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Books: Philosophic Footballer

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(See front cover) THE LAST PURITAN—George Santayana —Scribner ($2.75).

Last week the most enigmatic and dramatic of contemporary U. S. writers, from an exile that has lasted 24 years, offered readers his first novel, a work of art so astonishing in view of his past efforts, so unusual in its own right, that even dissenting critics could hail it as a piece of intellectual audacity without precedent in U. S. literature.

George Santayana, distinguished philosopher and poet who abandoned a brilliant academic career at Harvard in 1912, is now 72. The Last Puritan is a memoir in the form of a novel, ”partly a work of fiction, partly a discussion of U. S. manners and customs,” partly a witty and civilized analysis of modern moral dilemmas. Long (602 pages), rambling, diffuse, The Last Puritan is the February choice of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Despite the fact that it is sensational only in an intellectual sense, contains none of the melodrama, none of the honeyed sentiments that make most popular novels popular, it seems likely to win its author more readers than he has ever gained with his speculative sonnets or with his five-volume masterpiece. The Life of Reason, published more than 30 years ago.

Whether novel-readers could enjoy all parts of The Last Puritan, whether they could understand its full significance without some knowledge of Santayana’s background and philosophical studies, seemed questionable. They might feel that the rippling, intellectual talk, full of subtle dialectical twists and adroit insight, which the philosopher puts into the mouths of his characters, was never heard on earth—or at least never in pre-War New England. They may feel also that the central character of a philosophical football player, a young millionaire who sickens and fades because his moral standards cannot be reconciled with the world’s madness, is too extreme and implausible to be trusted. Such criticisms the author answers in an epilog, employing the old device of a dialog between the author and one of the characters who objects to his role in the book. A naturalist in philosophy, George Santayana is no naturalistic novelist, concerns himself little with realistic details. Instead, he has attempted to express the “poetic truth,” rather than the literal truth about his people.

The Man. From the hotel room in Rome where he has lived obscurely since 1923, George Santayana has looked back to Harvard and New England for his fable. Born in Madrid, Dec. 16, 1863, he was 9 when he was taken to Boston, where his half-brother and half-sisters were members of the famed Sturgis family of New England. A strange set of circumstances lay behind this migration. “None of us,” Santayana once wrote, “ever changed his country, his class, or his religion.” Santayana’s Spanish-born parents met in the Philippine Islands. His mother’s first marriage was to George Sturgis, Boston merchant with offices in Manila, to whom she had borne five children at the time of his death. When she married Agustin Ruiz de Santayana, retired Spanish civil servant, it was with the understanding that the Sturgis children were to be brought up in Boston, as she had promised their father before he died. The family was thus separated, George Santayana remaining with his father in Spain, his mother and her older children moving to Boston, an arrangement that was “friendly, if not altogether pleasant to either party.” After unsuccessful attempts to live in both countries, George was left with his mother, while his father returned to Spain to live in retirement.

Educated at the Boston Latin School, at Harvard, at Berlin, Santayana became an instructor of philosophy at Harvard at 26, moved freely in academic circles without being intimately known in any. Impersonal, self-contained, he lived modestly in Stoughton Hall, became a member of the brilliant group of Harvard philosophers that included Josiah Royce, William James, George H. Palmer, Hugo Münsterberg. Three times each week he walked to Brookline to visit his mother, who continued to speak Spanish and who was entirely unknown to his Cambridge acquaintances. Occasionally he invited his more promising students to tea, was lionized by Cambridge hostesses as a handsome and mysterious foreigner, could be found most frequently, outside his working hours, at the athletic fields, watching the training for football and track.

While he remained a familiar mystery on the campus, his fame soon reached beyond Harvard. His first poems were published when he was 31. In the next eleven years he had produced The Sense of Beauty, which Münsterberg called the best book on esthetics ever written in the U. S., two more volumes of verse, a series of interpretations of poetry and religion, the five volumes of his urbane, skeptical statement of naturalism, The Life of Reason. Although Santayana himself had declared that he was no poet, comparing himself to Don Quixote, the Spanish-American War aroused him to “the Dionysiac frenzy and impassioned tenderness” that he considered essential for true poetry. When the Spanish Fleet at Santiago was destroyed; Admiral Sampson made the “boorish jest” of calling the victory a Fourth of July present to the U. S. people. Santayana wrote Spain in America as an answer. The poem is a lament for Spain’s “sadness and dishonor,” a moving and eloquent cry for a marriage of the two cultures, the spirits of the North and South.

