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THE WRITTEN WORD, THE WORD CULTURE AND THE ERUDITION IN XXI CENTURY

Nikolay Gochev

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1. From the history of the written word

The culture to which we belong shows a considerable interest in the preservation of the memories of the past. This interest had been stated directly for the first time by Herodotus. It should be noted that his "History" is the most voluminous unified text, created by the Greeks in the classical epoch. The beginning of it says explicitly:

"These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds."

Since then the Greeks and the inheritors of their culture had made considerable efforts in order to continue the deed of Herodotus. It could be said, that they had developed a whole technology of the reminiscence. In the beginning they had written down what had happened, but also what might happen, creating thus the forms of the word, which we nowadays call history and literature. They had added to that the records of the circumstances and the conditions in which things could happen and even of "what are" these things, which had created the scientific and the philosophical genres of the word.

Later on simultaneously with the production of new and new records antiquity had guided its concerns to the preservation of the available texts (and thus appeared the libraries and the philology) and - what is even more respectable - antiquity had guided its cares to make the access to them easier. Thanks to that, in the first centuries CE the traditional scroll had been replaced by the codex, because the codex had a very important advantage - it had been most suitable to unfold. In the Middle Ages the large square letters /majusculus/ by and by had been replaced by the small rounded letters /minusculus/; so the lines in each page could be much more in number and the writing down - much faster. In the Renaissance the paper became thinner and the separate volumes gathered much more text. The publishing of books became mundane; the market dealing with books and the total prints had increased. However, all that had been no more than an approach to the ancient way of propagation of the written word. The main problem, connected with the prolonged handwork on each separate copy of the book remained unsolved. It is evident, that the discovery of the print press led really to a great change: suddenly it had appeared, that the books could be many in number and cheap. Nobody had to copy with months one and the same book; nobody had to dictate to copyists, but the books could be propagated in a few hours in an unseen total print. In the next 500 years nothing considerable had happened again: the development relied - as before - on a paper of greater quality and on smaller letters.

The invention of Gutenberg has led to an unknown and incredible by that time propagation of the documents of the past. The memories of the deeds and the thoughts of the ancestors begot much more and much richer libraries. In the private houses appeared special places for the books: that was something, which had been of a great rarity in the times before. The need of the inconvenient and expensive travelling of the individual to the educational center had vanished: not only because the centers increased in number, but also because man already had enough means for his association to the word inheritance. Then appeared another problem that had been familiar to the antiquity, but that became serious only in the 15-th century, when the book wealth suddenly increased. At once appeared enormous quantities of new texts of a very low value. These were books of less importance: books-ephemera, deprived of the spring of their own culture; books-weeds, that had grown up thanks to the deed of Gutenberg, but they had strived to replace the old valuable texts, because of which the printing press itself had been invented. Their existence became a hindrance to the good education, and it did not disappear. On the contrary, by and by it became much more difficult to overcome it. How to help the one, who wishes to get really acquainted with one’s own culture - that means, to be "reminded" of what is essential of it - and that’s why he relies on the accessibility of the written word, but precisely because of this accessibility he gets quite another thing? The market and the libraries had been full of very quickly made similarities of literature; of very superficial retellings and compilations of the good historical texts (very often these were retellings of other retellings and compilations); also, very prolonged references of strictly made but aimless collections of facts; also, writings, containing senseless statements and untested or simply fancied evidences; and at last, clumsy, short-witted or incomprehensible sequences of words which claimed to be philosophy. The memory of what really had happened never reached these people, lost in the book jungle: instead of that their brains had been overloaded by words without clear content, and from them remained only several phrases, used with an ease. The education got by these texts resembled to the furniture of a house, the owners of which can afford themselves only cheap furniture from the common shops. When these houses are new, they suppress with the lack of taste of their keepers and with their overburdeness; but the bad furniture is very soon worn out and a feeling of blunt, negligence and poverty appears at once.

Let see what happened after that. Now, 500 years after Gutenberg we possess another device of preservation of the word - it is the computer record. The first and the most obvious result of that is the sharp increase of the volume of the information which is in the physical space around us. The whole ancient Greek literature from Homer to Proclus could be gathered in one CD - this object with its package is smaller, compared with the smallest edition of Herodotus, that could be produced with the means of the traditional editing. Thanks to the CD records all of the well-known literary monuments, belonging to all earth civilizations, could be placed in a modest library shelf. But there is something more. The virtual library of Internet gives freedom to the reader and deprives him from the duty even to bye books, recorded on CD. Today everyone could read Herodotus in the original language, in which he had written or translations of it on the screen of one’s personal computer without possessing no record whatsoever of the text. All the reader needs is an Internet connection that could be acquired by everyone. The free access to the whole word inheritance of the world is already secured.  

