Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Last Puritan by George Santayana

Novels written by philosophers tend to have a dialectical play between the characters who represent types not individuals. This is a factor in The Last Puritan but the types are incarnated in realistic portraits that surpass the simplistic Freudian or Jungian photofits. One would have to go to Enneagram personality types to find the complexity that Santayana gives to his creations. They have, in the jargon, wings or tendencies that lead them away from their dominant being in the world. An interesting thing is that after the death of Oliver we see Mario his friend in a different light which shows us that the view we had of him was filtered through the soul of the dead protagonist. Mario seems reduced, more worldly and less glamorous than in the body of the book. This is a subtle unstated delineation, deictic if you like.

The text and I mean text with the true scholastic whiff, is the pucca one put out by the M.I.T. with an introduction by Irving Singer, a preface by Santayana and notes with the original dollar price of 34.95 in paperback (trade edition). I got it for €10. Very nice paper. The notes tell us who Conrad was and Schopenhauer and where the Left Bank is, in Paris France, what chez ma mere means.

It is 574 pages long and for a protagonist who only lives to be 29 and whose death rounds out the book this may seem excessive but in fact it has distinct sections that smoothly dovetail together and mitigate the tedium of formless narrative that is the hazard of the long book. It has a Preface, A Prologue and 5 parts, Ancestry, Boyhood, First Pilgrimage, In the Home Orbit, Last Pilgrimage and Epilogue. As anyone who has read his philosophy will know Santayana is a superb prose stylist but the curious thing is that in The Last Puritan he exchanges his sometimes over ornate diction for simplicity and clarity. Even though the Preface is by Santayana it's an author's guide and general remarks and not part of the novel so it could be left out. No it's not a post-modern layering of perspectives and bringing the author into the fiction so for a gauzeless view of the drama I would leave it out. It would be easy to disagree with his characterisation of Oliver so perhaps there is mischief in his ruminations or the opacity of the fiction to its creator. He after all lived with it for 45 years which is a long time to be gravid, long enough to forget the impulse of its conception. Because Santayana was an aesthetic Catholic his stem of religion amounts to dim religious light, Gothic Cathedrals and the Eternal City. Comparing Oliver to Christ is fatuous mischief but part of the fun is that Santayana as he is in the novel is an unreliable explainer. Clearly he has much more artifice than the average philosopher.

So then what is the genesis of the idea that Oliver is a Puritan born out of his time without the structure of religion to give meaning to an ascetic personality? Is it in the Beacon Street beginnings of his father sharing the house with his half-brother Natthaniel who is also his guardian. Their father who amassed all the wealth through exaction of rents from the poor was murdered by one of them reacting to a threat of eviction.

That his father had always been a hard landlord and a miser, grown rich on uncertain and miserable payments wrung from the poor. That ultimate outburst of wrath, that one hand raised to smite, had been only a symbol, the fatal overflow, as it were, of all the silent curses and sullen bitternesses gathering for years above his head. And the worst of it was, for Nathaniel, that those roots of wrong and vengeance had not been extirpated. He himself was still drawing from them the sap of his own character and position. Yet he couldn't help it: he couldn't abandon his trust and his responsibilities. Unless all his fortune was to be dissipated, tenants must occasionally be evicted and mortgages foreclosed. How horrible that in fulfilling as he must the evident duties of his station, he should never be at ease in his conscience! A scar of horror, if not of guilt, lay consciously on his breast, like the scarlet letter.

This last sentence places the moral geography in the New England of rapacious piety and the duty of putting the widow's mite to good use. Not that Nathaniel shares the faith. The family pew is in the Unitarian chapel:

The music was classical and soothing, the service High Church Unitarian, with nothing in it either to discourage a believer or to annoy an unbeliever. What did doctrines matter ? The lessons were chosen for their magical archaic English and were mouthed in a tone of emotional mystery and unction.

It would be all too easy to scarify Nathaniel but Santayana does a Dickensian turn and shows us his penchant for collecting paintings in exquisite bad taste. It was a public duty, he declared, for those who could afford it to encourage art in a new country.

Peter who is living with him is still going to school and when Nathaniel gets the feeling that the boy is going off the rails when a common tram conductor addresses him familiarly and seems to know him, drastic action is taken. The conference with the three trustees about the boy has the true Dickensian touch of high moralising put to work on trivia.

This is a long rich book and Oliver isn't even born yet. Peter his father feeling the need for the scientific version of emollient waffle that his brother finds in chapel takes to being an occasional boarder at the home of alienist Dr. Bumstead. He manages to marry off his Junoesque daughter Harriet to Peter Alden who is extremely wealthy, the money from the elder Alden has come to him and he now feels like settling down after more than a decade of cruising the world and desultory study which got him a basic M.D. which although he never practices is useful for the self prescription of B.P. dope. This is an unusual theme for the time of publication but Santayana must have been thinking of the cocaine blizzard amongst docs in the 1890's . Thank you Dr. Freud.

By 1890 Oliver the son is born and his early childhood rearing shows Santayana at his most observant. When a German girl is recruited to look after him; Harriet is a hands off mother, the poor boy at last finds some warmth and affection.

One day, without any reason, he climbed up from her knee and put both her arms round her neck, holding on very softly and very tight for what seemed to her a long time.
“But darling,” she said, smothering her emotions, “why do you do that?”
His German, and even his English, was inadequate to frame an answer, and he merely held on.
'But do you ever hug your mother like that? And of course it would be very wrong not to lover her ever so much more than you love me, because she is your mother.”

Incidents like this and an absent father seem to this reader to account more for the genesis of the aloof intelligence of Oliver Alden who finds himself attracted by expressive persons such as Jim Darnley and Mario Van de Weyer his cousin. They supply the elements that are missing. The authorial leading suggesting vestigial throwback to earlier types is more the sketch of an historical conditioning that over-determines.

Oliver could not be so easily comforted, and he needed comfort. He could find no peace unless he justified his natural sympathies theoretically and turned them into moral maxims. If they couldn't bear the light of day, the test of being made explicit in word, he wouldn't allow them to govern him in the dark.

How that works for him is the heart of a novel that is the American analogue of Mann's Magic Mountain .

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