I Like to Be a Stranger
The most eminent philosopher in the Western world, GEORGE SANTAYANA has been living and writing for some years at the Convent of the Blue Nuns in Rome. His first work of philosophy, The Sense of Beauty, was published in 1896; his latest, Dominations and Powers, in 1951. In between he has been working on his memoirs, two volumes of which have already appeared — in part in the Atlantic — and from the third of which, In the Old World, we are happy to draw this independent chapter, written in Italy in 1942.
by GEORGE SANTAYANA
W HEN at the threshold of old age I found myself free and looked about for a place of retirement and finally found it in Italy and particularly in Rome, I was not at all in search of an ideal society or even of a congenial one. I was looking only for suitable lodgings, where the climate, the scene, and the human ways of my neighbors might not impede but, if possible, inspire me in my projected work and where I might bring my life to a peaceful end. As to society, I was quite content with that which naturally surrounded me; for I still had my family and my friends in America, in England, and in Spain; while in Italy later the Anglo-American residents, with their fringe of distinguished Italian acquaintances, would have been accessible to me if I had cared to cultivate them more assiduously. But essentially I desired solitude and independence: not in the English form of quiet home life in the country, but rather after the fashion of ancient philosophers, often in exile but always in sight of the market place and the theater.
Nor was I at first entirely adrift. Even my relations with Harvard were not suddenly severed. President Lowell had resisted my wish to resign and we had come to an agreement that, after eighteen months leave, I should return for the first half of each year. I meant to carry out this plan so long as my mother lived; but she died soon after my departure, and my sister Josefina returned to live in Spain. I had henceforth no home in America. At the same time my income was somewhat increased, and I resigned my professorship by letter. The question of an official residence thus presented itself immediately, and remained more or less open during the next ten years.
My nominal headquarters, as well as my books, remained for some time at my friend Strong’s, in the Avenue de l’Observatoirce and my passport was periodically renewed by the Spanish Consulate in Paris. But Strong and I were never there in winter, and he usually went in summer to see his parents. Sometimes I spent a season there alone, in a silence most favorable for concentration of mind. Then, in the evening, I could remember that all Paris lay at my feet, behind that screen of green trees, and I would go to the Boulevards or to the Champs Elysées for a stroll and for dinner.
There was evidently no finality, no sense of home, in such a pied-à-terre. Nor was Paris a place where, even if I had been younger and richer, I should have cared to live. If did very well for an occasional season of cosmopolitan pleasures, but even its intellectual and artistic movements, though they greatly attracted and rewarded attention, were episodes, fashions, and extravagances with which no one would wish to be identified. Even distinguished and philosophical persons that I came across never inspired any confidence in my mind. Three of these might be mentioned: Bergson, Boutroux, and Dr. Cazalis, who wrote under the name of Jean Lahor. None of these were Catholics, so that in them all there was a certain strain of self-consciousness, as of outsiders who always felt a little aggrieved and a little insincere in the French atmosphere.
I have never had a French friend. In the most charming of them I felt something false, as if an evil spell bound them to some secret and sinister cause and they were feigning all their amiability for an ulterior reason. They could never be disinterested, never detached. They had in their hearts a sort of covert intensity and stubborn nearsightedness that I could not endure. On the other hand I have fed with perpetual delight on the French way of putting things: everything was perceived by them, everything tolerated, nothing overdone, nothing insisted upon. The French mind is an exquisite medium for conveying such things as can be communicated in words. It is the unspoken things of which one feels the absence or mistrusts the quality.
During my first free years I instinctively turned to Spain, and besides long visits in Á vila, I lived awhile with my sister Mercedes in Madrid, in that circle composed of twenty-seven women and not one man. For partial relief, I then went with her and Josefina to Seville. After a while they were bored there, and left me to enjoy the air in the gardens, the Cathedral, the little plays at 10.30 at the Teatro del Duque, the bullfights, and the processions of Holy Week. I even went sometimes to the music hall Sovedades to see the local dancing and hear the local songs. It was well enough for once, or for the young natives who can enjoy it all gracefully, and escape to higher things. But for me, with my tastes and at my age, it was only a flimsy spectacle, a surface without volume or depth and with nothing to hold me.
