Saturday, July 12, 2014

`Mere Guesses About the Unknown'

Years before, Guy Davenport had suggested I read Realms of Being (1942), the Santayana compendium that collected four earlier volumes -- The Realm of Essence (1927), The Realm of Matter (1930), The Realm of Truth(1938), and The Realm of Spirit (1940). When I finally read it while on my honeymoon in Nova Scotia and marked the following passage, I had no idea I was only slightly more than a year away from leaving newspapers after more than twenty years in the business: 

“It might seem, for instance, that the truth changes as fast as the facts which it describes. On a day before the Ides of March it was true that Julius Caesar was alive: on the day after that Ides of March it had become true that he was dead. A mind that would keep up with the truth must therefore be as nimble as the flux of existence. It must be a newspaper mind.” 

Santayana is a subtle stylist and I’m still not certain I’m gauging the precise tone of these lines. A “newspaper mind,” even seventy years ago, is nervous and glancing, skimming headlines, seldom reading stories to their conclusion, jumping from crime stories, to comic strips, to baseball scores. In other words, the opposite of a ruminative, skeptical mind like Santayana’s. This is no compliment. Is such a mind “nimble”? Or merely superficial? Seeing much, weighing little, remembering nothing? A newspaper editor once pontificated to a group of skeptical reporters (I was among them) that journalists deal in “Truth with a capital `T,’ not truths.” We were young but we snorted knowingly. A newspaper dwells in the realm of facts (or lies, or errors), not Truth (or truth). If truth can be gleaned from a newspaper, it must be done in aggregate, weighing multiple sources. In his next sentence, Santayana glosses the passage: “This, on the surface, is an innocent sophism, if not a bit of satire, mocking the inconstancy of things.” Returning to the example of Julius Caesar (born on this date, July 12, in 100 B.C.), Santayana says as much: 

“For the whispered oracle, Beware the Ides of March, the tragic event was future; for the Senators crowding round Pompey’s statue it was present; for the historian it is past: and the truth of these several perspectives, each from its own point of origin, is a part of the eternal truth about that event.” 

Note the adjective: “eternal.” Santayana admired Lucretius, author of De Rerum Natura. In his translation of the poem (1976), C.H. Sisson writes: 

“Fools have a preference for secrets in intricate language
And you might say their way of detecting the truth
Is to try a favoured formula out on their ear-drums
And if it sounds musical, that is enough for them.” 

 Santayana writes of the Roman poet in Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante,and Goethe (1910):   

“Thus wisdom clothes the same moral truths in many cosmic parables. The doctrines of philosophers disagree where they are literal and arbitrary, — mere guesses about the unknown; but they agree or complete one another where they are expressive or symbolic, thoughts wrung by experience from the hearts of poets. Then all philosophies alike are ways of meeting and recording the same flux of images, the same vicissitudes of good and evil, which will visit all generations, while man is man.”

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