by Iris Origo
THIS autumn will see the publication of the diary of the last eleven years of Bernard Berenson’s life, between the ages of eighty-two and ninety-three. By that time, however vital and eclectic a man may be, a process of selection has taken place. With every year, the holes of the strainer become finer, and less is allowed to pass through them. What — in this man of quite exceptional intelligence, vitality, and self-awareness, living a life conditioned to shelter and protect him, physically and metaphorically, from every chilling blast — what remained at the bottom of the bowl?
In this diary, kept almost daily, a few dominant themes soon become apparent: an enjoyment of beauty which old age, far from diminishing, had only rendered sharper and more subtle; an unquenchable intellectual curiosity; a great many personal relationships (though not all satisfying); an almost uncanny self-awareness; and one dominant, indispensable human affection. These form the leitmotivs of this record of old age, but before attempting to follow them, it is perhaps already necessary, five years after his death, to say who Bernard Berenson was and what he and his legend signified for his contemporaries.
No one would more freely have admitted this necessity than Berenson himself. In the last year of his life, he wrote: “I rarely open a book today without finding something that increases my sense of having survived my world, of having been left behind — of being a tolerated ghost in a society ‘that knew not Joseph. 5 55 And he went on to reflect that, if he, while still alive, already felt himself to be an unwelcome guest, how great an illusion it is for any of us to believe that we would have been happy in the Athens of Socrates or the France of the eighteenth century. Perhaps, indeed, it would even be true to say that the values of the world which B.B. created at I Tatti are already as remote today as those of Athens or Versailles; and for this reason, too, it may be interesting to inquire what their nature was and what sort of man could spend more than seventy years of his life in defining and preserving them — the last true humanist, perhaps, of Western Europe.
The external outline of his life falls naturally into three phases: the period of youth and ascension; the years of achieved success, during which the legend took shape; and finally, in the period covered by this diary, the rediscovery, always lucid and sometimes merciless, of the true figure, as a tree sheds its leaves, leaving the tracery of its branches bare against the winter sky. In the words of one of his greatest contemporaries, Yeats:
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s; eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.
In his first years in America, the Lithuanian Jewish boy, whose family had emigrated to Boston in 1875, when he was ten years old, went through Harvard as the pupil of Barrett Wendell and William James, the friend of Santayana and Charles Adams, and the protégé of the Tom Perrys and of Mrs. Jack Gardner, whose collection later on owed its greatest masterpieces to him. Then, returning to Europe at the age of twenty-two, he found in “the glamorous adventure” of his first visit to Italy the inspiration which set the pattern of his future. The books which first made him known — The Venetian, The Florentine, and The Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance — and the monograph on Lorenzo Lotto all appeared between 1892 and 1901, before his thirty-sixth birthday. Then came the profession of expertise and the partnership with Duveen; soon, in the great international art market, the value of an Italian picture came to depend upon its authentication by Berenson. With the very considerable profits he transformed a rustic villa of the quattrocento near Settignano into his famous villa, I Tatti — as pure and exquisite a quintessence of Tuscan architecture, art, and landscape as only a non-Tuscan could have conceived — and this, for the rest of his life, became his home.
It was at this point that the myth began to be woven, and its protagonist to become, with his house, its pictures, and its library, one of the “sights” of Italian travel. Here came disciples, friends, and (in his own phrase) “enemy-friends” from every part of the world: poets and painters, philosophers and historians, the elegant world of Paris, London, and New York and the royalties whom he felt to be a little different from other mortals, the pretty and silly fashionable women whom he desired and who made him talk better than anyone else, old friends from Boston and Harvard, and uncouth young students whom he pronounced to be “un-Salonfähig” — unfit for polite society — and yet to whom he gave the free run of his photographs and his library.