During another winter, being cold and bored in Madrid with Mercedes and her intimates, I made a trip to Valencia, Alicante, and Murcia. I saw some lovely spots along the coast, where a Spanish Riviera might exist; but the towns and the life were distinctly second-rate, and even the language, as far as Murcia, not Castilian. Ávila, I perceived, was the only place in Spain where I might live happily. I kept that in reserve; for the moment I would look about elsewhere. Before long, however, the First World War broke out, and by chance caught me in Cambridge at the Red Lion; and in England I remained for five years.
When I returned to Ávila after the war I felt a distinct change in the moral climate. My long residence in England and the fact that my sympathies during the struggle had been strong on the English side produced a chill towards me in my sister’s family. Their sentiments had been, and continued always to be, inspired by clerical and nationalist Spanish opinion, which anticipated what it became during the second general war. At that time I didn’t altogether appreciate the grounds of such violent Anglophobia. It was not founded on knowledge of England, as my feelings were. It arose indirectly, through traditional fear and hatred of English influence in other European countries; and to this was added the detestation of French influence in Spain both in politics and in religion. These good people did not suspect (although the Pope did) that modern Germany was more anti-Catholic than England or even than republican France, in that it preached an enthusiastic return to heathenism; whereas England and France were merely Ernstian, worldly, greedy and money-loving, as the Catholic, soul of Castile certainly was not. Yet they did not preach a racial war on the Jewish foundations of Christianity, nor propose to saddle a Nietzschean morality on peaceful lands like Austria, Bavaria, and the Rhineland that were traditionally Catholic.
Not that my own philosophy was partisan or afraid of Nietzsche. Neither tribal nor commercial morality inspired me with particular horror. I knew that the first was brutal and the second vulgar; but they both were intelligible phases in human civilization, just as Catholicism was; and it was an accident of temperament or circumstances how far my sympathies were enlisted on one or the other side. Essentially I could sympathize with them all, but could identify myself with none. That I was a philosopher, that f could identify myself willingly only with intelligence and with the truth, offended my friends in Ávila, as it now seems to offend some of my friends in other places.
THE idea of eventually living in Ávila, with one of my sisters or with both, remained with me; but the moment had not arrived. Meantime I would make trial of the Riviera, the common refuge of the lazy in exile; and I took rooms with only breakfast served, first at Monte Carlo and then in Nice, going to Italian restaurants for my other meals. I should have liked the old town of Monaco, with its gardens overhanging the sea, but there was no hotel there, and no likely lodgings. In Nice I had a bad attack of my chronic catarrh, and moved to a clinic where, lying comfortably in bed by a wide open window, I had a pleasant convalescence spent reading Spengler’s Untergang des Ahendlandes, all but the mathematical part, which I couldn’t understand and distrusted a priori; for it is a marvel that mathematics should apply so well to the material world, and to apply it to history or ideas is pure madness.
The atmosphere of the Riviera, physical and moral, didn’t agree with me very well. And the same may be said of Florence, in spite of the presence there of some old friends. Strong, Looser, and Berenson. They, Strong especially, with his new villa, caused me often to slop there, as I never did again at the Riviera; yet even in Fiesole I was never happy. All nationalities are better at home, where they are less conspicuous as special nationalities, and may pass for common humanity. When you transplant the species, it suffers constraint and becomes sickly or intrusive or both at once.