When Santayana’s second philosophical work was published in 1900, William James wrote of it: ”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. . . . 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, page after page.” When The Life of Reason appeared in 1905, James had changed his opinion: ”Santayana’s book is a great one, if the inclusion of opposites is a measure of greatness. I think it will probably be reckoned great by posterity. It has no rational foundation, being merely one man’s way of viewing things: so much of experience admitted and no more. . . .” Other professors of philosophy gave less qualified praise, saluted Santayana’s scholarship, the fascination of his style, suggested that no such exquisite philosophical literature had ever been composed.

A popular lecturer, Santayana’s courses became famed. His students included T. S. Eliot, Conrad Aiken, Walter Lippmann, Bronson Cutting, Felix Frankfurter. Robert Benchley attended his classes, said that he could not understand the words but that the music fascinated him. Continuing to live in isolation, Santayana was commonly considered snobbish. Disliking Boston society, he called it “a Harvard faculty meeting without any business.” Although he enjoyed teaching, described it as “a delightful paternal art,” he admitted disliking ”the taste of academic straw,” was ironically amused when President Lowell declared that he was not interested in the degree of intelligence in Santayana’s students, merely wanted to know how many of them there were.

In 1912 Santayana received an inheritance, immediately resigned from Harvard, settled in Oxford. Repelled by German culture, at home in England, he was pro-Ally during the War, wrote Egotism in German Philosophy during the War years. After the War Santayana moved to Paris, has lived for the past twelve years in an obscure hotel in Rome, sees few visitors, has no friends who live permanently in Rome, carries on a wide correspondence, writing letters that are as polished as his published works. He admires Proust, reads Jacques Maritain, is interested in Spengler, Freud, Hindu philosophy, occasionally passes days without speaking to anyone except hotel employes. Slightly stout, he wears sedate dark clothes, black ties, might be taken for a prosperous English banker except for his dark complexion and intense black eyes.

The Novel. Central figure of Santayana’s strange first novel is Oliver Alden, robust, grey-eyed, precociously-intelligent son of a wealthy, ambitionless New England family that has fallen into a vague and harmless melancholy. Oliver’s father married only from a sense of duty, spends most of his time on his yacht, drifting about the world, while occasional intimations of his paganism and vice reach Great Falls, Conn., to scandalize the family and cloud the contentment of his wife. In a loveless household Oliver grows up, excels at games and studies without exerting himself, does not begin to live until, at the age of 17, his father carries him away on his yacht.

Readers who reach this point of Author Santayana’s narrative are likely to remain to the end. As Oliver develops intellectually under the stimulus of his father’s conversation, he also develops physically in a simple sensuous joy of living under the influence of the sea, of sport, of life on the lovely ship. But as he awakens to the world, Oliver also becomes aware of depths of mystery and misery that lie beneath the summer surface of reality. His father’s companion and servant is Jim Darnley, engaging, unscrupulous, intelligent Englishman who has left the British Navy as a result of some queer scandal. Attracted by Jim’s robust enjoyment of nature, weary of his own brooding conscience, Oliver still cannot free his mind of questions of right and wrong, is offended when Jim tells him candidly of his father’s weakness. Oliver’s first shock comes when he learns that his father is a narcotic addict. Then he discovers that during his college days, at a fraternity initiation, his father had accidentally killed a man. To complete his disillusionment, he realizes that Jim, for all his friendliness and gayety, may eventually murder his father for money.

Shaken by these glimpses of evil and cruel accident, the boy returns to his mother’s household, to the routine of duty that it demands, grows more austere and reserved, plays football, gets a broken leg making a touchdown for Williams in a victory over Harvard. His father’s suicide puts him in touch with a cousin, Mario Van de Weyer, who represents still another problem for the young moralist to solve. Educated in Europe, Mario is sophisticated, reckless, experienced in love, enjoys flattery, presents, bright clothing, admires Oliver’s integrity without wishing to imitate him. When Mario leaves Harvard hastily, after an actress is discovered in his roo’m, Oliver befriends him, straightens out his finances, feels no moral revulsion. Yet as Oliver grows to manhood he learns that in each of his quiet, passionless love affairs, the image of Mario stands between him and the object of his desire. In the case of his first love, he is rebuffed, not because his sweetheart loves Mario in person, but because she is attracted to the impulsive, spontaneous life that Mario represents, senses its absence in Oliver.

