In a previous post, I quoted John Dewey's description of a cycle in art and literary history, whereby works initially thought to be too radically experimental ultimately become accepted as "classics" which themselves become objects of imitation. In the second stage of this cycle, writes Dewey
the fruits of the new procedure are absorbed; they are naturalized and effect certain modifications of the old tradition. This period establishes the new aims and hence the new technique as having "classic" validity, and is accompanied with a prestige that holds over into subsequent periods.
Dewey's notion that "new procedures" create "certain modifications of the old tradition" strongly reminds me of T.S. Eliot's argument in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" that
The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. 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.
Both Dewey and Eliot are suggesting that without experiment in art and literature, the "supervention of novelty," the great works of the past merely ossify into a "tradition" that no longer inspires artists and writers to, in effect, outdo the "existing monuments," to bring those monuments into active communication with the present. (Harold Bloom's notion of the "anxiety of influence" probably fits in here as well, however much Bloom would prefer not to be associated with Eliot.) "Certain modifications of the old tradition" are needed to keep the "old tradition" from becoming merely old, as well as to invigorate "the new" through contact with the genuine achievements of the past. Thus both Dewey and Eliot view experiment as a way of maintaining the vitality of the tradition, but also see tradition as subject to the revision prompted by "the really new."
Eliot is usually taken as a conservative defender of tradition, of the notion of "an ideal order," but it seems to me unlikely that the younger Eliot, at any rate, would have much use for current notions of the "canon." Any canon of "great works" would have to be subject to the kind of modification both he and Dewey identify, which ultimately means the very idea of "greatness" in literature would have to be open to such modification. Certainly Eliot's own poetry would never have qualified as "great" if the criteria to be used in judging it remained those appropriate to Pope or Wordsworth or Tennyson. Modern literature as a whole, of which Eliot is the avatar and Dewey the advocate (at least in theory), would not have been possible if poets and writers (many of them now seen as "conservative" in their political and cultural views) had not seen literary tradition both as something to be honored and as something to be defeated.
This not to say that T.S. Eliot was a pragmatist, but that the only way to view both literary history and "the new aims" of present writers in a way that respects both the old and the new is a pragmatic way. The past remains vital to the extent it continues to resonate in the present. The present produces reputable work when such work can be seen as a creative extension of the past.