And meanwhile the myth was taking shape: of Berenson’s brilliant talk — witty, merciless, exhibitionist, but always “life-enhancing” — of his encyclopedic memory for all that he had ever read in seven languages, of his exquisitely cut pale-gray suits and the dark-red carnation in his buttonhole, of his indulgence with the young, his ruthlessness with his equals, of his love affairs, his travels, his fabulous art collection, of summer nights in his jasmine-scented garden. The habitués of the house covered a very wide range. There were Logan Pearsall Smith and Bertrand Russell (Mary Berenson’s brother and brother-in-law); there were writers as diverse as Robert Trevelyan and Lytton Strachey, Gide and Valéry, Santayana and Vernon Lee, Percy Lubbock and Edith Wharton. There were Italians of such widely different types as Croce and D’Annunzio, Ugo Ojetti and Salvemini, Guido Cagnola and Francesco Papafava, and later on, Umberto Morra, Guglielmo Alberti, Giovanni Colacicchi and Arturo Loria, Elena Carandini and Clotilde Marghicri; there were the varied and often bizarre owners of the villas which crowned the neighboring hills, among them two men whom B.B. prided himself on having “brought to Florence” and who subsequently enriched that city with their collections, Charles Loeser and Herbert Horne; and there were, at different periods, the young men who acted as his secretaries or architects and who owed to his influence much of the future shape of their lives: Cecil Pinsent, who rebuilt his house and designed his garden; Geoffrey Scott, who wrote The Architecture of Humanism in his library; John Walker; and Kenneth Clark, who wrote of him after his death: “I owe him far more than I can say, and probably more than I know.”
WHAT was it that attracted to I Tatti so many different kinds of men? Just as there are what Salvemini used to call “libri fecondatori,” so there are men who have the gift of sharpening the faculties of everyone who comes near them. Perhaps in B.B., in addition to his wit and culture, it was largely a question of intellectual vitality, which gave spice to his talk even when one was disagreeing with every word he said, and which still pervades this diary. “The life of Berenson,” wrote a critic after his death, “is the story of a mind”; and it is the full maturity of this mind that these pages reveal. But which of the threads that made up so intricate a pattern was gradually discarded, and which of them remained part of the woof until the end?
The enjoyment of beauty was perhaps the chief of the pleasures that never failed. “While everything else physical and mental seems to diminish,” he wrote in his eighty-third year, “the appreciation of beauty is on the increase. I enjoy looking not only with ecstasy, but like a wine or tea-taster.” He prided himself, too, on having at last acquired a painter’s eye, on seeing objects “in their three dimensions, not in two only. And colours, every day I see more and deeper.”
His descriptions of landscape were often formulated in terms of a familiar work of art: the convent of Vallombrosa at sunset, “looking through the grand entrance on the right at the tunnelled road leading down to Tosi,” reminded him of “Velasquez’s Villa Medici sketches, but ever so much finer”; the landscape from his room at Portofino at dawn appeared to him “exactly as in Giorgione,” with the foliage above the cove “feathery, yet exquisitely massed”; while the coast near Amalfi recalled to him Mantegna, “to such a degree that one could almost believe he had sketched and reproduced it.” On another day, when a white fog had veiled the Val d’Arno, the scene looked to Berenson like “a landscape more of foreplan even than a Pompeian, more estampé than a Chinese one — almost like a denser Seurat.”
In comparison with this intensely perceptive delight, his enjoyment of the other arts was comparatively flat. He read, or was read to, omnivorously, but his literary comments were often commonplace and his references to poetry in his last years almost entirely confined to Shakespeare, Goethe, and the nineteenth-century English poets. As for music, he himself wrote that, though he often listened to it (and with such chamber music in his own house as that provided by Menuhin and Cassadò), he honestly doubted “whether my ear is very good,” and admitted that after a comparatively short period “the music serves mostly to liberate various trains of thought in free and fantastic association.” The admission shows an agreeable absence of humbug — but this is not how a musician listens.
AN UNFAILING source of pleasure, however, was his pride in his library. “I have been building up,” he wrote, “a library in which a student of White Man’s civilisation would find any essential book at hand, and I hope to leave it to American students, who would grow by using it. . . . Any book is worth while if it has even one illustration not to be found elsewhere, one text not easily to be had in other books.”
