Saturday, July 9, 2016

Tradition and the Individual Talent

Tevye's laudatory song about tradition at the beginning of Fiddler on the Roof strives for an understanding of tradition that, metaphorically, works pretty well with the tradition about which T.S. Eliot taught. Thomas Stearns Eliot drawn by Simon Fieldhouse. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Aaron Zebede as Tevye the Milkman in Fiddler on the Roof in Panama, Oct. 2012. Photo by Elpaps. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
My beloved sleep schedule of vampire hours & crypt-like days slowly migrates back to daytime, which I see as a good thing for a while. Or at least it's an inevitability like my decade-long cycle of slowly becoming prey to Red Lobster ads before trying it and rejecting it again.

Though I love the night to work, the world, like a petulant & jealous lover, lacking serious reasons to demand my time, will invent petty causes to demand my time in the morning. There's always some petty fool, a foot servant to a bureaucrat, who wants to read a meter or check a smoke alarm, and it can only be done at the most inconvenient time, plus or minus a three-hour window. So I will endure once again the morning ritual for a bit. Satisfied that I am scraping my knees against the corporate paving once again, the world will again leave me alone.

Even so, now more than ever, I have to crank-start the mind with tea or coffee and crutches of inanity like YouTube. I have to quell the hunger monster at least temporarily with some cereal. I have to indulge in insignificant rituals and habits that no doubt consume my life the way a smoker burns up a cigarette.

Slowly, the loom starts to move and the weaving resumes, and patterns emerge in the threads that capture my attention. That might be why television has held my interest so well lately: it creates meaningful patterns—meaningful within its limited range—of meaning. In real life, events are random and patterns invite an instinctive search for meaning, but I suppose the theists will say that coincidences are signals from the universe, like those black cat glitches in The Matrix. Jungians and Taoists perceive patterns as meaningful but still atheistic, and the I Ching helps one figure out how the patterns are changing.

Or perhaps only English students instinctively spot patterns after eight semesters of conditioning. Meaningful patterns found in the semester's reading provide fodder for the inevitable term paper, the great straightaway at the end of the run. The term paper attempts to describe some facet of T.S. Eliot's great tree of literature in the manner of the four blind guys who describe an elephant—a tree, a rope, a snake, a wall. Doing that in five different classes twice a year for four years is one reason why college comprises a life-changing ashram, and proof why people are sadly mistaken who see college as nothing more than a glorified vo-tech school aimed at raising income potential. While college might succeed on that same three-percent level at which I supposedly use my cobwebbed brain, it succeeds to the degree that it plugs me in to an understanding of the world, what it is, how it got this way, and where it is going. To some degree, I see the world in a historical context. I understand some of the mechanisms at play, the forces at work, and out of what earlier mechanisms and forces they emerged. 

For one example out of a million possibilities, maybe I now see that the Reformation wasn't about Church issues—the Church had been corrupt for centuries—and much less about Henry VIII's superficial need for a divorce, but it was about what was happening then and there in the early 16th century: Columbus had discovered the New World, so there was a massive #Brexit because northern European sought to go colonizing unfettered of Roman interference—unlike Anne Boleyn's sad head, this was a matter of profound economic consequence. This simple fact goes a long way toward explaining the inherently Protestant nature of North American history, and that is one thread in the explanation of the US's fetish with killing people with a certain handtool, and the Second Amendment's misinterpreters gloating because by all accounts their score is the body count, and they appear to be winning.

However, I am all in favor of people dropping out of high school or refusing education beyond high school out of sloth or the undisciplined choice of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll over the demanding disciplines of books, studies, courses, and finals. This provides a labor pool of unskilled and semi-skilled laborers for jobs so that I don't have to go do work I'm not equipped to do. Though I feel bad for people whose geography does not reach far beyond the places they live, and whose world is superficial and lacking the depth of understanding.

This morning one of those patterns appeared on the loom. It occurs to me that recently I have seen on multiple occasions people using their personal tastes as an index of the absolute value of a work. I am all for personal tastes: I am entitled to like or dislike books, movies, art, television, ballet, modern dance, photography, or any other art, plastic or performance, according to the whims of  my capricious tastes. However, it is also critical to realize that the value of any work has nothing to do with my personal tastes. By value, I mean the degree to which a work attaches itself to the artistic traditions that exist before us, beyond us, and without us. If, for example, I set out to become a poet, it is essential that I immerse myself in poetry. If I want to appreciate art, I must look at a lot of art. Shortcuts, like textbooks and critical essays, might accelerate my understanding somewhat, but ultimately I have to do the work and see the paintings and sculptures with my own eyes. This necessarily means that in the beginning I am seeing art with little understanding at all, and I think this is one significance of these lines from T.S. Eliot's Little Gidding:
We shall not cease from explorationAnd the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. 
Eliot wrote brilliantly in his seminal essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent (the link leads to the short essay online at, but in the long run it's best to read Eliot's prose at length). I am not capable of reproducing Eliot's wisdom here, but I encourage you to read it and ponder it. He writes:
Some one said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.
That dialectic of knowing the dead writers and so knowing more than they knew is like one of those simple rules that produces a huge complex fractal tree. A common way of describing the tradition uses the simile of a tree. The avant garde form the new buds on a tree: some will develop and over generations become major limbs of the tree, integral parts of the tradition. Other buds will not take; they will dry up and fall off, leaving at most a footnote or two in literary or art history. There are different trees out there—cinema has its own tree, as, arguably, television, though it's intertwined with cinema, especially now that 

Because my understanding of the tradition is more important than my own personal tastes, it is important that I keep in mind that a work's value exists apart from my tastes. I often go see valuable movies or read valuable books that I do not necessarily expect to like because they are outside the bounds of my personal tastes. Yet in doing so, I broaden my horizons and train my tastes. My tastes can be refined so they more closely resemble the values of the tree.

When I was a sophomore English major and read Eliot's essay for the first time, I felt totally daunted. I was somewhat overwhelmed by a class in English literature since 1800, yet Eliot was talking about English literature since before Modern English existed; and about French literature; and it seemed like he was talking about everything. I felt hopeless and overwhelmed. But I had to realize that no college education—no ideal of a liberal arts college with a Great Books curriculum hopped up by doctorates in Milton and Marlowe—would give me what Eliot was talking about. Eliot's goal wasn't a course, a major, or a superior college but a compass point for a lifetime journey. It was, in short, a bit of that wisdom that helps me see the world not as a flat projection of my own personal history but as a three-dimensional reality that incorporates history and science, and the hearts and minds of the waves of great humans who came before me and left a legacy of their wisdom in the world.