culture, literature

Fragments on tradition

Today’s cultures are both disintegrating and proliferating. Any writer has to hand the near infinite profusion of symbolic thought of every culture across history. They are there to be used with the simplicity of an internet search. But their readiness-to-hand does not make them vital traditions, but cut and paste decorations of the modern soul in torment. The human symbolic inheritance becomes a storm of misunderstanding and not a guide to life. The writer is dazed and confused amidst this super-abundance of cultural inheritance; but the writer has no guide, no anchor, no institution of belonging and selection. There is no tradition except for those salvaged in flight from the ruins.


There is a paradox at the heart of today’s culture. We live in the most broadly educated societies ever, and yet our culture is imploding. Education has been prostituted to the pursuit of income and status, and lost connection with its true value, the transmission of our most valued traditions so that our characters may extinguish our petty selves.


And yet traditions survive. Deepak Chopra teaches deep fulfilment to millions with Sanskrit mantras inherited from the Vedas, knowledge itself. Nordic noir, like Midnight Sun, show the songs of the noadi of the Saami of the Arctic Circle, Sapmi and their persistent power in defining an undercurrent of spiritual law beneath the corruption of modern life. And a million bloggers, like me, like you, burst through the gates of the publishing industry, with its custodians of taste, status and commercial success, and call out their songs from their lonely hovels as they travel through the celestial internet on their long night journeys.


In the Uses of Pessimism, Roger Scruton writes:

“The true history of the modern artist is the story told by the great modernists themselves. It is the story told by T. S. Eliot in his essays and the Four Quartets, by Ezra Pound in the Cantos, by Schoenberg in his critical writings and in Moses und Aron, by Rilke in the Sonnets to Orpheus and by Valéry in Le cimetière marin. And it sees the goal of the modern artist not as a break with tradition, but as a recapturing of tradition, in circumstances for which the artistic legacy has made little or no provision.”

I would put this differently because I do not believe tradition can be captured and remain vital. When captured it becomes a market of success and status. All tradition truly needs is to be inherited, practised and handed on. Tradition is not recaptured. It is sung again.


Modern artists have a difficult obligation. They inherit plural traditions, and yet none of them whole, none of them pure. Modern artists must spend years in the wilderness finding the traditions to which they have an elective affinity, and then find a way to practise this uniquely defined tradition in a way that does not compromise authenticity. This is difficult in a world ruled by celebrity and commerce. And then the hardest task of all. The tradition that is not one must be shared – through words uttered into the vast empty silence of the internet – in the cherished dream that someone else in the world may speak these songs too. That is the work of the infinite conversation.


Image Source: Wikimedia Commons Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (1845-1921). – Wägner, Wilhelm. 1882. Nordisch-germanische Götter und Helden. Otto Spamer, Leipzig & Berlin. Page 47.

1 thought on “Fragments on tradition”

  1. Juxtaposition is useful to maintain authenticity in tandem with change & exposes something about change in doing so. Such as seeing the Internet as a sort of god-consciousness, a replacement of sorts; just one example. Another, might be, celebrities as the new pantheon of demi-gods.

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