Recent reading 3: Santayana

Santayana Harvard graduation photo
I’ve just read the memoirs of philosopher George Santayana, as mentioned in this earlier post.  They were published in three volumes, being written during and just after WW II.
The personal aspects of these memoirs are fascinating, and very enjoyable.   Santayana seems to have known everybody, or if not, he was related to them.  He had two families – one via his mother and father, Spanish colons in the Philippines, and one via his mother’s first husband and their children, American from Boston, not quite Brahmins but society people.  The two families, at least from this account, were Faulkneresque in their eccentricities, entanglements and bedevilments.  Santayana’s writing is as smooth as a gimlet and the reader is carried along as if reading a Doris Lessing novel.  No wonder the one novel he wrote – about his family and friends (The Last Puritan) – was such a financial success.
At least the first volume of his memoirs was smuggled out of Italy (where Santayana was living), allegedly with assistance from the Vatican’s international network, and published during the war.   It is therefore not surprising that it makes no mention, even allusively, to current political events.  Ditto the second volume.  I was surprised that even the third volume makes no real mention of the war, although it does contain a section near the end which seems to present Santayana’s political positions, although in an indirect and abstract way.   I wonder if the reticence was due to the extremity of his political beliefs.    Having been able to retire anywhere, he chose Rome and stayed there through the Mussolini years.   He also barely mentions the Spanish civil war in his memoirs, but perhaps this was still too close, with the possibility of his family being affected by his writing.   From the few comments he makes on matters political it is apparent he was a conservative, although he gives no good reasons for this.   (Nor could he.)
I can make no sense of Santayana’s writing in philosophy.   His writing typically consists of a sequence of abstract assertions and generalizations, none of which is supported by evidence or even argument.  Against each one I cavil and wish to argue the case, or at least to have  the pleasure of being the recipient of a case in support;  since he provides no justification for these assertions, argument-against them is difficult, and there are so many, it is tiring.   Perhaps this style was typical of the philosophy of his day.    I find that every academic discipline takes some significant statements or assumptions for granted, and that people in the discipline expend most their intellectual heft arguing over the trivial remainder.  People outside the discipline wonder how anyone could argue about the trivialities while ignoring the big issues assumed or implied at the start.
For the record, I’ll include here some quotations which struck me:

With parents evidently Catalans of the Catalonians how did my mother come to be born in Glasgow, and how did she ever meet a Bostonian named Sturgis?  These facts, taken separately, were accidents of travel, or rather of exile and of Colonial life; but accidents are accidents only to ignorance; in reality all physical events flow out of one another by a continuous intertwined derivation;” (page 8, Santayana 1944)
Catholicism is the most human of religions, if taken humanly:  it is paganism spiritually transformed and made metaphysical. It corresponds most adequately to the various exigencies of moral life, with just the needed dose of wisdom, sublimity, and illusion.” (1944, p. 98)
Even what we still think we remember may almost become the act of continually varying and misrepresenting his past, according to the interests of the present.  This, when it is not intentional or dishonest, involves no deception. Things truly wear those aspects to one another.   A point of view and a special lighting are not distortions.  They are conditions of vision, and spirit can see nothing not focused in some living eye.” (1944, p. 155)
It is or it was usual, especially in America, to regard the polity of which you happen to approve as sure to be presently established everywhere and to prevail for ever after.” (1947, p. 138)
Unattached academic obscurity is rather a blessed condition, when it doesn’t breed pedantry, envy or ill-nature.” (1953, p. 103)

George Santayana [1935]:  The Last Puritan:  A Memoir in the Form of a Novel. (London, UK:  Constable.)
George Santayana [1944]:  Persons and Places. (London, UK:  Constable.)
George Santayana [1947]:  The Middle Span. (London, UK:  Constable.)
George Santayana [1953]:  My Host the World. (London, UK:  The Cresset Press.)

