Saturday, September 12, 2020

'Why Wish to Be Consoled?'

On April 30, 1933, after fifty-eight days of illness, Iris Origo’s seven-year old son Gianni died of tubercular meningitis. He was her only child, though she and her husband, Antonio Origo, would later have two daughters. George Santayana had been a friend and tutor of Origo’s father, Bayard Cutting, at Harvard. In May 1933, Santayana wrote her a remarkable letter of consolation:

“We have no claim to any of our possessions. We have no claim to exist; and, as we have to die in the end, so we must resign ourselves to die piecemeal, which really happens when we lose somebody or something that was closely intertwined with our existence. It is like a physical wound; we may survive, but maimed and broken in that direction; dead there. Not that we can, or ever do at heart, renounce our affections. Never that.”

In her biography, Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val d’Orcia (2002), Caroline Moorehead reports Origo (1902-1988) seldom spoke of Gianni in the years immediately after his death, “but as she grew older, so she talked about him more and more, and towards the end of her life was apt to describe his short life and death to virtual strangers.” Santayana, a lifelong bachelor without children, the most temperamentally detached of men, writes later in the same letter:

 “All our affections, when clear and pure and not claims to possession, transport us to  another world; and the loss of contact, here or there, with those eternal beings is merely like closing a book which we keep at hand for another occasion. We know that book by heart. Its verses give life to life. I don’t mean that these abstract considerations ought to console us. Why wish to be consoled? On the contrary, I wish to mourn perpetually the absence of what I love or might love. Isn’t that what religious people call the love of God?”

Moorehead tells us Origio often repeated Santayana’s words to her friends: “Why wish to be consoled?”

After Gianni’s death, Origo became a writer. In 1935 she published Allegra, a short life of Byron’s daughter, and the excellent Leopardi: A Study in Solitude. All of her books are worth searching out, especially War in Val d'Orcia (1947), her diary of civilized life under Italian fascism, and Images and Shadows (1970).

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