“One of the deadly sins of contemporary culture is that it meanspiritedly avoids a frontal confrontation with the highest values. Also the arrogant conviction that we can do without models (both aesthetic and moral), because our place in the world is supposedly so exceptional and can’t be compared with anything. That’s why we reject the aid of tradition and stumble around in our solitude, digging around in the dark corners of the desolate little soul.”
Refreshingly stringent, as always, Zbigniew Herbert reminds us of our inability to write a worthy sentence without reference, conscious or otherwise, to forebears. Even that sentence, the one I just wrote, is built on words and thoughts crafted by Herbert and certainly Samuel Johnson. Probably there are others but tradition is truest, and we are most indebted to it for our small accomplishments, when internalized. This should not be mistaken for imitation or modish parroting. Tradition cultivates a literary eco-system at once personal and traditional. Originality is a pernicious myth.
I heard another echo in my understanding of Herbert’s sentences which took time to identify: Yvor Winters, of all writers, whose poems and prose I’ve been rereading of late. Consider his discussion of what he calls “the Romantic theory of literature”:
“Literature thus becomes a form of what is known popularly as self-expression. It is not the business of man to understand and improve himself, for such an effort is superfluous: he is good as he is, if he will only let himself alone, or, as we might say, let himself go. The poem is valuable because it enables us to share the experience of a man who has let himself go, who has expressed his feelings, without hindrance, as he has found them at a given moment. The ultimate ideal at which such a theory aims is automatism.”
The passage is from Winters’ foreword to In Defense of Reason (1947). The opposite of automatism in the literary sense is deliberation, application of craft to achieve artistic goals, a strategy which does not prohibit reliance on intuition but tempers it. For most of us on most occasions, first thought is not best thought. Automatism literally applied results in such curiosities as the Surrealists’ adoration of “automatic writing” or Kerouac’s “spontaneous bop prosody,” practices which may achieve therapeutic but not artistic benefits. An automaton, after all, is just a machine. Herbert writes in the paragraph following the one cited above (in “Animula,” from Labyrinth on the Sea, in The Collected Prose 1948-1998):
“There exists the false view to the effect that tradition is like a fortune, a legacy, which you inherit mechanically, without effort, and that’s why those who object to inherited wealth and unearned privileges are against tradition. But in fact every contact with the past requires an effort, a labor, and a difficult and thankless labor to boot, for our little `I’ whines and balks at it.”