Recent reading 2: Spooks

For the record, herewith brief reports of recent reading of books on espionage:

  • Michael Holzman [2008]:  James Jesus Angleton:  The CIA, and the Craft of Counterintelligence. (Amherst, MA, USA:  University of Massachusetts Press).   A fascinating topic, not given justice in this poorly-written account.  Sentence without verbs.  Not fond of. I.   The author claims to have undertaken interviews with key players (although I only noticed one reference to such an interview), but the book is almost entirely written from secondary sources.    This means it has no new insights.  On some issues, the book is not up to date – eg, on the Nosenko affair, the author seems not to have seen Bagley’s book (see below), published a year before.  The writing is very vague about dates (a rather important failing for a writer of a history book), and lots of information is only provided en passant;   for example, we only learn about Angleton’s first child well after its birth.   Perhaps that is an editor’s failing, as much as an author’s.  There are worse problems:  the author appears to have a very unsophisticated understanding of marxism (p. 103), and his description of the Bay of Pigs invasion puts all the blame on Bissell and colleagues (p. 187), when some of it rightly belongs in the White House, including with JFK himself.    Relying on secondary sources and without new insights, Holzman could have shown us how Angleton’s literary training helped him in the world of intelligence.  Despite repeated claims that his literary education did help, we are not ever shown it doing so, nor given a detailed explanation of how it helped.   To show us this, Holzman would have needed to provide a detailed presentation of at least one theory of intelligence and counter-intelligence; this is something that would have been very interesting and very useful in itself, yet is also lacking from the book.
  • Tennent H. Bagley [2007]:  Spy Wars:  Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games. (New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press).  An insider’s account of the Nosenko affair, which I have blogged about here and here.  Bagley argues compellingly that Yuri Nosenko was a KGB plant, not a genuine defector.   From this he concludes that CIA should not have accepted him as a genuine defector.  As I argue, it is not certain that CIA did in fact accept him as such, despite what it looks like, and the benefits of accepting him (or appearing to accept him) may have outweighed the costs.  An intelligence agency needs to think through the wider consequences of its beliefs and of what are believed by others to be its beliefs, in addition to considerations of simple truth and falsity.
  • S. J. Hamrick [2004]:  Deceiving the Deceivers:  Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess. (New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press). Hamrick argues that British intelligence knew that Philby, Burgess and Maclean were Soviet agents several years before their public exposures, and during this period used them to securely transmit messages — both information and disinformation — to the Soviet leadership, knowing it would more likely be believed if it came from the Soviets’ own agents.  If Holzman’s book about Jim Angleton (above) had included some discussion of theories of intelligence and counter-intelligence, this is just the type of case that such a theory would seek to account for.    The (alleged) facts of Hamrick’s book are fascinating, but the book itself is poorly-written, repetitious, acronym-rich and comes with added right-wing tirades.  There are even anti-Catholic tirades against the novelist Graham Greene and —for goodness sake! — the poet-priest Robert Southwell SJ (p. 32), who was executed in 1595.  These tirades are not only out-of-place here, but replete with errors.   One has to wonder at the immense power of a Catholic missionary that he can still provoke such an irrational rant four centuries after his murder by Elizabeth’s police-state. I am certainly one of Southwell’s admirers (see, for example, here), but there cannot be more than a score or two of people alive who even know of him.
  • Valerie Plame Wilson [2008]: Fair Game:  How a top CIA Agent was betrayed by her own Government. (New York, USA:  Simon and Schuster).  Published with CIA redactions shown.   Very well-written and her life story is fascinating.  Shame about her Government.
  • Tim Weiner [2007]:  Legacy of Ashes:  The History of the CIA.  (London, UK:  Allen Lane).  The best single-volume history of CIA, at least as far as an outsider can judge.  Well-written and thorough, although I would have liked more on Africa.  On page 80, Weiner claims the only two successful CIA-sponsored coups were both executed under Eisenhower, but what of Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire in 1965 (see Devlin’s book below), and Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973 (and perhaps Malcom Fraser in Australia in 1975)?
  • Larry Devlin [2007]:  Chief of Station, Congo:  A Memoir of 1960-67.  (New York, USA:  Public Affairs).  An insider’s account of the role of CIA in putting Mobutu into power in Zaire.   Having once met Mobutu, I found this account fascinating, although, of course, I have no idea how honest or comprehensive it is.
  • Markus Wolf  and Anne McElvoy [1997]:  Man Without a Face:  The Autobiography of Communism’s Greatest Spymaster. (New York, USA:  Public Affairs).   A riveting read, which I read in a single day.  Markus Wolf presents himself, I am not sure how sincerely, as a reform Communist, an admirer of Andropov and Gorbarchev.
  • David C. Martin [1980]:  Wilderness of Mirrors. (Guildford, CT, USA:  The Lyons Press).  A detailed account of the relationship between Jim Angleton and Bill Harvey.  Well-written and an easy read.  However, the chronology of the events in the George Blake affair (pp. 100-102) is inconsistent.
  • Milt Beardon and James Risen [2003]:  The Main Enemy:  The Inside Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB. (New York, USA:  Ballantine Books).  Although mostly riveting, I skipped over the history of 1980s Afghanistan.   Reading of KGB watching CNN during the attempted coup of August 1991 to learn what has happening was very amusing.   The book would have been better if more had been included on the post-1990 period:  just when events get interesting, the book ends.