I like to be a stranger myself— it was my destiny; but I wish to be the only stranger. For this reason I have been happiest among people of all nationalities who were not of my own age, class, or family circle; for then I was a single exceptional personage in their world, and they a complete harmonious milieu for me to drop into and live with for a season. Where there were other foreigners among whom I was classed, and with whom I was expected to be more at home than with the natives, I was ill at ease in both camps, and disliked each for not knowing how to live with the other. For this reason in America I avoided all foreigners, especially all Spanish people; and in England or Spain or even Italy, I suffered when I was with Americans. Only in Paris, a cosmopolitan caravansary in itself, did Americans and other foreigners fall nicely into the picture and spoil nothing in the charm of the place. This would probably not have been the case even there, if I had known the best French people; but I saw only persons already cultivating foreigners and making up to them for interested reasons, and it was not among such that I cared to move.
IT MIGHT seem that I turned to Italy and especially to Rome as a last resort, but that was not the case. Italy and Rome were my first choice, my ideal point of vantage in thought, the one anthropological center, where nature and art were most beautiful and mankind least distorted from their complete character. But I had wished to look about first to see if my own country, or places more allied to my later associations, like England, would not be, for me, more desirable retreats; for it was a retreat I was looking for, not a field of action. No: upon trial I was sure that none of them would be better. Therefore I began to spend my winters in Rome in 1920, as I have done ever since. For the summer I still went to Paris, to Ávila, sometimes to Glion over the Lake of Geneva, a short walk to the clinic where Strong often took refuge. But I remembered the terms in which my poetic friend Trumbull Stickney had eulogized Cortina, an ideal Tyrolese village in an emerald-green valley amid the mountains of the moon; and now, after the war, Cortina was in Italy. I tried it, going to the Hotel Cristallo high on a hillside. It was here, in a bare little bedroom on the top floor, that I wrote at one stretch Platonism and the Spiritual Life. In that year (1926) the valley of Ampezzo was still green and rustic, with only a few roofs clustering about the church, with its noble spire. The peasants were ideal peasants and the strangers very few, and true lovers of nature.
Cortina had extraneous advantages for me as well; it could be easily reached, yet not so easily as by a night express direct from Rome. It was almost inevitable to stop in Venice; and I fell into the habit of stopping there for some weeks in each year, especially in September and October. The fashion in Venice had moved to the Lido, where I didn’t follow it; and the sea front, the Piazza, and the Piazzetta preserved an Italian rather than a cosmopolitan character. I found a book by an old-fashioned English resident on Walks in Venice with accurate little maps indicating the turns to take at each point in the labyrinth of lanes; and with this guide I walked all over Venice, without ever taking a gondola, except on my arrival and departure, when I had luggage. The eye was feasted in Venice as nowhere else on light, and color. The sea, most inhuman of elements, met in perfect friendship here with the soft and pleasure-loving side of man; and the mixed architecture of a bygone plutocracy reconciled me to the experiments of today.
Here too the desire to be splendid is in evidence, rather than vital greatness betrayed by a splendor that was unintended. How different these palaces, so rich and ornamental outside, so evidently striving to outshine one another, from the severe grandeur of the palaces of Rome, each turned inwards, walled and barred like a castle or a monastery against the outer world, plain like a fortress or a prison, yet imposing by the scale of the monumental doors and spaced windows, the cliff-like walls and the defiant cornices! In Venice, originally on the human scale, all was pleasant loggias and balconies, where the gay inmates might crowd to see and to be seen. Business was not hidden; it might be transacted in the great Piazza or on the frequented Rialto; but Pleasure soon drove it indoors, into the secret cabinets of rich men, while the young and gallant paraded the squares or the Grand Canal, to display their finery and plot their amours.
Venice would have been vulgar but for two blessed accidents that made it inimitably beautiful. One was the magic of that lagoon on which it seemed to float, and that mesh of canals vivifying it as the veins vivify the body and everywhere mirroring a sky itself softened and dyed by the denser tints that earth and water have reflected back upon it. The other happy accident was the age in which Venice flourished and from which it borrowed its arts. The model at first was Byzantium, also a commercial city, although an Oriental and hieratic one; so that everything, even nautical things, came to the Venetians already mellowed and refined by the traditions of many ages and many empires. These Venetians were nouveaux riches; they could never have developed their arts from within; but they had many contacts, such as other Christian nations generally lacked, and they could adopt and combine many fashions, not without a festive originality in combining them. So later, when it became the fashion in Italy to be classical, the Venetians again had models nobler than their own genius; yet these models gained a new charm and elegance when reproduced, on a smaller scale, in the incomparable stage setting of Venice.
