Learning from Comics: Compilation of Oral Tradition and Making sense of Time and Narrative


I have been doing some musing recently on how compilations of oral traditions communicate time in linking a story together. For example if a series of stories about a person are communicated, does it necessarily matter the order that they are communicated in, and does the significance of that order change between different cultures?

Say we have a collection of stories about Winnie the Pooh, labeled Scene A, B, C and D. Temporally they occurred in a certain order A > B > C > D, but what would happen if A.A. Milne decided to compile these as C, A, D, B? While in our Western concept of time and space this would appear unnatural and confusing, I’m not sure that this is universally applicable.

In musing about this I went back to an old book I have around on how sequential artists communicate in their specific medium: comics. Scott McCloud provides a helpful series of categories that comic artists use in communicating transitions between their panels.

Scott McCloud on Comic Transitions

Scott McCloud on Comic Transitions (click for bigger)

In the book (and elsewhere) he notes that the majority of Western comics reflect a western concept of time, and therefore use action-to-action or scene-to-scene transitions, that are specifically temporally linked. Interestingly Eastern (Japanese/Chinese) cultures tend to also use more subject-to-subject and aspect-to-aspect transitions in communication–as shown here in reflections on Ghost in the Shell: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXTnl1FVFBw

However, I think that the style of communication with subject-to-subject and aspect-to-aspect transitions is lost on a lot of Western audiences, as they impose a temporally sequential hermeneutic on the panels.

What I have been wondering about is how this would apply to collections of oral traditions or memories. In many cases when Western trained scholars look at collections of oral tradition, such as the Gospel of John, or the book of Judges, it is presumed that the material must be temporally sequential in some form. But I have a sneaking suspicion that this is a particularly Greco-Roman concept, and that quite possibly the Hebrew/Jewish concept of time is more along the subject-to-subject and aspect-to-aspect line.

This, I think, would significantly change how we interpret and centre the compilations of collections of oral traditions. The next question though is how does it change?


About Chris

  • Bill Heroman

    I *LOVE* Scott McCloud. Yes, I’ve done LOADS of thinking and research about this, and I’ve got stacks of notes and drafts for a blog series yet to be born, following up on my earlier stuff about “Time in Memory”. I wrote a bit of a teaser for that once, but let me stick to your post here if I can…

    For starters, I’ve got a PDF in my files of an article, “Contingency, Order, and the Modular Narrative…”, from an academic film journal called “The Velvet Light Trap”. If you don’t have access, I can send it to you, but here’s the gist.

    The article discusses “Modular Narratives” in film and makes the very interesting (for your purposes) point that films before Pulp Fiction struggled mightily with non-linear storytelling. Jacob’s Ladder tried to juxtapose out of sequence moments in flashback but audiences couldn’t figure it out. The solution turns out to be representing aspects of contingency. Films today do an excellent job. Memento was one of the early successes (and also an obvious extreme case). LOST was amazingly adept at signaling precise nuances in temporality with all kinds of visual clues. A different kind of example is in Notting Hil where Hugh Grant walks through the market in all four seasons, but they work in other transitional clues to reassure the audience as to what’s going on. There’s a pregnant woman who’s later pushing a stroller, and a loving couple who later goes through a break up, and I think the wares in the shops may show signs of seasonal merchandise as well.

    My point – in case it’s not obvious – is not merely that temporal distinctions are often contained in visual clues; although film jumped easily to my mind because of your Scott McCloud references. My point is that CONTENT determines STRUCTURE.

    I wrote about this basic point a few times on the blog. Use my search bar for “William Friedman”. His 1993 Cog Psych article is the most helpful, “Memory for the Time of Events”. Basically, he demonstrates in a number of ways that we sort our memories chronologically according to context. That is, if some aspect of the memory (*as preserved*) includes a bit of chronologizing detail, then our natural process of constructive remembering is able to use that bit of detail and relate THIS memory to some OTHER memory, with respect to their temporal sequence. This happens in various ways, but the bottom line is that TEMPORAL CONTENT either is or is not present in each particular memory (i.e., recalled bits and pieces of information, a la Daniel Schacter.) Thus, some memories are easily chronologized and others are not. Because remembering is constructive, the content determines whether or not these bits of memory/ies will be sort-able, with respect to temporal order.

    In the Gospels, I believe one way this works itself out is with respect to John’s imprisonment. Memories of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee are sorted (whether accurately or not) into the (arbitrary?) time period in-between John’s arrest and beheading. In my humble opinion, this does not mean ALL of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee necessarily took place *during* that phase, but an awful lot of it evidently must have lined up just that way. Realistically, there was probably some overlap, but the predominant social memory seems to correlate these two phases. Okay… HOW this works (I think) is that John’s presence is a part of the context of some traditions and John’s absence is a part of the context of other traditions. Because John himself was so prominent, those aspects survived as a portion of several individual traditions. Eventually, whenever the memories of a more precise timeline had faded, these aspects of CONTINGENCY were a natural means by which *SOME* traditions had become SELF-SORTING.

    Note, especially, that this SORTING is more broad than acute. Mark’s narrative sequence during John’s imprisonment is different from Matthew’s narrative sequence during the same period, BUT they include the same content during that period. (!!)

    Hope this helps. I’ll go post it at the blog, also…

  • Bill Heroman

    One more thing…

    I think the visual angle is key. Non-linear narrative is well established as the preference in verbal narrative, as illustrated by Homer and lauded by Aristotle, but in verbal narratives you can cheat too easily. The narrator just says, “Years earlier…” Or “a month later, he would discover…”

    Memories are often visual, which I find deeply intriguing as a part of all this. But the more important point is that memories are non-verbal. Whether the bits and pieces of information we happen to recall (or happen to *think* we recall) should be classified as images or as something else, the contextual associations are certainly not defined by verbal narration.

    So, in one memory I see my toddler son standing near the TV when the twin towers fell – I wasn’t at home but at work, but I formed such an image based on my wife’s description and the memory stuck. Right or wrong, this tells me that I *think* 9/11 happened when my son was around two years of age. In fact, since he was born in July ’99, that *aspect* of the memory’s natural chronologization checks out.

    In another case, it’s not visual but associative. Friedman talks about Chernobyl and Three Mile Island because subjects demonstrated remembering the former event *WHEN* the latter took place. I have the same experience with Hobbit^3 and LOTR^3. Because I remember thinking “They’re trying to make these Hobbit movies look just like LOTR,” that tells me which one (*I think*) happened first.

    Anyway, visual is often a key part of integrating contextual details into a unified “memory”, but the main reason I think we can’t find much on this topic is because verbal narration has dominated our ideas of narrative. If “Narrative” can apply to threads which exist only in our minds (albeit “Story” might work better in most cases, if not all), then we need to look at VISUAL and – more specifically – NON-VERBAL forms of contextual embedding.