Yet at times he had misgivings — and so also had his friends. Sometimes, in visiting I Tatti, it seemed to me as if B.B., like one of the Pharaohs, by his gift of his house to Harvard, were deliberately turning it into his own mausoleum, and many passages in the diary show a similar doubt. Sometimes, indeed, in moments of optimism, he would picture the house after his death as a “lay monastery for leisurely culture,” in which a number of students “of between twenty-five and thirty could enjoy the leisure to nurture their own talents, and their gifts as writers and talkers,” young men who would “live in the present as a continuation of the past, study the past that is still alive or deserves to be resuscitated, and live in and study the present as the matrix of the future” — a nest, in short, for dozens of fledgling B.B.’s. But at other times he foresaw the fate overtaking it which sooner or later affects most institutions, when the spirit which animated them has fled: “Gardens neglected, indoors necessarily institutionalized. All the odds and ends, the flowers, the trinkets, that gave intimacy to a room will have disappeared. A dreary abstraction will reign. . . . And who will preside, what kind of biped will replace me and mine? Unimaginable how little one owns, how swiftly it goes over to others, who make other use of it.”
Yet another pleasure never failed him, that of asking questions. When he talked to his friends, as in his diary, the subjects for speculation were unending. How many works of art (such as the Romanesque churches in Aquitaine) owed their preservation merely to the fact that they stood in a region too poor to adopt a new style swiftly? (He would have liked the story, told me by an Italian archaeologist, of the sacristan of the cathedral of Otranto, who, when complimented on the remarkable preservation of the fine mosaic pavement, replied: “It has been saved by poverty. Worshippers in this church, for centuries, have not worn shoes.”) Was it true that in generations of men, as in crops, there were good seasons and bad? Why did he himself prefer upper-class to middle-class people? Was it pure snobbery or only that contact was easier? Why do “the great Unworthies” (such as Byron, Napoleon, Alcibiades) make us insatiable for information about them, while the Worthies only obtain lip service? How did Socrates, as an old man, keep clean? “So my idle thoughts wander to and fro through time and space, asking questions, and vainly trying to reach in every field “beyond, jenseits, au delà.” “I recall vividly how, as a little boy, I wore out my thin legs, running as hard as I could go, to get beyond the horizon.”
And he described (wishing that he had Dante’s pen to render it) a dream in which he had found himself struggling in a dark, deep wood. Some of the great trees in it, which were pushing out smaller ones, “were topped with crooklike growths some ending in a mitre, and others curved like a questionmark.” He stumbled about, entangled in the undergrowth and terrified by the darkness and by the sound of great trees creaking and breaking, and became aware that “a desperate struggle was going on,” until at last only the question marks remained. “They replaced all other growths, an infinity of question marks, nothing, nothing but question marks — questioning what and questioning whom?”
One subject for speculation to which he constantly returned was the character of his own people, the Jews. “Peter Viereck,” he wrote, “asked who and what was a Jew, and at last I think I have an answer. A Jew is the product of being cooped up in ghettos for twelve hundred years. His conditioning from without and within, the outer pressure driving more and more to defensive extremes, the inner clutching to rites, practices, and values only for union and for safety, the struggle for food and survival, the lust for pre-eminence and power: all have ended in producing the Jew, regardless of what racial elements originally constituted him.”
In the beginning, he wrote, he himself used to be anti-Zionist, being by nature an assimilator and seeing “no reason to establish a Jewish ghetto anywhere and least of all in a hornet’s nest like the ‘Holy Land.5 ” But gradually his mind was changed by his awareness of his people’s need, not only for security, but self-respect. “The fact that contempt is felt for them by the majority of non-Jews not only makes them resentfully unhappy or cringingly eager to be good bourgeois toeing the mediocre line in every land, but also to feel this contempt for themselves. The remedy may be found in statehood, plus military glory.”
As old age crept on, it was an aged Hebrew patriarch or prophet that his visitors would find, wrapped, over his elegant gray suit, in the soft woolen shawl that lay always upon his shoulders, and with a little cap of burgundy velvet upon his head. He described an old friend who came to see him as “changed, after a separation of six years, from a still youngish Frenchman to a white-haired elderly Jew,” and soon afterward he remarked that, not only was a similar transformation overtaking himself, but that he enjoyed it. “How easy and pleasant the atmosphere between born Jews like Isaiah Berlin, Lewis Namier, Bela Horowitz and myself, when we drop the mask of being goyim and return to Yiddish reminiscences and Yiddish stories and witticisms! After all it has been an effort ... to act as if one were a mere Englishman or Frenchman or American, and it is something like home-coming and reposing to return to ‘Mother’s cooking!’” The significant word is “mere.”
