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The withdrawn, contemplative man who takes no part in the everyday work of the institution, or of the world, seems to me a person of very uncertain value.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.

His old and New English sojourns and acculturation gave him an unnatural perspective on his patria. In turn, the perspective his patria gave him on the lands of his adoption was critically important. He really did see things about America, and perhaps also about England, in a way that few others have done. He came to America and England, to modern life, from a Medieval setting in Avila, where his best chance of getting on would have been to join a Spanish establishment, against the received Enlightenment wisdom of his father. He saw through his father’s dogmatic liberalism, while also being prevented by his emigration and his nature from taking up the conventional Spanish life in automatic Oedipal reaction. He was thrown from his mother’s narrow perch into the commercial and cultural capital of a new imperium, without being able to make its cause his own: America, after all, won its imperial spurs from Spain while Santayana was in early middle age. He was himself an unconvinced Roman Catholic and found himself in a situation where his Spanish nativity and his identity as a Catholic were always more defining to others than either ever was to him. Within the life of the Sturgis clan, he was a secondary relation of poor relations. To be on the fringe, even of the centre, was his fate.

Santayana spent his formative intellectual years as a foreign student in a New England that was branching out and dying out. The old New England fierceness that had made so much of American commerce and culture was being supplanted by the large energies, capitalist rather than commercial, democratic rather than genteel, which the world has come to know so well. Santayana was so placed, almost uniquely, as to regret ancient traditions without sentimentalising them, to criticise modern conditions without refusing to live in them. His loyalties were diluted as well as divided, and he was alienated in one way or another from them all. He came early to a powerfully defensive insight into whatever might lay claim to him. In his clear-eyed way he refused to substitute one allegiance for another, refused to fantasise, as Henry Adams did or Walter Pater, the substitution for the present of some past. He was as detached from what he cherished as from what he criticised. Neither the present nor the past struck Santayana as susceptible of improvement. The laughter in his books is seldom compromised by huffiness or sentimentality – nor, it must be owned, by passion.

Santayana’s upbringing holds a clue to his distinctive attitudes. Persons and Places recounts the origins of his cosmopolitan detachment in his odd childhood. He was alienated within his family, finding early a stubborn sense of his natural individuality as a condition of separation, isolation and difference. Santayana’s tone about his family is of a piece with his other writing. The more intimate the subject, the cooler his depiction. The portraits of his father and mother and his sister Susanna are remarkable for their chilly appraisal and their rendering of mixed emotion. No doubt Santayana detached himself from the control and potential stunting of his family circumstances, but he retained what must have been an impressive set of childhood defences against the incursions of his crowding, indifferent family. The burning resentments abated but remained. As in his writings about America and philosophy, one senses in Persons and Places the anger that fuels the detachment, energises the achievement, protects the child, distinguishes the man.

Reading Santayana, one has little sense of change or development. He was an old youngster and a young ancient. As a young man, his writings sometimes have the feeling of premature wisdom, beyond precocity: how could anyone so young have known what he knew? As an old man, he retained a freshness of response that survived his failing physical powers and kept him to the end interested in whatever there was that was new to him, which he also knew was not new under the sun. That his detachment was his protection was something he understood. That it was founded in his childhood he knew too. That it harboured his resentments, that it nurtured his hurts, that it replaced participation and avenged him on the world, he would not allow, for Santayana claimed that the world did not touch him, that it did not matter to him.

In accounting for his peculiar perspective, Santayana did not address his homosexuality. His autobiography is not coy about his attraction to men. His biographer, John McCormick, concludes that he was homosexual, but for sound social and personal reasons unwilling to risk what was in his day at best a precarious preference. To that repression, McCormick attributes the distant tone of Santayana’s writing, especially his poetry:

One conclusion about his early experience of sexual passion, whether consummated or not, is that he became frightened of the power of sexuality, and that Spanish canniness, and the classical invocation to ‘Know thyself’ led him away from sexual luxury. By the time he composed his paragraphs on ‘Rational Authority’ in Dominations and Powers, he could refer to sexual inversion ... as a custom perhaps suited to human nature because it had ‘not yet proved fatal to all who adopted it’. His slow, steady, Epicurean withdrawal from America between roughly 1893 to 1912 ... may indicate not coldness or distaste, but the reverse: warmth, the will to involvement which society and inner wisdom both discouraged. How else relate the worldliness, the humanity, and the sympathy of the informal Santayana to the courtly, formal, almost chilly Santayana of most of the published work?

McCormick handles this subject with a restraint that matches Santayana’s own and endorses his renunciation. But the autobiography makes clear that the matter was not so simple. Friendship, Santayana’s with the men in his life, is a theme that runs throughout the book. He stopped writing poetry because of what he dared not reveal. The Last Puritan comes alive in the clearly sexual excitement of the relationship between Oliver Alden and his father’s ship captain, Lord Jim: a relationship which moves through the range of feeling from sexual captivation through the disappointments of an unacknowledged and unconsummated love affair to an ambivalent, sentimental friendship of the kind Santayana himself had with the second Earl Russell, the great passion of his adult life – a story guardedly told in the autobiography. Santayana’s tone towards Howard Sturgis and the ménage and milieu at Queen’s Acre reveals even more directly the ambivalence of his attitude to homosexuality. And his several explanations for not being married and for leaving America, indeed for his whole emotionally detached life, require this element to make their sad and interesting sense.

