Reports from the XIIth Congress of the International Society for Folk Narrative Research, Göttingen 1998

A popular music programme which can be heard regularly on the Swedish radio has the title Trends and Traditions. This title occurred to me while I was studying the impressive programme for the 12th congress of the ISFNR in Göttingen, “Horizons of Narrative Communication”. The abstracts of the papers reflected all the dominant trends within folklore scholarship during the past few decades. There were gender sudies, analyses of mentalities as expressed in folklore, scrutinies of personal narratives and everyday conversations inspired by socio-linguistics. But I also noticed titles of papers which could just as well have been found in the programme of the first Folk Narrative congress in Kiel and Copenhagen forty years ago. This bears witness of the fact that there are also strong research traditions within our discipline which live on almost untouched by current trends.

This diversity makes it difficult to write a congress report with pretentions of giving an overall picture. Not even the busiest congress participant could listen to more than, say, one fourth of all the papers. Therefore, my impressions will only show which papers appealed especially to a folklorist with my preferences: folk narratives belonging to well-known epic genres, especially contemporary urban legends. Those signals for the direction of future folk narrative research which I thought I perceived may not have been heard by other participants.

The opening paper, Rudolf Schenda’s “Gianbattista Basile, Neapel und die mediterrane Erzähltradition” was a real treat, an enjoyment one does not experience too often during a congress. Schenda created a deeper understanding of this classic collection by placing it in its socio-historical context. At the same time he demonstrated what pleasure a close reading of Basile can give. His own fresh translations of the passages quoted contributed to this impression.

Folklore research inspired by sociolinguistics and concentrating on performance has been one of the most obvious trends since the 1970s. Of course it was also to be found in Göttingen, but I got the impression that the number of papers had decreased since the previous congresses. Could this mean that this trend, which has undeniably widened the horizons of folkloristics but also moved the focus away from the core of traditional material to more peripheral forms of communication, has passed its heyday? However that may be, it had some brilliant representatives at the congress. One was Hermann Bausinger, who read a paper entitled “Die Befreiung von Geschichten”, in which he analysed a conversation in which he had participated himself. It contained many topics but only one story, and it was possible to follow how the teller created room for it by means of different strategies. Another was Martha Blache, who talked about “The Anecdote as a Symbolic Expression of the Social and Cultural Milieu of Journalists”. She concentrated on an anecdote from the restless -60s in Argentina and analysed its narrative context, the symbolic and cognitive world shared by newspaper journalists with a multitude of referential clues unknown to outsiders.

Many papers demonstrated that the gender aspect of folklore continues to be vital. In her plenary lecture Patricia Lysaght made it very probable that a valuable Irish collection of folklore, Lady Gregory’s Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, has not reached the position it deserves because of the sex and social background of the author. Sabine Dinslage and Anne Storch delivered one of the most fascinating papers of the whole congress when they analysed the fear of female sexuality expressed in West African folktales. The title of their paper was “Gender and Magic in Jukun Folktales”.

Some of the most debated plenary papers will be treated in other congress reports in this issue of FF Network. A paper I personally found worthwhile was the one by Gillian Bennett and Anne Rowbottom about the deification of Princess Diana in the popular press and public opinion, “Born a Lady, Died a Saint”. Their analysis of the perhaps greatest media event of recent years was hardly surprising but very solid, and it demonstrated the richness of sources available for a fieldworker today, in this case not only newspaper articles but also casual remarks by mourners, handwritten letters to Diana, photographs and toys.

Several plenary lectures explored the history of folklore collection. Patricia Lysaght’s paper has already been mentioned. Galit Hasan-Rokem devoted her lecture to a critical review of the publication activities of her teacher Dov Noy, whose collections of folktales from different immigrant groups have been instrumental in forming a national Israeli identity. Patrick B. Mullen treated two wellknown collections of African American folklore put together by white collectors. Both exemplify what James Clifford calls “ethnographic allegories”, that is documentations which are not only descriptive but also contain moral, ideological, even cosmological statements. The books in question reflect a romantic view of the African American, a view that inspired Mullen himself when he started his study of black culture in the -60s.