A good woman in Africa

Marbury reports on the reaction of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to a question asked by a university student in Kinshasa about her husband’s opinion on some issue.  She appears to have taken umbrage at being asked for Bill’s opinion, as if she would have  no opinions of her own.
If the questioner were an Australian journalist (Norman Gunston, say*), then she would have been correct to take offence. But the questioner was Congolese, and the question could have been asked sincerely.  Perhaps no aspect of African culture is more distinct from contemporary, post-Protestant, western culture than the relationship between individuals and families.  In traditional African society, individuals would not normally have their own opinions; rather, they would defer to the group opinion of the extended family to which they belong.  These family opinions are reached in different ways, in some cases by discussion among the adults until a consensus emerges, in other cases by diktak by the most powerful family member (who may not necessarily be the eldest male).   The means of reaching shared opinions differ from one society to another, from one family to another, and even, within a single family, from one occasion to another.  In short, the locus of decision-making is not an individual but a group.  Traditional Catholic culture has more in common with this idea than our post-Protestant western culture because in Catholic belief, it is the Church, as a whole, that mediates communications between Man and God, and which is the recipient of Christian grace.  Protestants allowed each person to speak to God him or herself directly, thus promoting (or perhaps examplifying or accompanying) the trend to individualism that has been a feature of western life these last two centuries or so.
This fact of African life has implications for anyone doing market research or opinion polling in Africa, since the standard method used for random variation of respondents within households in sample surveys (the so-called Kish Grid) does not work.  People speaking to sample surveyers, if they are willing to speak, want to give their family’s opinion not their own (if indeed, the concept of “their own opinion” makes any sense to them), and usually they want the designated household spokesperson to do the speaking. Depending on the specific culture, this designated person might be the eldest male, or it might be the youngest child, or the person with the most formal education.   I know this from my own experience doing market research surveys in Southern Africa, and I wrote about this experience for an anthropology journal.   Similarly, there are important implications for anyone designing and executing marketing campaigns or public health information campaigns in Africa, and perhaps elsewhere in the world (eg, Latin America).
On balance, I think Mrs Clinton should probably not have taken personal offence at the question.  But the fact that she did take umbrage points to the very profound cultural difference at play here.
* At a US press conference given to announce a movie about Watergate, Norman Gunston asked if the film would have any 18.5 minute gaps in it, as Nixon’s secret Oval Office tapes did, and whether former President Nixon would receive complimentary tickets to the film.
P. J. McBurney [1988]: On transferring statistical techniques across cultures: the Kish Grid. Current Anthropology, 29 (2): 323-5.


George Santayana writing in Character and Opinion in the United States (1918):

Even what is best in American life is compulsory – the idealism, the zeal, the beautiful happy unison of its great moments.  You must wave, you must cheer, you must push with the irresistible crowd; otherwise you will feel like a traitor, a soulless outcast, a deserted ship high and dry on the shore.  In America, there is but one way of being saved, though it is not peculiar to any of the official religions, which themselves must silently conform to the national orthodoxy, or else become impotent and merely ornamental.  This national faith and morality are vague in idea, but inexorable in spirit; they are the gospel of work and the belief in progress.  By them, in a country where all men are free, every man finds what most matters has been settled for him beforehand.”