AMONG the visitors to his house in his last years, some of those whose company gave him the greatest pleasure were Yehudi Menuhin, “the sort of person I could wish to have access to every day,” Walter Lippmann, and Isaiah Berlin, of whom he said: “We come from the same kind of ghetto, came under similar Anglo-Saxon conditioning, and have both been readers, writers, thinkers. Yet ... he is a fellow of All Souls and I have never belonged anywhere. He is idolized in official society, and I have no place in it. Whence the difference? Temperament, endowment, happier than mine, more genial in short, perhaps also more brilliant, more entertaining, more good-natured, although with no less malice in his talk. Why then a Berenson legend and not a Berlin one?”
A few other old friends, too, were always greeted with genuine pleasure: Countess Hortense Serristori (a friend of sixty years’ standing), Freya Stark, Francis and Katherine Biddle, and, above all, Judge Learned Hand, the only man whose photograph, showing his leonine features and bushy eyebrows, was permitted to strike an incongruous and refreshing note in the impersonal little sitting room in which guests waited before meals. His attraction for B.B. was partly one of contrast. “He can clown, mimic, sing like a lively and entertaining youngster. . . . Free from exhibition too. How different from myself, not only held in by all sorts of snobbish habits, but by a psychophysiological economy which . . . certainly has nothing left over to play with.”
Yet on the whole it was not his intellectual equals whom he most enjoyed seeing. Indeed, he described Salvemini after his return from exile as “one of the brightest, sunniest, as well as best-intentioned to be fair and just” of all his friends, yet even in him he “smelt the smoke and stench of animal competitiveness”; Bertie Russell and Santayana, he complained, never really listened to what he was saying, and besides, Santayana had no sense of humor, “kept his heart on ice,” “and all of a sudden told me to my face that he did not want to see me any more”; Croce, though undoubtedly a great man, “never has asked me what I felt, what I thought.” He was “much more the Duce in matters of the mind than Mussolini ever was in politics.” Gide was too solemn, “too unwilling to recognize me as an equal,” while on his side B.B. refused “to submit to him as a master.”
The audience which B.B. really liked to address was of a very different kind: young people, students, experts in an entirely different field, royalties, and, as indeed he had already admitted in his Self-Portrait, admiring women, young or middleaged, sophisticated or innocent. “Interlocutors with better brains,” he wrote, “do not stimulate but intimidate. . . . For my part it is the adolescent mind that stimulates me and . . . with rare exceptions, women remain adolescent-minded through all ages.” Moreover, he frankly confessed that, whereas in his youth he had often been puritanical, at eighty-four he had become “painfully aware of the sex or lack of it in all women except septuagenarians” and desirous of their caresses — “pourvu que tout se passe en douceur, and with a touch of nostalgia” — and conscious of “the never-diminishing hold that sex has upon us — sex, its decorations and disguises.” But, above all, it was to brilliant talk that women stimulated him, and talk he must. “At the end of talks that have gone well, I find that I have enjoyed them far beyond the value of what was discussed. It was the satisfaction of physical need, and call of nature to chatter. . . .”
Not until his last year did he admit that he no longer felt that call. “At my age I know that my words are no longer winged and that there is little profit in trying to correct the nonsense, the absurdities, the malice, the calumnies, the selfassertion, the challenging dogmatism of one’s younger fellow-bipeds.”
These comments refer to only one aspect of the general process of dissatisfaction with most human relationships, which the latter part of his diary plainly and painfully reveals. It was not that the flow of visitors decreased; there was in fact scarcely a day in which the visits of old friends or new pilgrims to the shrine were not recorded, and among the latter, it was the most exotic, or simply most unlike himself, who caught his interest: Katherine Dunham, “looking like an Egyptian queen, dressed in stuff that clings to her . . . draping rather than clothing her, a work of art, a fanciful arabesque”; or a young beautiful Greek woman, “with the build — the breasts wide apart, the articulated profile,” of classic Greek sculpture; or, at the other end of the scale, President Truman, “as natural, as unspoiled by high office as if he had got no farther than alderman of Independence, Missouri. In my long life I have never met an individual with whom I so instantly felt at home.”
