TS Eliot on the role of Tradition in Art-Making

"And thus happily sent forth, at our best, with good grace and fine wit, on calm noons, in fair climes, are we not God's Machineries of Joy?" ~ Ray Bradbury, The Machineries of Joy

Phaedra and I are starting to get fired up about the Olympics. We've blocked off the entire month of August for the occasion. We're not sure how we're going to manage the period of time we're in Nashville. We'll need to sneak off to sports bars, say we need "alone time."
Last night we stayed up late watching video re-caps of the US swim and track 'n field trials. Michael Phelps is a demi-god. And why is it that all gymnasts are constitutionally cute? I'm memorizing names, stats, bios, PRs, home towns--from badminton to BMX racing, triathlon to trampoline--so I can experience personally the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

This past Friday we celebrated our nieces' birthdays. The theme was cow/flower. Skye (5 yrs) wanted flowers, Bronwyn (3 yrs) wanted cows. Late Thursday night Phaedra and I set up camp on the dining room floor to create a flower costume for me and a cow outfit for Phaedra. We rocked.

I woke early Friday with a jingle in my head which I turned into a 2 minute musical theater routine for our arrival at the party. It was so bad, so good. The girls just stared as we pranced and moo-ed and made royal fools of ourselves. On our way home later in the day, Phaedra and I declared that every one of our kids' birthdays would involve costumes!
We met this afternoon with Eileen Flynn, religion reporter at the Statesman, to talk about our decision to do NFP. She's curious about the apparent trend amongst evangelical Protestants to take on an historically Catholic practice. Good conversation over soy lattes.
Book recommendation: Borges and the Eternal Orangutans by Luis Fernando Verissimo. My Argentinian-born friend Jeffrey Travis, a lover of all things magical realist, gave me Verissimo's novel for my birthday and it was quite a treat, though oh so brief (only 135 pages).
From Publishers Weekly: "Brazilian author Verissimo's delightful novel simultaneously caricatures the complicated codes that comprise detective stories and spins a whodunit of paternity, academic intrigue, 16th-century occultism and orangutans. The action occurs at the annual meeting of the Israfel Society, an eccentric organization devoted to the study of Edgar Allan Poe, which Vogelstein, a sheltered teacher and translator, decides to attend in the hopes of meeting his hero, Jorge Luis Borges."

Movie rec: THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED. It's a typical Disney sports inspirational flick, but we relished it all the same. Except for the low budget animation work on some of the golf action, the story of Francis Ouimet, the 20-year old caddie who beat the British legend Harry Vardon for the US Open championship, kept us engaged to the end. Shia LaBeouf plays the title role. I was impressed with how self-restrained both the script and the direction were. Two thumbs up.

If you want a good peek into African-American culture, we highly recommend STOMP THE YARD and DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN. Phaedra and I continue to rue the loss of hip hop/break dancing opportunities in our childhoods. We know we'd be hot if we had started early enough (though Phaedra throws down plenty when we hit the dance floor and it's mostly I who have the catching up to do).

And for a three thumbs up: PLANET EARTH. We are totally digging it. Some of the creatures God has designed, in the ocean deep especially, are completely wacked out.

The Mission America Coalition has created a new National Arts & Entertainment Ministry Network: Check it out here. Michele Wood of Hollywood Connect looks to be a key leader here.

Ooh. Phaedra just baked Parmesan Peppercorn French bread. Mmm. She is La Rock Star of my corazon.

And now to T. S. Eliot. At the ACT conference this coming August I'll be talking about fundamental disciplines for the artist. Without the fundamentals we flounder, lurch, or force our way through life. With them in place, everything flows as it should. I'll focus on three fundamental disciplines: a spiritual, a relational, and an artistic.

With the artistic discipline, I want to explore our relationship as artists to tradition. I'm not exactly sure what route I'll take, but it'll navigate between these two assertions: "Read your tradition well" and "Read outside your tradition." By "read" I mean not just book-reading but whatever it takes to know your artistic tradition: seeing, listening, tasting, smelling, touching, studying, examining, in short, the whole sensory (and analytical) apparatus.

If you're a filmmaker and desire to be a great filmmaker, collect a list of the great films through the ages. Watch your way through the list, regardless whether you personally think they're weird or boring, or whatever. Your job is to learn them--learn what makes them "great." Watch for patterns. Modern hyper-sensitivities notwithstanding, a classic isn't a classic for no reason. See Invitation to the Classics, edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guiness, for a fine introduction to the idea of a classic.

If you're a playwright, read the classics--Sophocles, Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen, Wilde, Shaw, Brecht, Stoppard, Mamet, et al. You sit yourself down and read them, drink them, eat them. Same with poetry. Same with calligraphy. And R&B music. And Tango dance. And all the arts. Too many believer artists I know don't want to do the hard work of learning their own artistic tradition.