2. The problem of the erudition

All this happened very quickly and as if astonishing easily - from the point of view of the one who remembers how many efforts and means it has taken to get one or another book. It seems, that everyone, who today wishes to use the written monuments of the past is no longer in isolation. One even does not need the knowledge of different languages, which has been inevitable until late and took a lot of time, because today almost all important texts are translated into English. That’s the way in which the modern man is released from the fragmentary and ideological selection of the texts, forced by the milieu where one got one’s education before. At the same time, the problem of every free and mundane society, where the monopoly on the creation of the word does not exist, remains the same. Who will explain what is useful to be read or whether it is useful to read anything at all? Does it make no difference in what way exactly the people in the XXI century will get their education?

From the point of view of the philologist (I use this word in the broadest sense; something like "specialist in word education’) the advantage of the present-day situation is in the fact, that it secures good conditions for a conscious choice. Once man has been accustomed to the thought of the easy access to all texts whatsoever, one could think why he has chosen to get familiar precisely with this text and not with another. Probably, that may lead many people to the decision to consult a specialist. Such a thing still occurs to a limited number of persons. The reason for that is, that the modern Western man thinks of himself as being enough acquainted with the value of one or another text: from childhood everyone has to read something and everyone has grown up surrounded by books, hasn’t he? Still, these were not books whatsoever but usually they are the ones on which relied the literary education: the education that was state education in many countries and precisely in countries like Bulgaria. The education relied on them and their publishing received the biggest financial support. However, now the situation has changed: now almost all books are accessible and equally accessible. And how is the decision to be made, which of them deserve to be read? This question deserves to be discussed with students in the humanities, because they are expected to participate actively in the education of the children whose mature age will be in the middle and in the third quarter of the XXI cent. It is well known that the bigger part of these students finish their education and became Masters without ever to happen to them to get an advice what exactly to read and this advice to be well sustained. Evidently advice of the type: "Read that, in order to be well prepared for this topic" is useless. Because the topics that one has to prepare for are countless and no one could predict on what exactly questions the pupils and the students will have to prepare themselves in the next one hundred years, even if we have to think of a given country, university or school. It has happened to me to pose questions like the following: "Would you explain to me what precisely must know the philologist?" - because usually I lecture to students in philology. Or "What kind of culture you had acquired from the books you have read so far?" Or "What kind of text you would recommend to a man who whishes to be educated and why exactly you recommend precisely these texts?" The dialogue, which follows after such questions, shows the great interest of the students in humanities to such conversations and also it proves how rarely it happens to them to participate in such discussions.

In order to get a satisfying result, such conversation has to concentrate on the question: "What, according to us, is culture (or education)?" And because the very value of the education, no matter how exactly we will define it, will be scarcely discarded, we will have to discuss what is the use of the reading of books; what is its contribution to our state of educatedness and which should be these books.

The collocutors, who lead such conversation, may assume, that the man, who does not possess any skills and any abilities is not an educated man. That means, this is man, who does not possess any skill, the acquisition of which needs efforts and considerable time. They would agree, that "to participate in culture", means to give the society something which is far from the abilities of many others; that what you give is valuable, and its value could be proved. Hence it is worth one to be acquainted with texts that help to acquire a certain profession: and if he is, say, a doctor, undoubtedly he will have to read medical literature. That sounds simply, but everyone understands, that to know the medical literature is as unthinkable as to know literature in general. Everyone understands also, that the doctor needs a good school in order to be familiar with the texts that are obligatory to be known, in order to acquire general as well as special medical culture. At the same time the doctor, if he wishes to be not only a practitioner and expert, but also to be able to exhibit medicine in the audience of non-doctors, will have to know how to speak on the most general questions, which pertain to it. Such a doctor, although he is very busy, willingly will look for a time to get acquainted with the considerations of some of his colleagues on the topic "What is medicine?" or "A very short history of medicine". He will speak with pleasure on the problem how the cure of people have deteriorated or improved in the different epochs. To what parts could be divided this activity? What determines the existing division and whether another one is possible? What should be the relations between the doctor and the patient? And also, what we call illness and in what conditions one could be considered to be healthy? The collocutors will ask themselves whether a doctor, who is trying to reach such knowledge of his profession will have enough time in order to practice it. But they would say, that will be indispensable, because, if he doesn’t practice, this questions will lose their importance for him. On the other hand, such contemplation usually commits to the increase of the professional’s interest to the details of his activity.

Indeed, I am convinced, that these questions are moving for each doctor, but at the same time he rarely has the possibility to discuss them openly? The reason for that is not his preoccupation as much as the absence of a society - let’s call it "philosophizing society" where he could be the Doctor and that’s why he could feel indebted to find the answer to these questions. Because to whom else except to him these questions could be posed?

