Santayana on Stickney

George Santayana was friends with Joe Trumbull Stickney.  In 1952, five decades after Stickney died from a brain tumour, Santayana wrote a letter about their friendship to William Kirkwood.  The letter is reproduced in facsimile in M. Kirkwood’s life of Santayana (1961, pp. 234-235).

Via di Santo Stefano Rotundo, 6
Rome, May 27, 1952
To Professor Wm. A. Kirkwood, Ph. D.
Trinity College, Toronto
Dear Sir,
It was a happy impulse that prompted you to think that the books you speak of and their annotations, and especially the lines in praise of Homer written by my friend Stickney would interest me. They have called up vividly in my mind the quality of his mind, although the verses represent a much earlier feeling for the classics, and a more conventional mood than he had in the years when we had our frequent moral fencing bouts; for there was a contrary drift in our views in spite of great sympathy in our tastes and pursuits. These verses are signed Sept. 15/ 90. Now Stickney graduated at Harvard in 1895, so that five years earlier he must have been about 17 years old. This explains to me the tone of the verses and also the fact that they advance line by line, seldom or never running over and breaking the next line at the cesura or before it, as he would surely have done in his maturity, when he doted on the dramatic interruptions of Shakespeare’s lines in Antony and Cleopatra in particular, and in all the later plays in general. [page break]
I see clearly the greater mastery and strength of impassioned drama, if impassioned drama is what you are in sympathy with; but I like to warn dogmatic critics of what a more naive art achieves in its impartial and peaceful labour and the risk that overcharged movement or surpluses [?] runs of drowning in its deathbed [?] waters. Every form of art has its charm and is appropriate in its place; but it is moral cramp to admit only one form of art to be legitimate or important. The reminder of this old debate that I had with Stickney who enlightened me more (precisely about the abuse of rhetoric) than I ever could enlighten him about the relativity of everything has been a pleasant reminder of younger days: although I am not sure that much progress towards reason and justice has been made since by critical opinion.
With best thanks and regards
Yours sincerely
G. Santayana

Reference:
M. M. Kirkwood [1961]:  Santayana:  Saint of the Imagination.  Toronto, Canada:  University of Toronto Press.
Previous posts on George Santayana here, and Joe Stickney here.

Santayana and chemistry

The philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952), whom I have written about before, was fortunate to have two families, one Spanish and one American.  His mother was a widow when she married his father, and his parents later preferred to live in different countries – the USA and Spain, respectively.  Santayana therefore spent part of his childhood with each, and accordingly grew up knowing his Bostonian step-family and their cousins, relatives of his mother’s first husband, the American Sturgis family.   Among these relatives, his step-cousin Susan Sturgis (1846-1923)  is mentioned briefly in Santayana’s 1944 autobiography (page 80). (See Footnote #1 below.)
Susan Sturgis was married twice, the second time in 1876 to Henry Bigelow Williams (1844-1912), a widower and property developer.   In 1890, Williams commissioned a stained glass window from Louis Tiffany for the All Souls Unitarian Church in Roxbury, Massachusetts (pictured below), to commemorate his first wife, Sarah Louisa Frothingham (1851-1871).

The first marriage of Susan Sturgis was in 1867, to Henry Horton McBurney (1843-1875).  McBurney’s younger brother, Charles Heber McBurney (1845-1913) went on to fame as a surgeon, developer of the procedure for diagnosis of appendicitis and removal of the appendix.  The normal place of incision for an appendectomy is known to every medical student still as McBurney’s Point.    The portrait below of Charles Heber McBurney was painted in 1911 by Ellen Emmet Rand (1875-1941), and is still in the possession of the McBurney family.  (The painting is copyright Gerard McBurney 2013.   As Ellen Emmet married William Blanchard Rand in 1911, this is possibly the first painting she signed with her married name.)
McBurney-Charles-Heber-1911-Ellen-Emmet-Rand-jpg
Charles H. McBurney was also a member of the medical team which treated US President William McKinley following his assassination.  He and his wife, Margaret Willoughby Weston (1846-1909), had two sons, Henry and Malcolm,  and a daughter, Alice.    The younger son, Malcolm, also became a doctor and married, having a daughter, but he died young.   Alice McBurney married Austen Fox Riggs (1876-1940), a protege of her father, Charles, and a pioneer of psychiatry.  He founded what is now the Austen Riggs Centre in Stockbridge, MA, in 1907.   They had two children,  one of whom, Benjamin Riggs (c.1914-1992), was also a distinguished psychiatrist, as well as a musician, sailor, and boat builder.   The elder son of Charles and Margaret, Henry McBurney (1874-1956), was an engineer whose own son, Charles Brian Montagu McBurney (1914-1979), became a famous Cambridge University archaeologist.  CBM’s children are the composer Gerard McBurney, the actor/director Simon McBurney OBE, and the art-historian, Henrietta Ryan FLS, FSA.   CBM’s sister, Daphne (1912-1997), married Richard Farmer.  Their four children were Angela Farmer, a yoga specialist, David Farmer FRS, a distinguished oceanographer, whose daughter Delphine Farmer, is a chemist,  Michael Farmer, painting conservator, and Henry Farmer, an IT specialist, whose son, Olivier Farmer, is a psychiatrist.