For Santayana lived in a closet and Persons and Places is a fascinating book in part for the elaborate way he reconstructs for us the glass house in which he must have lived. The narrowing of emotional response, the insistent detachment in his personal relations, and the persistent animus Santayana felt towards the worlds he inhabited and the people he met, suggest that he was not so calm in his renunciation of his own sexual nature after all. It is not to say that he should have chosen differently to say that reading Persons and Places makes one understand all too clearly why people nowadays come out of their closets. And the evidence that the world suspected something ‘unnatural’ in Santayana, as President Eliot did, suggests the tense interplay between his desires and a world he had to protect himself from. The cost to Santayana of this suppression of his own nature is reflected in his writing, so critically gripping but, when raised to the level of a positive system, so cloudy and hard to grasp. One is never sure what he is arguing for, surely not belief, surely not unbelief, surely not passion, surely not the absence of passion.

What one sees in him is the genius of the closet, a life dedicated to perceiving everything outside himself clearly in order to protect what he was quite right in thinking would have exposed him to persecution and oppression. Much of the insight one prizes in his writings comes from what must have been a defensive awareness of the hypocrisy of the conventional world and of everything that would have posed special obstacles to him. He saw through things while not meaning to disturb them and made a career out of keeping them at arm’s length. The perspective on the conventional he affords remains one of the chief benefits of reading Santayana. But he paid a price for this distance, and one encounters it in his affecting not to care what the world thought, his touchiness, his refusal to trust himself to anyone but himself, to trust the world – his ‘host’, as he liked to say, but not, apparently, his home.

What he liked about America were the athletes and the college life, the life of young men, before business and family life and age compromised what he loved in them and removed them from the particular power he had over them, from their availability to him for the perhaps sexless – though in feeling certainly sexual – friendships he had with some of them. One senses in his fascinating descriptions of American and English men a personal attraction founded on an attraction to and revulsion from the civilisations themselves. He left Harvard and America in part because of the impossibility of joining with his students as he had with his fellow students; and also because he could neither win nor accept acceptance on the terms available to him. In a like manner, he would not settle in England. And surely he chose rightly. America and England must have pained him. Although they seemed to welcome him, what he desired in those places was denied to him. They must always be at cross-purposes with him. And his writings about both civilisations reflect his appreciative desire and his keenly-felt exclusion, exclusion on the score of a difference less assimilable than foreign nationality or religion or even temperament. His detachment allowed him to transcend what he had to renounce, to mend his broken heart by means of dispassionate, superior judgment. Observing well is the best revenge.

Surely this suggests an explanation for Santayana’s anti-semitism. He criticised the ancient Hebrew traditions, but blamed the cosmopolitan Jew for abandoning or compromising them. He resented with snobbish fury the pretensions of anyone who thought they could master the tone of the ruling élite or the dominant culture. And he enlisted all his own knowledge of that culture in denying such people the possibility of successful assimilation. His difficult relationship with Bernard Berenson is a case in point. Towards a Jew, Santayana could act out the condescending upper-class prejudice and its snide exclusivity. In this mean, if genteel prejudice, he could experience a feeling of belonging founded on an obsessive feeling that the Jews shouldn’t be allowed to get away with what he, so much better entitled to belonging, had had to renounce. Surely they were what was wrong with the modern world. He saw himself as refusing assimilation and pretended to be in the same boat as those who attempted it. There was double reverse snobbery in all this, displaced identification and, alas, recognisable homophobia as well.

In discussing his own uprootedness, he writes: ‘a déraciné, a man who has been torn up by the roots, cannot be replanted and should never propagate his kind.’ This is why the likes of him should never marry. ‘But,’ he continued, ‘I have been involuntarily uprooted. I accept the intellectual advantages of that position, with its social and moral disqualifications. And I refuse to be annexed, to be abolished, or to be grafted onto any plant of a different species.’ On the one hand, Santayana accepted his situation and made the best and the most of it, indeed was inspired by it. But his uprootedness was not susceptible of the kind of regrafting available to others: it went to the core of his nature, and his noble refusal to betray it and understandable decision never fully to venture it made him resentful of those who had opportunities denied to him. If his anti-semitism was a natural expression of his class and time and circles, it was also the unnatural consequence of his closet.

