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PASSING THE WORD Of History and Hagiography : Nothing that Shakespeare ever invented was to equal Lincoln's invention of himself and, in the process, us.

March 20, 1988|Gore Vidal | Gore Vidal's novel "Lincoln" will be dramatized as a four-hour NBC series March 27-28

NEW YORK — In the beginning, there was the spoken word. The first narration concerned the doings of gods and kings, and these stories were passed on from generation to generation, usually as verse in order to make memorizing easier. Then, mysteriously, in the 5th Century BC all the narratives were written down and literature began.

From Greece to Persia to India to China there was a great controversy. Could a narrative be possessed that had been committed to writing rather than to memory? Traditionalists said no; modernists said yes. The traditionalists lost. Now, 2,500 years later, there is a similar crisis. Modernists believe that any form of narration and of learning can be transmitted through audio-visual means rather than through the now-traditional written word. In this controversy I am, for once, a conservative to the point of furious reaction.

In any case, we are now obliged to ask radical questions. What is the point to writing things down other than to give directions on how to operate a machine? Why tell stories about gods and kings or, even, men and women?

Very early, the idea of fame--eternal fame--afflicted our race. But fame for the individual was less intense at the beginning than for one's tribe. Thucydides is often read as a sort of biographer of Pericles when, indeed, he was writing the biography, to misuse the word, of their city, Athens. It is the idea of the city that the writer wants us to understand, not the domestic affairs of Pericles, which he mentions only as civic illustrations. Love had not yet been discovered as opposed to lust. Marriage was not yet a subject except for comedy (Sophocles did not care who got custody of the children, unless Medea killed them--or they were baked in a pie). For more than two millennia, from Homer to Aeschylus to Dante to Shakespeare to Tolstoy, the great line of our literature has concerned itself with gods, heroes, kings, in conflict with one another and with inexorable fate. Simultaneously, all round each story, whether it be that of Prometheus or of a Plantagenet prince, there is a people who need fire from heaven or land beyond the sea. Of arms and of the man, I sing, means just that. Of the people then and now, of the hero then and his image now, as created or recreated by the poet. From the beginning, the bard, the poet, the writer was a most high priest to his people, the custodian of common memory, the interpreter of history, the voice of their current yearnings.

All this stopped in the last two centuries when the rulers decided to teach the workers to read and write so that they could handle machinery. Traditionalists thought this a dangerous experiment. If the common people knew too much might they not overthrow their masters? But the modernists, like John Stuart Mill, won. And, in due course, the people--proudly literate--overthrew their masters. We got rid of the English while the French and the Russians--ardent readers--shredded their ancient monarchies. In fact, the French--who read and theorize the most--became so addicted to political experiment that they have exuberantly produced one Directory, one Consulate, two empires, three restorations of the monarchy and five republics. That's what happens when you take writing too seriously. Happily, Americans have never liked reading all that much. Politically ignorant, we keep sputtering along in our old Model T, looking wistfully every four years for a good mechanic.

Along with political change--the result of general literacy and the printing press--the nature of narrative began to fragment. High literature concerned itself, most democratically, with the doings of common folk. Although a George Eliot or a Thomas Hardy could make art out of these simple domestic tales, in most hands crude mirrors of life tend to be duller than Dumas, say, and, paradoxically, less popular. Today's serious novel is apt to be a carefully written teacherly text about people who teach school and write teacherly texts to dwindling classes. Today's popular novel, carelessly, recklessly composed on--or by--a machine, paradoxically has taken over the heroes and kings and gods, placing them in modern designer clothes among consumer dreams beyond the dreams of Scheherazade.

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