Posts Tagged ‘George Santayana’

Spring Break dawns

March 11, 2013

It’s always good to come home, even after the best of trips. Better still, coming home to Spring Break. Yesterday topped 70 here, on a day I began in the cold and misty dark, scraping heavy frost from the windows of my rented Malibu near the sea in Jersey. The drive to Philly was easy, the company of my Michigan friends was a delight. (Navigating the Philly airport is another story.) But a direct two hour flight and another time change had me home safe and sound before noon. Hauled out the hammock later and yielded to its charms.

Today, rain. But as Jimmy says, holiday’s more a state of mind than of the weather. Take it when and how you can. Pace Santayana, it’s ok to be “hopelessly in love with Spring”-just don’t take “Spring” too literally. I do try to love all the changing seasons, but this is the change I really seem to need most.

So, though I failed to fulfill my best intentions this morning by not sleeping in another hour, Up@dawn will take a break too. My ambitious goals this week: stay in bed past dawn’s early light at least once,  and don’t post here again until the green beer’s gone.

Happy Spring!

Donald Hall’s window

January 21, 2012

Donald Hall is one of my favorite poets, a former poet laureate, a Red Sox fan (and author of “The Baseball Players” and “Baseball and the Meaning of Life“) , and a feature subject in the current New Yorker (which I’ve finally caught up with). He’s now old and alone (his wife and fellow poet Jane Kenyon left us several years ago) and infirm, no longer writing poetry but still loving life. The view from his window is a reminder to us all that we’re damned lucky to be here, and should not waste a breath on despair.

Jennifer Hecht has also read Hall’s essay and commented on it.

Did you read the piece by Donald Hall in the New Yorker this week? It is an essay on looking out the window, old, and between pages on birds and snow he reports on his life with a phrase for each decade, his thirties bad, his forties forgotten because he was drunk, fifties a good total change of life. Each brings so many questions none of which he there answers. We’re in the middle of so many adventures. Life, I’ve long said, is a decent book with a terrible pacing problem.

The pacing gets too slow in January, she’s saying. April is not the cruelest month. How could a St. Louisan like T.S. Eliot say such a ridiculous thing? Oh, yeah – he’s one of the two from my hometown- the other was a student last Fall- I’ve encountered who did not care about the Cards. He was a convert to Catholicism and not to the Church of Baseball, aka “religion without the mischief.”

I think Mr. Hall shares George Santayana’s perspective on the seasons, as expressed in The Life of Reason: we should enjoy each in turn, and not allow ourselves to be hopelessly in love only with the Spring.

But I still can’t wait for April. Neither can Donald Hall.

drive time

September 4, 2010

It’s actually almost cold out here in the dawn, this a.m. The steam drifts across my keyboard, from the coffee mug and from my own exhalations. The season is about to transition, and I’m ready.

Mother-in-Law and I were discussing the seasons yesterday, and many other things, on the long ride back up the Trace to Nashville from her home down in Lewis County. I’d been dispatched to fetch her for a weekend visit, and I confess I hadn’t been thrilled at the prospect of three hours behind the wheel on my first free school-year Friday in over two years.

Most of my driving is utilitarian and end-driven, the end being to haul myself from home to ESU (Enormous State University) every school day (with stops en route to drop and retrieve Daughters). I do 80+ daily miles round-trip, just shy of two hours. I’m not one of those who finds driving intrinsically pleasurable. I barely tolerate it, I’d far rather be walking or biking.

And for the umpteenth time:  I want my super-train! They’ve got ’em in Japan and western Europe, why not here? A fast Nashville-to-Atlanta express, with stops in Murfreesboro and Chattanooga, would be heavily subscribed were it not for the appalling influence of auto-makers and oil companies on our body politic. Let’s change that, young people.

I do thank the gods for arranging my life and my commute to set me on the roads less traveled each morning and evening. I usually sail along while the poor trapped souls on the other side of the median creep at snails’ pace.  I’ve been very lucky these years, to have been stuck behind a wreck only a few times. First day of classes this year was one.  The car felt like a cell.

Yesterday, though, turned out to be a pure pleasure. M-i-L & I had a very nice conversation that ate up the miles, the day was gorgeous and mild, the Natchez Trace Parkway was practically all ours, and for awhile it really did become that nectar-filled journey whose point was not to get somewhere but just to be going. We agreed with George Santayana, where we find ourselves it is indeed far better to enjoy each season in turn than to be hopelessly in love with Spring.  It was good to hear her getting positively enthused about life’s little joys again, recent events having reinforced her worst glass-half-empty tendencies.

I had a couple of other taxi calls last night, including one to retrieve Older Daughter whose bus came in, after her week tramping with classmates in the high forests of western Carolina. She was positively enthused too, and uncomplainedly briar-scarred by her wilderness adventure.

Now I’ve got to be going again, my dispatcher is sending me with her own commuter vehicle to the Bad News Garage for a service visit this morning. Fortunately it’s not far.


January 6, 2010

It’s not going away, the arctic mass, so I’ll just say this about Santayana– aka “the last puritan.”

Santayana was an odd bird, a materialist who yearned for spirit and a transplant to Harvard who always kept at least one foot in Iberia. He didn’t get the American pursuit of happiness, preferring his own personal brand of unhappiness and attempting to consecrate it as something to live for. The hybrid philosophy that resulted was a combination of elements rarely found either in nature or intellectual culture, well indicated by the title of Santayana’s book Animal Faith and Spiritual Life. He made himself a kind of Roman Catholic, but deep down he was a pagan.

“Serious poetry, profound religion are the joys of an unhappiness that confesses itself,” he wrote. When “a genteel tradition forbids people to confess that they are unhappy, serious poetry and profound religion are closed to them.”