I lodged habitually at Danieli’s, going out to Martini’s by the Teatro Fenice for luncheon, because it was quiet and pleasant there at that hour, sitting under an awning in the well-paved square, with interesting façades before one, and not too much food, as happened then in good hotels. For dinner I usually went to the Olympia, where a table at the back was reserved for me; and when the band began to play at nine o’clock, I was ready to go and stand in the Piazza, or walk about in the upper end of it, where few people gathered.
The public seems to think that to hear music is to see t he musicians fiddle and blow. I preferred not to see them. Here, and on the Pincio in Rome, I had my only taste of instrumental music — shocking confession, no doubt, for a person supposed to relish the fine arts. But music bores me if I am sitting penned in among a crowd in a hot place, with bright artificial lights and a general pretense at intelligent interest, whether such interest exists or not. It is too much like sitting through a service in a Protestant church. At the opera I can forget this discomfort because the impression, visual as well as auditory, is violent enough to hold my attention; but for pure music I desire the open air, solitude if possible, and liberty to move about and to go away. There is a wonderful sense of freedom in standing on one’s two legs. It adds, in my feeling, to the sincere enjoyment of both nature and art. Music and landscape then come as a gift, not as a thing procured for a ticket that constitutes a promise and imposes a sort of pledge. I prefer that the beautiful should come upon me unannounced, and that it should leave me at liberty.
At Danieli’s my favorite room was a little one in the entresol, NO. 8, close over the entrance, where I could sit, during my writing hours in the morning and during my reading hours in the early afternoon, by my low-silled window, open but discreetly curtained, little above the level of the Riva degli Schiavoni. Here I was conscious of the life of the place but not disturbed by it, and refreshed, whenever I looked up, by the lovely picture of San Giorgio Maggiore across the Bacino di San Marco. If I stretched my neck a little, I could also see the Dogana and the domes and belfry of La Salute; but this, although more ornate, seemed to me less beautiful than San Giorgio, less naturally perfect and individual, because the brick and marble harmonies of San Giorgio, with the green roof of the tower, were a happy gift of fortune. Doubtless the plutocratic rebuilders of the old convent and hospital would have liked to face everything with white marble; but the rich, on their lavish scale, are no less or even more hampered than the poor; and in this case they had the exquisite taste of Palladio to redeem and to glorify their comparative poverty. The new west front should be shining white, to be gilded and mellowed by the setting sun; while the walls, the dome, and the outlying low buildings should preserve their weathered pink with only touches of white and gray in t he lintels and cornices. And fortune smiled again when the campanile was added, a slender and more graceful copy of that of St. Mark’s, matre pulchra filia pulchrior; for it completes the harmony of its church, as the great campanile does not, lends it height and unity, rhymes the same russet with the same white, and caps the whole, in the hood of the spire, with a touch of aerial green. So nature has blessed and adopted this work of art, as if it had descended like a vision from the clouds and remained suspended between the sparkling sea and the depths of air.
Once, in 1939-1940, when the Hotel Bristol in Rome was closed and about to be rebuilt, I spent a whole winter in Venice — not a thing to be recommended; yet a pleasant walk had just been opened along the sea front uninterruptedly to the Public Gardens. There were nine little bridges — I counted some four hundred steps to go up and down on the way; but from each bridge There was a new vista, and the varied shipping carried The mind from ancient wars to the one then beginning, and from those placid lagoons to the Southern Seas.
