On Literacy: The Politics of the Word from Homer to the Age by Robert Pattison

By Robert Pattison

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AGAMEMNON AND THE PHYSICAL BASIS OF LITERACY My third type of fundamental illiterate is Homer's Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks against Troy. Several years ago Julian Jaynes's book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind announced that what we call consciousness was a phenomenon unknown to the Greeks of Homer's time; that the right and left hemispheres of the brain were not then neurologically related as they are now; and that certain critical mental activity occurring in the right hemisphere, which is now fodder for conscious reflection, appeared to the characters of the Iliad as divine and external voices completely detached from self.

And writing has propriety. Every writing system seems torn by conflicting impulses. On the one hand it wants to include within its scope all the subjects of language itself. Writing means to be the hard copy of human life. But at the same time every writing scheme has its taboos. Much as writing wants to be inclusive, there are some areas of life it either will not or cannot discuss as well as speech. This propriety is clear in traditional and classical civilizations, where certain themes like personal confession are never entertained in writing.

The power of speech is like the ability to move one's limbs. Both are complex physical acts that depend upon training within the human community, but both are available to all men in the normal course of development. Rhetoric, though, is like etiquette, a learned social refinement of biological reality. The rhetorician aspires to reach and alter our consciousness. His is therefore a literate endeavor. He uses language in a studied way for result, thereby forming the raw matter of language by the technology of rhetoric.

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