Henry H. and Charles H. had three sisters, Jane McBurney (born 1835 or 1836), Mary McBurney (1839- ), Almeria McBurney (who died young), and another brother, John Wayland McBurney (1848-1885).  They were born in Roxbury, MA, to Charles McBurney and Rosina Horton; Charles senior (1803 Ireland – Boston 1880) was initially a saddler and harness maker in Tremont Row, Boston  – the image above shows a label from a trunk he made.  Later, he was a pioneer of the rubber industry, for example, receiving a patent in 1858 for elastic pipe, and was a partner in the Boston Belting Company.    It is perhaps not a coincidence that Charles junior pioneered the use of rubber gloves by medical staff during surgery.  All three boys graduated from Harvard (Henry in 1862, Charles in 1866, and John in 1869). John married Louisa Eldridge in 1878, and they had a daughter, May (or Mary) Ruth McBurney (1879-1947).  May married William Howard Gardiner Jr. (1875-1952) in 1918, and on her death left an endowment to Harvard University to establish the Gardiner Professor in Oceanic History and Affairs to honour her husband.  John worked for his father’s company and later in his own brokerage firm, Barnes, McBurney & Co;  he died of tuberculosis.

Mary (or Mamie) McBurney married Dr Barthold Schlesinger (1828-1905), who was born in Germany of a Jewish ethnic background, and immigrated to the USA possibly in 1840, becoming a citizen in 1858.  For many years, from at least 1855, he was a director of a steel company, Naylor and Co, the US subsidiary of leading steel firm Naylor Vickers, of Sheffield, UK.    Barthold’s brother, Sebastian Benson Schlesinger (1837-1917), was also a director of Naylor & Co from 1855 to at least 1885; he was also a composer, mostly it seems of lieder and piano music; some of his music has been performed at the London Proms.  At the time, Naylor Vickers were renowned for their manufacture of church bells, but in the 20th century, under the name of Vickers, they became a leading British aerospace and defence engineering firm;  the last independent part of Vickers was bought by Rolls-Royce in 1999.   Mary and Barthold Schlesinger appear to have had at least five children, Mary (1859- , married in 1894 to Arthur Perrin, 1857- ), Barthold (1873- ), Helen (1874- , married in 1901 to James Alfred Parker, 1869- ), Leonora (1878- , married in 1902 to James Lovell Little, c. 1875- ), and Marion (1880- , married in 1905 to Jasper Whiting, 1868- ).   The Schlesingers owned an estate of 28 acres at Brookline, Boston, called Southwood.   In 1879, they commissioned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead (1822-1903), the designer of Central Park in New York and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, to design the gardens of Southwood;    some 19 acres of this estate now comprises the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, of the Greek Orthodox Church of North America.   The Schlesingers were lovers of art and music, and kept a house in Paris for many years.  An 1873 portrait of Barthold Schlesinger by William Morris Hunt (1824-1879) hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
While a student at Harvard, Henry H. McBurney was a prominent rower.   After graduation, he spent 2 years in Europe, working in the laboratories of two of the 19th century’s greatest chemists: Adolphe Wurtz in Paris and Robert Bunsen in Heidelberg.   Presumably, even Harvard graduates did not get to spend time working with famous chemists without at least strong letters of recommendation from their professors, so Henry McBurney must have been better than average as a chemistry student.    He returned to Massachusetts to work in the then company, Boston Elastic Fabric Company, of his father, and then, from November 1866, as partner for another firm, Campbell, Whittier, and Co.  From what I can discover, this company was a leading engineering firm, building in 1866 the world’s first cog locomotive, for example, and, from 1867, manufacturing and selling an early commercial elevator.  Henry H. and Susan S. McBurney had three children:  Mary McBurney (1867- , in 1889 married Frederick Parker), Thomas Curtis McBurney (1870-1874), and Margaret McBurney (1873-, in 1892 married Henry Remsen Whitehouse).  Mary McBurney and Frederick Parker had five children: Frederic Parker (1890-), Elizabeth Parker (1891-), Henry McBurney Parker (1893-), Thomas Parker (1898.04.20-1898.08.30), and Mary Parker (1899-).  Margaret McBurney and Henry Whitehouse had a daughter, Beatrix Whitehouse (1893-).  The name “Thomas” seems to have been ill-fated in this extended family.
HH died suddenly in Bournemouth, England, in 1875, after suffering from a lung disease.   As with any early death, I wonder what he could have achieved in life had he lived longer.
 
