Wednesday, December 13, 2006

On Tradition

Thomas Mann wrote in Munich in 1904:

Strange regions there are, strange minds, strange realms of the spirit…. At the edge of large cities, where streetlamps are scarce and policemen walk by twos, are houses where you mount until you can mount no further, up and up into attics under the roof, where pale young geniuses, criminals of the dream, sit with folded arms and brood.
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Adrift on Denial National Review Online Blogs.

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In his novel Germinal, Zola calls him Stavrogin; in Crime and Punishment, Dostoyeskski calls him Raskolnikov; Conrad writes of him, as do Graham Greene and Hertzen and others. When people spit in disgust a t the idea of revolutionaries and Modernity, they do so with these characters in mind, these repulsive parodies of Humanity, these creatures of Romanticism gone worse. Ours in the Modern West is a Romantic culture, and we suffer from it. Our heroes are creeps.

Our words fail us. Che is not a revolutionary; he's a pretty-boy who killed people. A revolutionary in fact and deed is Francis Bacon. The huge and ever-growing pantheon of revolutionaries does not have room for Karl Marx. Gutenberg and Luther, yes. William Bullock, inventor of off-set printing; Salk, Banting and Best, Madam Curie; Charles Parke, who invented plastic in 1862, and Charles Goodyear who invented pliable rubber, these are people who were not revolutionary but who, like us, live as revolutionaries in the world because our forebearers were revolutionaries indeed. We are not revolutionaries among our own but within the world at large we are the menace that has no bounds. We are Modern. That is revolutionary. many of our own hate it, and they wish to return us to a pre-revolutionary time, one of fascist Romance, of a time when communalist man lived as a farm animal tended by his entitled and privileged superiours. We've had that revolution to free ourselves from feudalism, and there will be no neo-feudalism for us now, not again. Parke invented plastic, but Luther invented the world that made him able to do so. It's not the plastic, it's the ability to think inventively that counts. As important is the right not to have to think at all if one so chooses. One has a right to privacy. One must have the right to say so in public without fear of reprisal. It is revolutionary to be able to think for oneself, to have the freedom to think and to invent new things and ideas. That is Modernity.

The German reaction against t he French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution gives us the very word 'reaction' as a political term. Romance, an English reaction against the Industrial Revolution lead the Germans again to extremes that we today think of wrongly as revolutionary, as ecology, as identity politics, as moral relativism. These things are not revolutioinary, they are reactionary. Today's progressive Left is yeasterday's reactionary Right, and most people can't figure it out. We must, or we will find ourselves in a state of utter confusion about who we are and what we value. This is especially true of the concept of Tradition.

I wrote recently a parody of Revolutionary Modernity. The problem with that is that it's so commonly accepted as real that the parodic elements aren't, apparently, very funny. I wrote of tradition, and now i see that it is true to most people in the West that Tradition is seen as somethink akin to moral and intellectual fly-paper. Only what is new is interesting to them, all else being "so yesterday!" Comes to mind the reduction "DWM." Anything written or conceived by dead white men is seen to be bad, uncritically so, and unarguably so. God help us, we are swarmed by teenage fools with grey pony-tails. People have no better understanding of the term Tradition than they seem to of Revolution. Our most cherished are those who sweat in garrets brooding and smoking pot, dreaming up knew resentments and self-pitying programmes for grant applications. Some of these monsters kill people. We call them revolutionaries, but they are nothing of the kind. Ben Franklin, the man who saved the world from the Dark Ages with the invention of electricity, is a revolutionary. A Traditionalist.

Below we see Charles Henry's take on Tradition.
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Tradition is like cooking, it's not automatically bad (unless it's my cooking!) and it's not automatically good; it's dependant on How it is what it is.

I view tradition as necessarily abstract, a thing existing in adaptable principle, not as absolute rule; tradition must possess a slight vagueness to it, so that there may be room for adaptation.
Your example of a man having to take off his hat to enter school, suggests that the tradition is having the humility to show respect for learning: it is the principle of the thing. It is not a Rule that one must wear a hat so that one may take it off upon entering a school, or that there must be schools built so that there be things to take one's hat off of upon entering, or that armless men must be given hat-doffing machines in order that they too may be made capable of showing respect, of participating in the tradition to do so.

