Wednesday, April 21, 2021

'It Was the Glinting Wisdom'

The internet reminds us of the interconnectedness of everything. All knowledge, pursued attentively and with sufficient time and patience, can lead to an education better than any four overpriced years spent at a university. It also leaves us with no excuses for boredom. Take Page 504, the second-to-last paragraph of John McCormick’s George Santayana (1987), the definitive biography of the philosopher. McCormick quotes Charles Frankel: 

“And yet I am inclined to believe that what happens to Santayana’s reputation will be a touchstone of the quality of our culture, and of our growth in maturity and wisdom.”


If what he says of our culture is true, we are in a sorry state. I had never heard of Frankel, so I traced the passage to his review of four books by and about the Spanish-born thinker, “Who is Santayana?” (here and here), in the January 7, 1956 issue of The Saturday Review of Literature. Santayana had died in 1952 at age eighty-eight. Less than four years later, Frankel neatly sums up his anomalous life, thought and reputation:


“Among contemporary philosophers none is quite so hard to locate as George Santayana. He lived alone both physically and intellectually, standing apart from most controversies, fitting neatly into no school, and concerning himself almost wholly with his own problems. He died, an unbeliever cared for by nuns, a man with an American reputation living on a Spanish passport in Rome.”


I’ve been reading Santayana’s work with varying degrees of sympathy (his anti-Semitism exceeds it) and comprehension since I was sixteen and discovered Willard Arnett’s monograph devoted to the philosopher. As well as anyone, Frankel articulates Santayana’s enduring appeal:


“But it was not Santayana's abstract ‘message’ that explains his magic. It was not even the limpid and epigrammatic prose in which he stated it. It was the mixture of irony and sympathy he brought to his great theme, the unrelenting standards combined with the unillusioned acceptance of men as they are; it was the glinting wisdom, and the literary imagination which evoked the inner experience of men living in the most disparate moral climates.”


Undeniably, Santayana’s overriding attraction for this reader is his “limpid and epigrammatic prose.”  Serendipitously, in the same issue of the Saturday Review, the longtime jazz writer for The New Yorker, Whitney Balliett, reviews a novel by Evan Hunter, Second Ending, and writes: “Like many of its ilk, ‘Second Ending’ is badly written. (Someone has unfashionably but rightly said that style—style being the degree of loving skill with which words, not thoughts, are handled—makes a piece of writing live.)” By that standard, much of Santayana’s prose remains kickingly alive.


After reading Frankel’s review, I looked up his work in the library and reserved several volumes. He could write, often with “loving skill.” More poking around uncovered unexpected news: On May 10, 1979, Frankel and his wife of thirty-eight years were fatally shot during a robbery of their home in Bedford Hills, N.Y., in Westchester County.

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