POSTSCRIPT (Added 2011-11-21): Henry H. McBurney’s visit to the Heidelberg chemistry lab of Robert Bunsen is mentioned in an account published in 1899 by American chemist, Henry Carrington Bolton, who also worked with Bunsen, and indeed with Wurtz.   Bolton refers to McBurney as “Harry McBurney, of Boston” (p. 869).
POSTSCRIPT 2 (Added 2012-10-09): According to the 1912 Harvard Class Report for the Class of 1862 (see Ware 1912), Henry H. McBurney spent the year from September 1862 in Paris with Wurtz and the following year in Heidelberg with Bunsen.  He therefore presumably just missed meeting Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1841-1880), son of composer Felix, who graduated in chemistry from Heidelberg in 1863.   PM-B went on to co-found the chemicals firm Agfa, an  acronym for Aktien-Gesellschaft für Anilin-Fabrikation.   I wonder if  Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy ever returned to visit Bunsen in the year that Henry McBurney was there.
POSTSCRIPT 3 (Added 2013-01-20):  I am most grateful to Gerard McBurney for the portrait of Charles H. McBurney, and for additional information on the family.  I am also grateful to Henrietta McBurney Ryan for information.  All mistakes and omissions, however, are my own.
 
NOTE:  If you know more about any of the people mentioned in this post or their families, I would welcome hearing from you.   Email:  peter [at] vukutu.com
References:
Henry Carrington Bolton [1899]: Reminiscences of Bunsen and the Heidelberg Laboratory, 1863-1865.  Science, New Series Volume X (259): 865-870. 15 December 1899.  Available here.
George Santayana [1944]:  Persons and Places:  The Background of My Life. (London, UK:  Constable.) (New York, USA:  Charles Scribner’s Sons.)
Charles Pickard Ware (Editor) [1912]:   1862 – Class Report – 1912.  Class of Sixty-Two.  Harvard University.  Fiftieth Anniversary.  Cambridge, MA, USA,  Available here.
 
Footnotes:
1. Santayana writes as follows about Susan Sturgis Williams (Santayana 1944, page 74 in the US edition):

Nothing withered, however, about their sister Susie, one of the five Susie Sturgises of that epoch, all handsome women, but none more agreeably handsome than this one, called Susie Mac-Burney and Susie Williams successively after her two husbands.  When I knew her best she was a woman between fifty and sixty, stout, placid, intelligent, without an affectation or a prejudice, adding a grain of malice to the Sturgis affability, without meaning or doing the least unkindness. I felt that she had something of the Spanish feeling, So Catholic or so Moorish, that nothing in this world is of terrible importance. Everything happens, and we had better take it all as easily or as resignedly as possible. But this without a shadow of religion. Morally, therefore,  she may not have been complete; but physically and socially she was completeness itself, and friendliness and understanding. She was not awed by Boston. Her first marriage was disapproved, her husband being an outsider and considered unreliable; but she weathered whatever domestic storms may have ensued, and didn’t mind. Her second husband was like her father, a man with a checkered business career; but he too survived all storms, and seemed the healthier and happier for them. They appeared to be well enough off. In her motherliness there was something queenly, she moved well, she spoke well, and her freedom from prejudice never descended to vulgarity or loss of dignity. Her mother’s modest solid nature had excluded in her the worst of her father’s foibles, while the Sturgis warmth and amiability had been added to make her a charming woman.”

