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Walter Ong, 90; Priest's Books Traced the Development of Communication

August 15, 2003|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Jesuit Father Walter J. Ong, a leading scholar in the field of language and culture who traced the transition from oral to written communication in his more than 20 books, died Tuesday at St. Mary's Health Center in Richmond Heights, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis. He was 90.

Ong had suffered from Parkinson's disease for several years and was hospitalized with pneumonia last Friday.

In his writings and lectures, Ong explored the development of communication from its pre-literate beginnings to its current reliance on radio, television and the Internet. He was fascinated by the transitions from one to another form of mass communication.

He used ancient stories such as Homer's "Odyssey" to demonstrate his point that preliterate cultures relied on "oral thought," in which the storyteller might contradict himself and the story itself might change over time until it was written down.

He contrasted oral tradition with the written, where works first appeared in literate form. He used the works of Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle to illustrate the change. A written text relies on a set of ground rules for logical reasoning, as well as a consistent use of terms, to communicate information.

The two traditions influenced cultural values, Ong noted. Though an oral society places a high value on communal memory and the elders who are the main link to history, a literate one focuses on individual reasoning and introspection.

The rise of technology introduced other changes. In a "high-tech" culture, a person reads a novel and imagines a movie in his mind. The Internet blurs people's exterior and interior worlds. Virtual reality is no longer a private matter.

Ong's meticulous research on these developments helped lay the foundation for an understanding of modern media culture.

Some of his research corresponded with the work of his famous teacher, Marshall McLuhan, whose interest in the history of the verbal arts in Western culture inspired Ong to pursue his own studies.

He was McLuhan's student in graduate school when he completed a master's degree in English at St. Louis University. McLuhan was a faculty member from 1937 to 1944. (Ong went on to earn a PhD at Harvard University.)

Though McLuhan became a pop-culture guru in the 1960s -- "global village," his term for the interconnectedness of the world by mass media, is now included in Webster's Dictionary -- Ong remained a scholar's scholar. His writing style was dense and complex, not easy to grasp. His ideas were subtle and cumulative, not catchy. His most highly regarded book, for example, is "Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World" (1982).

"Ong is the sort of guy the experts read," said Thomas J. Farrell, whose 2000 book, "Walter Ong's Contributions to Cultural Studies," has helped make the scholarly priest's work more accessible.

Born in Kansas City, Mo., on Nov. 30, 1912, Ong knew he wanted to be a priest from the time he was in high school. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1935 and was ordained in 1946.

He spent most of his teaching career at St. Louis University, in the English department. He taught courses in Renaissance literature, his specialty, along with a range of others.

He also lectured at Oxford University, the Yale Divinity School and a number of other top academic institutions around the world until he retired in 1991.

Despite Ong's academic achievements, Farrell said, "he was first and foremost a priest. He said daily Mass at 5:30 a.m., regularly heard confessions and wore cleric's garb wherever he went."

His academic work only strengthened his belief in God. "God created the evolving world, and it's still evolving," Ong told the St. Louis Post Dispatch last year.

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