‘Sequence Literature’ and Tradition

I use the term ‘sequence literature’ to denote two different types of literary output. The first and most obvious is that literature which is published in instalments such that one long narrative or argument is published in a sequential manner.  Usually, with this type of literature, one must have some idea of the content of past instalments to understand the current one. Perhaps the most famous example in this genre are some of the original fictional works of Charles Dickens which were published in this manner.

There is a second class of sequence literature where a particular work, though offering a complete account in itself, draws heavily on some earlier work such that a full understanding or appreciation of the work would require some familiarity with the predecessor upon which draws. This short essay is concerned with this second class of ‘sequence literature’. An example that springs to mind here is the well-known short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne titled The Celestial Railway.  The plot of this story and, indeed, the names of many of its characters, relies heavily on knowledge of another famous work, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. There are many other famous examples in this genre, one of the more obvious being the relationship between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey. Indeed, one could argue that a reading of Virgil’s Aeneid greatly benefits from a prior acquaintance with Homer’s Odyssey.

If one reflects further on this second ‘class’ of literature, then it becomes obvious that the general idea can be expanded greatly to cover all of the important literature of the past. That is to say, a full appreciation of any work of literature would require knowledge of all predecessor works in the same category. For, only then can the reader really assess the true value or import of the work under scrutiny. To come to any work, especially any current work, without such a background is akin, in a fashion, to listening to a single episode of Blue Hills, without having a knowledge of previous episodes.

This, in part, was the argument made by T.S. Eliot in a famous essay, published in 1921 (in The Sacred Wood).  Such background knowledge, Eliot said

cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.

Here, of course, Eliot was concerned mainly with poetry and with the producer of poetry, but the idea has much wider application. It can apply equally well to the reader, to the writer’s audience. I can give a good example from my own and very limited history as a reader of literature.  As a young schoolboy, I was introduced to the famous poem by Tennyson, Ulysses. There were a couple of lines in that poem which I found immensely appealing and memorable, but I had no idea of their full meaning:

Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades

Vext the dim sea: …

I had a vague impression of a rainy day at sea and a vague sense of what might be meant by the words ‘scudding’ and ‘vext’. Only decades later, after having read the Odyssey and having some additional notion of the relationship between the various stellar constellations and their influence on earthly affairs, did any real understanding of Tennyson’s poem come to me.

Let me take another example from the area of philosophy.  I am not familiar with the content of modern university courses in this area of study but I suspect that there will be a substantial bias towards modern empiricist philosophy and very little at all on earlier philosophy. Perhaps a lecture or two on Plato and Aristotle, a mention of Descartes and a dismissive nod towards Aquinas and Augustine. After all, philosophy is now only a minor discipline in most universities – in order to follow the money, you must concentrate on STEM courses. But, in order to fully appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of any of the more modern philosophies, one really needs a good grounding in the whole history of philosophy. The example I will use here is the work of Etienne Gilson. In his book, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, Gilson surveyed almost eight centuries of philosophical thought from Peter Abelard to Karl Marx and found one consistent theme: whenever philosophers use the techniques of disciplines other than philosophy to investigate philosophical questions, they inevitably fall into error and their theories are eventually abandoned or severely modified.  Thus, Abelard had recourse to logic alone, whilst Descartes employed mathematics and geometry.  With Kant, it was what Gilson calls ‘physicism’ and with Comte and his followers, ‘sociologism’.  These observations led Gilson to erect several ‘laws’ or principles pertaining to the philosophical method:

  • Philosophy always buries its undertakers.  By this he means that each new theory, hailed as the ‘solution’ to philosophical problems – i.e. the death of philosophy – is regularly attended by its later revival in some newer scheme which, in its turn, is superseded, and so on.  I recall reading, I think in Ben Rogers’ biography of A.J. Ayer, that Ayer himself, after publication of Language, Truth and Logic, had (only half-jokingly) talked of ‘the end of philosophy’.
  • By his very nature, man is a metaphysical animal.  By this, Gilson means that the failure of philosophical schemes invariably relates to their abandonment of basic metaphysical principles natural to human thought.  Discussing Hume and Kant, he puts this principle in perspective this way:

“Hume had destroyed both metaphysics and science {Humean scepticism}; in order to save science, Kant decided to sacrifice metaphysics.  Now it is the upshot of the Kantian experiment that, if metaphysics is arbitrary knowledge, science also is arbitrary knowledge; hence it follows that our belief in the objective validity of science itself stands or falls with our belief in the objective validity of metaphysics.  The new question then is no longer, why is metaphysics a necessary illusion, but rather: Why is metaphysics necessary, and how is it that it has given rise to so many illusions?”

Gilson answers this last question by developing a series of arguments leading to conclusions which comprise the remainder of his ‘laws’ or principles:

  • Metaphysics is the knowledge gathered by a naturally transcendent reason in its search for the first principles, or first causes, of what is given in sensible experience.
  • As metaphysics aims at transcending all particular knowledge, no particular science is competent either to solve metaphysical problems, or to judge their metaphysical solutions.
  • The failures of metaphysicians flow from their unguarded use of a principle of unity present in the human mind.
  • Since being is the first principle of all human knowledge, it is a fortiori the first principle of metaphysics
  • All failures of metaphysics should be traced to the fact that the first principle of human knowledge has been either overlooked or misused by the metaphysicians.

Moving back now to the relationship between literature and the Tradition, T.T. Eliot explains just how some new work is related to the past and becomes incorporated as it were, in that past:  

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity…

  The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.

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John Ciaran Casey

John Ciaran Casey is the non de plume of a retired agricultural gentleman with an interest in English literature. While some regard him as a paleo-conservative, he angrily denies such a classification, preferring to see himself more of a pre-Cambrian conservative. To his way of thinking, paleo-conservatives are merely disguised progressives.

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