But the second assertion may interest me more, "read outside your tradition." When we asked Eugene Peterson in our "Biblical Spirituality" class many moons ago what we could do to deepen our spiritual life, he said just that: Read outside your tradition. For me that meant reading anything beyond the small circle of 20th century evangelicalism: AW Tozer, Oswald Chambers, Elisabeth Elliot, Yancey, Packer and whoever the community deemed spiritually legit, such as Lewis and Tolkien, and most of the classics of literature. Most. But not Catholics. Not Orthodox. And probably not anybody during Medieval Christendom (wasn't that the dark ages?).

So that's where I started: with the "not's." I dipped my toes into Nouwen. I lingered over Kallistos Ware. There were the Vatican II documents. There were the mystics. Suddenly Christendom became scarier and more fantastic than anything I ever knew. I grew quieter on the insider. I felt my smallness. My mind began to understand why I believed what I believed, though it also grew increasingly frustrated--so much I couldn't comprehend!

Slowly I felt my spiritual skin thicken, become healthier, more resilient. My eyes became bionically far-sighted as I began to see so much more. Issues that had agitated in my early college days no longer bothered me. I discovered all these kindred brothers and sisters in the 18th and 11th centuries I never knew existed. The 5th century felt like it was down the block instead of a million miles away in a fog of vague otherliness. It was other, but not that other. I found my tribe: my Great Tradition family.

If I could tell artists only one thing to improve their art I'd tell them this: study the classics in your tradition. And as much spare time as you have, study the classics in other artistic traditions. They will teach you everything you need to know to become a deep artist and a skilled artist. They will help you find your place in the large community of artists that stretches across time and place. What we need is a rich imaginative soil. The classics will till that soil over time.

Eliot addresses some of these ideas in his essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," penned in 1919. We believer artists, especially in the evangelical church, do well to pay attention to Eliot's exhortations. I copy here a few excerpts. The whole essay can be found in any good library near you.

T.S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent"

One of the facts that might come to light in this process is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles any one else. In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet's difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed.

Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. And I do not mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of full maturity. [italics mine]

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 any one 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 own contemporaneity.

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. . . . [italics mine]

To proceed to a more intelligible exposition of the relation of the poet to the past: he can neither take the past as a lump, an indiscriminate bolus, nor can he form himself wholly on one or two private admirations, nor can he form himself wholly upon one preferred period. The first course is inadmissible, the second is an important experience of youth, and the third is a pleasant and highly desirable supplement. . . .

What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice . . . .


Jim Janknegt said…
Hooray for you and NFP!! Perhaps much of our moral distress these days could be traced back to that fork in the road when the Anglican church embraced contraception in 1930... the first step down a slippery slope. May God bless your marriage and your openness to children!!

And thanks for the Eliot... I agree and continually nourish myself with every kind of art image I can find from every century although I still have not found my tastebuds for the art of the counter-reformation... funny I know.
We receive your blessing, Jim. Thank you! And to be truthful, you were one of the people I had in mind as one who does a pretty darn good job of soaking their eyes and minds in great/classical art. So there you go. You d' man. :)
It must be a false assumption I've had that anyone who seriously considered himself an artist would intuit the need to bask in the classics of every tradition? (i hope that doesn't sound snarfy...it could read that way if someone did not know me) Do you think this is just a "sign of the times" kind of thing or have artists always needed to be encouraged this way? Is one of the marks of a "true artist" an autodidactic process through the classics?? This is something I've been wondering so I'd love to hear what you think.

ps. when do Mr. Daisy and Mrs. Jersey want to come up north?? is it something you'd seriously consider??
Tamara, in my experience I'd say yes, it's a false assumption. At one level it's a question of what sub-culture you were raised in (New England prep school, Episcopal, blue-blood sub-culture? non-denom, evangelical, pragmatic sub-culture?), and at another what sub-culture you're choosing to adopt yourself into. It's either chosen for us or we choose it. And I do think the classics teach us both explicitly and by immersion how to recognize good, great, to masterful art.

We'd love to visit you!
duskangel said…
This was a very interesting post. You sound more catholic than most of my fellow catholics that I know. Most of the catholics that I know have not read the classics and don't know what NFP is nor have they read any Vatican II documents. Maybe you could come visit my church and give some lessons.
duskangel said…
I posted an excherpt from The Creative Life, A Workbook for Unearthing the Christian Imagination by Alice Bass in my blog for today, July 22nd. I thought it was awesome and wanted to share it with you. I don't have an arts pastor. May I borrow you for a while ??? :-)
Well, I guess if I sound Catholic it's because I am a "Great Tradition Christian," committed to the great tradition that spans some two thousand years. I believe God gave us the entire canon of Scripture and a long history of Christian faithfulness not so we could pick and choose our favorite parts, but so that we might live wisely.

And thanks for your post on Alice Bass. I appreciate you sharing it. And technically I'm on sabbatical from arts pastor duties, having officially resigned from my Hope Chapel post in June. But you can feel to write me at the following email which is all one word but which I've spaced out in case spambots are on the prowl: w david o taylor AT gmail com.
rhon said…

"The Mission America Coalition has created a new National Arts & Entertainment Ministry Network: Check it out here."

Your link above, "Check it out here." is broken.

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