In 1919, T. S. Eliot published a short essay titled “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in which he attempted to correct a popular notion of tradition which would oppose that term to individuality and originality. Eliot argues that a contemporary writer must neither slavishly imitate the past nor imagine that he, as an individual, can be independent of the past. Making use of the philosopher William James’s ideas, Eliot explains that tradition affects what an individual can do and that what is newly added to that tradition in some small way changes the entire order, from the beginnings to the present. In AFTER STRANGE GODS, Eliot develops and further defines the line of thought begun in the earlier essay, and he goes on specifically to identify the errors which an inordinate and finally misguided reliance on sheer individuality produces.
Eliot perceived that the equating of tradition merely with what we commonly call the traditional not only falsifies the true meaning of tradition in its profoundest sense, but also leads to an exaggerated and dangerous valuation of the individual, of originality and newness. An individual writer who revolts against tradition is forced to emphasize what in himself is most inimicable to that tradition as he conceives it. He will, or has, emphasized passion for its own sake, or as the sole evidence of vitality; he will attempt to concoct his own mythos, his own world-view, and be led, as Yeats was, into abstraction and solipsism. Eliot is aware, though he plays down the fact, that modern writers, including himself, have been driven to fashion a new world-view because the authority of the old Christian-humanist tradition failed during the nineteenth century, at least. His view is that the true Christian tradition, embodied in art and literature as well as in theology and morality, has changed but has not failed.
His argument is complex and challenging; indeed, it is a frontal attack against many of the greatest literary geniuses of this century. Eliot does not question their genius, only some of the ends that genius has been led to. He attacks the notion that tradition is merely those customs, attitudes, or books which, by virtue of having been accepted in the past are therefore to be revered as unchanging standards of taste and behavior in the present. Such a naive notion of tradition, or orthodoxy, makes rigid the authority of the past and makes of it a static criterion of excellence against which the living revolt as from the dead.
Rebelling against a false notion, the modern individualist is led to exploit his differences from others. Eliot would agree, up to a point, with Pound’s injunction to “make it new,” but he warns against newness for its own sake, which then is merely novelty or device or, worse, dangerous self-aggrandizement. Eliot argues that the tradition is not static, but dynamic; a writer, he says, cannot merely mimic what has already been done well, nor can he ignore what has been done. Tradition is the past always reinterpreted, reborn, in the present. It is, finally, our culture,...
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