Picture Credit: REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

The trouble with tradition

On the foetid fantasies of the fogeys

Artillery Row

In the introduction to his recent book What Happened to Tradition? Tim Stanley writes about the rebuilding of Notre Dame and horrendous ideas for its modernisation:

Sanity prevailed. The French Senate voted to rebuild Notre Dame to look exactly as it had before, a deference to history, a rare acknowledgement that, when it comes to comparing old and new architecture at least, things ain’t what they used to be.

Not so fast. Since Stanley’s book was published, plans have emerged to remove elements of the interior of Notre Dame to make it more accessible, and to feature contemporary artwork on its walls. “It’s Notre Dame turned into Disneyland,” protested one French critic.

What is it about “trad” discourse that makes me want to eat my tongue?

In a time of such irreverence towards the past it might seem ridiculous to pick on traditionalists — like mocking short-sightedness in the land of the blind. 

Who even are traditionalists? The term has different meanings. For traditional conservatives, like Mr Stanley, it refers to the defence of values, rituals and customs that have lasted long enough to prove their worth. For religious traditionalists it refers to doctrinal orthodoxy. For a loose network of people on social media platforms it refers to either, but also to a passionate enthusiasm for uploading photographs of slim young women in regional dresses and arguing about whether civilisation fell in 1789 or before. 

To be clear, I think that many traditional values and customs are vastly preferable to their alternatives, and that people who adhere to them more closely than I do tend to have better, happier lives than mine. So, what is it about “trad” discourse that makes me want to eat my tongue?

In case you had not guessed, it is the Twitter crowd that sometimes makes me want to dine on my own organs. Not always! But sometimes. They have righteous opinions, and funny memes, and nice aesthetics, but they also often have that lofty moralism in the grip of which people project austere judgement without ever turning their cold-eyed gaze inwards. They often enjoy those competitive displays of ideological purity that begin with someone saying that pornography is bad and end with someone saying that showing your ears in public is a mortal sin. They often have rhapsodic notions of their future on a little farm with ten children and a wife who somehow keeps her figure, even as they live in London, work in IT and camp out in the direct messages of unattainable women. There is a pervasive sense of unreality, as if an ideological universe is being created that bears no relation to the world in which we live.

Yet having decried blinkered outward judgement, I can hardly be hypocritical. Does my disdain towards “trad” content reflect some measure of guilt towards my own failings? Perhaps. But it also reflects some measure of political guilt on behalf of the tradition that in a small way I represent. Would young trads seem so aimless if they had a clearer path?

In a recent tribute to the late Roger Scruton, Giles Fraser writes:

Cherishing things in the face of their passing away, their intrinsic mortality, is a kind of heroic loving resistance to the fragility of human life.

There is some truth to this, of course, but if conservatism and traditionalism can be reduced to elegiac mourning they have failed. The plausibility of this suggestion has many roots, but one of them is the insistence on defending traditional values, rituals et cetera on the basis of their being traditional. 

Tradition, if it has any value, must speak to the future

How many times, for example, have conservatives (myself included) referenced Chesterton’s Fence — the theory that if you want to destroy something you must comprehend why it exists — as if such bloodless warnings would delay a gung-ho property developer? How many times have we chirped that things are difficult to build and easy to destroy as if anyone is listening? Never mind standing athwart history crying “stop”, as was William F. Buckley Jr.’s original intention for National Review. Too often we have been skulking inside history mumbling “steady on”.

Westerners have in countless ways abandoned our traditional values, rituals and customs, and we cannot resurrect traditions on the grounds of their being traditional. Do not misunderstand me here. I am not saying you cannot revive a tradition. But if it can be accomplished it is on the basis of its being useful, moral, beautiful or true (or all of the above) — on the basis of, as Stanley rightly comments in his book, “the original truth that [it] was built to express.” A habit perseveres until it is broken and people have to know why they  should take it up again. That this strikes some of us as excessively rationalistic is beside the point. We cannot will ourselves out of that rationalism any more than a miniature boat can be inserted into a bottle whole.

Besides, tradition, if it has any value, must speak to the future even as it speaks of the past. Almost a hundred years ago, in “The Waste Land”, T.S. Eliot wrote a shockingly modern poem that carried tradition, as he advised young poets to do in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, in its bones. “To conform merely would be for the new work not really to conform at all,” wrote Eliot in that fine essay, “It would not be new, and would therefore not be a work of art. “ A new traditionalism, if it emerges, must be strikingly original.

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