To continue my musings on the subject of tradition and traditionalism.
In my last post, I suggested that the appeal of tradition may lie in our ambiguous attitude to time. I suggested that, although in a literal sense time goes by at sixty seconds per minute, in a more figurative sense there are many different sorts of time, depending on the experience we are having. The appeal of tradition, partly, is that it gives us access to the more rarefied 'streams' of time.
I want to continue to ponder the appeal of tradition, and it will be no surprise to regular readers that I am going to enlist the help of one Gilbert Keith Chesterton-- specifically, his most famous book Orthodoxy.
In the introduction to that masterpiece, Chesterton writes: The thing I propose to take
as common ground between myself and any average reader, is this
desirability of an active and imaginative life, picturesque and full
of a poetical curiosity, a life such as western man at any rate always
seems to have desired. If a man says that extinction is better
than existence or blank existence better than variety and adventure,
then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking.
If a man prefers nothing I can give him nothing. But nearly all
people I have ever met in this western society in which I live
would agree to the general proposition that we need this life
of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange
with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to
combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be
happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.
The last three lines are the cherry. Strange and secure. Wonder and welcome. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton is concentrating rather more on our need for the strange and the wonderful, rather than the secure and the welcoming. I think tradition is there, mostly, to supply the other side of the equation.
I think that humankind is constantly see-sawing between two extremes-- a sense of boredom on one hand, and a sense of vertigo on the other. We have the most astonishing capacity to take the stars and the sun and the air and our own bodies and imaginations for granted, and to forget that we are surrounded by miracles- that we are miracles, indeed. On other hand, and perhaps more understandably, we find ourselves thrown into a universe and a reality that never entirely loses its strangeness, its alienness, its utter contingency and weirdness. We can feel lost, lonely, seasick-- strangers in a strange land.
Which is the predominant emotion? I don't think it's easy or even possible to decide. It might seem we spend more time bored than bewildered; but I think we can feel both at once, though perhaps at different levels of consciousness. I even suspect that both of these feelings are ever-present in us at all times, though one may have the upper hand at any given time.
I have described the two extremes as 'a sense of boredom' and 'a sense of vertigo. But this is to view them in their debased forms. That sense of boredom, in its nobler aspect, is Chesterton's feeling of 'welcome'-- belonging, cosiness, recognition, homecoming. (Is there any more powerful word in the English language than 'home'?)
The sense of alienation and seasickness, in its nobler aspect, is an openness to the mystery and wildness and limitless horizons of existence.
Now, I actually believe that tradition can open us to both of these emotions. In a way, tradition can open wider (and wilder) horizons to us by making us aware of the past and the future, of the dead and the unborn, and of the sense of wonder and the transcendental which is often less evident in our everyday lives. Halloween seems a good example of that-- indeed, the very idea of Halloween was that the otherworld, for one night, mingled with the world of mortal men.
But, in general, I think tradition is on the side of cosiness-- of familiarity-- of homecoming-- of belonging. The sight of a Christmas tree or the sound of church bells comforts us in our existential vertigo and seasickness. And tradition does not just connect us to other times. It connect us to other people as well.
My favourite episode of Friends (the situation comedy, in case some of my more highbrow readers need such a clarification) is 'The One with All The Thanksgivings'. I happened to see it (not for the first time) at a time when I was suffering from this very seasickness-- from a harrowing sense of the shortness and precariousness of life, of the loneliness of the individual, of the randomness and disconnection of everything that happened. I felt adrift on an endless sea with no land in sight, no stars overhead. And I was immensely comforted by this episode containing flashback scenes from Thanksgivings of years past. Life, it made me think, was not that short-- not if most people had so many experiences of the same landmark festival that everyone was likely to have a story of their worst one. Life could also not be so random and formless and chaotic if there were institutions like Thanksgiving, experiences that were shared and recognised by everybody. (In America, at least. But, of course, non-Americans had their own equivalents.)
This eternal tension between wonder and welcome, between a feeling of being lost and being at home, is (I think) crucial to the whole experience of life. I have described it as a tension-- but of course, the two emotions feed off each other, through their very contrast. Artists and journalists often use the slogan, "make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar". In some of my more rambling reveries, it has occurred to me that my favourite poems and books and movies pull off the miracle of making life strange and familiar at the same time.
I think this is part of the magic of tradition. It makes life familiar and strange at once. More of this in my next post!
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