Friday, July 11, 2014

`Unembarrassed Thanksgiving'

“I’ve not found that life has anywhere near run out of delight for me. I’ve never considered suicide, though I have, at different times, out of spiritual fatigue, thought I would welcome death. `All is finite,’ wrote Santayana, `all is to end, all is bearable—that is my only comfort.’” 

In “Death Takes No Holiday,” some of Joseph Epstein’s other tutelary spirits make perfunctory or protracted appearances -- Montaigne, Larkin, Dr. Johnson, Henry James, Willa Cather and Tolstoy, among others -- but George Santayana (1863-1952) gets most of the best lines. The passage cited above was new to me because I’ve never systematically read the eight volumes of his letters published by the MIT Press, as I assume Epstein has. The sentence he quotes is from the first volume of letters in the MIT edition, covering Santayana’s life up to 1909. He is twenty-three years old, studying in Berlin but visiting London after graduating the previous year from Harvard, and writing to a former Harvard classmate and soon to be a longtime friend, Henry Ward Abbot. His March 23, 1887, letter is an undergraduate bull session in print (Santayana isn’t yet quite Santayana, but close). He objects to Abbot’s understanding of Catholicism, saying he won’t try “to explain to you why religion is fit for other people besides whores and servant girls,” but adds, “I like myself to ridicule religion.” 

A London travelogue follows. He describes Londoners as “handsome, gentle, manly, and courteous.” He accounts for this by saying, “This beautiful English temper is what has been gained by not breaking with the past, but by keeping up every institution until it absolutely refused to be kept up.” He says London is “more like an American than like a European city.” [In 1887, Henry James was based in London though visiting Italy, and wrote his long story “A London Life.”] Santayana’s tone modulates from Yellow Book-decadence, to mock-imperiousness, to genuine contemplative thought. He will not be able to “cure” Abbot of his pessimism, he says:

“`Eat, drink, and die’ is precisely my motto, only it has come to seem to me a very comforting one. Our demands, especially our emotional demands, are easily changed. That hope and belief we are deprived of are not necessary for us; we can substitute something else for them [this is Santayana’s mature thought in embryonic form]. Belief in God and in the monstrous importance of our own condition is rather a source of unhappiness and unhealthy strain than of consolation. The one consolation is the `vanitas’—the voice of judgment crying `All’s well’ through the dark silence following the extinction of the world. All is finite, all is to end, all is bearable—that is our comfort. And while it lasts, we can enjoy what we find to enjoy, running our scales as merrily as possible between hunger and satiety.” 

We might characterize this as a young man’s rational hedonism. Santayana goes on to declare his own qualified atheism, really a rejection of smiley-face optimism: “Disbelief leaves one freer to love the good and hate the bad.” He goes on to describe Christianity as “still a possible system, seeing that intelligent men are still able to believe it. If you and I are not able, what a piece of foolish arrogance it is in us to vituperate these fortunate mortels [sic]” whose mental kaleidoscope still presents the old and beautiful pattern.” 

This is not the vulgar atheism of Dawkins & Co. Santayana is respectful of believers and belief. He appreciates its importance to many, perhaps most, men and women. And keep in mind that a very young man composed this witty, nuanced prose. Epstein, apparently not a dues-paying believer, writes in the penultimate paragraph of his essay: 

“I have had a good and lucky run, having been born to honorable and intelligent parents in the most interesting country in the world during a period of unrivaled prosperity and vast technological advance. I prefer to think I’ve got the best out of my ability, and have been properly appreciated for what I’ve managed to accomplish. One may regard one’s death as a tragic event, or view it as the ineluctable conclusion to the great good fortune of having been born to begin with. I’m going with the latter.” 

And this, Epstein's final sentence: “I don’t have a final draft of my own deathbed words, but I do have a theme, which is unembarrassed thanksgiving.”

[Epstein has often written, in passing and at length, about Santayana. His longest, most revealing treatment of the philosopher is “George Santayana and the Consolations of Philosophy,” a 1987 essay disguised as a review of the excellent George Santayana: A Biography by John McCormick. Along with a bounty of other good things, Epstein places Santayana “among a small circle of extremely elegant English prose stylists.” The essay is collected in Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives (1989).]

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