The Presence of the Word
by Walter J. Ong S.J.
Yale, 360 pp., $6.95
Now that the other eminent Catholic-electronic prophet, Marshall McLuhan, seems to have gone into orbit with his fantasy-probes, we shall all no doubt need to attend more closely to Fr. Ong, who says so many of the same things but appears to say them more judiciously. He is a good typographical man—encyclopaedic, repetitive, and committed to the past, not only as scholar but as theologian. He makes an occasional bow to his cool colleague, whose account of the new oral culture he echoes, but he appears to be of the opinion that if you have a theory you should be willing to defend it and produce evidence; he too says very extraordinary things but assumes that he has to vouch for them, and allow you to agree or disagree. I don’t know what McLuhan would say about the more theological formulations of Ong, but in so far as he spells out the argument about the periodic modification of the sensory apparatus from oral to visual etc., it seems clear that any critique of Ong is substantially one of McLuhan also, a momentous consequence that will be in everybody’s mind as he toils through these pages.
The book began life as the Terry Lectures at Yale, a series founded “to the end that the Christian spirit may be natured in the fullest light of the world’s knowledge,” and one presumes that the lectures lacked something of the sheer density of the book. Certainly it doesn’t suggest oral performance; in fact it is a monument to those methods of information-storing, such as handwriting and printing, which—alas, as some say—replaced the early oral techniques of rhetoric and mnemonic. If one calls the style of the lectures highly typographic, it is only a way of saying that they have no style at all. Like many other aspects of our culture which tend in these discussions to be overlooked, prose style is in some respects an oral fossil; whether you are speaking of the splendid Ciceronian balances of Dr. Johnson or the smart Tacitean curtness of J.F. Kennedy, you always appeal to early oral modes when you talk about prose style: or, in the appropriate language, you refer inevitably to the inveterate orality of learned Latin, and measure a deviation from the informative sequential native jogtrot of printed English. This book has no more style than a printbound Utilitarian tract of the last century, or a printoriented Ph.D. thesis in this:
Undoubtedly, if we consider in these perspectives the work of an earlier Terry Lecturer, John Dewey, we will find that one facet of his manyfaceted significance is that he climaxed the large-scale movement away from polemic in favor of an irenic approach to learning.
Fr. Ong throws down hundreds of sentences like this one—coils of lecturer’s demotic bruised with learning. They lie on the page like apple parings carelessly dropped, taking what shape chance or grace will give them. Perhaps this is not …