Now let’s turn to another member of this imaginary philosophizing society and let’s give him a profession. Let him be a director of theater performances. In order to be well prepared for this activity he will have to be well acquainted with the paradigms of the drama and also with the theoretical texts on theatre. Besides that the producer will have to think for himself and having in mind his personal experience what is the need of the theatre. What should be the society, where the theatre will function well? Why he himself prefers one way of interpretation of the classical playwright and not another, or one type of dramatic texts and not another? How the modern theatre differs from the theatre of the other epochs? In general, what is the reason for theatre to change and why there are different styles? What is the sign that a given producer has acquired his profession and what he needs to do, in order to develop himself as a professional? Whether the good dramatization depends only on talent? In general, how the good theatre differs from the mean and the bad? And let’s have a way to express all that, so it could be comprehensible not only to the colleagues of the director, but also to the doctor, who goes to theatre occasionally.  

3. Types of culture

We have seen so far, that there is something which deserves to be named "professional culture" and that it could be shared. How much and what exactly has one to read, in order to be a good professional and a collocutor, who is able to speak about his specialty, is something, that could be left to discussion in every community, unified by such a sign - because only it could be competent about these quesions. But let’s continue. Besides the professional culture, everyone is forced to possess another types of culture, isn’t he? Which are they becomes clear, when he meets people, evidently different from him. The difference, which we have in mind, is due to the difference in a certain type of culture. Let see one of the best recognizable differences - the national one. Today one travels a lot and meets people, belonging to communities, each of which has its cultural signs. They are shown in a different language and connected with a certain history. This community is called national. The existence of national community is neither good, nor bad. I say that with the self-confidence of an inhabitant of the Balkans - that means a man, who has been forced to have his own opinion on these things. The national differences by themselves still cannot produce a conflict. They are no prerequisite for this, because wars are even there, where the national differences are absent, and that is well known to every European, who had studied a little bit of history. So, what should be expected from the representative of a certain national culture? He will have to know what is worth telling about other people, in so far as they belong to his community. What changes had happened in it since its appearance? In general, how its birth and disappearance have to be distinguished? What makes a man belong to it? Nationality is not as easily recognizable as the language and the race; but does it mean, that a national character does not exist? It is quite clear, that a Bulgarian, who does not speak Bulgarian will be as difficult recognizable as the doctor among people from other professions if he is not speaking of medicine. However, there is a common language between the Bulgarians in almost the same sense, as there is a common language among the doctors. Let’s presume they want to tell something about themselves, to show the peculiar in them and thus to convince the collocutor, that they are different not only by the name, hence they are necessary in a multinational culture. In such a case they will have to know how to make the narrative of their nationality,

That`s why everyone who wishes to be well educated - (and the education is good when it is complex and well organized) will have to be interested also in the word wealth kept by his language and in the cultural traditions of his national community. The problem of the national physiognomy is an old one and it has been thought over by many authors. Others, without having thought directly of it had offered quite good word portraits of their nationality. It should be expected, that in the frames of the nationality will exist a general consense on the problem what memories about the past and the thoughts of our compatriots will have to be kept in order someone to have the consciousness and to represent himself as a part of it.

Maybe what has been said so far is enough. Now let’s continue and add, that as the oldest texts witness men are familiar with cultural communities or unities, which are overnational. Here I will allow myself to call them "civilizations". These cultural communities usually are multilinguistic, but analogically to the nationalities they are unified by a common history and also by those difficultly distinguishable cultural phenomena, which are called morals and values. To these qualities of civilizations, which are conditions for its unity, could be added the peculiarities of its material product and also the religion which usually unifies many people, except for some rare occasions, as is the case with the Judaism. Today the conditions for a dialogue between the civilizations are very good. But the fact or the circumstance that the development of the communicative techniques had led to an informational unification of the world is quite not enough, in order to assume that the civilizations will mingle in an undistinguishable whole. The general argument for that is the fact that we don’t know of anything that is inseparable. That means, that there is nothing simple, nothing homogeneous neither in nature, nor in culture. Civilizations will continue to exist and their interest to their own, immanent character is not going to decrease in the XXI century.

In the last several years in the public word in Bulgaria had been introduced the expression "civilizational choice". No one will disagree that today on the Balkans there are conditions for the discussion of questions as: "What is Europe?" "What is Western civilization?" "Who is associated with the Western civilization?" In Bulgaria these problems are discussed or at least it is assumed, that there is sense in their discussion. Moreover, it is admitted that someone could also defend the insolvability of these questions and to prove that "Europe" is a fiction or that the European tradition is already exhausted. That the education here should have quite another aim and the educational and foreign policy should have other orientation; that it is not worth to strive for greater political and cultural approachment to Europe than the one, we have at the moment. But what is admitted without debate (because thanks to it these discussions become possible) is the fact, that today culture could be chosen and even that it is inevitable to be chosen. Because no one is born associated to one culture, but that happens to him later and this association is not independent from his personal will. Hence, besides the "professional culture" one could chose the one, for which it has been so far assumed, that it belongs to him naturally - and this is the national one and the civilizational one.  