At 35, Santayana experienced what he called his metanoia, his life crisis, the narrative of which, in the chapter ‘A Change of Heart’, movingly skirts the precipice of his dilemma. In writing of what, in effect, returned him to his early sense of what he must give up in order to live, he achieves a brilliant feat of self-understanding. The almost spoken almost gets said in his concluding remarks about love. ‘A perfect love is founded on despair,’ he says, quoting from his sonnets:

This paradox is condensed and rhetorical: to get at the truth in it we must expand it a little and ward off certain misunderstandings. It is not love simply, but only perfect love, that includes despair. Love in itself includes hope, or at least the desire to preserve the object of it, to enshrine and defend it. And in regard to the object even perfect love retains this solicitude. It is only in regard to the lover, as a poor human being, that hope must be cut off, plucked up by the roots, if love is ever to become pure, happy and immortal. The perfect lover must renounce pursuit and the hope of possession. His person and life must, in his own eyes, fall altogether out of the picture.

Santayana’s closet required both his absolute independence, his refusal to be re-grafted, and his equally absolute need to ‘fall altogether out of the picture’.

Santayana’s place is literary rather than philosophical. His influence among philosophers is slight. He wanted readers, not students, and he got them. William James, John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, among others, paid him a wary attention. He himself was always an issue in considering his system. Indeed, he anticipated a personalising of his philosophy on the part of his critics by insisting upon it himself. The theory of essences that capped his system is difficult to summarise. It is less a philosophical working-through of subjects than an adumbration of attitudes. Santayana identified most strongly with the Greeks and with Spinoza. But his allegiance even to his most admired predecessors was qualified.

Santayana’s independence was astonishing and arrogant and attractive. Reading him, one feels that it is possible to fashion from the philosophical traditions of the West an individual philosophical apprehension of life itself. It is in the definition of terms that he does his little trick or performs his little miracle, depending on your point of view. He used words so well that he succeeded in making his system appear to work: grounded in his insights, it took flight in the glory of his style.

On the other hand, his own system has nothing like the same power that there is in his criticisms. He was too aware, perhaps, of too many worlds to believe in the usefulness of abstracting from a single world as Russell did or of plunging into it as James did. What Santayana seemed to know about the world was how difficult a place it is, capable of yielding pleasure but not susceptible of improvement. At 24, he wrote to his friend Henry Ward Abbot, taking up a remark of Abbot’s about living life ‘from the point of view of the grave’:

The point of view of the grave is not to be attained by you or me every time we happen not to want anything in particular. It is not gained except by renunciation. Pleasure must first cease to attract and pain to repel, and this, you will confess, is no easy matter. But, meantime, I beg of you, let us remember that the joke of things is one at our expense. It is very funny, but it is exceedingly unpleasant.

Much that gave most human beings pleasure and pain Santayana denied himself. He not only refused to make a religion of religion but refused to make one of art, philosophy, human relations, family, love, nation state, pleasure. What he refused was any thoroughgoing passion or perspective, outside his narrow renunciatory one. What he retained was an intense and beguiling responsiveness but a responsiveness stripped of transforming or utopian partisanship. He had his prejudices and his tastes, his anti-semitism, his flirtations with Fascism, his selfishness and desire for comfort, and the pervasive and insistent and personal anti-democratic bias which, with his theory of essences, was the principle around which his thinking was organised.

One consequence of Santayana’s individuality was that his thoughts don’t sound right except in his own words. He exemplified individuality but was competitive with that of others. Persons and Places thrills with his elegant fault-finding. It is as if even the people he loved in his life were fish. He separates their flesh from their bones with delicate precision, and much of the time we really do see the fish in the skeleton. But the understanding this gives is not of their swimming, of the fish in water. Similarly, his praise of philosophical objects is less memorable than his sharp separation of the skeleton of human error from the appealing flesh of belief and commitment.

Neither of the editors of this excellent new edition of Persons and Places nor Santayana’s protective and fair-minded biographer would accept this view. His own example, and his sense that modern society itself was what the inspired individual must resist, in large measure explains his appeal to so many of the best minds of his times and so many of its most gifted poets, including Pound, Wallace Stevens and Robert Lowell. Santayana was important because he really did understand the modern age; he was no stick-in-the-mud traditionalist. He read Freud and Faulkner and Lowell with zest and perception. He was a philosopher whose work and whose life made a place for the ancient vocations of philosophy and poetry in the unwelcoming modern world.

The incursions of democracy, rather than the philosophy of essences, seem to be at stake here. One doesn’t mind McCormick’s embarrassed, apologetic account of Santayana’s anti-semitism or his admiration for Fascism, because what the biographer is really saying is that you needn’t share those views to read and admire Santayana. The question remains, however, of how to read Santayana without sharing his anti-democratic bias. And what is the effect of an individuality founded on a detachment so narrowing of human choice and community? It is worth noting that Santayana got his full measure of experience. He understood Whitman as well as Dante. But he refused participation in life for his own special reasons, and we should be cautious in accepting his renunciation without considering its human sources, along with its philosophical justifications.

Santayana thought of himself as detached in some Greek philosophical sense from the ordinary claims of life, thus uniquely able to comment upon them, unbounded by the horizons ordinary attachments create. We may be persuaded that he was detached. But we may note with what unceasing animus his detachment proceeded and remark that the energy of his detachment is every bit as interesting as the calm he claimed for it.