IN Rome fortune at first lent me a living guide, in the person of The Reverend Luciano Zampa of Gubbio, a modernist priest who had translated my Egotism in German Philosophy. It was with him that I first ventured into Italian conversation. He helped me without discouraging me by too many corrections; and I could always put in an English or Spanish or French or even Latin word if my Italian failed me. Besides, he could often guess what I wished to say before I quite said it; my later friend Michele Petrone used to do the same; and with these two I could even become eloquent in Italian, in spite of my insecure hold on the language.
But the great service that Zampa did me was to show me the less obvious sights of Rome. Being a provincial priest — at first dressed as a layman, having been unfrocked for his modernism, but afterwards restored to his clerical privileges — he had a traditional admiration for all that was ecclesiastically important. Great ancient columns and rich marbles inspired him with respect, apart from their beauty; and this proprietary human esteem for the arts was a good corrective to the priggish aestheticism of my English-speaking artistic friends. Later some of these artistic friends— Geoffrey Scott, for instance, in Florence — abetted this ecclesiastical view in so far as they renounced pre-Raphaelism and learned to love the baroque; but that was an aesthetic fashion also, and corrupt, Aubrey Beardsley substituted for Burne-Jones; whereas my honest Zampa was simply impressed by the positive qualities of great size, rarity, cost, or splendor.
In spite of these lessons, however, I soon retreated into my aesthetic, or rather my poetic, shell and limited my diet of visual impressions to a few chosen sights. The central streets came in inevitably for a person who lives in them and frequents cafes; but my usual walk was loTrinila de’ Monti, the Pincio, and the Villa Borghese. On some days I would go instead to the Tiber, St. Peter’s, and (when it was made) the admirable garden at Castel Sant’Angelo; or else to the Janiculum, San Pietro in Montorio, and, above all, the Aqua Paola, where I always read the monumental inscription over the fountain, until finally I knew it by heart. And if any friends turned up, I would explain my aversion to museums and picture galleries, but would offer to take them, after luncheon, to see three things: the Pantheon, Michelangelo’s Moses, and the Forum from the top of the Capitoline, which included admiring the two pavilions of Michelangelo and the statue of Marcus Aurelius. Of these things I never tired; but of seeing more things or other things I had had enough. Fresher thought came and I could transmit more pleasure in recognizing these old objects than in staring at new ones.
Yet when not compelled to talk or to avoid useless explorations. I took many other casual turns in the labyrinth of the old streets, sometimes purposely making little circuits in search of odd variations on the theme of doors and windows, not to speak of church fronts and of fountains. Sometimes lovely things turned up in this way: for instance, the German burying ground by the Sacristy of St. Peter’s, and the court of the hospital adjoining the church in the Borgo Santo Spirito, not far distant Monte Cavallo, at the tip of the Quirinal, where also a band played, was another spot to loiter in at sunset, when the level light gilded the whole length of the Alta Semita as far as the Porta Pia, a caprice of Michelangelo’s. Many things depended on the time of day and the weather for their full effect, as landscape necessarily does; and great weathered works of architecture become part of the landscape and move the mind to poetry, not to pedantic criticism.
This for me, with my imperfect eyesight wrapping everything in a second often merciful atmosphere, applies even to interiors. With Spanish preconceptions of what a church should be — somber, devotional, and rich in shrines — Italian interiors are apt to strike me as empty and cold; and even the great basilicas in Rome seem to lack a focus and to be too much like artists’ models and too little like places of worship. But this may be due to personal prejudice, which a new personal experience may correct. Now (1942) that I live not far from the Lateran, I often cross San Giovanni, as I used to do the Cathedral of Ávila, in order to avoid the hot sun on the rough pavement; and being old and fond of sitting upon public benches, I rest for a moment on one of the wooden seats that are found there (but not, alas, at St. Peter’s); and in those calm moments my eye has learned to frame wonderful vistas in that great church, forward to the restored apse with its golden mosaics and its papal throne, or across aisles and aisles, into vast side chapels, each a church in itself. And then the whole place seems to lose its rigidity and its dead pomp, and to become a marvelous labyrinth, as if it were a work of nature or of fancy rather than of human art. The gigantic violent Apostles in the nave cease to seem monstrous; they become baroque works of nature, as if water by chance had molded the sides of a cliff into the likeness of Titans. And what might have disappointed in the mother of cathedrals, the moderate height, becomes only the condition of unlimited breadth; and you cannot complain that in the center you have a ceiling instead of a vault or a soaring dome, when you see beyond, quite subordinate to this rectangular space, soaring domes and vaults, enclosing other spaces and shedding variously colored lights on other elaborate altars. Thus familiarity discloses the richness of what seemed bare at first glance, and you find amplitude, time, and silence intensely present in what you had passed by as insignificant.
