Closely Reading Santayana

I happen to admire the thought and language of George Santayana, an American philosopher of Spanish background who died in 1952. Santayana is probably best known for his novel, The Last Puritan, a best-selling book in 1936 which was eventually nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. The protagonist of the story is Oliver Alden, and in last paragraph of the preface to the novel, Santayana says this:

It is thought sad to come to an end early, or to come to an end at all; but such sadness is only the foiled sympathy of body with body, when motion ceases, and the flesh that was warm and living has grown stiff and cold. To the spirit, on the contrary, it is glorious to have finished all there was to do. It would be distressing rather to be tossed about perpetually from impulse to impulse, where nothing definite could ever be accomplished, nothing achieved. What was sad about Oliver was not that he died young or was stopped by accident, but that he stopped himself, not trusting his inspiration: so that he knew ‘the pity, not the joy, of love,’ the severity of intellect and not its glory.

This kind of language carries deep ideas gracefully to heights we are not accustomed to every day, and it is all the more remarkable to learn that the popularity of the Santayana’s novel in the United States was as a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection. These four sentences are laden with phrases we have to attend closely to and search the meaning of more than once: foiled sympathy, impulse to impulse, and perhaps most striking of all, the severity of intellect and not its glory. How are we to best approach such a passage and can we justify for ourselves the effort involved?

To those already convinced of the value of literature and the liberal arts, that second question—can we justify the effort—nears outright apostasy. The liberal arts (so called from the Latin liber meaning free) have to do with the life of the mind (the intellect which Santayana refers to here); they are the concern of those who wish to be free from presumption and prejudgment, and who admire others who are. Far from being a substitute for the common world we know and live, the study of language and literature reminds us that the value of what we do and how we act in the world can be determined only by introspection and insight. Language is how we think; it is both the means and the product of our reasoning, and it requires material to operate, the raw material of our own lived experiences and the vicarious imaginings of literature. The time we spend pondering language and the ideas it bears is a kind of fermentation, the yield of which can guide how we will choose to act in the world.

But how can we look closely and consideringly at a passage like this which may appear so off-putting at first? It is important to remember that what we are reading is the effect of a perception, the afterimage of something Santayana saw and felt and interpreted into the sentences we are trying to understand. One way, then, to his original vision is by attending to the structure of his statements and asking what other choices he might have had. And the difference between the structure he did choose and the structure he could have otherwise chosen can open our eyes to his original perception.

Take, for example, the first sentence of Santayana’s paragraph above. Why, we may ask, a semicolon before but, and not the more usual comma? That question leads us to observe that there are fully four more clauses in the sentence after the conjunction, and the meaning they carry together would have more likely drained off without effect had the semicolon not brought us to a pause to prepare ourselves for the unexpected images that follow; the semicolon, that is, stands the sentence up into a strong posture, and gives time for the previous idea to take hold. But why not then simply use however, a conjunction that requires a semicolon? That question, in turn, would bring us to consider the diction of the sentence: however would heighten the style inappropriately, bringing in an academic sophistication that would work against the power of the very concrete images of body and flesh, and the common conditions of warm and cold and living and stiff. That loftiness would run the risk of weakening these actualities.

And we could continue such close reading as the passage proceeds. Spirit and glorious in the second sentence contrast with thought and sadness in the first sentence. The adverb rather in the third sentence presents an alternative to what in the first sentence is said to be commonly thought sad; this, in turn, sets us up for the clarification in the fourth sentence of what the author says is truly sad in the early death of Oliver. And we could note there, as well, the force of the colon: to announce and pronounce in an isolated grammatical statement what amounts to the tragedy of the young protagonist.

A contemporary of Santayana’s, John Erskine, noted (in The North American Review, June 1936) that in his novel, “Mr. Santayana writes as he has always written, with a brilliance born not of rhetoric but of a faithful matching of speech to the perceptions of an exquisite mind. The style is as good as it has always been; heaven knows how it could be better.” In our own way of slow and careful reading, we can turn ourselves in the direction of the same light that brightened Santayana’s mind. We try, in our fashion, to match the writer’s original steady attention with our own close consideration, first of structure and then of the thoughts which that structure reveals. Santayana’s was a mind of broad sympathy in possession and control of large ideas, ideas which we, in our own way, can take up to consider when we are able to understand them clearly through the grammatical form in which they have been brought before us.


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