Wednesday, June 10, 2009

`Everything Beautiful Had Not Yet Vanished'

A specter, real or imagined, haunts Persons and Places – Henry James, dead more than 20 years when Santayana began writing his memoir. I first spied his blurred presence in the book’s more digressive passages, when Santayana eases up on the momentum of his chronological narrative to reflect. He writes less like an aging philosopher and more like a novelist with an essayistic streak. This reminds me of the attractive old chestnut about the Brothers James: William wrote philosophy like a novelist and Henry wrote novels like a philosopher. Here’s a sample of Santayana’s prose, about his great-uncle, James Sturgis, that might have shown up in one of James’ earlier, more comical stories or novels – say, The American (published the year Santayana turned 13):

“… [Uncle James] was cordial. That is the well-meant American substitute for being amiable; but it won’t do. It is being amiable on principle and about nothing in particular; whereas true amiability presupposes discernment, tact, a sense for what other people really feel and want. To be cordial is roughing a man’s head, to jolly him up [James would put that phrase in quotation marks], or kissing a child that doesn’t ask to be kissed. You are relieved when it’s over.”

Both writers, meeting trans-Atlantically, so to speak, were imperfectly at home in the old and new worlds. They shared a personal and writerly interest in expatriation and came equipped with the extra lens supplied by protracted residence in foreign lands. They were psychologists and anatomists of society. Both were aesthetes, but idiosyncratically. Both were branded, with only partial accuracy, as snobs, and both composed excellent prose. Later, describing his return to Ávila, Spain, where he lived as a child, Santayana sounds a deeper, more resonant Jamesian note:

“It was not, however, for the high mass on Sundays that I most often visited the Cathedral, or lingered there with the most pleasure. Any day at any hour, to make a short cut from street to street or to escape from the sun at the hot hours, I could traverse the dark cool aisles, or sit for a while in the transept, measuring the vaults with the eye, examining the rather nondescript stained glass, or the agreeable if somewhat obscure paintings in the great gilded reredos [a screen or decoration behind a church altar], or the two charming pulpits, or the sculptures in some old altar or tomb. Enough scent of wax and incense clung to the walls to preserve the atmosphere of cultus [religious practice, from the Latin for “care, cultivation, worship”], and the focus of it, where some old man or old woman might be seen kneeling in prayer, was usually some modern shrine; this was a living church, not a museum or a ruin. That circumstance, like Ávila itself, pleased and consoled me. Everything profound, everything beautiful had not yet vanished from the world.”

Both Santayana, the “Catholic atheist,” and James, a nonaligned seeming nonbeliever, wrote of spiritual matters obliquely, with a sense of nostalgia and loss. Their religious sense is an honored memory, not a living dogma or ritual. Religion reduced to obsessive observance of ritual is one of the themes of James’ “The Altar of the Dead,” the 1895 story that came to mind as I read this passage. George Stransom erects a shrine to his dead, in a Catholic church in London:

“…it became clear to him that the religion instilled by his earliest consciousness had been simply the religion of the Dead. It suited his inclination, it satisfied his spirit, it gave employment to his piety. It answered his love of great offices, of a solemn and splendid ritual; for no shrine could be more bedecked and no ceremonial more stately than those to which his worship was attached. He had no imagination about these things but that they were accessible to any one who should feel the need of them. The poorest could build such temples of the spirit - could make them blaze with candles and smoke with incense, make them flush with pictures and flowers. The cost, in the common phrase, of keeping them up fell wholly on the generous heart.”

For Santayana and James, ritual possesses an aesthetic appeal apart from its theology. In the cathedral, Santayana can’t stop being an art critic, and James’ protagonist professes love of “solemn and splendid ritual.” It’s the aura of the sacred, not devotion or observance of creed, that moves these writers. As a young man, James worked as a journalist of sorts – he wrote gallery reviews for magazines in England and the United States. He briefly returned to the practice in 1897, and covered an exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London that included Whistler’s “Arrangement in Black No. 3” (a painting of Henry Irving as Philip II in Tennyson’s Queen Mary):

“To pause before such a work is in fact to be held to the spot by just the highest operation of the charm one has sought there – the charm of a certain degree of melancholy meditation.”

That final phrase characterizes the tone and prose ambience of Persons and Places and of James’ late fiction. In 1897, when he published his review of Whistler, James also produced What Maisie Knew and The Spoils of Poynton, works that signaled the start of his magisterial late flowering. Perhaps to clarify matters, we ought to note that Santayana studied under William James at Harvard and became his colleague in its philosophy department, without ever much caring for him. He enjoyed Henry’s company, however, though they met only once, late in the novelist’s life (he died in 1916). Santayana describes the occasion memorably in Persons and Places:

“…in that one interview he made me feel more at home, and better understood, than his brother William ever had done in the long years of our acquaintance. Henry was calm, he liked to see things as they are, and be free afterwards to imagine how they might have been. We talked about different countries as places of residence. He was of course subtle and bland, appreciative of all points of view, and amused at their limitation.”

No comments: