There is nothing new under the sun.
Behold, I make all things new.
TO CELEBRATE OUR twenty-fifth anniversary this year we chose the theme “Making It New.” It seemed a simple enough decision. This journal exists to publish art and literature that engage the western faith traditions in a contemporary context. In that sense, “Making It New” is a way of signaling that every imaginative encounter with an ancient faith is potentially an act of re-creation and therefore of renewal.
But the more I gazed at the phrase, hoping to tease out its meaning, the more elusive and recondite it became. Even its origins turned out to be problematic. “Make It New” is widely attributed to Ezra Pound and assumed to be the slogan he used to lead the charge for the modernist literary movement of which he was a champion. But in one of life’s little ironies, it turns out that this saying is actually very, very old.
Here’s how it came about. Pound’s fascination with Confucianism led him to read deeply in the ancient chronicles. There he came across a story of Ch’eng T’ang, the first king of the Shang dynasty (1766−1753 BCE). This monarch is said to have had his washbasin inscribed with the phrase, a daily reminder. But the best translations stress that the meaning of the phrase is closer to “renovation” and meant in the sense of personal moral and spiritual renewal, rather than as a call to artistic creation.
Pound’s own translation of the Chinese original—first published in 1928, well after the initial heyday of modernism—used “renovate,” and only alters that to “make it new” in a footnote. It wasn’t until the mid-1930s that he would use these words as the title of an essay collection and not until the 1950s that it would be picked up by literary critics as a catchphrase of the modernist project.
I learned these facts from a recently published book, one whose title is also deliciously ironic: Novelty: A History of the New, by Michael North. This well-written but intellectually dense volume takes on philosophy from Parmenides to Wittgenstein, not to mention historians of science like Thomas Kuhn and Norbert Wiener. It also happens to be one of the few studies dedicated to the concept of the new.
In his introduction North notes that English usage seems to have an inbuilt animus against the new, since most words for it have a pejorative connotation. “Novelty” conjures up images of plastic turds while “newness” merely sounds lame. “Innovation” has a more positive sound, but has been largely coopted by economic and technological hucksters and stripped of deeper resonance.
The disconcerting but compelling argument that North makes is that any attempt to define the authentically new in art or science or thought runs into something like one of Zeno’s paradoxes: the more you attempt to get there, the further from your goal you get.
North points out that well before Ecclesiastes proclaimed that there is nothing new under the sun, the pre-Socratic philosophers were singing the same tune: nothing in this world can be created new ex nihilo.
In the end, he says, most theories of the new end up falling into one of two frameworks: recurrence or recombination. In other words, what we claim as new is really either a return to a past form, or a creative rearrangement of already existing things.
However modest these theories of the new may be, they’ve often been ignored by artists and thinkers happy to proclaim that they have achieved primal, absolute novelty. While North covers a lot of territory, he spends much of the book on the claims of modern artists and scientists, because they have been the most strident in their rhetoric.
One way to gauge how far the moderns strayed from previous generations on this subject can be found in the changing meaning of the word “revolution.” Prior to the French Revolution the word meant “come full circle,” as a wheel is rotated until it returns to its original position—a restoration of order and equilibrium.
Revolution as radical change—the overturning of political regimes or artistic styles—emerges from inauspicious beginnings: the rise of abstract, utopian ideologies. The absurdity of these claims, when not violent and oppressive, becomes almost comical, as in the political party known as the Party of Perpetual Revolution.
Is it any wonder that so many of us experience either fatigue or exasperation at claims to revolutionary newness, especially in the arts? Think of all the shrill manifestos—and the diminishing returns at repeated assaults that rely on shock and sensationalism. Add to this the idea, common since the romantic era, that there exist rare geniuses who are capable of originality in a way that other mortals are not, and you have the formula for a syndrome that attracts some devotees but repels more.
A number of critics have observed the depressing similarity between the avant-garde art world and corporate marketing: both share an obsession with selling us their new and vastly improved products. Andy Warhol, of course, understood this, and through his art turned it into paradox. The current Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney in New York includes a gallery of works from his series entitled “The New,” which elicited this response from the New York Times reviewer: “The name signals Mr. Koons’s obsession with their virginal purity, and his interest in isolating an essential pleasure of consumerism: newness itself.”