POST MOST RECENTLY UPDATED:  2013-03-26.

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)

References:
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.)

Idioms of explanation

Life is a series of events that bombard us like waves in the surf.  How do we explain these events? Different religions provide fundamentally different explanations.

  • Atheism says there is no explanation – the events happen randomly, and only by chance do they happen to us in particular. We are not responsible for what happens to us, no one is.
  • Traditional pagan and animist world-views, and religions such as Shintoism, Confucianism and African spirit worship, assert the existence of unseen spiritual forces or entities, who may bestow good or bad fortune on us through the events they send our way.  All deleterious events or mishaps are thus the work of malevolent entities, who may be acting with or for malicious humans, intent on harming us. The spiritual entities require continual praise and gifts or sacrifices, as if they were feudal lords, to moderate or mitigate their actions. We are not responsible for what happens to us, spirits are.
  • Judaism and Christianity imagine an omniscient and omnipotent God who, for reasons beyond our understanding, sends events our way.  In some Protestant versions of Christianity, the events and perhaps even our responses have been predetermined by God before we are born. In Catholicism, which mixes, as Santayana argued, Christianity with paganism, God’s decisions may be tempered by appeals from other spiritual beings, such as angels and the souls of the dead, petitioning for us.  We are not responsible for what happens to us, God is.
  • Buddhism posits that the events which happen to us are the consequences of our own past decisions.  In some versions, we are reincarnated and what happens to us in any one life is the consequence of what we did in previous lives. We are not responsible for what happens to us, our past selves are.
  • In other versions of Buddhism, such as Nichiren Buddhism, what happens to us is the consequence of thoughts, words or actions in this life.  This view is held also by certain New Age thinkers, such as those of the New Thought Movement and followers of the Law of Attraction. The time between a causal thought or action and manifestation of its consequential effects in our lives may be very short, of the order of weeks, if the causal action is held or undertaken with sufficient emotional intensity.  Nichiren Shoshu adherents believe that negative karma from previous lives may be eliminated by actions, such as chanting, in this life.  We ourselves are responsible for what happens to us, both good and bad.

Three Potters

Surfing idly, I encounter a reference to one Andrew Onderdonk, an international lawyer who visited with George Santayana (1863-1952) in the 1920s. The question that immediately entered my mind is the one I am sure occurs to you too: Is this man a descendant of the second Protestant Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania? That was Henry Onderdonk (1789-1858), who was supposedly replaced as Bishop due to a problem with alcohol. Bishop Henry’s successor, the third Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania, was a mathematician and philosopher named Alonzo Potter (1800-1865), whose grandson Warwick Potter (31 October 1870-11 October 1893) was a student and close friend of Santayana’s at Harvard. Santayana wrote a very moving quartet of sonnets to him, following his early death. One sonnet is here, and posts on Santayana here. I imagine Warwick Potter would be completely forgotten now if not for Santayan’s consoling poems.

It seems that Andrew Joseph Onderdonk (1889- ?) had also been a student of Santayana’s at Harvard, and was still alive in the mid-1960s, when he offered to sell Santayana’s writing chair to journalist Joseph Epstein.

Warwick Potter’s father was Major General Robert Brown Potter (1829-1887), a Civil War general on the Union side and subject of a famous photo, taken around 1864.  The photo (below) is mainly well-known because the photographer, Mathew Brady (1822-1896), included himself in it. One would be tempted to call this action post-modernist, if painters from the renaissance onwards had not done the same. Brady’s louche posture against a tree on the right of the picture contrasts with the formality of comportment of the General, standing hatless at the centre of his behatted men, who all face him while he faces us. I wonder about the names and fates of the other soldiers in the photo.

Alonzo Potter’s first wife, and the mother of Robert Potter, was Sarah Maria Nott, the only daughter of Eliphalet Nott (1773-1866), President of Union College, Schenectady, New York, from 1804-1866.  Warwick Potter had three brothers and a half-sister: Robert Burnside Potter, Abby Potter, Austin Potter and Frances Tileston Potter. He was born on 1870-10-31 in Lemington, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne and died on 1893-10-11 in Brest, Brittany.  I find it most consoling that I am able to place Warwick Potter in his family, with both his father and paternal grandfather being identified, and help preserve his memory. He has now, for me, a local habitation and a name.