IT MIGHT seem that with age places gained upon persons in interest to my mind; and that my pleasure grew in intercourse with things rather than with ideas. Yet what held me in things was only their aspects, the picturesque or moral suggestions in them; for to things as material weights or forces I have never become attached. The old animal passion for fetishes, for hugging and hoarding particular objects because of their material identity, seems to have been entirely extinet in me; and it was precisely this indifference to physical identities that made me episodical in friendship and Platonizing in love, I was far from inconstant or variable in affection towards the true objects of my choice, but these were not the material things or persons that chance put in my way, in their necessarily mixed and changing composition. I saw only the gifts and virtues of which, perhaps for the first time, they gave me a clear idea. They became to that extent my local shrines or the saints for that day in my calendar; but never did the places or the persons turn into idols for my irrational worship. It was only the numen in them that I loved, who, as I passed by abstracted, whispered some immortal word in my ear.
It is true that persons, however changed in aspect, at least keep their memories. They may hark back to the scenes and the interests that may have bound them once to their old friends; and beneath memory there is also a soul, an innate disposition and character that may be recognized at moments in spite of all the incrustations of age, servitude, and vice. And besides that, there are lessons of experience; acquirements and remunerations brought about by fortune that sometimes transform the most commonplace persons, or the least prepossessing originally, into noble minds; and then the Holy Ghost, that is no respecter of persons, speaks to us through those so softened and pathetic masks.
I would not nurse my animal aversions any more than my animal favoritisms. Without disowning in any way the bonds of blood or of comradeship or of social utility, I gladly recognize the good and the beautiful in unexpected quarters; and I am not daunted in my cult of those divine essences when I find that they have disappeared from a place or a person that had once seemed to possess them.
Never have I enjoyed youth so thoroughly as I have in my old age. In writing Dialogues in Limbo and The Last Puritan, I have drunk the pleasure of life more pure, more joyful, than it ever was when mingled with all the hidden anxieties and little annoyances of actual living. Nothing is inherently and invincibly young except spirit. And spirit can enter a human being perhaps better in the quiet of old age and dwell there more undisturbed than in the turmoil of adventure. But it must be in solitude. I do not need or desire to hobnob artificially with other old men in order to revisit them in their salad days, and to renew my own. In Rome, in the eternal city, I feel nearer to my own past, and to the whole past and future of the world, than I should in any cemetery or in any museum of relics.
Old places and old persons in their turn, when spirit dwells in them, have an intrinsic vitality of which youth is incapable; precisely the balance and wisdom that come from long perspectives and broad foundations. Everything shines then for the spirit by its own light in its own place and time; but not as it shone in its own restless eyes. For in its own eyes each person and each place was the center of a universe full of threatening and tempting things; but old age, having less intensity at the center, has more clearness at the circumference, and knows that just because spirit, at each point, is a private center for all things, no one point, no one phase of spirit, is materially a public center for all the rest. Thus recognition and honor flow out to all things from the mind that conceives them justly and without egotism; and thus mind is reconciled to its own momentary existence and limited vision by the sense of the infinite supplements that embosom it on every side.