarify, to justify, and he made that article what it is. But, whether or not John and I ever talked about Darwinian cultural evolution, there is a quotation from Darwin that, to me, captures not only what has been important in John’s work, but where it may lead us. This is from the very end of The Origin of Species:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.
John celebrated both the particular forms, endless and most beautiful, and the ways they were produced, with a joy in both the things he studied and the work that he did. The world is a greater place for his contributions, but a much lesser place without him in it. I will try to live up to the example he set as a scholar, a teacher, and a friend.