Still, even if the new seems to evaporate upon scrutiny and at times to grow out of motives that are superficial and self-aggrandizing, I’m not entirely ready to let go of it. Some instinct tells me that both the hunger for—and the fear of—the new emerge from a deeper place within the heart.
Because things not only fall apart, they also just wear out. Artists have a peculiarly sharp awareness of this. The works of our hands suffer from too much repetition, over-use, poor imitation. Sometimes the historical and cultural conditions that generated an object are no longer present, and thus it no longer speaks to us with the force and freshness it did to its contemporaries. Perhaps what the prior generation saw was only part of the truth, and new circumstances push the artist to find another facet that needs to be seen and encountered.
When things become opaque, we need a form of newness to restore their translucency so that we can see once again the truth they point to. Yes, this need for newness can become a fetish for novelty or innovation. Nothing in the art world is more shopworn than the avant-garde. Which is why, as many artists or craftsmen or even engineers will tell you, the new, like happiness, is not something you pursue directly.
An artist works at the nexus where past and present meet—tradition and the individual talent, in T.S. Eliot’s phrase. That place—where the artist’s materials, what’s gone before, and the peculiar circumstances of the present all come together—is where something new can emerge. Not, perhaps, original (in the fetishized, romantic sense), but genuinely new.
In that sense, the humbler definitions of the new articulated in North’s book seem more than adequate. Recurrence and recombination are the natural rhythms of the imagination. North quotes the scholar Randall Collins to the effect that creativity is always a relative thing, a matter of “new combinations of ideas arising from existing ones, or new ideas structured by opposition to older ones.”
North also cites anthropologist Gregory Bateson that an innovation is a “difference that makes a difference.” Indeed, Bateson’s definition also helps explain why the great innovations remain valuable long after they were created. Which brings us back to paradox. The great works of art that seemed so shockingly new to their contemporaries now appear to us as firmly rooted in their historical moments—the timely becoming timeless. “History,” Eliot said, “is a pattern of timeless moments.”
The question that North’s book raises, however, remains to be puzzled out. Why have modern artists and scientists strained so hard to present themselves as radically original? Since North’s analysis stops short of postmodernism, we could add another question: why, in contrast to modernism’s arrogant claims for newness, has postmodernism seemingly lost hope even in the value of recurrence and recombination? One of the hallmarks of postmodernism has been quotation—the assemblage of bits and pieces sampled, as it were, from the past. But how often do those quotations recombine into truly fresh works?
Perhaps the reason so many modern artists, scientists, and philosophers have been dissatisfied with more modest definitions of novelty is that they are seeking something that secular modernity cannot give. For all its ambition, North’s book makes no attempt to link the rise of absolutist claims to the new to the decline of religion in the West. And yet a plausible argument could be made that the two things are closely intertwined.
At the core of the western traditions is the belief in revelation, which is not only the transcendent making itself felt within the world, but also an utterly unprecedented, new thing—a disruption of the way of the world and its cycles of eternal recurrence and an announcement that there is a deeper truth that upsets worldly categories and judgments. Henceforth, the last shall be first.
North does cite Christian teaching that our redemption offers us a chance at becoming new creations, but he completely neglects one of the central claims of the western faiths, which is that by placing ourselves in dialogue with that revelation we might find it a renewable resource, a fount of newness. Hence, for example, the Jewish tradition of midrash, the rabbinic commentaries on scripture that generate new stories in order to understand the stories told in revelation. Or Cardinal Newman’s notion of the development of doctrine, in which the dogmatic mysteries of faith yield up new facets over time.
As religion progressively lost its cultural and personal authority in the modern era, it fell to art and science to fill the gap. But it should come as no surprise that such an effort would ultimately be more than these forms could bear. The very failure of the project should give us hope. The hunger for some sort of saving newness, some irruption of grace from beyond to save us from the treadmill of existence, is impossible to repress.
It might be objected that no force on earth is as capable of hardening into unchanging forms and institutions as that of religion, and there’s certainly plenty of evidence to back that up (though one could say the same of political regimes). But the deeper truth is that faith is a constant awareness of the elusiveness of truth and the need for continual personal and institutional renewal. The catchphrase in church circles is semper reformanda, always in need of reform.
One might even say that the nature of faith is to be open in every moment to the new, that by living authentically in the present moment, we find ourselves in right relationship to past and future. When art no longer has to bear the burden of salvation, it is free to find the endlessly refracting shapes of that beauty which Augustine said was “ever ancient, ever new.”