Oliver’s second rebuff is deeper and more poignant. Since his boyhood he has felt a strong affection for Rose Darnley, younger sister of his father’s old companion, a graceful, sensitive girl whose temperament is somewhat like his own. During the War, when Oliver is certain that he is going to be killed, when his failure to solve the moral problems that oppress him has led to his physical breakdown, he proposes to Rose that she marry him so that he may leave his fortune to her. But Rose has fallen in love with Mario, although Mario is attentive to her only from habit. In comparison with Mario, who believes that “if you are a man you must be ready to fight every other man and to make love to every pretty woman,” Rose finds Oliver stiff, deliberate, chilling, the victim of a moral cramp. Rejected again, Oliver returns to the front, is killed. The book ends as Mario visits Rose to tell her of Oliver’s last provisions for her, is pained at her disinterest in Oliver’s wishes and Oliver’s will, perplexed and uncomprehending at her nervous manner with himself.

Since The Last Puritan is complex, ironic, puzzling, there are likely to be as many interpretations of Santayana’s long fable as there are readers of it. Although most of these readers may interpret Oliver’s unwillingness to accept the world and its pleasures as evidence of some lack of physical passion, the author makes it clear that for Oliver puritanism did not mean chastity or priggishness. “It is a popular error,” says he, ”to suppose that puritanism has anything to do with purity.” Nor was it ”mere timidity or fanaticism or calculated hardness: it was a deep and speculative thing: hatred of all shams, scorn of all mummeries, a bitter, merciless pleasure in the hard facts. . . .” Oliver’s loneliness may have arisen because he never realized that “all ladies are women,” a discovery that Mario made in childhood. Profoundly religious in temperament, Oliver rejected religion because he considered divine revelations to be factually untrue, justified only on psychological and human grounds. Where Mario accepted the customs of any group in which he found himself, fought during the War without a thought of the justice or meaning of the conflict, ended happily and prosperously by conventional standards, Oliver was frustrated, tormented, doomed. Yet the philosopher seems to say that of the two, Oliver’s life was the richer and more admirable. Oliver might never win the love of Rose, but he would never misunderstand her so grossly as Mario.

It is characteristic of all Santayana’s writing that the weightiest subjects are handled with lightness and grace. The Last Puritan, no exception, contains amusing portraits of crabbed New Englanders. sophisticated New Yorkers, self-important Englishmen, sentimental Germans, to temper the gravity of the tale. It also contains extended digressions, discussions of German philosophy, of Shakespeare, Goethe, English education, yachting, sports, war, rises in its record of Oliver’s last decision to some of the most eloquent prose that Santayana has written. Yet critics are likely to disagree for a long time to come over the question of whether The Last Puritan deserves to be reckoned with great U. S. fiction, whether it should even be considered a novel at all. Challenging comparison with The Scarlet Letter in its theme, it is obviously pale, frail, overintellectualized beside Hawthorne’s masterpiece. Evil for Hawthorne’s puritans was intense, powerful, a demon to be fought. For Santayana’s characters it is distant, abstract, a moral problem to be solved like geometry. Thus the characters in The Last Puritan are real as symbols of Santayana’s philosophy rather than as people.

The Credo. Santayana has expressed that philosophy most frankly in an essay. On My Friendly Critics, written soon after the War: “I do not mind being occasionally denounced for atheism, conceit, or detachment. One has to be oneself; and so long as the facts are not misrepresented . . . any judgment based upon them is a two-edged sword: people simply condemn what condemns them. . . . My atheism, like that of Spinoza, is true piety towards the universe and denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image. . . . My detachment from things and persons is also affectionate, and simply what the ancients called philosophy: I consent that a flowing river should flow; I renounce that which betrays, and cling to that which satisfies, and I relish the irony of truth; but my security in my own happiness is not indifference to that of others: I rejoice that every one should have his tastes and his pleasures. That I am conceited, it would be folly to deny: what artist, what thinker, what parent does not overestimate his own offspring?”

The charge that he has withdrawn and suffers from a distaste for life draws a spirited reply: “It is because I love life that I wish to keep it sweet . . . and all I wish for others . . . is that they should keep their lives sweet also, not after my fashion, but each man in his own way. . . . Now I am sometimes blamed for not laboring more earnestly to bring down the good of which I prate into the lives of other men. . . . Alas, their propagandas! How they have filled this world with hatred, darkness and blood! . . . I wish individuals, and races, and nations to be themselves, and to multiply the forms of perfection and happiness, as nature prompts them. . . . The good, as I conceive it, is happiness, happiness for each man after his own heart, and for each hour according to its inspiration. I should dread to transplant my happiness into other people; it might die in that soil. . . . Ah, I know why my critics murmur and are dissatisfied. I do not endeavor to deceive myself, nor to deceive them, nor to aid them in deceiving themselves. They will never prevail on me to do that. I am a disciple of Socrates.”

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