Wednesday, July 24, 2019

'Laughter and Humility Can Then Go Together'

The Winter-Spring 1942 issue of The Mark Twain Quarterly is dedicated to a most un-Twain-like writer, George Santayana, who was celebrating his seventy-eighth birthday.
If we were to liken him to an American novelist, it might be more productive to consider Henry James. As Santayana’s biographer, John McCormick, writes: “He was not elusive but fastidious, one whose distinctions were subtle but wonderfully available.” And yet, Santayana joined the International Mark Twain Society in 1927 and it awarded him the Mark Twain Medal for his sole novel, The Last Puritan (1936). The Santayana issue includes an aphorism written by the philosopher for the Society’s Greeting Book, one that Twain might have approved of: “One of the best fruits of reason is to perceive how irrational we are: laughter and humility can then go together.”

Among the other contributions to the issue is “Santayana at Harvard: 1882-1912” by Shohig Terzian, who compiled a bibliography of Santayana’s work included in The Philosophy of George Santayana (ed. Paul Arthur Schlipp, 1940). Terzian shows another side of Santayana, who was renowned for his emotional and philosophical detachment:

“Undoubtedly his daring idea of fellowship between the faculty and students led to some difficulty. At one time, he devoted his Thursday evenings to a poetry organization which held meetings in his rooms; readings by members were followed by heated discussions -- and beer drinking! The principle underlying these informal gatherings of fun and friendship was contrary to the traditional idea which separated faculty and students into two distinct categories.”

Another essay is “The Essential Santayana” by G. W. Howgate who, in 1938, published a book-length study of the philosopher, George Santayana. Howgate is quotable, and his Santayana sounds almost like Max Beerbohm:

“The very structure of his style, crisp, aphoristic, urbane, is that of a man gifted in witty remark and humorous observation. A love of paradox is the possession of those, like Santayana who see and enjoy the incongruity in life.”

And this: “There have always been firm loyalties in Santayana concealed from those who see him only as an ironic spectator or a charming dilettante. In fact, the irony has grown with age.”

And one more: “Although he has chosen to be detached or ironic in his writings rather than sentimental, although he has hidden his feelings with something of the stoicism of his admired Englishman, there is a deal of tenderness and pity in Santayana. He has told us there are scenes in King Lear, in Dickens, and in Proust he must skip, and he has always felt that tragedy is too real and too unlovely a thing for literary treatment unless transformed, as with the Greeks, into poetic beauty.”

The Mark Twain Quarterly was edited by Cyril Coniston Clemens (1902-1999), the third cousin twice removed of Mark Twain. Clemens wrote to Santayana proposing a book to honor the philosopher’s upcoming birthday. On this date, July 24, in 1941, Santayana replied:

“I am sure nobody wants to contribute to such a book and nobody wants to read it. Why should you employ your undoubted abilities in order to get the unwilling to write and the unwilling to buy, if not to read? Put it off at least until my death or until my 80th birthday, when perhaps the air will be purer.”

Santayana lived another ten years.


rgfrim said...

Santayana is to philosophy what Wagner is to music, at least from my perspective as a Jew who loves his Jewishness. But I can listen to Wagner with joy because his genius translated harmony and tone into rapturous experience. Santayana, too, seems to have idealized beauty. But here is what Richard John Neuhaus writes in a thorough review of John McCormick’s biography:
“Measured by what his crowd deemed necessary, Santayana was an anti-Semite. Jews were not beautiful, which in his scheme of things meant they were unnatural”“natural” being the preferred term for truth and beauty. Even Bernard Berenson, who at I Tatti (his exquisite villa near Florence) beautifully worshiped the beautiful, was decidedly not to Santayana’s taste, and it had everything to do with Berenson’s being a Jew. The more offensive Jew is the Jew who so insidiously disguises his Jewishness. Worse than their not being like us is their affecting to be like us. The anti-Semite is adept at penetrating the disguise. “

Montez said...

Well imagine being black. Supposedly intelligent writers (including many Jewish ones; but especially the racists who believes Jews are the "special minority" ) have been stupid enough to buy into race and racial superiority for hundreds of years and many still do. It matters only a little. A good artist doesn't make a good person, of course. I would have very little if I refused the product of every anti-black writer,haha.