Santayana found American culture too superficially tolerant to recognize profundity or to seek the sacred in “human yearning.” But he knew individual Americans whose Americanism did not prevent them from achieving profound insight.

The fact is, cultures per se don’t seek anything– individuals who happen to reside within cultures do. There’s nothing in secular public life to prohibit personal profundity in whatever guise, as Santayana’s teacher & colleague William James understood. The point of studying varieties of experience is precisely to acknowledge dimensions of profundity availabe to individuals when they unmoor themselves from monolithic traditions and begin to honor and interrogate their own journeys.

Santayana’s own journey would appear to have made the point: profound spirituality, religious or not, is available to all. A genteel tradition need not be disabling.

More on this soon, it’s time to go and see if the car will start.


January 5, 2010

Younger daughter had to come into my cave to wake me today. Call me when the arctic mass has passed, and I’ll tell you what I think about George Santayana’s “genteel tradition“…

WJ bio – 13

December 11, 2009

“There is a mystery of rightness about the Parthenon that I cannot understand,” James muses in Athens in 1905. Then, serendipitously (or perhaps predictably, philosophers flocking to Athens is not exactly like Pentecostals in Vegas) he runs into George Santayana, “that gifted fish, the oddest spectator of life,” whose rightness is also  hard for a Pragmatist to understand, and yet somehow he is inescapably ours. Maybe it’s the naturalism, the “animal faith,” I don’t know. Good subject for another post.

But James clearly perceives a natural ally in Santayana, against the “dessicating and pedantifying” tendencies of all those “baldheaded and baldhearted” young scholars of erkentnisstheorie being churned out by the new “Ph.D.  Octopus” we noted in the last installment.

For the record: some of my best friends are erkentnisstheorists (we call them epistemologists), a few are bald through no fault of their own, and none are quite heartless.

I do know what James means about the Parthenon, I took classes to our local version when I taught down the street at Vanderbilt… just to sample the atmosphere and soak up the aura. Athena really is something to behold. (A few blocks away, another Alan LeQuire production called “Musica” stops traffic at the head of Music Row. Also a  subject for another post.)

Besides his professional brother Santayana, James had some difficulty understanding his real sibling Henry, “younger and shallower and  vainer” and much less direct in his writing.

(More on this, and other highlights from the present section– including the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which was  just about to rumble– as soon as I can regain control of the letter “P” on my keyboard. A liquid mishap, curiously, has disabled only that key and I cannot seem to finish a sentence without it… This is now being pounded out on an alternative machine which, I now discover, cannot handle apostrophes… so I can’t do possessives and contractions, and that proves to be  a much bigger crimp in my style than I’d have guessed. Really, not making this up. Our dependence on the mechanics of symbolic expression, normally ignored, is just too absurdly fragile. How funny.)

Soon time to go and give a final exam anyway. I shall return.

James bio – 8

October 30, 2009

statue_of_liberty_-newyork-_harborIt’s the autumn of ’86, the Statue of Liberty’s just been dedicated in New York Harbor, and James is immersed in the writing of his seminal Principles of Psychology.

But he’s also doing and thinking about many other things. He’s exploring hypnosis and other “exceptional mental states” (again, check out his incredible free-form channeling of Hegel under the intoxicating influence of nitrous oxide).

He and Alice are building a home at 95 Irving Street in Cambridge, near Harvard, and renovating their Chocorua,  New Hampshire getaway (reducing to just eleven “doors opening out”).

He’s exploring the evolutionary implications of human instinct and will.

He’s getting better acquainted with colleague George Santayana, beginning to turn Harvard’s philosophy program into something very special, and becoming a legendary teacher.

And he’s about to reunite in Europe with his beloved, mysteriously troubled sister Alice. Busy days.

james study“Actively involved with both family and students, redesigning and rebuilding one home and designing and building another from scratch– all while finishing a book almost three thousand pages long in manuscript– Williamchocorua James was constructing his life with all the energy he had.” A time of career achievement, and a time of  warm and cozy domesticity. (That’s his Irving Street study on the left, and Chocorua on the right.) James seems comfortably at home in his universe.

And at last, on the eve of the Gay ’90s, Principles is finished. James is much too hard on himself and his book, “a loathsome, distended, tumefied, bloated, dropsial mass.” In fact, most psychology experts continue to regard it as a classic and a work of genius. But he was ready for something completely different.

(Note: in August 2010 the William James Society will commemorate the centenary of James’s death in the Chocorua house in 1910. But  in our narrative, of course, he’s not dead yet.)

burn the bridge

August 23, 2009

Last time I wandered Vanderbilt campus at dusk, to spend a pleasant hour on a pretty day before the curtain rose on another Middle School musical production, I had it pretty much to myself. Not last night. It was Move-in Day, everywhere you turned Dads were lumbering under the weight of dorm-sized appliances and the other necessities of  collegiate life, and officious Moms were directing them. Lots of kids too, many indistinguishable in years from their younger counterparts across the street. There was a mix of apprehension and anticipation in those faces, and exhaustion. I looked to them with anticipation of my own: that’s us in a few short years. As Millie sings, baby will soon be coming home no more. (Well, ’til Fall Break anyway.)

And as for the show, set in the ’20s but more evocative for me of the Mad Men ’60s (with young women aspiring not to careers but to husbands, “modern” meaning heartless and materialistic) : it grew on me over three days, and I might as well surrender to the viral music that won’t leave my brain ’til I replace it. It was fun. Younger Daughter, you were a great “stenog.” And then we got to celebrate Grammy’s birthday with her at the Cheesecake Factory on an almost perfectly autumnal evening. She couldn’t remember the last time she was serenaded at a restuarant.

Fall’s still very agreeably in the air this morning. George Santayana was right: “To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” Or summer. We all really should get back to school.