Wowsers

The views of philosopher Peter Singer have always struck me as humourless and puritanical.  Confirmation of a conflict in our respective values comes today in a quotation from his latest book in a review in the NYT by Dwight Garner:

Writing about the sale of paintings by artists like Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol for obscene sums at Christie’s, he declares: “Why would anyone want to pay tens of millions of dollars for works like these? They are not beautiful, nor do they display great artistic skill. They are not even unusual within the artist’s oeuvres. Do an image search for ‘Barnett Newman’ and you will see many paintings with vertical color bars, usually divided by a thin line. Once Newman had an idea, it seems, he liked to work out all the variations.”

Well, others may see these art works as beautiful, so it takes some arrogance to assert the contrary subjective opinion as if it were objective fact. As well as learning how much he values his own aesthetic judgment over anyone else’s, from this we also learn that Singer does not like modern art; he apparently also lacks the capability of seeing the beauty inherent in subtle variations of a single, simple theme. The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth must also not be to his taste, for working out all the variations of the one idea is all that movement is. And let us not mention the minimalist works of JS Bach, where there may be even fewer ideas than one.

Even when his works of art are considered individually, some of Newman’s art is sublime, for example, the painting “Midnight Blue,” (pictured), currently on display at the Royal Academy in London, as part of the RA’s Abstract Expressionism Exhibition.    In my experience, to appreciate the sublime, one needs to disengage one’s left-brain (for right-handed people) – the verbal, rational, sequential side – and seek to appreciate the work with one’s right-brain – the intuitive, holistic side;  in other words:  don’t think about the painting, just feel it.  Most English-language philosophers, in my experience, are all left-brain, all the time. (George Santayana, who wrote poetry as well as philosophy, was perhaps an exception.)
And to mention only the beauty of an art work, or the supposed artistic skill needed for its creation, would seem to indicate an impoverished view of the many purposes and functions of art.  At least one purpose of painting, and a common motivation for people who paint, is not to produce beautiful (or indeed, ugly) objects, but to express oneself through the act of painting. This was famously the purpose of the artists who came to be called abstract expressionists, of whom Newman is one.  Closely related, one  may  also paint in order to express the feelings one has while engaged in the act of painting.  (See here for a discussion of this purpose, and here for lists of reasons why people may draw or make music. Beauty is not the half of it.)  Nothing in Singer’s words indicates that he has any appreciation of these other purposes, or that he has even read or reflected on the extensive literature in philosophy, history, theology, and anthropology on art and aesthetics.   Of course, one can be a famous philosopher without knowing much of anything except one’s own special topic and being blind to non-verbal ways of knowing and understanding, as the humourless Bertrand Russell showed.
 

An eternal golden braid

These are the people I will invite to the first annual party to celebrate the availability of cost-effective time travel:

Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464)
Matteo Ricci SJ (1552-1610)
Thomas Harriott (1560-1621)
Robert Southwell SJ (c.1561-1595)
Kit Marlowe (1564-1593)
Henry Wriothesley (1573-1624)
Charles Diodati (c.1608-1638)
Shi Tao (1641-1720)
Nicolas Fatio de Duillier (1664-1753)
Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813)
Edward Francisco Burney (1760-1848)
Alexander d’Arblay (1794-1837)
Eduard Rietz (1802-1832)
Louise Farrenc (1804-1875)
Juan Crisóstomo Jacobo Antonio de Arriaga y Balzola (1806-1826)
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Arthur Hallam (1811-1833)
Matthew Piers Watt Boulton (1820-1894)
Henry Horton McBurney (1843-1875)
Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams (1843-1885)
Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904)
Wolcott Balestier (1861-1891)
Warwick Potter (1870-1893)
Joseph Trumbull Stickney (1874-1904)
Jan Letzel (1880-1925)
David Kammerer (1911-1944)
John Medill McCormick (1916-1938)
Lucien Carr (1925-2005)
Christophe Bertrand (1981-2010)

Poem: When times are hard and old friends fall away

A sonnet by George Santayana, inspired by Shakespeare’s Sonnet #29. Santayana has cleverly kept the first line of the sextet.

