Friday, August 04, 2017

`Fulfill in Beauty My Imperfect Prayer'

Why does death still come as a surprise? Our denial defies everything we have learned since we left the crib. Most of those we’ve known the longest are gone, and sooner or later we start keeping a private tally in our heads. If not sensible, the will to live and to see those we admire or love go on living, is fierce. We can be shocked by the mortality of perfect strangers.

I’ve just learned that Willard E. Arnett is dead. I first encountered his name almost half a century ago. Arnett introduced me to a writer who remains in my little pantheon and who spoiled me because I assumed every philosopher could write beautiful prose. I’ve written before about the book Arnett published in 1968, George Santayana. Now I’ve learned Arnett died earlier this year in Hendersonville, N.C. From his obituary I see he was born the same year as my father (who died in 2005) and, like him, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force after Pearl Harbor. The author of the obit works in Santayana:

“. . . one of his college teachers sent him a membership for the Book of the Month Club. The first book he received was by the philosopher, George Santayana, who later became the subject of his doctoral dissertation and some of the books he later wrote.”

The book club selection was most likely Santayana’s only novel, The Last Puritan, a rather unlikely bestseller when it was published in the U.S. in 1936. Arnett’s doctoral dissertation at Columbia University became his first book, Santayana and the Sense of Beauty (Indiana University Press, 1955), which I have borrowed from the library. For his epigraph, Arnett chooses the final stanza of Santayana’s “The Poet’s Testament”:

“To trembling harmonies of field and cloud,
Of flesh and spirit was my worship vowed.
Let form, let music, let all quickening air
Fulfill in beauty my imperfect prayer.”

1 comment:

Tim Guirl said...

My father, like your father and Willard Arnett, joined the Army Air Forces after Pearl Harbor. He was a pilot in North Africa through the rest of the war. He said little about the war, but after the 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi,Libya, he spoke more openly about his service. When he was 90, I accompanied him to a World War II pilots' reunion. I was privileged to talk to glider pilots who had flown into France on D-Day, fighter pilots, cargo pilots and others. To a man, they talked with a matter-of-fact reserve. My father died in 2014.