Such encounters satisfied his unfailing appreciation of whatever he felt to be completely genuine, firsthand, and first-rate of its own kind, such as “the impression of integral innocence given by certain American young women, who look as if no material feeling could prevail, no unseemly or evil thought approach them. . . . It is not a look void of experience only, but as of a gentle veil of goodness over the features.” So, too, he observed with equal appreciation the quiet modesty of Yehudi Menuhin, the boyish, indefatigable zest of the King of Sweden, and “tea with Miss Wilson, an elderly American spinster dressed in black, bespectacled and not interesting in talk” but who, by the manner in which she gave him his tea, “like a sacramental ritual,” turned herself and her surroundings “into a conversation-piece, a little masterpiece of art.”
In particular, he noted how difficult it was to get into touch with strange young men. “They come for the first time with a lump in the throat and trembling with awe, to encounter the myth the old man has become.” He was well aware, too, that sometimes it was not only his age but his own manner — too cold or too flowery, too dogmatic or simply too finished — that prevented his guests from being natural with him. Some “spread the butter of adoration too thick,” others defended themselves with “stupid dumbness or flushed impudence and bluffing.” “So, like royalty, I seldom get to know what people really think.” Often he wondered why such visitors came at all. Perhaps, he concluded, they felt him to be “the last survivor of a former civilisation, a former way of being. . . . Perhaps I have become a Curiosity.”
THROUGHOUT the diary, the dichotomy continued: the complaints that all these stray contacts were barren and exhausting, and yet the realization that he could not do without them. “Vorrei e non vorrei. . . . I feel worried, harrowed, besieged by people who want to have a look at me, who ask for time, books, papers, recollections etc. . . . Yet I am sure I should feel neglected and even forgotten if I really was left alone. I feel for instance an infinitesimal moment of resentment against anybody of mark, or any budding art historian, who comes to Florence and does not ‘ask for an audience.’ ”
Perhaps part of the spiritual isolation of his later years was caused not only, or even chiefly, by his awareness that much of his art criticism was now considered outdated, and also that many of “les jeunes” thought him “superficial, lacking in depth, ignoring the problems that they sweat to solve and totally out of sympathy with their caterwauling,” but, above all, by his own incapacity — stated with bloodcurdling frankness — to find any comfort in old friendship just for friendship’s sake, when a friend had become dull, prosy, or out of touch. “A friend is someone who stimulates me and to whom I am stimulated to talk. . . . When the stimulation no longer occurs, it is a spent and exhausted friendship, and continues as a burden and a bore. . . . Unfortunately in a long life one gets barnacled over with the mere shells of friendship and it is difficult without hurting one’s self to scrape them off.”
Even the death of friends, he now openly admitted, moved him only insofar as it could affect himself. “Am I then utterly heartless, or am I simply the average man? Are there individuals who love others . . . without reference to themselves? The human heart is a quicksand, and one sinks into it.”
What, then, in human terms, was left? Above all, one vital, necessary affection — that of Nicky Mariano, who had come to work in his library as a young woman forty years before and, after his wife’s death, had become his inseparable companion. Of all the pages of the diary, those which bear witness to her goodness and his gratitude make the most agreeable reading. In them she is “the necessity, the solace, the happiness of my life,” his counselor, his nurse, his almoner, his collaborator, his partner in “a union that could not be nearer perfection.” When for a few days she was laid up, the house seemed “like a reel of thread when the reel is taken away”; when he was ill, she hovered over him “with a face beaming with love to give me courage,” and slept beside his door. “She works with me, she thinks with me, she feels as I do, she is the complete companion. . . . She takes every material burden off my shoulders, and yet makes time to read to me, to edit what I write, to housekeep, to tolerate my flirtations. . . . I cannot imagine life without her.” During his illness, “her self-controlled cheerfulness, her encouraging smile, the love she radiates, make me happy as I seldom have been, despite my self-disgust. . . . How I love her face! I have been looking at it for nearly forty years, and every time I find it herrlich wie am ersten Tag. . . . There is ‘no damn merit’ in life and Nicky gives me endlessly more than I deserve, almost makes me feel that I do deserve her.”
