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Ancient and Modern Parables of the Origin of Writing

May 21, 2020 - 4:30pm to 6:00pm
East Asia (Lathrop) Library, Room 224, 518 Memorial Way

The story of the god Thoth and King Ammon in Plato’s Phaedrus is perhaps the most familiar example of a script-origin narrative, but such accounts also exist from ancient China (such as Xu Shen’s postface to the Shuowen jiezi) and Mesopotamia (the poem “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta”). There are also rich and provocative ancient discussions of what it means to “borrow” or “adapt” writing from an adjacent (often more powerful) civilization, including a set of interrelated narratives in eighth-century Japanese chronicles about Korean scribes importing Sinitic writing. Such premodern sources can be profitably juxtaposed with modern discussions of colonial and ethnological encounters with literacy, such as frequently quoted and requoted stories of “natives” taken aback at the power of writing, or Claude Lévi-Strauss’s famous “Writing Lesson” (from his 1955 book Tristes Tropiques). This talk considers the persistent anachronism that marks such accounts. Whether ancient or modern, it seems they inevitably become parables or allegories of the powers of writing at the time of their composition, rather than plausible reconstructions of its earliest stages. What lies behind this difficulty in writing the history of writing?

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About the speaker:

David B. Lurie's research interests include: the history of writing systems and literacy; the literary and cultural history of premodern Japan; the Japanese reception of Chinese literary, historical, and technical writings; the development of Japanese dictionaries and encyclopedias; the history of linguistic thought; Japanese mythology; and the comparative history of philological practices.  His first book investigated the development of writing systems in Japan through the Heian period. Entitled Realms of Literacy: Early Japan and the History of Writing, it was awarded the Lionel Trilling Award in 2012.  Along with Haruo Shirane and Tomi Suzuki, he was co-editor of the Cambridge History of Japanese Literature (2015), to which he contributed chapters on myths, histories, gazetteers, and early literature in general. He is currently preparing a new scholarly monograph, tentatively entitled The Emperor’s Dreams: Reading Japanese Mythology, and is also co-editing Local Legends of Ancient Japan: A Fudoki Reader.

Event Sponsor: 
Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Center for East Asian Studies
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