Tradition and the Individual Talent

First published in The Sacred Wood in 1921:

Yet 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. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.

— T.S. Eliot

Ian McEwan on the novella

"I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated, ill-shaven giant (but a giant who’s a genius on his best days). And this child is the means by which many first know our greatest writers... "The analogy with film or theatre is a reminder that there is an element of performance in the novella. We are more strongly aware of the curtain and the stage, of the author as illusionist. The smoke and mirrors, rabbits and hats are more self-consciously applied than in the full-length novel...

"The poem and the short story are theoretically perfectible, but I doubt there is such a thing as a perfect novel (even if we could begin to agree among ourselves on what comprises a good sentence). The novel is too capacious, inclusive, unruly, and personal for perfection. Too long, sometimes too much like life. It doesn’t need or look for perfection. “Great” novels are not perfect novels. You might improve “Anna Karenina” by altering the clumsiness of the description of the station master’s peaked cap—a much-discussed example. And I always want to take a blue pencil to Emma Bovary’s overextended death throes (it makes me suspicious that Flaubert wept over her), though I never doubt the novel’s greatness..."

Published in the New Yorker

"...as W.H. Auden had it, the old masters were never wrong..."

Joseph Epstein in the Weekly Standard — "Between time spent watching six segments of Seinfeld and listening to the late Beethoven quartets there really can’t be any argument about which is the right choice. Nor can there be any between reading, say, Tolstoy and Stephen King or Sir Ronald Syme and Doris Kearns Goodwin. As for visual art, about suffering and much else, as W. H. Auden had it, the old masters were never wrong, and any competition between them and contemporary visual art ended, sadly, with the triumph of Andy Warhol, after whom serious people no longer needed to be interested in contemporary visual art. The English philosopher Michael Oakeshott notes that one of the signs of being cultured is that one knows what one doesn’t have to know. Contemporary visual art, perhaps for the first time in the history of painting and sculpture, is one of those things a cultured person no longer has to know."

The greatness of Eva Brann

From the Washington Free Beacon: Had the Athenians lost at Salamis, Herodotus’ Histories would never have come to be, not to mention the entire subsequent literary tradition of Athens, or, indeed, America itself, which is a consequence of that tradition. As Brann puts it:

If the Greeks had lost here…[w]hat great and wonderful works would then have come to be in Europe and its America? Probably not these: science and democracy. For the Persian bequest to Europe, the one that would have aborted the Greek legacy we actually live off, would have been the religion, not the science, of nature, and the institution of despotism, not of freedom.

From St. John's College tutor Matthew Linck's recent piece on the position of mathematics and science among the liberal arts: "The study of mathematical physics is inherently interesting in a number of ways: for its conceptual foundations; for the phenomena it both attends to and brings to light; for the rather mysterious fact that physical phenomena can be captured in mathematical expressions; for the insights it offers into the workings of powerful minds; and for the discernment it engenders concerning the power and the limits of modern natural science." [...]

"Taking up science as part of a liberal education means taking it up as something worth doing as its own end. We don’t need to ask what such study is good for. We only need to see that doing it is good."

"I soon saw that it was simply not in me to be a mandarin."

Saul Bellow interviewed in the Paris Review -- "My first two books are well made. I wrote the first quickly but took great pains with it. I labored with the second and tried to make it letter-perfect. In writing The Victim I accepted a Flaubertian standard. Not a bad standard, to be sure, but one which, in the end, I found repressive—repressive because of the circumstances of my life and because of my upbringing in Chicago as the son of immigrants. I could not, with such an instrument as I developed in the first two books, express a variety of things I knew intimately. Those books, though useful, did not give me a form in which I felt comfortable. A writer should be able to express himself easily, naturally, copiously in a form that frees his mind, his energies. Why should he hobble himself with formalities? With a borrowed sensibility? With the desire to be “correct”? Why should I force myself to write like an Englishman or a contributor to The New Yorker? I soon saw that it was simply not in me to be a mandarin. I should add that for a young man in my position there were social inhibitions, too. I had good reason to fear that I would be put down as a foreigner, an interloper. It was made clear to me when I studied literature in the university that as a Jew and the son of Russian Jews I would probably never have the right feeling for Anglo-Saxon traditions, for English words. I realized even in college that the people who told me this were not necessarily disinterested friends. But they had an effect on me, nevertheless. This was something from which I had to free myself. I fought free because I had to."

T.S. Eliot on Lancelot Andrewes

"Andrewes takes a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which  we should never have supposed any word to possess. In this process the qualities which we have mentioned, of ordonnance and precision, are exercised."

"She wanted to do something else too: be Nietzschean!"

Is it OK to be changed by reading a philosopher? Tom Stern in The Point: "You have to be careful about questions like this, and not only because the number of murderers claiming Nietzsche as their inspiration is higher than I would like. What the student usually means is: “Nietzsche mocks careful scholarship: Can I, in his spirit, write my paper however the hell I want and still get a good grade?” In this case, though, the student knew perfectly well how to write a scholarly paper. She wanted to do something else too: be Nietzschean!"

Aristotle on the role of musical virtuosity in general education

From Book VIII, section 6 of Aristotle's Politics, translated by Benjamin Jowett: "The flute, or any other instrument which requires great skill, as for example the harp, ought not to be admitted into education, but only such as will make intelligent students of music or of the other parts of education.

"Besides, the flute is not an instrument which is expressive of moral character; it is too exciting. The proper time for using it is when the performance aims not at instruction, but at the relief of the passions. And there is a further objection; the impediment which the flute presents to the use of the voice detracts from its educational value. The ancients therefore were right in forbidding the flute to youths and freemen, although they had once allowed it. For when their wealth gave them a greater inclination to leisure, and they had loftier notions of excellence, being also elated with their success, both before and after the Persian War, with more zeal than discernment they pursued every kind of knowledge, and so they introduced the flute into education.

"At Lacedaemon there was a choragus who led the chorus with a flute, and at Athens the instrument became so popular that most freemen could play upon it. The popularity is shown by the tablet which Thrasippus dedicated when he furnished the chorus to Ecphantides. Later experience enabled men to judge what was or was not really conducive to virtue, and they rejected both the flute and several other old-fashioned instruments, such as the Lydian harp, the many-stringed lyre, the 'heptagon,' 'triangle,' 'sambuca,' the like- which are intended only to give pleasure to the hearer, and require extraordinary skill of hand.

"There is a meaning also in the myth of the ancients, which tells how Athena invented the flute and then threw it away. It was not a bad idea of theirs, that the Goddess disliked the instrument because it made the face ugly; but with still more reason may we say that she rejected it because the acquirement of flute-playing contributes nothing to the mind, since to Athena we ascribe both knowledge and art."

Paul Valéry, Pièces sur L’Art, 1931

“Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”