Santayana's Last Year

In his eighty-seventh year, George Santayana. the poet and philosopher. brought to completion his last major work, Dominations and Powers, a manuscript on which he had been working ever since Hitler turnedEurope into an armed camp. Santayana found sanctuary in the Convent of the Blue Nuns in Rome; and here after the liberation of Italy he was joined by Daniel Cory, an American scholar who since 1930 had been serving first as his secretary and then as his confidant. Mr. Cory, now Santayana’s literary executor, describes the philosopher’s reappraisal of his own work, which occupied him in the months before his death.

by DANIEL CORY

1

IN the autumn of 1951, when I returned to Rome to pass the winter as usual with Santayana, I found my old friend a bit disgruntled. Not that he was dissatisfied with the reception of his last big work—Dominations and Powers: he had always been more or less indifferent to the public fate of his books. Santayana had become a little morose because he felt that his long literary labors were at last over, and that there was really nothing left for him to do except die. Above all, his rapidly failing eyesight dismayed him. A cataract had formed completely over one eye, and it was only with the aid of a magnifying glass that he managed to read or write.

“For the first time in my life, Cory,” he said, “I am in mortal danger of being bored. Now that you are here again for the winter, perhaps you can help to cheer me up with conversation. I have been thinking about my predicament — a not unusual one for a man of nearly eighty-eight — and if I go completely blind, I shall try to entertain myself as best I can by translating Latin or French or Spanish poems I know by heart.”

I don’t remember what I said by way of consolation, but Santayana smiled and lifted his cup of tea slowly to his mouth with both hands. There was no doubt about it: he was really old and feeble. He still toyed at odd moments with the idea of writing another short satirical book, to be called The Mistakes of Philosophy. As in the case of the monumental Dominations and Powers, he had from time to time put to one side fragments of composition that did not fit into the immediate work in hand. And some of these had been ripe reflections on the history of philosophy — just where and when, for instance, it had turned off the royal road of wisdom and got bogged down in some bypath of narrow speculation. But it was painfully obvious to me (and I think to him also except for scattered moments of enthusiasm) that he was unequal to such a task. The “synthetic unity of apperception,” to use Kant’s famous term, was failing: a paragraph might come, stamped with the old authority; a letter to a friend; perhaps even a short essay — but hardly a new book on philosophy.

Then suddenly a solution of his predicament arrived by post. John Hall Wheelock of Scribner’s had written Santayana asking him if he would consider the possibility of a new and abridged one-volume edition of The Life of Reason.

“It must not only be abridged,” Santayana told me at once, “but revised, as well. Take that word ‘mechanical,’ for example, that I use so frequently in The Life of Reason. It suggests that I believe the world is composed of a lot of little wheels and springs like an enormous Swiss watch. I may be a materialist, but I hope I am not as naive as all that.”

Santayana welcomed an opportunity to revise what many critics consider is his chef ’æwuvre, and he felt that a discreet condensation of the five volumes might make the work more congenial to the mind (and purse) of the young student. After all, an enthusiast could always find the original volumes in a public library. Here in the late evening of life was a final opportunity to settle old accounts — to purify once and for all the sustaining wine of reason. The ominous cloud of boredom lifted from the horizon, and a fresh wind of interest quickened, the furrowed soil of his brain.

In my mind’s eye I can see that frail shell of a body, clad in an old brown dressing-gown, sitting in an armchair with a rug across his knees. In one hand a Triton volume of his work (the print is larger in this de luxe edition), and in the other the magnifying glass to assist the sight of the one good eye. A large red crayon lies handy on the desk beside him to mark boldly the amputations in the body of reason. And there were numerous revisions of text in the spacious margins, and even new footnotes scrawled with that wavering red crayon.

An old man remembers most vividly the psychological climate of his early years, “How optimistic in tone these books now seem to me,” Santayana remarked. “And how glib and cheeky in places! When I was a student, and then a teacher at Harvard around the turn of the century, my friends and I really thought that we had settled everything. We were sure, under the influence of Darwin, that science had come at last to displace religion. Of course we were wrong. Science is only a side development. It is far from being the whole story.”