Contemporary urban legends have for two decades been perhaps the most expansive field within folk narrative research, but in Göttingen the papers on this topic were few. The reason for this was that The International Society for Contemporary Legend Research had a seminar in Innsbruck the week before the Göttingen congress. Those interested in the field could, however, rejoice at Sabine Wienker-Piepho’s paper on the “Handy” (the pseudo-English word for a mobile telephone in Germany) and the legends, rumours and jokes it has generated. They could also follow Ingo Schneider’s discussion of a modern legend containing the motif “poisoned dress”, also found in the Greek myth about Nessos.

Approaches borrowed from different psychological schools have long been commonplace in folklore research. Some have proved more, others less valuable. An important psychological function of narrating that cannot be questioned is that it helps people cope with traumatic experiences. This was exemplified in several interesting papers. Eda Kalmre gave an account of the legends which followed upon the disastrous shipwreck of the Estonia. Mirjam Morad demonstrated how a survivor of the Holocaust has used storytelling as a means of coping with traumatic memories. Timothy Tangherlini gave a convincing analysis of storytelling strategies among paramedics in the San Francisco Bay area.

Since the participants virtually represented the whole world, those participants interested in learning more about foreign cultures (and I was one of them) could choose between several exciting case studies. West African folklore was highlighted in papers by Dan Ben-Amos, who analysed the brutal and tragic narrative of “The King Who Buried His Wife Alive”, and by Isaac Olawale Albert, who pointed at similarities between the Sundiata epic of Mande speaking peoples and Yoruban epics. He also stressed that this mutual cultural heritage could be used to improve integration of the countries in this part of Africa.

Earlier congresses have given ample evidence that narratives and proverbs may have common elements. The Göttingen congress also offered some valuable paremiological papers. Wolfgang Mieder, a leading authority on proverbs, gave an elegant account of the German saying about “der Reiter über den Bodensee”, which goes back to a ballad which in turn goes back to a legend. Véronique Campion-Vincent and Christine Shojaei Kawan read a joint paper entitled “Marie-Antoinette and her Famous Saying: Three Levels of Communication, Three Modes of Accusation and Two Troubled Centuries”. As could be expected, the unlucky queen never said that the people could eat cakes instead of bread; the utterance was ascribed to her, as it has been ascribed to others before her.

Some papers were especially memorable because they might change the positions of folklore scholarship for years to come. The grand old lady of the congress, Linda Dégh, advocated in her paper “Landscapes and Mindscapes” a new ethnographic approach to the Märchen. Folktale research would be vitalised, she predicted, if stress were laid not on the similarity between folktale variants, but on individual differences such as own inventions, innovative additions and deviations from the type outline. This would lead to a deeper understanding of the narrative event and of the mind, worldview and creativity of the storyteller.

Similar thoughts could be found in Lauri Honko’s paper “Variation and Textuality in Oral Narratives”. For an older generation of scholars variation meant above all the differences between variants of individual taletypes, ballads or proverbs, recorded at different times and places. The theory of folkloric variation would gain from a more limited study. Honko’s own field studies of oral epics in southern Karnataka in India have convinced him that two identical textualisations of one and the same story cannot exist, because there are too many variables simultaneously at play at the various levels of action. He concludes: “Folkloric variation must be explained by means other than by resorting to the hierarchic descent between variants of a postulated ‘basic text’, which never existed. – – – What we need to explore is the ‘organic variation’ to be found in a ‘thick corpus’ of documented performances. The variation must stem from the same performer, ‘live’ group or socially coherent region.”

A conclusion that can be extrapolated from both Dégh’s and Honko’s papers is that the core of folklore research is the study of those narrative categories that manifestly belong to the collective tradition. This was also explicitly stated by Michael Chesnutt in his paper “Who Took the Folk out of Folk Narrative?”. Chesnutt, who has a philological, text-oriented background, is rightly worried over the collapse of folkloristics that threatens his university in Copenhagen and indeed many other universities as well. One explanation for this sad development might be that many folklorists have abandoned traditional narrative in order to investigate areas where they can no longer be distinguished from anthropologists, ethnologists and socio-linguists.

The most urgent signal I thought I heard in Göttingen is the warning formulated by Michael Chesnutt. Folkloristics is, in spite of its many facets demonstrated in Göttingen, a discipline in crisis. It is essential that we do not forget to carry on and renew the study of traditional narrative, which is a field only folklorists have the full competence to investigate.

Bengt af Klintberg
Stockholm, Sweden

(FFN 16, October 1998: 8-9, 11)

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