I remember first coming upon T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and thinking it was completely nuts. I was in high school at the time. So it is a tautology to say I was quite sure of my opinions.
Though this is one of the most important and influential essays of the twentieth century, I thought Eliot was crazy to say artists should seek to extinguish their personality. Wasn’t individual expression at the heart of what art was all about? And wasn’t Eliot a quintessential modern artist standing for freedom against the chains of the past? Yet here he was upholding the importance of tradition (by which he largely meant Western literary tradition). What could he possibly have been thinking?
Eliot contends that we don’t move forward by breaking from the past but by building on the past. Without knowledge of our past, our accumulated wisdom of the human condition with all its failings and successes, we are in a quagmire. Unless we recognize that our very present is shot through with the past, we will misunderstand ourselves and the world. We will fail to contribute anything new. Yet when we do listen to the past, our new work becomes part of the tradition and alters all previous works like introducing a new planet into a solar system would alter the orbits of all the other planets.
As Eliot 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.”
What difference does all this make? Let me name two. First, we cannot know who we are and where we should go without knowing our past. And in our intimate twenty-first century globe, our past is now worldwide, not just Western. So novelists must study novels of the past, scientist study science of the past, politicians study politics of the past.
Without the Old Testament, we can’t understand the New. Without knowing the American Revolution, we can’t understand the American Civil War. Without that, we can’t understand Reconstruction, industrialization, reform movements and so forth. We desperately need the long view.
Second, Eliot helps us understand that creativity does not come from generating something that is entirely without precedent. Rather, creativity comes from combining two or more pre-existing ideas in a fresh way. Chocolate and peanut butter = Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. A wine press and books = Gutenberg (or perhaps a pleasant evening). The more we know from the past, the greater our likelihood of coming up with fresh combinations.
In high school I thought the past was the enemy of change. But I have come to see nostalgia as the enemy–repeating the past because it is comfortable or because we think it cannot be equaled. Instead, the past is the storehouse of the future.