Monday, July 04, 2005
Return of the Snobbish Dead Part III
Somewhat perversely, Limited Inc. asserts that "Santayana is a philosopher one should read." Although I don't myself share LI's high opinion, I do share his perversity, and therefore am pleased to pass along the single piece of Santayanania I've enjoyed, "What Is a Philistine?", if only for its magnificent final paragraph.
Speaking of last lines, I am now convinced that Sir John Davies's Gulling Sonnets (c. 1595) contains the ultimate Elizabethan closing couplet:
Pumps of presumption shall adorn his feet,
And speaking of my perversity, I'm hatefully charmed by these early portraits of humanities scholars who ventured into political activism and cutting-edge science, both by James Kenneth Stephen, university wit, misogynist, Virginia Woolf's cousin, and possible Ripper.
Wm. James on Santayana:
“The great event in my life recently has been the reading of Santayana’s book “Interpretations of Poetry and Religion”. Although I absolutely reject the platonism of it, I have literally squealed with delight at the imperturbable perfection with which the position is laid down… . I now understand Santayana, the man. I never understood him before. But what a perfection of rottenness in a philosophy! I don’t think I ever knew the anti-realistic view to be propounded with so impudently superior an air. It is refreshing to see a representative of moribund Latinity rise up and administer such reproof to us barbarians in the hour of our triumph.”
I’m not exactly Santayana’s biggest fan, but I do have an appreciation of the guy. You can always find gold in Santayana’s writing, mixed with a certain inveterate habit of platitude and a disconcerting comfort with the prejudices of his time.
Here’s a beautiful passage from the Genteel Tradition. Santayana is talking about Americans of the late nineteenth century:
They retained their instinct for order, and often created order with surprising quickness; but the sanctity of law, to be obeyed for its own sake, began to escape them; it seemed too unpractical a notion, and not quite serious. In fact, the second and native-born American mentality began to take shape. The sense of sin totally evaporated. Nature, in the words of Emerson, was all beauty and commodity; and while operating on it laboriously, and drawing quick returns, the American began to drink in inspiration from it aesthetically. At the same time, in so broad a continent, he had elbow-room. His neighbours helped more than they hindered him; he wished their number to increase. Good will became the great American virtue; and a passion arose for counting heads, and square miles, and cubic feet, and minutes saved--as if there had been anything to save them for. How strange to the American now that saying of Jonathan Edwards, that men are naturally God’s enemies! Yet that is an axiom to any intelligent Calvinist, though the words he uses may be different. If you told the modern American that he is totally depraved, he would think you were joking, as he himself usually is. He is convinced that he always has been, and always will be, victorious and blameless.”
Normal Americans, even the educated, are still mostly cheerful and optimistic, and it makes them hard to relate to.
John, you’ve reminded me why I spent six months reading James exclusively...but you’ve also reminded me why I dread the next six months I’ve going to spend re-re-re-reading London’s vast corpus. So thank you, I hope you die.
P.S. Ray, exquisite find. I wish I had something more intelligent to say about it. Maybe I will tomorrow, after digesting some more vile London. (Alright, he’s not that bad...but whenever he doesn’t venture into the quasi-sci-fi mode of all utopian/dystopian fiction, he’s dreadfully predictable. E.g. “The Mexican". Could someone please tell me how this thing is going to end? I’m at the edge seat, I can’t wait to see how this one ends...)
After reading Santayana’s essay, I think I’m for the Philistines. Thanks for making this available, though.