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Marble Faun

Santayana: The Later Years

by Daniel Cory
Braziller, 384 pp., $7.50

Despite its subtitle, this book is not a life study. Cory, who was Santayana’s secretary and philosophical disciple, offers little by way of character analysis. Neither does he report the opinions of others who knew Santayana or make an effort to relate his earlier years with the later ones. Santayana’s philosophy is hardly discussed, his intellectual development largely ignored. The book is simply an account of the Santayana that Cory knew between the years 1927, when they met, and 1952, when Santayana died. And yet it is entirely fascinating, vivid throughout, in places sad and moving. This is so because Cory had the piety or wisdom to let Santayana speak for himself, both in letters and conversations. Written to Cory over the period of twenty-five years and sewn together with a slight biographical thread, the letters alone make up 60 or 70 per cent of the contents. In effect, this is Santayana’s last book. It is by no means his least interesting.

In some ways, the writing is Santayana’s most personal and humane. At their meeting in 1927 Santayana was sixty-three, Cory twenty-two. Long since retired from teaching. Santayana was living in Rome, financially secure, peacefully harnessed to a routine of work and leisure, steadily producing the major books of his final years. From this splendid elevation in his life, Santayana was able to write Cory letters that are frank, intimate, freely revealing, and more authentic than many other pages for which Santayana is known. In the security of his relationship with Cory, how much more likeable Santayana appears than in the collection of letters to other people that Cory edited several years ago! There one often senses strain, affectation, even pettiness, as Santayana forces himself to acknowledge a gesture from some remote acquaintance, or tries to justify his existence before those who still count as authorities for him, or else rejects the arguments of an alien critic. Here, however, Santayana speaks his heart directly, boldly, with the simplicity that a great and lonely man might use in addressing a dedicated grandson. Even Persons and Places, also written in Santayana’s later years, lacks the immediacy of a real human being which rises from these letters to Cory. For in his autobiography, as in so much of his work, Santayana reveals his mind and hides himself. The persons and places that he had encountered are idealized in the autobiography, not in the sense that their impurities are denied, but rather in being raised to the level of literary and philosophical dignity, serving as a subject for reflection and the basis of wise generalizations. In this book, Santayana half-consciously, as if he knew what he was doing but preferred not to discuss it, allows himself to pose in his pajamas. It is now a clichà to speak of Santayana as a detached spirit trying to live as a human being; this is a myth his formal writings encourage for devious reasons of their own. To his one real disciple, virtually the only young friend he had, Santayana was willing to appear as something very different: an old man bored by discussions with technical philosophers, flattered by visits from poets better than himself, reading everything that can help him with his work, struggling with the vicissitudes of exile, illness, war, and financial fluctuation.

As a running narrative of Santayana’s later life, the book is mainly a portrait of a man at work. But the letters also reflect the character of the times, and their effect upon Santayana’s material being. One does not sense that the social setting of these years changed Santayana’s thinking very much. By the time Cory met him, his mature philosophy was already formulated and needed only to be written out. What was not certain, however, was whether Santayana, or any other individual, could escape the hazards of the age long enough to write his kind of philosophy. Even among philosophers, he was, as he says, “a back number, partly in age, partly in manner”: “Philosophers now are expected to be thoroughly confused in general, and very scholastic in detail.” But the next sentence begins “This doesn’t matter”; and he returns to work, writing every morning, staying in Italy when Switzerland will not admit him just before the outbreak of war, entering a sanatorium and living in greater solitude than before.

In the course of the narrative, Santayana frequently shows himself as a craftsman reacting to his own writings. Reading over The Life of Reason after thirty years, he honestly notes that “the style is, often, verbose and academic, satisfied with stock concepts”; when he sees an old article of his that has been reprinted in a volume on John Dewey, he admits to feeling “a little ashamed…not because I don’t think it good enough in itself but because it is explicitly a translation of Dewey into my own categories, which naturally don’t fit”; learning that The Last Puritan has been translated into German aus dem Amerikanischen, he laments: “Ah! My beautiful Received English wasted!”; when a reviewer calls something he has written “boring and obese,” he remarks: “What would the critic say if he saw me in the flesh?”

Stylistically, some of the letters rank with Santayana’s best work. Paragraphs that discuss his current reading in Russell, Toynbee, and many others form tiny essays crying to be read aloud. In answer to Cory’s criticism, there are several pages of a more doctrinal sort, dealing with questions about the nature of essence, charity, intent as opposed to intuition, etc. There are also occasional comments about himself that illuminate large portions of Santayana’s philosophy. When he is told that Russell observed that in his final period Whitehead “yearned for unity,” Santayana replies: “What I have all my life yearned for is not unity, but completion.” If we put this next to passages in which he argues that “spiritual union cannot be union with another spirit” but only unification, which is “internal to the life of a single soul,” it may help to clarify much of Santayana’s later thinking.

Since he is writing of Santayana as he knew him, it is natural for Cory to introduce many letters that deal with their relationship. This part of the book is less stimulating intellectually, but equally engrossing as biographical drama. Through Santayana, Cory became the secretary of C. A. Strong, the American philosopher who had been Santayana’s classmate at Harvard and was also living in Italy. Strong figures prominently in Persons and Places; in this book, the triangle that is formed by Cory’s dual dependence upon the two old friends becomes a theme of intricate analysis and delicate maneuvering almost worthy of Proust or Hemy James. Eventually, Cory sees Santayana to the grave. Discussing the nature of death with him, Cory suggests something about “the peace that passeth all understanding.” “If it passeth all understanding,” Santayana answers, “it’s simply nothing. I have no faith, nor find any comfort, in trying to imagine a blind cosmic feeling of peace…I prefer to be frankly poetical and say I am content to rest on the bosom of Abraham.” At the end, Cory asks him if he is in pain and Santayana feebly utters his final words: “Yes, my friend. But my anguish is entirely physical; there are no moral difficulties whatsoever.”

I am told that Santayana once said that the only reason he undertook Persons and Places was to keep Cory from writing his biography. But Cory has done him no disservice. This reverential book, appearing in the centennial year of Santayana’s birth, will help to prolong the memory of him as a free and courageous thinker. It was not in vain that Santayana supplied Cory with so much choice material he must have known he would use.

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