Fish out of water

Robert Dawidoff

  • The Works of George Santayana. Vol. I: Persons and Places edited by William Holzberger and Herman Saatkamp
    MIT, 761 pp, £24.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 262 19238 1
  • George Santayana: A Biography by John McCormick
    Knopf, 612 pp, $30.00, August 1988, ISBN 0 394 51037 2

George Santayana made himself anything but plain in his writings. Even when he was memorably, aphoristically direct, he toyed with the contrary, the piquing, the enigmatic, the confounding, and got into the habit of regarding even his own obscurity as an emblem of his integrity, as his boast. He meant it to be impossible to lay a glove on him.

Santayana is better remembered for some of what he had to say than for anything particular about him or his long life (1863-1952). He was born in Spain to Spanish parents, who were also steeped in the middle echelons of Spanish Imperial life in the Philippines. Santayana’s mother was the widow of a Boston scion of the Anglo-New England merchant-prince Sturgis connection who left the five-year-old George with his father in Spain to return to Boston to raise his three Sturgis siblings. At nine, George joined her in America, where he was educated in the best Boston manner and experienced what was to be his lifelong position as an insider outsider, welcome by virtue of his birth and his talents within the precincts of societies to which he could never feel that he belonged by right. His salad days came as an undergraduate at Harvard, where he drew, wrote poetry, discovered the study of philosophy, made warm friendships, settled on the tone he was to take throughout his life. He stayed on to study with William James, Josiah Royce and others in that golden age of American academic philosophising. He distinguished himself in his studies – and, in his attitude towards them, from his teachers. He began to sound a characteristic note of joyous disdain for ordinary philosophical practice early on. He rose to the rank of professor, and acquired a following of his own. The confidential report of the redoubtable, modernising President Eliot concerning Santayana’s promotion to assistant professor in 1897, suggests the problem he posed to his conventional fellows, a problem he himself understood as a challenge:

The withdrawn, contemplative man who takes no part in the everyday work of the institution, or of the world, seems to me a person of very uncertain value. He does not dig ditches, or lay bricks, or write school-books, his product is not of the ordinary, useful, though humble kind. What will it be? It may be something of the highest utility; but, on the other hand, it may be something futile, or even harmful because unnatural and untimely.

Harvard came to value him, but his career was marked by those key terms, ‘unnatural and untimely’. At 48, having come into an inheritance, Santayana resigned his professorship and left America, spending the second half of his life wandering in Europe, where he ended up living in his famous refuge with the Blue Nuns in Rome.

Santayana wrote poetry up to the point when, as he said, his muse deserted him – one senses that it was his candour that deserted his muse. He wrote several philosophical inquiries, works of literary criticism and books on the history of philosophy. He developed and, in his view, perfected a philosophical system in several big books, written over many years. He was also, memorably, an essayist, whose observations about America (Character and Opinion in the United States and The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy), Germany (Egotism in German Philosophy) and England (Soliloquies in England) are classics of their kind. He even had an American literary success in the late Thirties with his novel The Last Puritan and finally became, with Persons and Places, one of the century’s most interesting autobiographers. All his books bear the unmistakable stamp of his stylish, witty, rather formal English prose and abound with original and provocative remarks, keenly observed and gracefully phrased, memorable gleanings from whatever the subject at hand brought to his extraordinary mind.

In his own day, Santayana had many admirers and readers, although the assurance and insolence with which he sought his own way irritated his more earnest philosophical fellows. His contempt for their science, their systems, their colleges and their schools, their politics, their logic, their pretensions, caused him to be at best uneasily regarded by the run of his colleagues and he took care to ensure that no one ever mistook him for one of them. Having decided that difference was his natural lot, Santayana turned it to his advantage. He claimed to consider every topic, including the topics of philosophy, from outside the prevailing conventions. At the very moment when philosophy was questioning its own sources of power and generalisation, everywhere asking, ‘What do we mean when we say this?’, Santayana seized with maddening confidence the very ground his fellows were scrupulously deserting. He restored the delightful to philosophy at a time when philosophy had ceased to be something someone might want to do in the regular course of a civilised life, on a sunny day, in a beautiful place, in good company, with a light heart, confident of being the better for the pleasure of it.

Santayana preferred to live on his own, associating with friends, attractive men, talented, cultivated, curious, wealthy people, predominantly expatriate Americans, migrating rather than nesting. His understanding of the philosophical life borrowed from the peripatetic and the gentlemanly. He divided his time, as he did his mild allegiances, between the Latin and Northern countries. He lived most happily in Spain and Italy, but was most absorbed by America and England, absorbed and attracted, rebuffed and rebuffing.

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