An insignificant literary mystery

The Spanish-American philosopher, George Santayana, was a close friend of Frank Russell, the second Earl, elder brother of the now-more-famous Bertrand, and, it seems, a man with much more than his allocated lifetime quarter-hour of drama and fame.  In the second volume of his memoirs (The Middle Span, pp. 50-52), Santayana mentions their first encounter, at Harvard in October 1886, where they seem to have connected instantly and deeply, meeting just once but talking for hours.  Reading this account, I was reminded of Bertie’s account in his autobiography of his first meeting with Joseph Conrad, which also (at least, according to BR) went deeper, and deeper faster, than any previous or subsequent encounter he had with another person.
Santayana says that following their initial meeting, upon his return to England Frank Russell sent Santayana a gift:

I received through the post a thin little book bound in white vellum, The Bookbills of Narcissus, by Richard Le Gallienne, inscribed “from R.” ” (page 52).

Santayana next saw Russell on his trip to England in March 1887, when they spent significant time together, and they continued to meet and travel together periodically.
Something is amiss in this report, since that book by Richard Le Gallienne was not published until September 1891, by Frank Murray in Derby.   I thought perhaps that Russell had sent Santayana a pre-publication copy, but checking a biography of Le Gallienne (Whittington-Egan & Smerdon 1960),  I find, first, that Le Gallienne seems only to have written this book during winter 1890-91 (p. 125), and, second, that Le Gallienne wrote to his parents around February 1892 that he had heard that Lord Russell “raves” about Narcissus (p. 185).   So clearly, Frank Russell knew and liked the book, and told others this following its publication; he also quite possibly gave an inscribed copy to his friend Santayana.   But he could not have done so in the winter of 1886-7.  Le Gallienne’s first volume,  My Ladies’ Sonnets, was only published in August 1887, and circulated only in Merseyside, so it is unlikely that Russell would have had a pre-publication copy of that to give to Santayana.
Did Russell send some other book to Santayana in 1886, which Santayana’s memory has forgotten and confused with Narcissus?  Or was perhaps the book Russell sent Santayana something he would prefer not to mention, a book that might reveal more of their relationship than Santayana desired to be revealed?  Certainly, reading the urbane, enthralling and smoothly-written three volumes of Santayana’s memoirs, one would not be led to think he had a poor memory; he seems to have recalled every person he ever met or Harvard student he ever taught, and every soap-operatic life-incident in his two Faulkneresque extended families, one Spanish, one American.
I doubt this mystery will ever be resolved; on the other hand, nothing momentous rests on its resolution.
POSTSCRIPT (2013-10-22):  I wonder if the book of verse sent by Russell to Santayana in late 1886 was one of the works by poet Marc-Andre Raffalovich (1864-1934).
M-A. Raffalovich [1884]: Cyril and Lionel, and other poems. A volume of sentimental studies. London, UK: Kegan Paul & Co.
M-A. Raffalovich [1885]: Tuberose and Meadow-Sweet. London, UK: D. Boque.
M-A. Raffalovich [1886]: In Fancy Dress.  London, UK: Walter Scott.
George Santayana [1947]:  The Middle Span.  London, UK:  Constable.
Richard Whittington-Egan & Geoffrey Smerdon [1960]: The Quest of the Golden Boy:  The Life and Letters of Richard Le Gallienne.  London, UK:  The Unicorn Press.

Poem: Dreams

From the poem, Dreams, by Thomas Traherne (c. 1637-1674), whose poetry was only first discovered 200 years after his death, and quite by accident, and with new writing being found as recently as 1997.

May all that I can see
Awake, by Night be within me be?
My childhood knew
No Difference, but all was True,
As Real all as what I view:
The World its Self was there: ‘Twas wondrous strange,
That Heav’n and Earth should so their place exchange.
Things terrible did awe
My Soul with Fear:
The Apparitions seem’d as near
As Things could be, and Things they were;
Yet were they all by Fancy in me wrought,
And all their Being founded in a Thought.
O what a Thing is Thought!
Which seems a Dream: yea seemeth Nought,
Yet doth the Mind
Affect as much as what we find
Most near and true! Sure Men are blind,
And can’t the forcible Reality
Of things that Secret are within them see.