There are many passages in The Life of Reason which confirm this observation on the climate of opinion some sixty-odd years ago in America. Take the following, for example, from the opening page of the last volume, Reason in Science:

Religion and art have had their day; indeed a part of the faith they usually inspire is to believe that they have long ago revealed their secret. . , . Science, on the contrary, which apparently cannot exist where intellectual freedom is denied, has flourished only twice in recorded times. . . . Its fruits have scarcely begun to appear; the lands it is discovering have not yet been circumnavigated, and there is no telling what its ultimate influence will be on human practice and feeling.

No telling indeed, my old friend! The hen of science not only lays a golden egg, but an atom bomb. The work on The Life of Reason continued, and by the New Year he was already on volume three. About this time Santayana began to have serious trouble with his digestion; he would have spells of nausea and vomiting every evening that lasted until after midnight. It was put down to intestinal catarrh, and a strict diet was recommended by the physician. This seemed to alleviate the condition for the time being.

“Let them patch me up as best they can,” Santayana said. “It can’t be much longer anyway — and then I hope for a sudden collapse.”

As always, spring came early to Rome. The air was suddenly balmy, overcoats were discarded, and people began to sit outside the cafés in the noonday. Santayana seemed to pick up a bit. He would open his French window wide and step out on the balcony for a while each day.

In due course Santayana’s work was finished. He had pruned the live volumes as best he could, and the faithful red crayon was in action until the last chapter of Reason in Science. He was not entirely satisfied with his efforts at revision; but he had tried hard to dispel those early mists of idealism from the realistic body of his philosophy, and to make clear to the reader that our idea of a natural world can never be that world itself. Science might reveal the mathematical skeleton of things, but the bulk of human experience is incorrigibly poetical, and only remotely representative of its actual conditions. In particular, he was dissatisfied with the conception of Truth in The Life of Reason.

“I did not realize then,” he confessed to me, “that the shadow of Truth covers the future as well as the past and present.”

But I am afraid that this is not the only difficulty. In these early books Truth seems to be a sort of universe of meaning subsisting in the “motionless ether.” The ghost of Idealism cannot be exorcised for good from The Life of Reason.

As Santayana’s health was certainly better, with the approach of June it was decided that I should return to England.

“Come back as usual in September,” Santayana told me. “I shall probably get through the summer, but die sometime next winter. And in that case I should like you to be with me.”

2

No SOONER had I settled down on the south coast of Sussex for the summer, when one morning, returning from a round of golf, I was informed at my hotel that there had been a long-distance telephone call from Rome. No message had been left, except that I was to be telephoned again at two o’clock. I feared the worst, and waited until the call came through. It was from the Little Company of Mary. One of the sisters told me that Santayana had had a bad fall a few days previously. After apparently recovering from the shock of the accident, he had suddenly developed pneumonia.

“I will come as soon as possible,” I promised her.

I telephoned the British Overseas Airways in London, and by a stroke of luck there had been a cancellation on a Comet leaving for South Africa via Rome that evening. I booked in at. a hotel on the Via Nazionale, caught a few hour’ sleep, and then took a taxi to the nursing home at about nine o’clock the next morning.

My friend did not recognize me at once when I went into his room, but mumbled something in Italian, thinking I was otic of the hospital staff. I sat down by the bed and asked him how he was feeling,

“Why Cory,” ho finally murmured, “I told them not to send for you unless I was dying.”

After holding my hand for a few moments Santayana began to tell me slowly what had happened. His Spanish passport was due to be extended, and having always been most punctilious about such matters, he had decided that he was well enough to go as usual to the Consulate in the Via Campo Marzio. He had been very careful over everything. He had hired the hospital taxi for the trip into the city; he had succeeded in mounting the stone stairs that led to the Consulate on the first, floor; the officials had been very considerate and rushed through the necessary formalities. All went well until he had only three or four more steps to take on his return to the street. And then, although his hand was on the banister, a sudden black-out occurred. He pitched heavily forward to one side, his head struck against the iron railings, and he landed in a heap at the foot of the stairs.

“But my animal psyche,”Santayana went on, “attempted to reassert itself. With blood all over the side of my head, I nevertheless almost succeeded in struggling to my feet. But the effort proved too much for me, and I collapsed again on the floor.”

