On the philosopher, occasioned by the publication of The Letters of George Santayana.
Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled, while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse.
—Spinoza, The Ethics
“Aplomb in the midst of irrational things”—that’s my motto!
—Santayana to William Morton Fullerton, 1887
—Santayana to William Morton Fullerton, 1887
It is poverty’s speech that seeks us out the most. It is older than the oldest speech of Rome. This is the tragic accent of the scene
And you—it is you that speak it, without speech, The loftiest syllables among loftiest things, The one invulnerable man among Crude captains, …
—Wallace Stevens, “To an Old Philosopher in Rome”
When John McCormick published George Santayana: A Biography in 1987, he began the introduction by registering his “bewilderment that so moving and powerful a figure, justifiably famous in his own day, should have been so unjustifiably neglected in ours.” McCormick noted with disgust that even The Last Puritan (1935)—Santayana’s one novel and probably his most famous work—had been “unavailable … for years.”
McCormick’s lament was understandable. There was a time when Santayana’s work was part of the normal furniture of educated discourse. Not only his semi-autobiographical novel, but also his poetry, essays, and wide-ranging philosophical writings were eagerly read and digested, flowering in turn in the sentiments and opinions of several generations of readers. At Harvard, Santayana’s official and unofficial students included Conrad Aiken, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Witter Bynner, Walter Lippmann, Wallace Stevens, Scofield Thayer, Max Eastman, Van Wyck Brooks, Felix Frankfurter, and James B. Conant, many of whom (conspicuously excepting Eliot) registered their profound debt to his teaching. Until yesterday, it seems, Santayana’s influence was woven into the living tapestry of intellectual life. In our amnesiac day, Santayana’s influence seems to have been reduced to the literary equivalent of a geometric point: a single epigram, to wit, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Santayana is deliciously quotable, but his only other saying that has survived in wide currency is the admonition that “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.”)
The years following publication of McCormick’s book have partly redressed his bewilderment about Santayana’s neglect—but not without irony. In 1986, after George Santayana was completed but before it was published, the MIT Press brought out Persons and Places: Fragments of Autobiography, the fat first volume of its Critical Edition of The Works of George Santayana. Persons and Places was undeniably a good place to begin. Originally published in three volumes from 1944 to 1953 (the year after Santayana’s death at eighty-eight), the book, like The Last Puritan, is among Santayana’s most popular works. As its subtitle suggests, Persons and Places contains a good deal about Santayana’s own life. It recounts his birth in Madrid in 1863 and early years in Avila with his father, his emigration, at eight, to Boston to live with his Scottish-born Catalan mother and her children by a previous marriage (to “a tall blond Puritan of aquiline features and perfect innocence of mind, George Sturgis of Boston”). Santayana takes the reader though his education at the Boston Public Latin School, Harvard, and in Germany, his relations with his family and peers, and his career as a philosophy professor at Harvard. Though in many ways a retiring personality, Santayana seemed to know almost everyone worth knowing, and so Persons and Places also contains any number of vivid character sketches: of Bertrand Russell and his brother John Francis, of Lady Ottoline Morrell and Siegfried Sassoon, of Logan Pearsall Smith, Bernard Berenson, and Robert Bridges. Santayana’s splendid accuracy as a judge of character may be gleaned from his description of Lytton Strachey, whom he met in 1915: “a limp cadaverous creature,” “like a caricature of Christ”: “Obscene was the character written all over him.”
Again like The Last Puritan, Persons and Places was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, a fact that added greatly to its sales. And Persons and Placeswas a notable critical as well as popular success. Edmund Wilson, for example, searching for appropriate literary parallels, enthusiastically compared it to The Education of Henry Adams, Yeats’s memoirs, and finally to Proust’s great novel. Moreover, Persons and Places, coming late in Santayana’s career, had not made it into the previous collection of his works, the handsome Triton Edition published in fifteen volumes by Scribners from 1936 to 1940. All of which is to say that everyone interested in Santayana had reason to welcome the republication of Persons and Places.
The irony mentioned above enters when one considers the MIT edition in the light of McCormick’s complaint about the neglect of Santayana’s work. During his life and after, Santayana was sometimes criticized for overwriting. He commanded immense fluency and could be tempted into gorgeous elaborateness. (“To some people,” he complained, “my whole philosophy seems to be but rhetoric or prose poetry.”) Although trained as a philosopher, Santayana was an intensely literary man; occasionally, he descended into literariness. This was especially, although not exclusively, true in his poetry, most of which he wrote before 1900: often it listeth toward Georgian preciousness. Even in his philosophical works—the bulk of his output—Santayana tended to prefer nimble metaphor to patient exposition or argument. This preference is not, I hasten to add, necessarily a liability, even philosophically. As the philosopher David Stove observed, “some of the best philosophers never argue at all… . Santayana, for example. He simply tells you how he thinks the world is, and delicately makes fun of some other philosophers … who think there is more to the world, or less, than he does.”
Besides, at his best—and he was often at or near his best—Santayana wrote with beguiling grace. Although he was a professor of philosophy for more than twenty years, he was never pedantic or willfully obscure. Even at his most technical (which was not all that technical)—in the five-volume Life of Reason (1905–1906), say, or Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923)—he is accessible to the educated general reader. His charm is irresistible. He begins Scepticism and Animal Faith, for example, with the admission that he comes bearing “one more system of philosophy.”