Previous poetry posts are here.

John Le Carre, please call your office

For a small country devoid of hills, the Netherlands certainly generates a lot of drama.  Tomorrow’s Sydney Morning Herald has a fascinating story about a good-looking Dutch spy who allegedly left the reservation, becoming a double- or maybe triple-agent, engaging in money-laundering, Middle-East real-estate scams, and perhaps worse, and was held prisoner in her own flat in Dubai by other Dutch agents while her lawyers and their lawyers sought to reach a deal.   No deal reached, she is now in prison in Egypt for money-laundering and weapons-trading.  
You folks in the back of the room will have trouple keeping up when the story includes successive paras like these:

Dutch police observation teams had seen a woman in the company of a British man, Simon John ”Slapper” Cowmeadow. Only later did they realise she was Karoum. Cowmeadow was shot dead in an Amsterdam street on November 18, 2007.
Nadim Imac, a suspected heroin importer and the sponsor of a Dutch soccer team, Turkiyemspor, was thrown to his death from a moving bus on February 17 this year. Police found €223,000 in his home.

Newton and scientific publication

While on the subject of Isaac Newton, here are several statements by historian Scott Mandelbrote on Newton’s attitude to the public dissemination of his work.  The more we know of Newton, the less we should consider him a scientist in the modern meaning of the word.

His [theological investigation] was a voyage of personal discovery; even the Principia required Halley’s exertions as a midwife to bring them to light.  Newton might share his religious opinions with other members of the remnant, as he did in his letters to Locke, but he worried about the consequences of their wider dissemination:  ‘I was of opinion my papers had lain still & am sorry to heare there is news about them.  Let me entreat you to stop their translation & impression so soon as  you can for I designe to suppress them.’  Newton’s concern may have reflected fear of being discovered to hold unorthodox  opinions, but it was also the product of religious motives.  Not everyone could be expected to comprehend ‘strong meat’, which was  intended for personal consumption, and which might be wasted on others.” (p.299)

His [Newton’s] theology pervaded his alchemy, in his analysis of the Emerald Tablets of Hermes Trismegistus, and in turn  his alchemy suggested to him how matter might be understood physically.  A true understanding of the uses of language enabled  Newton to introduce astronomical calculation into his chronological writings, and to complete his mathematical arguments with theological references:
. . . .
Mathematics was God’s language; the language of the prophets communicated God’s purposes and ‘times’ to men.  Newton felt it was his duty to understand and to reconcile the two, to decipher the hieroglyphs which corrupted religion and learning had obscured.   The problems of mathematics ended in the solutions of divine majesty, and mathematical language solved the theological problem of describing Newton’s Arian interpretation of the relations within the Trinity:
. . .
Newton’s natural philosophical and theological discoveries removed the obscurities from divine language, in the books of nature and of scripture.  In the life of the true believer, the two could not be separated.  But most had to be content with the milk for babes, because Newton’s own language was beyond them.” (pp. 300-301).

Scott Mandelbrote [1993]:  ‘A dute of the greatest moment’: Isaac Newton and the writing of biblical criticism. British Journal of the History of Science, 26:  281-302.

Chasing the sources: a Newtonian mystery

As is well-known to historians (although less so among scientists), Isaac Newton was a devout religious believer, an alchemist, and a seeker after ancient wisdom about God and the cosmos.   He was a Unitarian, a belief not permitted at the time, and so he kept his religious views very, very close to himself and to a small circle of intimates.  When his friend and fellow FRS, Nicolas Fatio de Duiller, publicly supported the millenarian French Protestant sect, the Camisards (aka The French Prophets), in London in the first decade of the 18th century, Newton kept in touch with him to learn of their prophecies, and came close to publicly supporting them also.
So when an historian writes the following it is very plausible, at least to people aware of Newton’s religious beliefs and interests:

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was also enamored of Egyptian wisdom, as we shall see in the next chapter, even if it is not clear that he accepted the Hermetic tradition.  It was essential for his theory of gravitation to have an accurate measure of the world’s circumference, and for that he needed to calculate exactly a single degree of latitude.  Newton was convinced that there was no need to send a team of surveyors to plot distances on the ground, as the French were doing.  It was rather easier to determine the exact length of an Egyptian cubit, which ancient authors insisted was directly related to a degree of latitude.   This information could be obtained from the dimensions of the Great Pyramid, which was always believed (perhaps rightly) to enshrine perfect units of length, area and volume, as well as pi.  Sadly, the results of the Pyramid experiment did not fit Newton’s calculations, but, instead of scrapping the theory, the great scientist blamed the surveyors instead.   As luck would have it, the French astronomer Jean Picard (1620-82) succeeded in 1671 in measuring perfectly a degree of latitude in Sweden, so Newton could prove his theory of gravitation without the Egyptians.” (Katz 2005, page 31)

The reference the author David Katz cites for this story is Shalev 2002.  But consulting that reference, we do not see mentioned the story Katz relates here.  Instead, we find this sentence (on page 574):

As Robert Palter has argued in his critique on Bernal’s Black Athena, there is no evidence to show that Newton related his interest in the Egyptian cubit to his physics and geodesy.”

with the reference being to Palter 1993, pages 245 and following.
What is going on here?  Has Katz mistakenly cited the wrong source for the story above, something easy enough to do in academic writing?   Perhaps Katz could tell us.  I hope it is a simple mistake in citation, and not something more sinister.
David S. Katz [2005]: The Occult Tradition:  From the Renaissance to the Present Day.  (London, UK: Jonathan Cape).
Robert Palter [1993]:  Black Athena, Afro-Centrism, and the history of science. History of Science, 31: 227-287.
Zur Shalev [2002]:  Measurer of all things: John Greaves (1602-1652), the Great Pyramid and early modern metrology. Journal of the History of Ideas, 63: 555-575.

Recent reading 1

In a world more perfect than this one, I would have time to write lengthy reviews of the books I’ve been reading recently.  In this world, all I have time for is a brief mention.

  • Tristam Hunt [2009]: The Frock-Coated Communist:  The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. (London, UK:  Allen Lane).  A superb and sympathetic biography of Engels, written by an historian very empathetic to the rise and culture of 19th century industrialism.   My only (minor) criticisms arise from Hunt’s infrequent, but jarring, use of slang (a failing common in English-educated writers under 40, I have found) and the occasional reference to something which the author thinks he has mentioned previously, but has not.  Perhaps the editor was asleep.
  • Ian Leslie [2009]: To Be President:  Quest for the White House 2008.  (London, UK:  Politico’s).  An account of the 2008 US Presidential election by British journalist Ian Leslie.  No surprises for those of us who followed the race as it happened, but well-written, and good to have on record.
  • Charles McCarry [1995]:  Shelley’s Heart. (New York, USA:  Overlook Press).  A riveting political thriller from this master writer of espionage, about an attempted take-over the US administration by the extreme left through mostly constitutional means.    Well-written, and almost devoid of implausible events or inconsistencies.  (On page 304, in the one slip I found, we read of “both Presidents’ eyes”  in a scene where one President had already left the room.)  The main implausibility concerns the very nature of the conspiracy, which seems to have been prepared for years in advance, yet depended on the chance nomination of one person to the Supreme Court. Surely, truly-serious plotters would not have left step 1 of the masterplan to the whims of people outside the circle.  The characters, however, especially those on the left, are mere caricatures, and lack the greater depth which McCarry’s spy-fiction regular participants typically reveal.   Although he seems to have tried hard to appear politically neutral in this book, it is clear from this (and from his other novels), that McCarry’s own sympathies are with the right.  He also does not like modern art.
  • Helen Vendler [1997]:  The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Cambridge, MA, USA:  Belknap Press).  A superb commentary and detailed analysis of Shakespeare’s masterwork, which I have read, one sonnet and commentary per day, over the last half-year or so.   There is no question, after reading this, of the intellectual, linguistic and emotional heft of the Sonnets.    It is undoubtedly Marlowe’s best work!