The next thing he remembered was coming to in his room in the nursing home, with a crowd of people-around him. Someone must have found him on the stone floor and informed the Consulale, for the officials had taken him home in a taxi. Santayana said that they had been very sympathetic and that “no charge had been made for the trip.”

“I think they appreciated,”he added, “that I always made this little effort to confirm my nationality. Perhaps it would have been a good way to die, but it appears that I am on the mend again.”

The X-ray pictures disclosed that three small ribs had been broken in his left side, but fortunately the large hipbone was undamaged. And the picture also revealed that he had two pneumonia patches on his lungs. For about five days he remained in bed, but before long he was back in his armchair again and ready for work.

3

WHITE lying in bed Santayana had made his plans for the summer. A young friend, George Salerno of the united Press, had given him a book of poems by Lorenzo d’ Medici. And among the poems, Santayana had found one called Ambra that had moved him profoundly. After reading it many times he had decided to translate it during the summer. It is a lovely pastoral poem about a river-god, Ombron, who falls in love with an innocent dryad named Ambra. The river-god pursues her with great passion, but at the moment of capture, the dryad appeals to Diana for help, and is transformed into a granite statue on a little islet in the river. Ombron is overcome with sorrow and shame at his abortive efforts to embrace the dryad.

As there are forty-eight stanzas in the original poem, the reader can appreciate that it was not exactly a light task that Sanlayana set himself for the summer. And the elaborate Italian rhyme scheme, which he insisted on adhering to in the less melodious English language, added to his difficulties.

“Now that I am set for the summer,”Sanlayana told me, “you can return to Bexhill and your good wife. And I hope you will succeed in reducing your golf handicap.”

From time to time during the summer I heard from Santayana. They were short letters with little notes about the progress he was making in the translation of Ambra. Then sometime in August I received a letter that really shocked me. The handwriting was not only wavering (which I expected) but all awry. And someone else — presumably one of the Sisters—had .addressed the envelope. I made out that his eyesight had taken a serious turn for the worse, but that the oculist, in consultation with Dr. Sabbatucci, had decided that he was too feeble to undergo an operation for the removal of the cataract.

“As long as I can see to get around my room,”Santayana wrote, “I can manage for a while yet. I must have strained my good eye in translating Ambra.”

But that was not all. A bad recurrence of the digestive disorder had set in, and even the most simple diet did not cure the persistent attacks, He managed to write me a check to defray the expenses of my return to Rome, and I started to pack for my third trip to Italy in a space of twelve months. As bad luck would have it, an infected tooth held me up for a time, and instead of arriving on the 1st of September as I intended, it was the 10th of the month before I put down in the Eternal City.

When I went out to see him the next day, one of the Sisters warned me that I would notice a great change in him. And she was not exaggerating. In the semidarkness of the curtained room, I found the huddled shell of my old friend in bed. It was difficult to tell whether or not he was asleep, but after a while there was a movement.

“I’m here, Santayana,”I said.

He raised two thin withered hands to his head and tried to focus his eyes on me. Then he mumbled something in Italian.

“It’s Cory, I’m here,” I repeated.

It was several moments before the truth of the actual situation dawned upon him.

“Is it really you at Iasi?" he said feebly. “I must have been dreaming. You can’t imagine how ill I am.”

I leaned forward to catch the small voice that began to tell me, at first in a random sort of way, then gradually more coherently, the pathetic story of the last two or three weeks. I gathered that he had become almost desperate. The inability to relain nny food except a sip or two of boiled milk, and the impossibility of reading anything but the bold headlines of a newspaper, had broken him down completely. He felt utterly abandoned. Food and literature, the fuel of the body and the nourishment of the spirit, had been denied him for the first time in his life. And he was mystified as to the true cause of his condition.

“My doctor seems unable to help me,” he complained. “He just sits here and holds my hand.”

As soon as I left the room I. went to see Dr. Sabbatucci al his home and asked him, “What is really the matter with the Professor?" There was a long pause and I hen he replied: “ It is cancer of the stomach.” He made a gesture of despair. “Poor man. He can’t live much longer.”

