poem index

Next Year's Words: T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent"

Written by

Geoffrey G. O'Brien
Contributor Page

Year

2005

Type

Debates & Manifestos

The memory throws up high and dry
A crowd of twisted things;
A twisted branch upon the beach
Eaten smooth, and polished
As if the world gave up
The secret of its skeleton,
Stiff and white.

—"Rhapsody on a Windy Night"

…there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightening
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

—"The Dry Salvages"

T. S. Eliot’s "Tradition and the Individual Talent" was first published in The Egoist in September and December of 1919. Its immediate cultural context included several other significant preoccupations with the past: F. T. Marinetti's Manifesto of Futurism (1909), the serial publication of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927), and Tristan Tzara's Dada Manifesto (1918). Appearing in a moment of avant-garde collectivities, of manifestoes announcing decisive breaks with the past, Eliot's essay asserted the present writer as a member of the largest collective of all, the dead. Now bodiless, the dead are present as the living past of literature (and of utterance in general). Like Tzara, and unlike Marinetti, Eliot saw no progress in this history of literature; it doesn't improve, its bodiless corpus only grows and changes. However, its accruing variations, which Tzara trivializes as "uninteresting questions of fashion," are for Eliot the very condition of literary "talent." The "whole of the literature of Europe from Homer" is a polylingual archive constitutive of the present moment and its authors. The "talent" in the essay's title is the ability to recombine the elements of this archive so as to produce a new relation to it, one which complicates all the other extant combinations.

In this sense, literature is much like the alphabet on which it depends—a set of elements whose arbitrary, historical order can be segmented, rearranged, and repeated to produce words and a text from these words. The new work is expressed through them and they through it; they are each other's medium. "Tradition" and "Individual Talent" are synonyms for Eliot, the moments of a reciprocal constitution, two aspects of the same substance. The keyword "medium" is itself an example of this fungibility, deployed several times in the essay in both its senses: it indicates the artist, whose "historical sense" allows her to function as a conduit for the past, and the past itself, the medium or ground in which both the poet and her text are set. The medium is indistinguishable from the artist's mind but is in no way identical to the artist's personality. Eliot figures that mind as a poetic archive, a "receptacle" for storing "feelings, phrases, images" which "remain there" until combined to form a new compound. The experience of language yields more language.

This account of the writer-as-medium obviates the idea of the text as a transcript of personal feelings (hence Eliot's description of art as an "escape from personality"). Feelings are tropes with long histories, shared conventions rather than subjective data, and, considered as form rather than content, are only one formal feature among many (prosody, lexicon, genre, etc.). Instead of the artist's personality, an "art emotion" presents itself as and through the full sonic and semantic relation of the text to all other texts. The artist is the medium for that two-way message and the message is the medium itself, the expression of literature's materials and of the conditions of its production.

The "of" in Eliot's phrase "a consciousness of the past" functions for the essay in much the same way that "medium" does—it's a plenary genitive (rare), which expresses both the subjective and objective senses of the genitive: is this the past's consciousness or a present poet's consciousness of the past? The plenary construction is the answer; there is, for Eliot, very little difference between these forms of belonging—past and present, self and speech, contemporary literature and that which precedes it are "of" each other. Early in the essay, Eliot links criticism to the autonomic, if not involuntary, act of breathing, declaring it "as inevitable." It's important that he links it to the circular, or two-way, process of respiration rather than the transitive expression of voice; for Eliot, an engagement with literature is a process of recirculation (breathing) rather than original production (speaking). Like breath, this engagement happens below the threshold of conscious agency and hence is inevitable, yet, when this engagement happens as poetry (another form of criticism) it can also be described as an "escape from personality." Writing in the presence of the past is, then, an escape into the inevitable, into the constant process of taking in and then recirculating tradition, inhaling and exhaling.

How can escape and its impossibility be simultaneous? The answer lies in another of the essay's famous terms, "the historical sense." We might redescribe this sense as a self-consciousness about an involuntary relationship to the past of cultural utterance. The "great labor" of acquiring this historical sense, which Eliot leaves vague, would be the coming to ever greater, more specific, and more elaborate awareness of one's inevitable retransmission of the archive, and of the archive's similar helplessness not to change as it absorbs new contributions to itself, new arrangements of its previous conventions. Put another way, this historical sense is equivalent to noticing and then taking control of one's respiration, making the involuntary briefly voluntary. It's for this reason that the "historical sense" again marks that oscillation of the plenary genitive—is this the sense of history or the historied sense? Tradition and the individual talent are synonyms because they are both terms for the agency of literary work.