Eventually he came to feel that “my ideal would be to settle into a life of almost complete solitude à deux, with Nicky keeping me company, reading aloud. I then could get the calm and repose which would allow me to think things out and bring them to black and white. I know . . . that writing is the only self-indulgence, the only satisfaction, left me.”
Again and again, this desire is repeated — a nagging, driving need to fulfill himself in writing, and to achieve at last the clarity and conciseness of expression that he so much admired in others. “I am humiliated,” he wrote, “exasperated at my impotence in finding words and phrases. . . . It makes me suffer from a kind of spiritual constipation.” Later on, he complained of a constantly diminishing vocabulary. “I never had one adapted to my purpose, and it has been a handicap.” (This, strange as it seems in a man of such wide reading, was true.) Sometimes he wondered whether the reason that he went on writing at all, in spite of “derisory profits, annoying misprints and malignant reviews,” was not merely “to justify my claim to be still a useful member of society . . . in short, that I am still able to pay passage in the ship of life.” But in truth he knew that it was to himself that writing was still essential, “almost as necessary as eating and drinking, certainly as much as love-making in the past.” Even when the great success of his Self-Portrait had brought some satisfaction, he was still goaded on by the merciless taskmaster within. “What I have written, what I have stated, counts as nothing. What I still want to be, what I still want to write, absorbs my thoughts, my daydreams to the exclusion of any self-complacency with my own past.”
This, surely, is not the self-criticism of a man dissatisfied with his own articulacy, but rather of a writer thoroughly aware of the intricate difficulties involved in the attempt to translate one art into the terms of another and passionately eager to convey to eyes less sensitive and less trained than his own what he himself had been able to perceive. “A letter congratulating me on my success in life. It hurt me, because I now realize how much I could have done and said. Almost from infancy I have had a feeling about self, about life and later on and for the last seventy years about art, which I have not remotely communicated to others.” This, from a man who had dedicated so much of his life to the transmission of knowledge and ideas, is surely a remarkable admission, and it was by an equally exacting standard that he measured the actual content of his mind, firmly repudiating the reputation for deep and universal scholarship which his library and the brilliance of his conversation had foisted upon him. “How limited,” he exclaimed at eighty-eight, “is culture, how limited is mine without Russian, let alone Chinese. . . ! Except in the very small and narrow acre of Italian painting of the 15th and 16th centuries, where I have wider knowledge than anybody now living, I feel anything but self-satisfied.” But he added, too: “How few are as aware as I am of all they miss!”
BY THEN he had definitely decided what paths, in the time still left to him, he wished to tread. “I no longer read metaphysical or theological books, nor psychology, since it has become so overwhelmingly Freudian.” He preferred, in all fields, information to interpretation. “Generalisations bore me. . . . But anything concerning peoples, climates, life in all possible places, still keeps my attention. So does gossip about the expanding universe, archaeological finds of any sort . . . the history of language . . . a good novel, a short story. I can read the Classics with delight. If I had the leisure, I would read them every day.” And at ninety-three, he was still eagerly questioning a nuclear physicist about “where science is going,” and admiring his modesty and the strictly defined limits he set to his knowledge. “How I envy the scientists, and how I wish I were one of them and not the magician I am taken for, because of my disreputable profession!”
Here we find a standard similar to that which, when he was over ninety, made him feel it worthwhile to revise his list of Florentine pictures only on condition that each decision and attribution should be reconsidered afresh, as if it had never been reached before. And it was in a similar spirit that he embarked upon the last task he had set himself, the study already begun in his Self-Portrait but now pursued far more ruthlessly. For so many years he had been considering the attribution of works of art; now he was studying a last one, the one best known to him — himself.
In a sense, it might be said that his whole life had been a preparation for this task. “As I look back,” he wrote about his youth, “I want to note how much I have thought of becoming, of being rather than of doing. In the vocabulary I use today, I wanted to become and be a work of art myself, and not an artist.” The ideal he held before himself — and in this, one cannot fail to be aware of the two major influences which had shaped him in his youth, Goethe and Pater — was one which had much in common, he claimed, with “the kalos k’agathos of the Greeks, the knight of the Middle Ages, the French honnête homme of the 17th century, and later on the English gentleman and above all the Goethian gebildeter Mensch. I need no other myth.”