When I visited Santayana next day he had managed to get from his bed to the divan, but even this effort had exhausted him. In the slanting light of the late afternoon, I was horrified to see his actual condition. His skin was a dark yellow like that of a person suffering from acute jaundice. He complained of shooting pains, violent and sustained nausea, and above all, of terrible nightmares. “At times I can’t distinguish the dream from the reality,” he said. “You must tell me if you find me wandering. I am extremely weak from the want of food.”

Day by day be grew weaker and weaker. Frequently 1 would find him asleep, or under the influence of an injection of morphine, But there were a few lucid intervals in the sad gray grimness of waiting for the final release.

One afternoon, about five days before he died, I found him awake and for the moment free from pain. I urged him not to talk if it would tire him, but he said there were a few things he would like to remind me of while there was still time.

“There is, on the one hand,” he began, “the natural world which can be partially traced by science with its methods of controlled observation. Put there is also the other world — the mosaic of the imagination — which I personally like best. The important thing to remember, however, is not to drown yourself in either of these worlds. They are both essential for any philosophy digne de son nom.

“Always bear in mind,” Santayana continued, “that my naturalism does not exclude religion; on the contrary, it allows for it. I mean that, religion is the natural reaction of the imagination when confronted by the difficulties of a truculent world. It. is always local and mythical despite what people like Aldous Huxley may say — and it is morally true. People really believe in their native myths. But no doubt you will find all this much better expressed in Reason in Religion.”

I told Santayana that I had beard Russell recently on the radio in London, and that in speaking of Alfred North Whitehead, Russell had remarked that the latter always “yearned for unity.’*

Santayana shook his head.

“ What I have all my life yearned for is not unity, but completion. If I see a circle half-drawn, I yearn to complete it. And now my only remaining wish is to live to complete the translation of Ambra”

If we consider for a moment this passion for completion, I think we will agree that it is in perfect accord with a general principle of all Santayana’s moral philosophy. He desired above all that everything, he it a plant, or an animal, or a human being, or a nation, should fulfill or complete its own inherent potentiality. And in this he was very Hellenic in spirit. What saddened him was the inevitable spectacle of some budding power being blighted by an alien domination. If only the life of reason could become a mastering ideal in the hearts of the responsible administrators of the affirs of this world, then we might all enjoy that variety and development of culture which is surely the true goal of civilized society.

Our conversation turned, at his instigation, to the subject of death.

“ What comes before or after does not matter,” he said, “and this is especially true when one is dying. It is so easy for me now to see things under the form of eternity — and especially that little fragment called my life.”

We went on to try to define more exactly the nature of death. “How about ‘the peace that passeth all understandin’ ? ” I asked.

After a moment or two, he again shook his head in the manner I knew so well. “No, that’s no good either. If it passeth all understanding, it’s simply nothing. I have no faith in any blind cosmic feeling of peace.”

There was a long pause, and he lay quiet with his eyes closed as if ready for sleep.

“ Let’s not discuss it any more, my friend,” he finally said. “It’s impossible to define in words. I prefer to be frankly poetical and say I am content to rest on the bosom of Abraham.”

There was somet hing so wonderful about his voice that I broke down completely and sobbed like a child. I took his hand and pressed it hard against my lips. Santayana was quite moved by my distress. I pulled myself together and apologized for being so sentimental.

“Not at all,” he replied, “it means a great deal to me. It shows that there is a fundamental sympathy between us.”

How he survived the last few days baflled the doctor and all the nurses, He had absolutely nothing to eat or drink. I only spoke to him once again, two days before the end. I had been sitting silently by his bed, when suddenly he started to move and groan as if in pain. Leaning forward over him I asked him if he were suffering. I repeated the question several times before my voice penetrated the encircling gloom of consciousness. Then in a voice so small that it seemed to come from a long distance, he replied: —

“Yes, my friend. But my anguish is entirely physical; there are no moral difficulties whatsoever.”

Two days later the telephone in my hotel room awoke me at seven O’clock in the morning. It was from the hospital. “Professor Santayana died last night,” one of the Sisters told me.

The burial took place on the 30th of September in the Tomba degli Spagnuoli in La Verano.