4. Culture and written word

The supposition that everyone for himself decides for his association to a given culture is followed by the conviction, that he chooses for himself also the means for that. No doubt, that each of the three types of culture we have spoken of so far is built also by the word, especially by the written word. And that’s why the knowledge of the paradigms of this word is also necessary. But in order to be chosen such a way for the association to the culture, two conditions at least have to be satisfied. Firstly, once assuming that a given culture is unified, there should exist also a general agreement on the signs of its unity - otherwise the one, who wishes to join himself to it will not know to what he is associating himself. Secondly, the corpus of the texts, through which such an association will be made, will have to correspond to these features. Thanks to that, the one, who is getting familiar with the texts, will know that he is making the necessary, in order to become a representative precisely of this culture.

Maybe it is worth arguing the statement, that one should not overestimate the exceptional importance of one of his cultural belongings in comparison with the others. It will be bad, for example, one to identify himself with one’s national or professional culture and thus to think of himself predominantly and above all as being a Bulgarian or a doctor. This lost of balance between the cultural characteristics could have very bad consequences. If the doctor separates the people, whom he knows to "colleagues" and "others", he will oversimplify his communication with them. Because he will judge them simply with regard to the fact what this communication with them contributes to his development as a professional and in so far, it allows him to discuss the difficulties and the successes, which accompany his professional activities. The problem of such way of communication is additionally complicated by the fact, that such distinction could not be avoided, if one decides to contact only with people, who are doctors. Because then he would begin to divide his collocutors in another way - say, "ophthalmologists" and "others", or "neurosurgeons" and "others". Such a divisional approach to communication is harmful by all means. It excludes a considerable part of the people, with whom we are forced to communicate, judging them or estimating them as "uninteresting", "non-understanding" and finally - non-belonging to the "good culture".

Clearly, the erudition understood as a degree of association to the good culture should be judged as an association to several cultural identities and as an ability to keep balance between them. The necessity of such a balance is certified by the fact, that people really do distinguish many differences between themselves, even if they do not want it. Moreover, as has been said earlier, culture could not be thought of as something simple and the division of people to "Bulgarians" and "non-Bulgarians" is based on the presupposition that it is something simple. In this case it means, that it is either "to be a Bulgarian" or "not to be a Bulgarian"; or at best case, that culture is the degree in which the complexity of the difference between "Bulgarians" and "non-Bulgarians" is realized. However, if we maintain our interest to other types of culture as well, we will find out, that although someone is a foreigner, he could be a doctor; hence, a man similar to us, who are doctors as well. When we speak with him of medicine we will even forget that he is a foreigner or we will think of him as being a foreigner and at the same time a doctor. That would be a step to the understanding or the conceiving of him as a complex cultural creature, what he is indeed.

It seems that in order to conceive the significance of the written word we will have to get interested in the considerable differences between men as cultural creatures. The knowledge of the written word has sense when it serves the erudition and it is our 'image' as representatives of a given culture. If we wish this image to be communicable to the others we will have to know what is common to us; that means in what culture are participating me and the other, so that in the frames of this culture or in contrast to it to point out our difference. It is very difficult to work out such erudition, when the differences are only conjectural, i.e. when they are not confirmed in the immediate communication. The immediate communication helps to repair the somewhat abstract notion of the culture of the other, which we usually have, but also it helps our own cultural image to be clarified. Also, it could turn out, that the principles of our culture are evident to us, but they are not articulated in word and that’s why they cannot easily be transmitted to the other.

That’s why the enthusiasm, which accompanies the man, who improves his culture through the knowledge of the written word, may turn out to be a bad advisor; the reading of texts contributes to the making of a cultural image which may have the advantage that it is a traditional one, but often it will suffer from the deficiency of being non-addressed. However, our personal culture, even when it is built in a traditional manner, needs an addressee; we are cultural through our erudition and the erudition is an image-for-someone, not one image whatsoever. Such an orientation may be realized only when a definite and active collocutor is present and not when someone is speaking to an abstract audience. So far Internet is concerned, its usage should not alter the rational proportion between the written and the oral word, in which the written is subordinated to the oral. Because the Internet connection offers us not only an access almost to the whole word heritage, but also the possibility for a natural conversation with everyone.

 

 

© Nikolay Gochev
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© E-magazine LiterNet, 16.02.2000, № 2 (3)