Tradition in action gives rise to new work, and the new work changes the tradition…

At a gathering of Wyoming Catholic College faculty and staff on Monday morning, I had occasion to mention T.S. Eliot’s seminal essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Eliot still had an overwhelming ascendancy in literary circles even in the 1960s and early 1970s, and his high Anglo-Catholic influence—very much in the line of Newman—spread far beyond the classroom through the influence of Russell Kirk and many others in the conservative movement. By now, though, Eliot has largely disappeared from the conversation even in Catholic circles.

Perhaps that’s inevitable after decades of deconstructionism, New Historicism, and relentless ideological emphasis on “race, class, and gender”—whatever “gender” means. Eliot is certainly not the only one who has been sidelined for being dead, white, and male. A Wall Street Journal article last weekend pointed out it’s now possible to get “a Yale English degree without studying Chaucer, Shakespeare or Milton.”

But to the point: Eliot’s understanding of tradition needs to be revived because it speaks to the very heart of colleges like ours. In 1919, a few years before he stunned the world with The Waste Land, Eliot published his thoughts on tradition in a London literary magazine called The Egoist. The intention of his short essay was clearly to move the literary focus of his contemporaries away from thinking of their art as merely the expression of their own personalities. Instead, he emphasized the tradition that preceded them, and he called them to situate themselves within its judgment. He strongly opposed the idea that artists could be free only by breaking away from the bondage of the past.

He was careful to clarify what he meant. “If the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged,” Eliot insisted. “Novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor.”

In other words, tradition must be earned. Eliot’s point here corresponds very closely to what a contemporary writer, Lewis Hyde, means in his book The Gift when he writes about the “labor of gratitude.” Suppose, for example, that someone gives me a beautiful piano. To receive it with the “labor of gratitude” does not mean simply displaying it as piece of furniture, but truly attempting to realize the whole of what that gift is. If I do not play the piano, either I attempt to learn or I constantly pull in others who can awaken its music; otherwise, it remains inert, like the buried talent of the parable. Such a gift is not really possessed until it “disappears”—in a sense, until it is given away—by ceasing to be a mere object and becoming what it is in action.

In the same way, the great intellectual tradition of the West that we receive at the college must be earned through the labor of gratitude. What does that mean? It means great books being opened and read, discussed in depth, brought from the page to the living action of minds engaged with other minds. I’ve always been bemused by people who revere books as objects—the texture and look of them, the rarity of the first edition—but do not read them. For me, a book becomes what it truly is when it disappears in my hands. I notice its appearance only before I start reading or after the act of reading has ceased to be totally engaging. If I love it, I might examine its “thingliness” with wonder and affection, always with an implicit question: How could so rich and potent and vast an experience as the Iliad or Dante’s Commedia or Don Quixote be contained in so small a thing? The more beaten up and written-over and thumb-worn it is, the more I treasure it (though maybe I should treat the piano a little differently).

Eliot’s argument about tradition is aimed at those who are adding to it. Tradition in action gives rise to new work, and the new work changes the tradition. Eliot again: “what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.” It is a startling idea—but obviously true upon reflection. Dante’s great poem reconfigures the whole of Western literature. For example, Virgil’s Aeneid now exists in relation to this Christian epic written over 1300 years later. The order in which tradition held the Aeneid and the Commedia likewise changed when Eliot published The Waste Land. “Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature,” writes Eliot, “will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.”

“The beautiful changes/In such kind ways,” writes poet Richard Wilbur. Isn’t that what we’re about in an education like this one? We are not simply inheriting a tradition but reawakening the past—which is thereby no longer past. And once it is awake, we find our place in its live current, and in making something new, we subtly change tradition itself.

This essay first appeared in the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (January 2018). 

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