To give the historical sense itself some background, behind both Eliot and Proust stands the phenomenologist Henri Bergson's theory of "la durée" (Eliot had gone to a series of his lectures in 1911). Bergson's description of time as duration, a single indivisible substance, all of which is continuously present, rather than a series of discrete moments, undergirds Proust's idea of "Time Regained" and Eliot's strategic indistinction between artist and archive—the past and present are coterminous features of the Ego when it "lets itself live, when it refrains from separating its present state from its former states."1 Proust's In Search of Lost Time could be summarized as the voluntary epic of involuntary memory, an attempt to investigate and manage the details of unbidden psychic experience, of the past's unscheduled reirruption in the present. For Eliot, whose field in his essay is not a mind but literature, all texts are madeleines.

The Waste Land stands as the ars poetica of this impersonal style: personal "feelings" are deployed in a relentless citational environment such that they assume the quality of quotation, while the quotations move towards the condition of original speech. Of course both tendencies are evident since all writing, even confessional writing, is a matter of recombining word histories, while citations are made new, or different, by entering new contexts. All speech is citation, even if the source is plurally and anonymously authored; literature is the archive's continuous confession of itself. The Waste Land is a confession of that confession, a selective genealogy of the Western canon whose past and present are collaborators requiring one another—Shakespeare’s Hamlet is based in Thomas Kyd's lost play and The Spanish Tragedy, Daniel Arnaut speaks Provencal within Dante’s Divine Comedy (both of which are cited simultaneously at the end of Eliot's poem, they are each other's textual breath and what the poem breathes—to cite "Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina" is to cite Arnaut, Dante, and Eliot at once).

This impersonal collaboration can even extend into the present "of" The Waste Land, whose set of allusions was made even more selective by Ezra Pound’s significant redactions. Unlike reading and writing literature, certain registers of experience in the poem, ones in which the historical sense may not be developed (sex, war, the war of the sexes), lead instead to silence and inert repetition ("Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.") or to unintelligible repetition ("Tereu"). These modes have at least as long a history as literature and also operate by means of a set of conventions, but for Eliot the fact of embodiment as either the subject or object of desire and violence seems less susceptible to self-consciousness, to a voluntary experience of the involuntary, than the supple, reconfigurable body of literature, which is always fertile and much harder to kill. As a body, one is forced to interact only with the rest of the recalcitrant bodies around one in the present; as a poet, the dead, while unavailable to the senses, are the present medium of sense.

Eliot's essay and the example of The Waste Land place his early thought in proximity with recent poetics and their practitioners, from John Ashbery to the loosely associated poetries comprehended under the rubric of Language Poetry. Eliot's emphasis on the difference between feelings and "art emotion" and on the past of literature as its present material are both essentially constructivist tenets. Ashbery's inventory of the present and recent past of language use, a Waste Land of slang and pop culture, and his rapid shifts between subjective centers conspire to defeat the possibility of locating a unitary personality; his ability, or rather the poem's, to forget its subject from line to line is, paradoxically, its method of remembering so many features of American idiom, of producing new interactions among them, of deploying a historical sense that easily takes in both Andrew Marvell and Raymond Roussel. Similarly, Language Poetry's New Sentence, especially when used to reinvigorate autobiography as in Lyn Hejinian’s My Life or Ron Silliman’s Albany, proceeds by citing and circulating many sources, public and private, whose syllogistic relationship to each other has been deemphasized; the sentences are related by virtue of appearing together on and as the same ground, a signifying ground that can be figured as a life (My Life) or a place (Albany). They are archives of sentences. In both cases, the poem stands not as an escape from personality and psychology, but as the inevitable record of an experience of language and power, of the ongoing textualization of the subject and its dispersion in time and categories. When Hejinian discusses Gertrude Stein she sounds remarkably like Eliot: "the discovery that language is an order of reality itself and not a mediating medium—that it is possible and even likely that one can have a confrontation with a phrase that is as significant as a confrontation with a tree, chair, cone, dog, bishop, piano, vineyard, door, or penny."2 Of course our confrontation here is with "tree," "chair," "cone"; Hejinian's order of reality is one because the archive is not a mediating medium but the material construction of experience. As an earlier incarnation of Eliot (George) put it in Middlemarch: "Our deeds still travel with us from afar / And what we have been makes us what we are." The rhyme between tradition and talent is not always this audible. More often, as T. S. Eliot puts it himself in "The Dry Salvages": "it is not heard at all, but you are the music / While the music lasts."


1Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will. (Massachusetts: F. L. Pogson, 1910), p. 100.
2Hejinian, Lyn. "Two Stein Talks" in The Language of Inquiry. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000) p.90.