The travel guide warning that “in the Alps it rains a lot” came to mind during the week in the beginning of July, when about two hundred folklorists from all parts of the world met in Innsbruck for the 10th Congress of the International Society for Folk Narrative Research. Yet for persons like myself who never before saw the Alps at a close range, the visit to the westernmost tip of Austria became an unforgettable experience: you could start climbing right behind the railway station and the famous ski jump stadium was practically in the downtown. Excursions to Italy and Germany placed many details of European cultural history on the visual map as did the excellent art exhibition on the Spanish-Austrian relations during the Habsburgs. Strolling from the Schloss along the mountain slope we found a military cemetery well hidden in the thick forest with graves of the veterans of both World Wars with pictures and texts which once, if not still, were the Austrian world view.
The intellectual menu of the congress offered “folk narrative and world view” as the main course. Relatively few of the papers dealt with the concept more intensively but quite a few touched upon it. If I look back at the general themes of the ISFNR congresses it is hard to insist that they represent ideas of a paradigmatic stature. Yet the participating folklorists have perused topics like “storytelling” (Edinburgh, 1979), “meaning” (Bergen, 1984) and “identity” (Budapest, 1989). If we are to believe Bengt Holbek, it was the congress in Bergen that came closest to a timely focusing on a change of paradigms. As the second component of the theme always is “folk narrative”, the theme probably serves as much the professional identity proclamation of the folklorists (where changes are undesirable) as the changing orientation of research interests. What never is discussed publicly, is the question whether “folk narrative” really is the best common denominator for folklorists of the world now that Kurt Ranke who needed it for his Enzyklopädie is no more with us and the encyclopedia well established.
And the trend continues. The next ISFNR congress will be held in Mysore, India, in early January 1995 on the general theme “Folk narrative in a changing world”. Such a general topic may reflect the realisation that whatever the theme, the folklorists will deal with their actual research. Frankly, the ISFNR congress resembles more a family gathering than a topically structured workshop. This brings about many happy reunions but also some frustration. The most obvious reward, namely, that “names become faces”, was aptly coined by Alan Dundes already in Helsinki 1974.
As to the key concept in Innsbruck, Gregory Schrempp’s survey on its uses in ethnography and narrative research had been sent to participants well ahead. He concluded that “narratives are one of the main kinds of evidence from which scholars attempt to read worldview”, but that there is a danger of circularity where “narrative” and “worldview” tend to interfuse so that “to distinguish them in our analytical activity involves a bit of artifice”. He consoled his readers by saying that such circularity of argument is intrinsic in the human sciences and that we should simply live with it.
A bit more active stand was taken by Linda Dégh who defined world view as “the sum total of subjective interpretations of perceived and experienced reality of individuals” and said: “Worldview for folklorists is not an organizing factor but rather the contextualizing, localizing, concretizing element that turns the global into local, the empty formula into meaningful reality. To study worldview is not an end in itself, but a way to understand how genre distinctions arise through diverse world conceptions and how worldview-variables in the variants of the same type indicate creative processes of cultural adaptation.”
I have no difficulty in following this line of what I have called tradition-ecological adaptation. According to it world view is more in the ways of handling folklore than in the material itself. What seems important to me, however, is to stress not only the processual nature of world view negotiations but also the persistence of core symbols and meanings. When I define world views as “living systems of relatively persistent core symbols and models of interpretation” it is also the question of “what stands out?” which is my concern, because it helps us to avoid the circularity mentioned above.
Yet this does not mean that folklore text would be bereft of its influence in creating new world views. This lesson I learned in India, when an epic singer who knows several lengthy oral epics, singled out only one epic as his personal code of ethics, “the world in which I live”, and described his ability to perform other epics as a technical matter.
The congress in Innsbruck came only three years after Budapest, not five. Also the next congress will be in three years, but after that the interval will probably be four years. More revolutionary than this experimentation is, however, the decision of the ISFNR to stick its nose outside Europe, at long last.
Leander Petzoldt and his team worked hard and created a nice congress. Less laudable are the last minute absentees who ruined time-tables and caused economic loss. In cases like Estonia the total absence sadly showed that freedom and money do not reside in the same pocket.
The Folklore Fellows Advisory Committee had a lengthy meeting in Innsbruck, but since its dealings are still to be concluded, we will inform about them in our next issue.
(FFN 5, August 1992: 1-2)