If the reader is tempted to smile, I can assure him that I smile with him, and that my system … differs widely in spirit and pretensions from what usually goes by that name. In the first place, my system is not mine, nor new. I am merely attempting to express for the reader the principles to which he appeals when he smiles.Santayana is every bit as clever as any German metaphysician, only he is light-years less ponderous. It is important to stress that Santayana is accessible not merely stylistically—in the singing clarity of his prose—but also in terms of content. His philosophy dealt not with difficult abstractions but with matters of patent human exigency. “It was happiness or deliverance,” he wrote in “A General Confession,” an intellectual self-précis written in the 1930s, “that alone really concerned me. This alone was genuine philosophy: this alone was the life of reason.”
Above all, Santayana wrote to be read. For many readers, he is most agreeable as an occasional essayist—in Soliloquies in England (1922), for example, which was written during and just after World War I when Santayana had installed himself in Great Britain. Ostensibly bagatelles on miscellaneous topics from “Atmosphere,” “Cloud Castles,” and “Dons” to “Death-Bed Manners” and “Skylarks,” these fugitive pieces are full of pungent observation and sound judgment. Writing about “The British Character,” at a moment when England was still mistress of an empire, he notes that “What governs the Englishman is his inner atmosphere, the weather in his soul.”
Instinctively the Englishman is no missionary, no conqueror. He prefers the country to the town, and home to foreign parts. He is rather glad and relieved if only natives will remain natives and strangers strangers, and at a comfortable distance from himself. Yet outwardly he is most hospitable and accepts almost anybody for the time being; he travels and conquers without a settled design, because he has the instinct of exploration. His adventures are all external; they change him so little that he is not afraid of them. He carries his English weather in his heart wherever he goes, and it becomes a cool spot in the desert, and a steady and sane oracle amongst all the deliriums of mankind. Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, just, boyish master. It will be a black day for the human race when scientific blackguards, conspirators, churls, and fanatics manage to supplant him.That is eloquently said, and the intervening eighty-odd years have underscored its accuracy.
Pleasure of a certain refined stamp was Santayana’s lodestar in life, and such pleasure was what he sought to communicate through his writing. The beautifully produced Triton Edition (limited to some 950 sets) was the perfect correlative of Santayana’s style. It has no editorial notes. But it makes up in readability what it lacks in critical apparatus. It is an edition to be read.
The MIT edition is meant to be … Well, let’s see. The Letters of George Santayana: Book One, –1909 is the first of a projected eight volumes of letters. Altogether, those eight books will count as Volume V in the Critical Edition of Santayana’s works. Daniel Cory, who met Santayana in 1927 when he was twenty-two and who became the aging philosopher’s confidante, secretary, and literary executor, brought out a selection of letters in 1955. That volume includes some 300 letters; he added dozens more in a 1963 portrait of Santayana’s later years. Santayana’s letters—some of them, anyway—are certainly worth reading. Consider this 1937 missive to Cory about Ezra Pound:
For Heaven’s sake, dear Cory, do stop Ezra Pound from sending me his book. Tell him I have no sense for true poetry, admire (and wretchedly imitate) only the putrid Petrarch and the miserable Milton; that I don’t care for books, have hardly any, and would immediately send off his precious volume to the Harvard Library or to some other cesspool of infamy. That is, if he made me a present of it. If he sent it only for me to look at and return, I would return it unopened; because I abhor all connection with important and distinguished people, and refuse to see absolutely anyone except some occasional stray student or genteel old lady from Boston.Good stuff, no? But the Critical Edition will run to some 3000 letters. Are they all indispensable? The present volume, which takes Santayana through schooldays to the threshold of fame at age forty-six, contains about 350 letters. Some, like those to William James, his teacher and then senior colleague at Harvard, shed light on his thought. Some, like those to the sexually ambidextrous William Morton Fullerton (the lover of Edith Wharton, among many others), are amusing and provide glimpses into Santayana’s developing character. Not a few are like this one from 1906 to his beloved half-sister (and godmother) Susana: “April 3.—It is delightful here in Montpellier. I think constantly of Avila & Greece. It is Spring at last.” How many such reports do we really need?
This volume also features—in addition to the standard preface, acknowledgments, introduction, bibliography, index, and copious footnotes—some twenty pages of textual commentary, a long chronology of Santayana’s life as well as a register of the dozens of addresses he occupied in the course of his many European and American travels. There are sixty pages of textual notes, which detail Santayana’s every misspelling, crossing out, and insertion. There is a list of manuscript locations, letter recipients, and thus-far unlocated letters. There is even a Report of Line-End Hyphenation, which to my eye has an undeniable poetry: “good-looking” is followed by “anti-Hegelianism,” which is followed by “ghost-and-faery-blind,” etc.: a euphonious and edifying procession.
I wonder whether this is the sort of rescue from neglect that John McCormick had in mind? Such attention implies a certain flattery, of course. But then so does the process of embalming. It is not as if there are any grave difficulties about the texts that Santayana bequeathed to posterity. We are not dealing with a heap of damaged, barely legible papyrus or collations of scribal errors, after all. We are dealing with an eminently accessible twentieth-century writer whose texts are about as transparent and unproblematic as texts can be. It is interesting to speculate about what Santayana would have made of the Critical Edition of his work. His sense of humor, I suspect, and possibly his vanity, would have been gratified: Santayana always had a lively appreciation of the absurd. His sense of proportion would have been appalled.
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