When times are hard and old friends fall away
And all alone I lose my hope and pluck,
Doubting if God can hear me when I pray,
And brood upon myself and curse my luck,
Envying some stranger for his handsome face,
His wit, his wealth, his chances, or his friends,
Desiring this man’s brains and that man’s place,
And vexed with all I have that makes amends,
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, –
By chance I think of you; and then my mind,
Like music from deep sullen murmurs rising
To peals and raptures, leaves the earth behind:
For if you care for me, what need I care
To own the world or be a millionaire?

And here is Shakespeare’s #29:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

In memory of fast wit

There is always a particular sadness when someone one has known since high-school dies.  If the friend dies young, then the absurdity and the fundamental lack of fairness of our earthly existences are manifest again.  If the friend dies in middle age, however, there is a different type of unfairness, since at least they were able to fulfill some of their potential, even if not all.  If the friend dies near to 50 and is recently married and with a young child, then it seems that what was not fully realized includes their relationships with their family.  In other words, it is not only unfair for the friend that they died before their time, but unfair for their family, whose lives also will now include tragedy.

Friends as well as family are sad, since we are unable now to enjoy the company of the deceased.  In the case of my school-friend Tony Meale, who has died quickly after an unexpected illness,  the pleasure of his company was particularly great.  He was one of the funniest people I have ever met.  All of his comments – razor-sharp and rapid-firing – were delivered with the deadest of pans, and thus were often confusing to those who did not know him well.   The straight face fronting the dry, sardonic sarcasm, of course, made any comment deemed offensive by the listener very plausibly deniable, which may or may not have been his intention.  His straight face may also have been because he did not necessarily see the humour himself.  I am convinced that truly eccentric people almost never believe themselves to be eccentric – they think it is they who are perfectly normal, and the other 99.9% of the population who are askew – and TM was perhaps one of these.  In any case, one did not ever spend long in his company before doubling over in laughter, something all of us who knew him experienced.  Perhaps he inherited his ability from his uncle, also renowned for being a mordant wit.

I can count on two imperial hands the people I have met with Tony’s rapid, razor-sharp wit.  Indeed, I want to list them here in order of encounter, for the benefit of any fifth millenium readers:   John McBurney, Pam H, Tony Meale, Steve R, Reg Ngonyama, Jezza G, Henry V, Si P, Andrew T, Trevor C, William N, Alister M, Cath W.    (I use full names only for those who have passed on.)    Although important only to me and (perhaps) to my close friends, I want to acknowledge Tony’s membership of this select and awesome circle.   On one never-forgotten occasion in Canberra almost 30 years ago one of these friends encountered another, and the verbal fireworks were stunning and immediate.  The two are very different in gender, age, education, social position, interests, and background.  One would not have predicted that they would spark as they did.   As part of a larger group, they first each recognized one another’s verbal dexterity, and then – instinctively, and without explicit co-ordination – engaged in a game attempting to outwit one another, with each utterance issued as both clever and funny reply to what came before, and as a challenge to the other to best it.   Were it were not for the fact that both their spouses were present, we would have thought they were  flirting, despite the generational difference in age.   The rest of us retired from the conversation as this duel proceeded, in laughter and awe.  It was similar, I imagine, to watching Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley spark at the Algonquin.    They’ve not met since, and perhaps such a performance was a product of its particular moment, and could not be repeated.   TM’s untimely death brought that ancient evening again to mind.

And though the after world will never hear
The happy name of one so gently true,
Nor chronicles write large this fatal year,
Yet we who loved you, though we be but few,
Keep you in whatsoe’er things are good, and rear
In our weak virtues monuments to you.”

From Sonnet IV, To W.P., by George Santayana.

Bateson on rationality

Mere purposive rationality unaided by such phenomena as art, religion, dream and the like, is necessarily pathogenic and destructive of life; and  . . . its virulence springs specifically from the circumstance that life depends upon interlocking circuits of contingency, while consciousness can see only such short arcs of such circuits as human purpose may direct.”

Gregory Bateson [1972]: “Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art.”  Page 146 in: Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York, NY: Ballentine Books.
George Santayana said something similar in his Sonnet III:

It is not wisdom to be only wise,
And on the inward vision close the eyes,
But it is wisdom to believe the heart.