Tradition and the Individual Talent

T.S.Eliot's critical essay has an opening line that really tells us how much we have changed since he wrote it, in 1920. 'In English writing we seldom speak of tradition, though we occasionally apply its name in deploring its absence'. Most people in English writing, or writing in English would only now ever apply that term as an insult, like being confronted with a chintz armchair or heavily patterned carpet for your loft apartment you'd reply, 'but they're a bit too traditional...' for which read 'way past it, forgeddit, there's no effing way they're coming anywhere near me. What would me mates think?' What the neighbours would think doesn't even enter the equation - that whole thing is also way too traditional. That's if we even know who the neighbours are. Why tear Eliot's opening line to shreds in the glaring light of 77 years later? Because despite having 'close read' this essay on my undergrad degree it is on the reading list for the MA, and I wondered why it was on there. Thinking why, I thought (still thinking!), would be a good way into the essay and to become engaged with it. One can fight and argue as a way of getting closer. But, he says the critic has a need to look for what makes the work different from others; what makes this particular writer different? Eliot says that if we reject this prejudice then 'we shall find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of her work may be those in which the dead poets, her ancestors, assert their imortality most vigorously'. I'm not sure if this is a contradiction or whether the prejudice he claims so often employed by critics is a prejudice based on individuality; for does it not open up that can of worms labelled deconstruction - that nothing we write or utter is original anyway; that everything darts off into a vast array of other texts anyway, of which literature is just one small text.
However, Eliot proclaims, no doubt pre-empting the cries of 'but isn't falling into the line of tradition some sort of cop out'?, 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'. And yet how can it not be inherited? It is, in my mind, a statement more redolent of Thatcher's 80's than the 20's, which I won't take the time, or labour, to go into here. Eliot claims that, when aware of writing as part of a long line, or in touch with the 'pastness of the past' a writer can become more aware of her 'place' now. 'No poet, no artist of any artm has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value her alone; you must set her, for contrast and comparison, among the dead'. But 'one' has to remember that this long line of tradition is almost exclusively male, and, if not privileged then middle class and having to a large extent bought into those 'traditional' values, whose adoption can help you along. What happens if you come from a minority group, cultural, racial, or other? Eliot does concede a point along these lines, though. He says that by conforming to an awareness of the long and intimidating line of tradition, all that has gone before must also change in the light of the new work.

To be continued.

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