Friday, August 31, 2012

`The Relation of the Tiles to One Another'

From The Vindication of Tradition (Yale University Press, 1984) by Jaroslav Pelikan, I’ve learned of a Byzantine literary genre known as the florilegium or “bouquet.” From the Latin for “flower gathering,” it’s a literal translation of ἀνθολόγιον, “anthology,” as in the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of florilegium: “A collection of the flowers of literature, an anthology.” Among the citations given by the OED is this from James Russell Lowell’s My Study Windows (1871): “We have made but a small florilegium from Mr. Hazlitt's remarkable volumes.” 

The theme of Pelikan’s book, which started as the 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, is the distinction between tradition and traditionalism. The former is “the living faith of the dead”; the latter, “the dead faith of the living.” When Pelikan encountered a Byzantine florilegium as a student, he mistook it for a hollow exercise in traditionalism: a collection of quotations drawn from Greek and Latin sources, with little original commentary. The closest modern counterpart is probably the commonplace book. Pelikan came to understand from modern scholars that a florilegium represents “an explicit refusal to be `original,’ and that its originality must therefore be sought in its repetition of the standard formulas, not apart from that repetition.” 

Pelikan likens a florilegium to a kidnapper’s ransom note. Police will attempt to identify and date the source of the individual letters and words clipped from newspapers to form the message, but it’s the arrangement of the clippings that constitutes the message. His incomprehension at reading the florilegium, Pelikan says, was rooted in “a false understanding of the relation between tradition and creativity, the assumption that the second began where the first left off.” He further compares the genre to a mosaic, “all of whose tiles have come from somewhere else; a myopic examination of the tiles, or of the space between the tiles, misses the whole point.”
The purest of florilegium-makers among bloggers is Mike Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti. He transcribes sometimes lengthy excerpts from his reading, usually with little commentary. Longtime readers of Mike’s posts come to recognize his favorite themes, including arboricide and the persistence of Latin and Greek. The effect is musical, suggesting counterpoint and leitmotif. Mike is indisbutably “creative,” though eloquently laconic with his own words. In my first post more than six and a half years ago, I transcribed a passage from Hazlitt (who is mentioned above by J.R. Lowell). Unlike Mike, I immediately realized I didn’t want quotations to stand alone. For me, a noteworthy passage from a poem or essay is like the bit of grit in an oyster that, through irritation and an immune-system reaction, results in a pearl. I collect such passages and let them resonate off each other, and then I react to and describe the resonance. Without respectful attention paid to tradition, the world might be “original” and “creative” but also rather dull. Referring to his mosaic metaphor, Pelikan says the whole point is “the relation of the tiles to one another and of the mosaic to other mosaics.”


George said...

A wonderful book, The Vindication of Tradition.

Bruce Floyd said...

Though we've probably already read Eliot's essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" several times, it's one those essays, like those of Lamb's and Hazlitt's, that somehow never seems dated, is always fresh.