Introducing Walter Ong, S.J.

Michael Novak says of Walter Ong: “His work is among the most important being done, and I don’t think he gets nearly the amount of attention he deserves” (personal correspondence dated June 8, 1983). My purpose here is to introduce those who are unfamiliar with him to Father Walter J. Ong of the Society of Jesus.

Walter grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was a double eagle scout in the Boy Scouts. He graduated from Rockhurst College, a Jesuit college, in 1933, worked for a period, and then entered the Society of Jesus. He did his M.A. thesis under the direction of Marshall McLuhan at Saint Louis University on sprung rhythm in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

His Ph.D. dissertation is probably one of the longest ever turned in at Harvard University. It was published in two volumes by Harvard University Press in 1958, a rare honor indeed. The second volume is an extensive annotated inventory of works by Peter Ramus (1515-1572) and his colleagues; it was reprinted in a hardcover edition by Folcroft Press in 1970. The first volume was reprinted in a hardcover edition by Octagon Books in 1974 and 1979, and this fall Harvard University Press will issue a paperback edition for the first time of Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason. When a scholarly work is judged worthy of being issued in paperback 25 years after its original publication, it is undoubtedly an enduring work.

But the book to begin with to find out what Ong’s work is all about is his Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, which was published in hardcover and paperback in 1982 by Methuen. It is his most lucid description of the difference between primary oral and literate culture. From there one can then take a long course or a short course in psycho-cultural evolution. The short course would be to proceed immediately to Albert B. Lord’s The Singer of Tales and then to Eric A. Havelock’s Preface to Plato and then to Ong’s The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History. This book of Ong’s was re¬issued in paperback in 1981 by the University of Minnesota Press. The long course would be to proceed to Lord’s The Singer of Tales; Havelock’s Preface to Plato; Ong’s Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue; Frances A. Yates’ The Art of Memory; Ong’s The Presence of the Word; Ong’s Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture; Ong’s Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture; and Werner H. Kelber’s The Oral and the Written Gospel. Either the long or the short course will give readers a good sense of Ong’s work in psycho-cultural evolution.

Four other books of Ong’s offer collections of essays on topics of particular interest to educated Catholics: Frontiers in American Catholicism, American Catholic Crossroads, The Barbarian Within, and In the Human Grain. Two other books co-authored and edited by Ong are also of interest to educated Catholics: Darwin’s Vision and Christian Perspectives and Knowledge and the Future of Man.

Ong has recently addressed himself to analyzing male and female behavior in Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness (Cornell University Press, 1981). He notes that biologically and psychologically males are more insecure than females. This is manifested in the male’s propensity to prove himself in contest with other males. The loser in these contests usually defers in some way to the greater power of the victor. The male practice of deferring to greater power can be observed elsewhere too. Conventional manners manifested the male sense of the greater security of females by calling for males to defer to females (e.g., to open doors). The greater security of females is rooted in the female power to do something no male can do — reproduce the race. No contest about that, and so conventional manners called for males to defer to the greater power of females. This power is so great that even God had to defer to it when He wished to effect the Incarnation.

Ong points out that males feel a need to prove themselves because of their greater insecurity. Ong himself has chosen the arena of scholarly endeavor in which to prove himself, and in my judgment he is one of the few males ever whose work justified his existence. He has indeed proven his worth to his fellow human beings, but as Novak says his work has not received the amount of attention it deserves.

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Thomas J. Farrell is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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