The Paris Review has shared an interesting piece from their archives, an undated letter between Donald Hall, their first poetry editor, and founding editor George Plimpton. The subject is poetry, and while the discussion suggests the mid- to late-1950s very specifically, Hall makes points about art, sincerity, and fakery that are still timely. Most striking is his assertion that you can't produce good art without attending to the tradition you find yourself in. From near the end of the letter:
You must understand that art is nothing to these men, nor history. The penalty for ignoring two thousand years is that you get stuck in the last hundred. They have the specious present of the barbarian. Art in this century demands a sense of the tragic dignity of history. These poor bastards are stuck in the last third of the 19th century and I swear they don’t know that anything happened before that.
Belong to a tradition. Embrace it. You'll produce better art and not "get stuck in the last hundred years," an eternal provincialism that will render you irrelevant faster than any particular subject matter could.
That line on "the penalty for ignoring two thousand years" is wonderful. But as far as penalties go, even being stuck in the last hundred years is probably optimistic now. Even my sincerest, hardest working students, who come to me so profoundly ignorant of the past, are often stuck in the last five.
Naturally, C.S. Lewis's introduction to St. Athanasius's On the Incarnation came to mind, as it so often does when I try to encourage people to read the old stuff. Making a point broadly similar to Hall's, Lewis writes that
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook . . . The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.
See also my thoughts from a few weeks ago on the value of studying the past, complete with two thousand year-old references to Polybius and Cicero.
Hall died last week aged 89.