Tradition and the Individual Talent in Folklore and Literature

Article excerpt

Tradition is the illusion of permanence.

-Woody Allen

In the section of Plato's Phaedrus (274 B, C) dealing with the superiority of the spoken word and the invention of writing, Socrates asks Phaedrus if he knows how to "best please God, in practice and in theory, in this matter of words," and Phaedrus acknowledges that indeed he doesn't and inquires if Socrates knows how to do so. Socrates tells his old friend that "I can tell you a tradition that has come down from our forefathers, but they alone know the truth of it" (Hackforth 1972:156). Evidently Plato viewed tradition as something from the past, but obviously he didn't see tradition as something unchanging or unalterable and had no reservations about reinventing (or even inventing) tradition as a rhetorical strategy in his dialogue; for while Plato borrowed the characters in Socrates' narrative of the invention of writing from Egyptian legend, the story Socrates relates apparently is of Plato's own fabrication.

The word tradition, ultimately from Latin, came into the English language from Middle French, and by 1380, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (1971, s.v. "tradition"), generally meant 'That which.. is handed down; a statement, belief, or practice transmitted (esp. orally) from generation to generation." As the concept developed, it has come to mean, according to one definition in Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1981, s.v. "tradition"), "cultural continuity embodied in a massive complex of evolving social attitudes, beliefs, conventions, and institutions rooted in the experience of the past and exerting an orienting and normative influence on the present." In dictionary definitions as well as in common usage, linkage with the past and cultural continuity are typical qualities of what we have come to think of as tradition.

Like Plato, our forefathers in folklore studies did not question the meaning and importance of tradition; oral tradition, in fact, was synonymous with folklore. Likewise, in literary studies, the modernists as well as the ancients considered the meaning of tradition self-evident: a body of conventions inherited from the past as distinct from an author's own creations. As Cunningham observes, although historical, literary tradition is not the same as history, for tradition, as Levi-Strauss observes of myth (LeviStrauss 1965:87 ff.), is synchronic as well as diachronic:

Consequently, though a tradition is historical in that it issues from an historical process, it is not in itself its history. It exists at each moment in completed form. For a tradition is rather, both in the terms in which it must be described and reconstituted by the literary historian and in the actual way in which it is attained and apprehended by a given writer at a given time, a context of notions, often jumbled and sometimes not too consistent with one another, together with the methods and attitudes by which these notions are grasped and applied. A tradition can be located in a body of texts and interpretations current among a given group of writers and readers. Such a description applies equally to the traditions in which Chaucer and Shakespeare wrote and to those which are now current: one must be learned as well as the other, and in the same way.

... [T] he notions which constitute a tradition are not ideas merely, but principles of order. They are schemes which direct the production of works... [Cunningham 1960:19]

Since the 1980s, however, the concept of tradition, as well as of other familiar concepts, has been argued and deconstructed by postmodernists. One book that inspired students of folklore, literature, and culture studies to examine the meaning of tradition was Hobsbawm and Ranger's The Invention of Tradition, published in 1983, in which Hobsbawm in the introduction distinguishes between invented traditions and genuine traditions. Hobsbawm explains that "`Invented tradition' is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past" (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983:1). …