Is it not the case, that the more meaningful the tradition, the more it is laid down in principle rather than rule. When Moses brings down the commandments, they are all outlined in principle, rather than explained in detail, requiring us to rise to the challenge of interpreting them. That's a respect for the student that any teacher can learn from.
"You shall not murder", as a principle, makes us have to reason when killing is not murder. "Honor your father and mother", as a principle, makes us esteem that which came before us, while being grateful for our existence, and makes us reason how that may be done: by simply repeating that which our parents did, or by adding to their experience… by progressing from their contribution, using it as the starting point. Sometimes the honor will come from repeating, and sometimes by departing, from the parents example. To tell which is which, we need to think of "honor" in principle, not rule.

"Having no other gods before me" is a great procedure for remaining humble, a necessary ingredient for learning (the moment that someone thinks there's no longer room for improvement, that corresponds to the moment they begin to decay); as well it helps us avoid the danger of idolizing fellow humans as somehow incorruptibly perfect… which is the height of human arrogance. It doesn't need to be taken literally, accepting the old-man-with-a-beard ritualized image of a heavenly father. It can be followed, as I sense you have followed it, in principle rather than as a rule, and remain a beneficial code to live by.

As humans engaged in a trade or craft or living off our skills in some way, there will always be someone more skilled than ourselves, either in our past or right alonside us in the present, or coming along unexpectedly in our future. We're all in some glorious "middle", because of the existence of progress. This we are wired as human beings to forget, yet nevertheless capable of remembering, courtesy of the invention of ritual.

By ritualizing a tradition, it supposedly makes the tradition's founding principle more attainable, as acting out a role in a play should make an actor sympathetic to the character being portrayed, whether hero or villain. Where ritual fails us is when the physical no longer stands in for non-corporeal ideas, and becomes the end in itself. It is meant as the means to an end, and when it becomes the end in itself it loses its purpose and fails us as human beings.

Tradition, I firmly believe, is necessary to humanity, in that it is part of the proof that we are human and not animal. For example: Tradition makes us dress in a way that ennobles the people with whom we are interacting, suits and ties being merely the present form of the ritual; the five senses that animals possess omits humanity's "sense of occasion".
Tradition is to eat food by raising it to your mouth and not lowering your mouth to the food, to not chew with your mouth open, siting up straigh yet leaving elbows off the table, actually having a table to eat at… all in accordance with our attempt to ennoble dining, by humanizing it, raising ourselves above the animal way of eating our daily sustenance.

Believing that there's something better to become, is our fundamental tradition as human beings, and we struggle generationally to remember that and to understand it's implications.

We can follow these traditions in principle, as you do, and be made better for them. The more they are taken as Principles, rather than Rules, the more universally beneficial they may become.
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Our Gnostic elites forage at the fringes of reality and they rule our discourse with their scrounged findings. We must see them for who they are, creatures of ugly dreams and evil delusions. New ways of expressing old hatreds is not revoluitionary. It is sentimentality, unfortunately another word commonly misunderstood. Tradition, as Charles points out, is not new, it is renewable. It is a stability in revolutions of our beautiful Modernity. Brooding Romantic haters are not worthy of our time, and we must actively stop paying attention to them. We could benefit from paying attention to some of our recently discarded traditions.

3 comments:

t-ham said...

dag, Charles;

Another title stumbled upon:

Warrior Politics, Robert D. Kaplan
Vintage Books, ISBN 0-375-72627-6

maccusgermanis said...

Interesting reading here lately. I recently found (link is below) some clear writing on our traditions and the -I believe the word you created was- "whimmitude" that assails said traditions.

http://www.umbertoeco.com/id-49/Umberto_Eco_About_God.html

dag said...

Hello to both of you. Sorry I've been remiss in writing for so long.

I follow Kaplan as well as I can but his travel budget far exceeds mine as does his talent as a writer. One of my favorite pieces is in Atlantic Monthly, a lovely short feature he did on buying a bulletproof vest. i have some of his books on my shelf right now, and I'll see if I can find time to go through them again to refresh my memory. I'm still reading Thomas Sowell, the find of the century for me. Thanks for that tip. What an enlightening adventure he is for me.

Macc, I use Eco's description of a fascist as the short basis for my thesis that the Left is fascist. Oft times he outrages me with his pomo nonsense and then he impresses me deeply with his humanism and common sense. Will make time today before our weekly Thursday evening meting to check out your tips. We'll have been at it for a year now in mid-Jan. Things do move toward a better state. If your neighbours still haven't made the effort to join you I shake my head. We'd love to have you join us in Vancouver.

My best.