It is the story of his attempts to fulfill at least a small part of this ideal and, finally, of the divestment of all the trailing clouds of glory that success had brought, to lay bare, lucidly and mercilessly, the true persona, insofar as he could find and fathom him, that is the true achievement of this remarkable document of old age.
The question that he asked himself was the one that sooner or later troubles all highly self-conscious human beings: “Who is the real I, and where does he hide from Me? I know who he is not, but what and if at all he is, I have never discovered, although for more than seventy years I have been looking for him.” Among the many strands of which the tapestry of his mind was made up, the many societies in which he had moved, which was the one to which he really felt he belonged? The answer was, not any. There was no single phase of his past to which he could go back and say, “‘This is Me. . . .’ Not the ghetto I emancipated from, not the New England where I spent the most formative years of my youth; not England and France, nor even Italy, although I have resided there for sixty years. None of these entities would have me on my terms, nor indeed any church. . . . Ich bin ein Fremder überall.” Yet still the long, haunted journey into his own consciousness continued, and he sought for the fit epithet to describe it. Rejecting “self-absorption,” “self-interest,” and “self-awareness,” he decided that “My case is well described by the word ‘self-curious.’ ”
Egotism? Of course, but an egotism of singular lucidity and frankness. “Alle denken an sich, Ich nurdenke an mich. ME FIRST is the instinctive cry of little ones, and I for one at eighty-nine am still there.” Even the small, mean faults which we are most disinclined to admit are here laid bare: the grudges and resentments “which steam up from the depths”; the admission of vanity, of having reached “the Age of Boasting,” of being unable to talk about his own past “without fabricating, exaggerating, idealising and downright lying . . . like the trills and sequences of a soprano,” of his deficiency (which he believed to be common to his race) in the quality “which the Greeks lacked, and envied the Romans for having, Gravitas.” And then “every kind of lâcheté, meanness, pettiness, cowardice, equivocal business conduct (due more to ignorance of the ethics of art-dealers than to my own nature), humiliations, furtiveness, ostrichness, etc. Yes, all these and more and worse, that rise and denounce me in the hours of the night.” Once again he might have taken for himself Yeats’s words:
But something is recalled,
My conscience or my vanity appalled.
And meanwhile, Time’s chariot was drawing near.
THE very first page of the diary holds an entry about Time, “flying swifter and ever swifter.” “I dare say if I live long enough, perhaps another twenty years, Time might cease to exist for me. The longest day is so shortly followed by the equinoctial one and that by the shortest. . . . The single days slip through my fingers.” Each birthday marked — partly according to that particular day’s state of health and mood — a stage in the progress. On his eighty-second birthday, he was asking, “Shall I still be alive a year hence? I am resigned to not being,” but by the eighty-fifth he was “less surprised to be alive and looking forward to this birthday with less questions. Encore une année, Madame la Mort.” By the eighty-sixth, “It is an adventure keeping alive against all the powers of destruction that beset me,” and on the eightyeighth he exclaimed, “I want another and another. . . . There is still so much I want to do and could write, so much in nature and art and people I could still enjoy.” But twelve months later, the year that had just passed was recorded as “one scarcely worth living. I have given up speculating about the coming year.”
It was then that he began to be conscious of memory becoming blurred, “like a clouded night sky, with a star here and there piercing the darkness.” “All is a blur,” he wrote. “Day follows day, does not follow, swishes by, so that it scarcely seems worth while to button and unbutton.”
