Tuesday, June 09, 2009

`A Remarkable Clearness'

“I have never been adventurous; I need to be quiet in order to be free.”

I find this sentence immensely comforting in its wisdom and audacity. “Quiet” is the polar opposite of the modern world. Quiet is scorned and raises deep suspicions. Some have never known it. George Santayana’s counter-intuitive observation comes early in Persons and Places, the three-volume memoir he began writing on the cusp of his ninth decade. I’ve read much of his work and often return to Realms of Being for good sense and lucid prose, but Joseph Epstein’s essay on the final volume of Santayana’s collected letters, “The Permanent Transient,” in the June issue of The New Criterion, nudged me into finally reading the memoirs. Santayana seems to have an ameliorating effect on Epstein, soothing the joke reflex and encouraging his reflective side. Epstein admits as much. In recent years he has taken to reading the philosopher soon after waking each morning:

“Not only did the happy anticipation of returning to him serve as a reward for getting out of bed, but Santayana’s detachment, a detachment leading onto serenity, invariably had a calming effect. Reading him in the early morning made the world feel somehow more understandable, even its multiple mysteries, if not penetrable, taking on a tincture of poetry that made the darkest of them seem less menacing.”

From the library I took the critical edition of Persons and Places: Fragments of Autobiography, edited by William C. Holzberger and Herman J. Saatkamp, Jr., and published in 1986 by the MIT Press. It combines three volumes in one – Persons and Places: The Background of My Life (1944), The Middle Span (1947) and My Host the World (1953, the year after Santayana’s death) -- and restores passages removed from earlier editions. It turned out to be the perfect book to accompany me to work on Monday.

My first class was high-school math. I was to make myself available to students who wanted supplemental help. None did. The teacher had written a problem on the smart board: calculate the area of a trapezoid. With the formula they already had in their notes, the calculation should have taken no more than 30 seconds, but two girls were eating cereal and milk; three boys drank cans of “sports drink”; the boy in front of me, whose T-shirt said “You want pie. You just don’t know it yet,” argued with another over the merits of Coke and Pepsi; a girl played poker on her cell phone and, of course, argued about it. Most of the students wore earphones for their iPods. One boy, a charmingly over-eager math nerd, had the answer in 12 seconds. No one else raised his hand, but Santayana offered assistance:

“If clearness about things produces a fundamental despair, a fundamental despair in turn produces a remarkable clearness or even playfulness about ordinary matters.”

Epstein, too, cites this passage in his review and adds:

“The world, in other words, viewed straight on may be a dark and terrible place, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t much to recommend it in the way of rich variety and splendid amusements [high among them, good books, Santayana’s among them].”

Epstein, by the way, makes no effort to whitewash Santayana, who said foolish things about politics (as most writers do) and was unforgivably anti-Semitic: “…it is the coarseness of Santayana’s remarks about Jews, coming from an otherwise so refined intelligence, that is so unsettling…those of us who find so much to admire in Santayana’s other writing wish he had not revealed himself, this most uncommon of men, as just another common Jew-hater.”

In the afternoon I returned to the same math class and put my book bag and lunch box on a desk at the rear of the room. While I spoke with the teacher, a boy walked up to the desk where I planned to sit, pushed my belongings on the floor and sat down. I asked why he did that, and he worked up a great show of outrage that someone had claimed his desk. He refused to apologize and spoke in commiserating murmurs with his buddies. The teacher told me later, “He’s not even one of the worst ones.”

Santayana comes across as a deeply conservative man who would have been appalled by the ignorance, vulgarity and absence of decorum I witness almost daily in schools. He honored tradition, dignity, decorum and order. A Spaniard who never became an American citizen, he lived as a child for several years in Ávila and often visited his family there. He writes of the city:

“Almost all the women appeared to be in mourning, and the older men also. There was nothing forced or affected in this: people were simply resigned to the realities of mother nature and of human nature; and in its simplicity their existence was deeply civilized, not by modern conveniences but by moral tradition. `It is the custom,’ they would explain half apologetically, half proudly to the stranger when any little ceremony or courtesy was mentioned peculiar to the place. If things were not the custom, what reason could there be for doing them? What reason could there be for living, if it were not the custom to live, to suffer, and to die? Frankly, Ávila was sad; but for me it was a great relief to hear that things were the custom, and not that they were right, or necessary, or that I ought to do them.”


Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

That last sentence reminds me of "The Lottery". Though "custom" isn't a sufficient explanation of Santayana's unfortunately common hatred.

I get the Epstein/Santayana dynamic. Reading Montaigne's essays in the morning is illuminating, which may seem lofty or whimsical, but it's true.

Benedict S. said...

Santayana's membership in the "elite" appears to have been granted to him, not only by his birth as a Castilian but by his subscription to the polite form of anti-semitism that seems, at the time of his initiation into the club (of which I suspect he thought himself the only true member), a mandatory requirement.