June 9, 2016 by Jessica Palmer
Review of Bruno de la Salle’s Plaidoyer pour les arts de la parole
Department of French and Italian
Brigham Young University
Bruno de la Salle. Plaidoyer pour les arts de la parole (The Arts of the Spoken Word – A Defence)Vendôme, France: Centre de Littérature Orale, 2004. 91 pp.
Bruno de la Salle has been involved in storytelling since the 1960’s and is recognized as one of the key players in the renewal of the art of storytelling in France. He is currently the artistic director of the Centre de Littérature Orale (CLiO) in Vendôme, France, a center he founded in 1981 to bring together the means for researching and learning the art of Storytelling.
De la Salle has narrated, recited, chanted and staged some of the greatest epic poems including “Le chant de l’Odyssée,” “L’amour interdit” (d’après les Mille et une nuits) “Le dit du devin” (d’après le Cycle du Roi Arthur) as well as his own monumental stories including “Grand’Mère mensonge” and “La chanson des pierres.” In 1986 he received the Prix de la Société des Gens de Lettres forContes de toujours. De la Salle has been a storyteller since his early twenties and strives to promote what he calls “un art de demain.”
An example of de la Salle’s impact on the renewal of storytelling in France is the colloquium held at the Centre de Littérature Orale in Vendôme November 13-14, 2002. Here he presented an “Introduction à un plaidoyer pour les arts de la parole,” the proceedings of which were published in 2004 by Mondoral – une fédération pour la promotion et le développement des arts de la parole. The book under review is an expanded version of this presentation and includes an English translation by Bozena Dymitr.
In his introduction, de la Salle situates his “plaidoyer” within a renewal of the use of narrative and oral storytelling in France and worldwide: “Ainsi, après une longue période de sommeil, les pratiques artistiques de la parole, si universellement pratiquées en tous temps et en tous lieux, retrouvent aujourd’hui un espace d’expression. Ce renouveau se manifeste en particulier à travers l’usage de la narration et du conte oral qui se développe de manière nouvelle en France et, avec plus ou moins de retard, dans le monde entier” (7). He acknowledges that today’s storytelling movement is influenced by the past, is largely artistic and is almost spontaneous. He adds, nevertheless, that he is defending a new art – un nouvel art de la parole – that “demeure encore largement en gestation” (7).
De la Salle indicates in his discussion of “les attributs de la parole” that the first question to be asked is: “Comment une société peut-elle se désintéresser de cet outil” (14)? He wonders how a society could lose interest in the quality of the spoken word, in its performance, transmission and power. His answer is an indictment of society’s priorities: “Nous pouvons nous l’expliquer: omniprésence de l’écriture dans la société occidentale…” (46). Besides the omnipresence of the written word in western society, de la Salle blames the disappearance and general devalorization of traditional and rural communities, the physical separation of generations, the absence of instruction on the spoken word in schools, and the depreciation of inherited values.
Yet de la Salle believes that this decline has reached bottom, that there are signs of renewal. He is, nevertheless, skeptical that the renewed interest will last: “Me voilà donc, en chemin, ainsi que beaucoup d’autres aujourd’hui, courant à une fête qui est, peut-être imaginaire” (8). Hence, his belief in the need to defend and reconstruct the art of storytelling (46).
What does de la Salle mean by “les arts de la parole”? First, he points out that all uses of the spoken word, when they are taken to perfection become an art (15). Such uses include: “public speaking, theatre, poetry recitation, and conversation.” But he highlights “oral storytelling” as the source of all the other arts” and underscores its simplicity, universality, permanence, and power as the reasons.
De la Salle also discusses “le Grand Parler” – a spoken word that goes beyond daily language, beyond “le langage quotidien.” He posits that everyone feels the need for speech that is precise, convincing, beautiful, true and correct (58). He believes the spoken word is the most appropriate, the most simple, the most universal way to express and directly share a feeling, an idea or an impression.
After discussing the attributes of the spoken word (énergies, pouvoir, jeu, lien, outil, propriété commune), de la Salle divides his “plaidoyer” into two main chapters: “L’Oralité” and “Formes et pratiques.” His approach is to inventory the fundamental principles of the art, and then discuss the forms it takes, its functions, its applications and the actors it requires (16 and 58). Of particular interest in the chapter “L’Oralité” is his discussion of the art of memory. He refers to Saint-Augustine’s notions of visualization of physical spaces such as domains and palaces (Confessions, Gallimard, 1998) as a means of organizing memory and recalling both experiences and memorized texts. He also discusses the relationship of storytelling to truth, fiction and lies, concluding that there are degrees of meaning and that these depend on the listener: “Le langage du conte satisfait chacun là où il en a besoin: il émerveille l’enfant, il délasse les travailleurs, il instruit le vieillard simultanément et avec les mêmes paroles” (31).
In the chapter “Formes et pratiques,” de la Salle compares the spoken word to milk (“le lait et la parole font grandir”) and storytelling to a recipe through which the ordinary (milk) can become artistic, or more precisely “ordinairement artistique.” Storytelling has great value because spoken words, like food, can go beyond the primary function of sustenance and transform and lift all who participate, “the cook and the one who eats” (33). He also distinguishes written literature from storytelling by discussing the general intentions and functions of each art – the first function of storytelling is “the creation of a relationship, in the sense that it is a direct exchange… a testimony, a report…” (78) – “une remise au présent de l’événement rapporté” (35).
The strength of de la Salle’s defense of storytelling is found in its underlying invitation to accept it or refute it. It is a work meant to cause reflection and questioning. De la Salle characterizes his “plaidoyer” as a work destined for himself as well as for those who might hear it: “Car un jour ou l’autre il leur faudra répondre ou plus encore plaider à leur tour pour avoir le droit de parler” (8) (sooner or later they will have to respond, or better still, prepare a defense of their own in order to have the right to speak). This is likely not Bruno de la Salle’s last “plaidoyer”; he confesses that he is continually constructing and reconstructing a defense (8). This particular work is surely the result of what he calls a “sentiment d’urgente nécessité” and his desire to have an impact on the fragile renewal of storytelling in France (47).