Wednesday, February 2, 2011

the soul, the spirit & the structure of tradition

photo: jetheriot

Any tradition can be cracked open into two parts: a soul and a spirit. The soul of a tradition is the essence of a tradition, the part that stays the same as the tradition is handed down. The spirit of a tradition is the variation of a tradition, the stamp of the individual. The soul of a tradition is the form of a tradition; the spirit of a tradition is its flavor.

Take fork-making. All forks have certain features in common and every fork-maker will include in the design of every fork these essential elements: a handle for gripping, tines for poking, a bend in the tines for scooping. If a fork-maker made a utensil with blades instead of tines, you couldn’t really call it a fork, could you? This is the soul of fork-making, what makes a fork a fork. As it is handed down, the soul remains unchanged. Forks will always have tines. Spoons will always have bowls. Knives will always have blades.

But a fork may have three or four tines: relish forks have only two. The handle of a fork may be plastic or metal or wood. There are red forks and there are blue forks. A salad fork is as much of a fork as a pitchfork. This is the spirit of the fork, the twist in the tradition, what makes each fork unique.

Picture a zipper in your head: two symmetric strips of fabric fitted with interlocking teeth are brought together and torn apart by a rectangular pull-tab moved along its length. This is the soul of the zipper. Now picture a particular zipper, the zipper on your favorite pair of jeans, for example: teeth of rugged copper, fabric the color of denim, seven inches long. Or the zipper down the back of an evening gown: fragile, lightweight teeth, delicate black ribbon, twenty-three inches long. This is the spirit of the zipper.

Songs, like all traditions, have a soul and a spirit too. Happy Birthday To You, Happy Birthday To You, this melody has been handed down to us and we have handed it down to our children. As we pass it along, the sound of it – the soul of the song – never changes. Yet the song is never the same song twice. Happy Birthday Dear Rhonda, Happy Birthday Dear Clementine, this is the spirit of the song.