One Thousand Words or So

Destroying Tradition is Not the Answer

Yesterday, I wrote about how I’m finding it harder to combine words and images. I just thought of another reason for rejecting the practice: it gives short shrift to one or the other.


My longest-running blog is named “Poetic Anatomy: Finding Balance.” The name amuses me, because the quest continues. I’ve never gotten hold of balance in my life. Just this morning, as I was praying and reading Magnificat and the day’s offering in Madeleine L’Engle’s Glimpses of Grace, my mind was racing with all I wanted to write about, much of it inspired by what I was encountering just this morning. But then, I went upstairs to get dressed and Dennis read to me from his list of all he wants to accomplish today. That pulled my mind from where it had been earlier and made the little voice inside my head chuckle and snidely remark, “You wanted to write about what, exactly? You think you’re going to get to any of that—what was it you were thinking about, again?”

Sorry, voice, but I have a little time now, so I’m going to dive in and try to recover at least one of the trains of thought that went off the rails.

Okay. Words and images. Let me just go back there for a moment. There are no answers in that realm. First and foremost, that needs to be recognized. “It’s really more of an art than a science”: how many times has that sentence been used to describe a process that can’t quite be pinned down with technical precision? What could be more of an art than art? What, above all else in this world, is more bound up with humanity? Plants and animals do not create art. Human beings do. Plants make food for themselves. Animals hunt and eat and procreate. They build homes and care for their young. While they do not reason, they strategize and cooperate with members of the herd. Do animals feel emotions? I’m not convinced that they don’t. But art? Spiderwebs can be breathtakingly beautiful, especially when drenched with dew, but as far as the spider is concerned, its web is strictly utilitarian, not something that gets created to be beautiful or as an end in itself.

Art, like faith, is different. Therefore, we cannot expect to study it and come away with definitive answers. I’ve seen many photographs and paintings that check all the technique boxes but leave me unimpressed. Something is missing in them: perhaps a human element, an emotion that somehow gets manifested in the paint and pixels—it’s hard pin down, exactly.

I mentioned spiderwebs, and that provides a lovely little transition to this excerpt from H.W. Janson’s introduction to The History of Art:

All works of art anywhere … are part of similar chains that link them to their predecessors. If it is true that “no man is an island,” the same can be said of works of art. The sum total of these chains makes a web in which every work of art occupies its own specific place, and which we call tradition. Without tradition—the word means “that which has been handed down to us”—no originality would be possible; it provides, as it were, the firm platform from which the artist makes his leap of imagination. The place where he lands will then become part of the web and serve as a point of departure for further leaps.

And for us, too, the web of tradition is equally essential. Whether we are aware of it or not, tradition is the framework within which we inevitably form our opinions of works of art and assess their degree of originality. Let us not forget, however, that such assessments must always remain incomplete and subject to revision. For in order to arrive at a definitive view, we should be able to survey the entire length of every chain. And that we can never hope to achieve.

I love that he calls tradition a firm platform, because it meshes beautifully with what Jordan Peterson and Luigi Giussani have written about culture and tradition. Peterson, remember, has stated that culture is our best protection against chaos, and what Giussani has written about tradition goes even further than Janson’s words. From chapter four in The Religious Sense:

We do not possess tradition in order to become fossilized within it, but to develop it, even to the point of profoundly changing it. But in order to transform it, we must first of all act “with” what has been given to us; we must use it. And it is through the values and richness which I have received that I can become, in my own turn, creative, capable not only of developing what I find in my hands, but also changing radically both its meaning, its structure, and perspective.

We can visualize tradition as a work plan with which nature equips us as it sets us down into this great construction site of life and history. Only by putting this working hypothesis into action can we begin, not simply to gasp for air, but, with our reasoned judgments, our projects, and our critical outlook to have an impact on our surroundings and therefore on that extremely interesting factor which is part of those surroundings, ourselves. Hence it is urgent to be loyal to tradition: it is a requirement for a complete involvement with existence.

I think that these notions about the importance of culture/tradition have found their way to me, and they don’t seem to want to let me go, because with nearly every step I take, I find my path littered with battles between those who appreciate the importance of tradition in protecting against chaos and those who see tradition as nothing more than fetters, and at the heart of each battle there seems to be a misunderstanding in the mind of each opponent about how tradition is supposed to work.

In Kristin Lavransdatter, the title character willingly stomps upon every existing social convention regarding courtship and love and comes to see how wrong she has been only when it’s too late. Her parents, on the other hand, trust too much in tradition to protect their daughter and in some instances, let tradition steer the ship instead of using it as is should have been used, as a map to guide the ship through life.

The other night, when I sat down for portions of the movie Brave that Dennis was watching with Stella, I noticed that the battle between Merida and her parents was about more than just betrothal and arranged marriage; it was about the role of tradition. When Merida declares that she will not get married, her mother tells her the story of an ancient kingdom “ruled by a wise and fair king who was much beloved.” When he grew old, he divided the kingdom among his four sons, “that they should be the pillars on which the peace of the land rested.” The oldest prince, though, wanted to rule the land for himself, forging “his own path, and the kingdom fell to war and chaos and ruin.”

I find it amusing/pathetic/ironic whenever Hollywood stumbles upon a truth that the industry actively works to undermine, but it is a truth, and we cannot just wish it away or try to remake reality so that it accommodates what we want—not without horrific repercussions anyway.

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