Gradually, lucidly, the ravages of time to each organ of his body were noted, with a scientist’s precision: difficulties of digestion, ever-increasing deafness, shorter and shorter walks over the hills and then only in his garden, and at last — as he became more sensitive to hay fever and to cold — complete relegation indoors, “an in-dweller in a well.” And worst of all, the constant sensation that he was losing hold, that any serious work led swiftly “to utter exhaustion, to over-sensitiveness, to bitterness, despair, and dissatisfaction with everyone except Nicky. I live out of regard for her.” There were bronchial attacks, one or two alarming falls, and on Christmas Eve, 1955, a frightening attack of vomiting and collapse, during which both Nicky and Emma — his devoted maid and nurse — sat by him all night long, and kept on smiling. “Their smiles somehow seemed rouged on their faces rather than real. I caught Capecchi [his doctor] giving a desperate look to the others. I laughed out loud and said, ‘Why do you try to hide from me that you despair of keeping me alive? If you think I am dying, tell me so, for I have matters to attend to!’ ” On the next day he added that the expectation of immediate death, “perhaps because I did not believe in it,” did not frighten him at all. “The whole drama . . . took place in less than twelve hours. At the time I felt as if years were passing and slowly. I could not have believed in the subjectivity of my feeling. On the contrary. I knew it was real DURATION.”
From that time, however, the awareness of death’s approach was always with him. “Serious illnesses,” he wrote, “are to individuals what wars are to the public. They are as it were landmarks . . . not merely calendar dates.”
There were, of course, better days and weeks, and then worse ones, each bringing with it a change of mood. Sometimes he had whole days of complete relaxation, without either physical discomfort or mental stress. “I was not questioning, I was not dozing, I was enjoying perfect bliss. . . . Did the Fathers who developed the Christian idea of Heaven know like experiences, and erect them into the condition of the Saved?” Certainly what are commonly known as the consolations of religion were not within his reach — indeed, far from drawing closer to the Catholicism to which he had adhered for a short period of his youth, he felt less and less in sympathy with any theological dogma or metaphysical theory. “The vaccination,” as his wife had dryly remarked at the time, “did not take.” He considered that there was something in the very structure of his mind which rendered it averse to what he called “Beginnings and Endings.” “Hence my hostility to Christian theology in general and to Catholic in particular. It overshadows ritual, which in all churches has found in the course of ages the way for the poor human heart to cry its anguish. . . .”
In the bad days he would be so oppressed by nausea and gloom, “broyant le noir,” that he longed “for easeful death.” He would then be overcome by a sense of the vanity of all he had done, all he had made. “I have made a home for myself, furnished it for my comfort and pleasure. Some supreme pictures, some real works of art from China. ... I have got together a library. I have built up a garden. If I had a deliberate purpose, it was to enjoy it all with a sense of timeless leisure in my old age. . . . Now I am like the peasant in The Good Earth, who, owing to his passion for tilling the soil, becomes a great landowner, and deprived of the one occupation that gave him satisfaction: digging and tilling.” Often a wave of longing would sweep over him for the places he had once seen, “from Upsala to the Sahara, from Gibraltar to the Euphrates. . . . Not only would I see again all that I have seen, but read again all that I have enjoyed, all that has fed my spirit. . . . I long to hear again all die alten Weisen. Infinite yearning.”
Occasionally, in passive contentment, he would remember Santayana’s mother, who, when asked how she was spending her old age, replied, “In keeping hot in winter and cool in summer.” But more often his restless, yearning, eternally curious mind would go on roaming to and fro — sometimes haunted by what he called the Furies, sometimes aware that neither the torments nor the joys of memory were any longer important. “If only one could call up all that in the past was absorbing and what it meant, and how each in turn was replaced by another — if one could look at the landscape of one’s whole past, what would it add up to? What am I but a leaf on the Man-tree? The leaf falls and has had all it can, if it has weathered storms and enjoyed sunshine and is allowed to fade and fall to the ground. Why, what, has given me the presumption to believe that I am worthy of being put under glass?”
So, one by one, each spurious garment was discarded: the motley of the cosmopolitan man of the world, the universal scholar, the irresistible lover, and the sage. We are left with the outline of a man of infinite vitality and sensitivity, endowed with talent and knowledge of the very first order in one strictly defined field, and of intuitions and perceptions which covered a far wider range, but which he himself felt he had never succeeded in fully developing or expressing; a man haunted, like the rest of us, by a nagging sense of failure, by remorse, fear, and loneliness, but upheld by one tender affection, a man who had outlived his time. A figure who, just because he knew all this and set it down, has gained in stature. “For there’s more enterprise In walking naked.”