Talent and Tradition

“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”—T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent

Individual initiative is important. It can also be an exercise in solipsism and futility if it references nothing and no one beyond itself. As Russell Kirk says, relying on the cultural tradition of “moral imagination as a path to wisdom liberates the thinker from the narrow limits of personal experience and individual rational faculties.”

Strictly speaking, no man ever writes a book. To a large extent he restates what others have stated. He may, of course, do it far better than any of his predecessors. At the very least he fulfills the important task of articulating truth in a contemporary and appealing idiom, since every generation must learn truth anew. That is why the ageless themes of the ancient poems and tragedies keep reappearing in today’s movies and novels. The great artists learned by imitation. In the case of Bach it was by painstakingly copying out the music of Vivaldi. The former was more popular in his day, yet Bach is considered the greater composer by many critics for the complexity of his works. Clearly, borrowing from others did not cramp his style.

Unfortunately it became popular to stress “creativity” and “originality” at the expense of discipline. Most students in my generation never had to practice things like rote memorization, and so are left envying those people who can recite whole passages of poetry and great prose, not to mention apply mental concentration to any number of fields of technical and liberal learning. Like so many things denounced as pointless formality, the old intellectual habits were anything but senseless. Ironically in the very things that most demand creativity, we are floundering for a lack of structure that makes creativity possible.

Eliot admits that “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. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition.” But he adds that “Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.” With poignant insight he explains the advantage of not rejecting this patrimony out of sloth or pride: “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.”

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