Monday, November 25, 2013

`To Recreate It in the Eternal'

I’ve solved a minor literary mystery of interest to no one but me. In 1968 or 1969, I found in a bookstore (the same shop where, around the same time, I bought John Updike’s Midpoint and Other Poems) in a nearby shopping mall a new series of paperbacks devoted to American thinkers.  For reasons long forgotten I bought the volumes devoted to George Santayana, John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen, and read all three, but only the Santayana planted a seed that germinated. I can’t say his ideas influenced mine. His philosophical impact was minimal. Rather, I read him and still read him as a great prose stylist and a thinker and man with whom I sense a temperamental kinship. Within a year of buying the monograph, during a field trip to the Cleveland Museum of Art, another student, a boy I hardly knew, bought a copy of Santayana’s The Sense of Beauty (1896) from the museum gift shop. Fellow autodidacts will recognize the confusion of emotions that followed: shock, wonder, giddy pleasure and jealousy. I felt as though I had been found out. My little private discovery was no longer exclusively mine. 

Over the next forty years I periodically read and reread Santayana’s works, especially Realms of Being (much admired by Guy Davenport); Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe; Persons and Places and the letters. But that first book remained a cipher without author. My copy is long gone. Santayana’s name was never mentioned in any of my philosophy or literature classes. I remembered only that the book was published by Washington Square Press. Recently I turned to the internet and within minutes identified the volume: George Santayana by Willard E. Arnett, one of twenty-two titles in the Great American Thinkers series. Go here to see the cover and please note the price: 75 cents. With the author’s name I was able to find a copy in the library. The first printing is dated March 1968. Now I’ve reread it and experienced only two moments of déjà vu: Arnett’s mention in the introduction of Santayana’s problematical American identity (he was born in Spain of Spanish parents and never became an American citizen), and the epigraph he places at the top of Chapter 9, “Art, Beauty, Meaning, and Value.” It’s from Reason in Art (volume IV of The Life of Reason, published in 1905): “. . . the effort of art is to keep what is interesting in existence, to recreate it in the eternal.” It was Santayana’s choice of “eternal” that thrilled and bothered me, and caused me to remember the passage. 

Joseph Epstein is another admirer of Santayana. In “George Santayana: The Permanent Transient” (Essays in Biography, Axios Press, 2012), he judges the philosopher “one of the greatest of American writers,” and says he is “among the small handful of true artist philosophers—Plato, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer are in this select category—who write beautifully and whose finer-grained meanings are never so straightforward as philosophers who write without artistry.”


Denkof Zwemmen said...

It's been fifty years since I've read any Santayana -- I had a copy of Three Philosophical Poets; where is it now? I'll go back to him now on your recommendation.

I don't know about "thrilled," but if anything were to "bother" me about the quote -- "the effort of art is to keep what is interesting in existence, to recreate it in the eternal" -- it would be the word "interesting." I suppose GS explains what he means by "interesting" in Reason in Art, but it may be his use of concepts such as Interesting that kept him out of philosophy curricula and the fact that he wrote philosophy what kept him out of literature curricula.

(I'd never thought of him as an American.)

rgfrim said...

How do you and Epstein reckon with Santayana's flagrant anti-Semitism? Do you thus consider him rewarding and obnoxious at the same time like Wagner?

Buce said...

Santayana is a hypnotic stylist. By all the evidence he was a model of civility and he seems to have shown spasms of generosity: apparently he gave money to Bertrand Russell when Russell was in real need. But his austere propriety and good manners go far towards masking a frigid indifference to the concerns and sensibilities of almost anyone except himself. Seductive to read, but he leaves a bad taste in the mouth. In the end, I think I'd feel more comfortable with someone more messily human