The 5th Folklore Fellows’ Summer School will study variation and textuality in folklore. The word “variation” brings to mind the fact that variation is the life-blood of oral tradition. It is the main characteristic which differentiates oral culture from literary culture. Oral “works” are fluid, whereas literary works show a permanent form. In oral tradition, a single realisation of a theme can never claim the position of a master form which dominates over all other realisations of a theme or motif. During his/her performance career, a ballad singer or storyteller may be convinced that he/she has changed nothing in a song or story, yet variation creeps in all the time as the chain of performances continues. The performances are not identical, variation is constantly present and part and parcel of the oral composition itself, but the “thing” that varies remains a problem for the observing outside analyst. The performer may regard his last performance as the very best realisation and the “whole truth” of a theme, yet he will change many things, large and small, in his next performance. Flexibility rather than stability seems to be the key to the continuity of tradition, to the kind of “invariability” typical of oral tradition which prevents variation from going astray and distorting the song or story completely.
Variation is not an end in itself, although occasionally the analyst may feel that it is just that, when he observes the verbal fluency and prosodic joy of a master of words in the retellings of a theme: the performer does not seem to repeat himself, nor does he copy others. Instead, he seems to be more than happy to perplex the text-oriented collector through the diversity of linguistic form which still remains capable of conveying a theme. It is not that the performer could not repeat or copy, if he wanted, it is just that he is not primarily occupied by the strict maintenance of texture. There are other concerns which put him to think and work.
Variation is thus neither striven for nor thought of by the performer. It is a by-product of something else. Tentatively one may say that the performer, despite his mastery of poetic form, or perhaps just because of it, goes not by form but by meaning. Yet the “correct” meaning is inextricably linked to the poetic form. It is not merely a matter of what is said, but of how it is said, and what is left unsaid. In a sense, the poetic form may be ready and available, whereas the meaning is not. It is something that must be produced over and over again, never quite the same and always within a sequential web of expressions governed by several performative styles and a particular situation.
There are at least two things that the performer must continuously observe: the storyline and the context of performance. The construction of the actual meaning takes place somewhere between a pool of pre-extant plot structures and multiforms, pre-worked phrasal and formulaic expressions and the often unique preconditions of a particular performance which determine what can, must or may be expressed, in what performative style, for how long and directed at whom. Adaptation of the story into a unique sequence of events preceding the performance to an audience of a particular kind sets the frame for “the art of the possible” in the construction of the actual meaning to be derived from a story. Nothing is self-evident at the outset: the old story is treading a new land.
Stories, again, tend to create worlds of their own and impose themselves on human beings. They are not stable, either. The most consistent picture of a story may be gained through a postulated mental text in the mind of an individual performer. It becomes visible through different realisations in performance, never quite the same and indicative of mental editing which may have taken place between consecutive performances or in the actual situation of performance. Mental texts are not shared but individual. Singers and storytellers may seem to have a similar story to tell but the outside observer soon comes across salient differences between performers. In the learning phase, there may even be a close similarity between the teacher and the pupil, but this proves to be a temporary phenomenon, because the teacher will continue to develop and edit his story and the pupil will create his own predilections and cultivate his own system of expressions. In the case of two competent performers, their mental texts of the “same” story may show affinity and may even affect each other, but they will never become identical.
Saying this is easy, but proving it in detail is not. The problem lies with customary folkloristic materials, which, despite all the proud claims by the founding theoreticians of basing their conclusions on a comprehensive study of all the available variants of a song or story, do not reflect the variation discussed above. The keyword may be “available”. The historic-geographic school aimed at collecting, if not all, then at least a representative number of variants from all the cultures which possessed a particular folktale, ballad or proverb. Representative of what? Certainly not the “organic” variation of an oral product within a competent narrator’s performances during a relatively short span of his career. Certainly not the organic variation apparent in a tradition community where performers and audiences know each other, are in contact or at least by hearsay share certain traditions, take and give each other impulses. And certainly not, despite the “geographic” focus of the method, the organic variation to be found not only in cohesive communities and social groups but also in cohesive regions where people sustain channels of communication and share traditions.
What the earlier comparative method was able to create was a bird’s eye view on the “variation” of individual folktales, ballads, proverbs, etc., in time and space. The variation observed was used as a tool in designing the history of origin and dissemination of an oral product. Much criticism has been levelled at such ambitious goals as the reconstruction of the “earliest form” or the “routes of diffusion”. Less attention has been paid to the fact that the picture created of variation in folklore is in many ways misleading. The materials used were a haphazard collection of often incommensurable documents scattered widely in time and space. A few hundred variants, at best, purported to delineate a picture of the extant forms of a tale, song or proverb through continents, scores of countries and hundreds of years. The network of variants remained thin and full of holes, and there was no real “dialogue” to be constructed between the variants, which practically never belonged to the same cohesive community. In short, the variation was artificial and not representative of organic variation. I once suggested that such variation be called “tradition-phenomenological” (Journal of Folklore Research 23/1986: 113-15) and kept separate from other forms of variation.
Behind each item included in the list of variants of a historic-geographic monograph there was a world of organic variation which remained invisible because it was represented by only one item. The key to that world would have been fieldwork. In the classical method, however, fieldwork was rarely resorted to. It was enough to cull the libraries and archives. Fortunately, during recent decades many folklorists have become involved in creating thick material corpuses through intensive collecting of the repertoires of one or several performers/ informants in one community or region. “Repertoire” need not refer to a particular tale or even genre; it can be a thematic field and, most importantly, it implies the documentation of performance situations, relevant audiences and the social background of expressions of folklore.
Recent fieldwork projects have been producing and analysing material corpuses that are quite different from the classical historic-geographic ones. Their time span may be short and their geographic scope limited, but the frequency of the folklore expressions studied may be high, i.e. the same story will be documented several times from one or more performers. Such thick corpuses make organic variation visible. Studies concentrating on one performer, one village or one thematic field in a community or region are the most common. The distribution of tradition in a cohesive community, individual repertoires and collectively shared knowledge, variation of folklore according to social role, performance context, audience and the socio-psychological ambience are topical elements of many field projects.
The multiplicity of data is not the only criterion of a “thick” corpus. The commensurability and comparability of the data are just as important. They are part of living tradition systems maintained by individuals and groups having the possibility of social exchange. Even as archived specimens, unable to change and develop, they may be said to sketch the scope and limits of real variation in a textual universe which existed at the time of their documentation.
There is a plan to produce a book for the FF Summer School 1999 on the topic of “Thick Corpus, Organic Variation and Textuality”. Most of the teachers on the course will contribute articles which may not be formally read but will be intensively discussed by a panel, with questions from the participants. These articles will be of two kinds: 1) examples of analyses based on thick materials and 2) more theoretical treatises on the key concepts. The book will be sent to the participants well before the course.
(FFN 15, April 1998: 11-12)