Sunday, June 28, 2009

Progress By Stove Lid: A Walk Back With George Santayana

El hombre es el único animal que tropieza dos veces en la misma piedra... 

Walking backwards, if nothing else, yields clear prospect of what is left behind.

The unimaginative may instantly remark the possibility of falling over a cliff.

This is plausible. That is, among other things, why it is so unimaginative.

Indeed, it is so plausible few have seen it for what it is, to wit: a systematic psychology of cause and effect.

The unstated assumption seems to be that, if one looks ahead carefully enough, one may be able to avert the unpleasantness of falling over a cliff.

This assumes that one: (1) sees the cliff; (2) sees the cliff for what it is; and (3) stops before one falls over it.

No one in right mind would deny that all three events in sequence were not possible, even likely.

On the other hand, there seems nothing that makes them necessary, nor even necessary in that order.

In the universe of the unstated assumption walking off a cliff may be considered bad form.

At some point one ordinarily hits bottom and, if thereupon defunct, becomes unable to do much else, including walking off another cliff, whether walking forwards or backwards.

The cause of falling over a cliff when one is looking dead ahead is usually given by those who survive as, "One was not paying attention.

It is not clear how the dead ones explain it.

One would think that falling off one cliff and surviving would be sufficiently impressive to make falling off the next cliff more unlikely.

That last is the thrust of the cat sitting on a hot stove lid, which, according to Mark Twain--quoting from Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar—“will never sit down on a hot stove lid again”, adding, “but also she will never sit down on a cold one" either.

The gist, according to Twain, is to be careful to get out of experience no more than the wisdom that is in it.

Looking deeper establishes that cats may be far smarter than many people.

For one thing, the cat may have no way of telling whether a stove lid is hot or cold really--without jumping up and sitting on it.

Having experienced the cold, it can be forgiven for having jumped up on the hot for a sit.

The unstated assumption here is that the future will be like the past.

Having experienced the hot, on the other hand, foregoing all stove lids may make eminent sense for a cat, for stove lids, however amiable as places to sit when cold, become risky and unpleasant when hot.

This might be nicely christened: the strong application of memory to the future.

Without memory the cat just keeps jumping on stove lids, hot and cold, without learning anything from the experience.

Without memory, and some category by which to apply it to what one is about to do, would it make the slightest difference whether one walks through the world looking ahead or behind?

Or is it necessary to look behind successfully to make out what one sees looking ahead?

The word “successfully”, it might be noted, is in the last sentence grammatically amphibolous. To wit: it may apply backwards, forwards, or—after William Empson’s analysis of the types of ambiguity in much poetry--both backwards and forwards, as when a poet constructs a sentence that can be heard or read in many different ways, all of which pertain.

In speech, as opposed to writing, the amphiboly may easily be averted by rhythm or tone.

It is in speech too, it almost goes without saying, that it is backwards or forwards (sequential), while on the page, actually, it stands left and right (spatial).

It was actually the progessiveness of the past that seems to have been what George Santayana was after in his much too often repeated—and so widely misunderstood—dictum about the past:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Santayana’s savages as perpetual infants are the savages of his day and his culture, which considered itself very unsavage indeed. They are safely disregarded for the moment.

The passage is from Reason And Common Sense, and the context is repetition:

These natural formations, tending to generate and realize each its ideal, are, as it were, eddies in the universal flux, produced no less mechanically, doubtless, than the onward current, yet seeming to arrest or to reverse it. Inheritance arrests flux by repeating a series of phases with a recognizable rhythm; memory reverses it by modifying this rhythm itself by the integration of earlier phases into those that supervene.

In short, the cat without a memory keeps jumping on the hot stove lid because that is its nature, while remembering being burned the last time prevents the next time, short-circuiting repetition.

But that too is repetition, for it is the repetition of memory in context that prevents the repetition of act.

Santayana is almost musical in reference. Again after Empson, note closely how easy and pleasing it would be to replace “phase” with “phrase” with a musical sense in the preceding passage, retaining the same sense.

Santayana was an occasional poet, so it is no surprise if this musical substitution were elicited deliberately.

The idea that repetition seems to arrest or reverse flux is subtly stated, as befits a philosophical mind that has thought deeply on the matter.

Seeming is key: were each instance of the repetition the same, flux would not be flux at all, in the sense of unqualified randomness at least.

Then again, does anyone truly know what unqualifiedly random might mean?

Santayana clarifies, so:

Inheritance and memory make human stability. The stability is relative, being still a mode of flux, and consists fundamentally in repetition. Repetition marks some progress on mere continuity, since it preserves form and disregards time and matter. Inheritance is repetition on a larger scale, not excluding spontaneous variations; while habit and memory are a sort of heredity within the individual, since here an old perception reappears, by way of atavism, in the midst of a forward march. Life is thus enriched and reaction adapted to a wider field, much as a note is enriched by its overtones, and by the tensions, inherited from the preceding notes, which give it a new setting.

So the cat that has learned not to sit on hot stove lids produces other cats that sit on hot stove lids by nature and and by memory swear themselves same abstinence.

This itself becomes a rhythm.

Were cats given to socializing by writ, there might even be a sacred text on the subject, say, “Thou shalt not sit on stove lids, for thou shalt be burned.

The temptation to make an historical analogy is nearly irresistible: are there human cultures analogous respectively both to cats without memory and cats with?

The more serious question is—how many times may a human culture or society, or the whole species, walk over a cliff?

Again purely as a matter of style, one notes that this last passage of Santayana, which precedes the one on remembering the past in Santayana’s text, prepares the ground for the occurrence of “phase” as “phrase” with marching bands, notes, and overtones.

Was Santayana a fan of John Philip Sousa and his marches? Interestingly, the name Sousa is Portuguese but nowadays sounds as American as apple pie.

Santayana, on the other hand, though it is the name of the slightly lesser of the two great American philosophers, who both wrote in English, a little strangely still sounds Spanish.

This may be symptom of how much the United States has traditionally valued great bandleaders and marching bands over philosophers.

Santayana has been dead since 1952.

One knows of no recordings of him reading his work.

There is extant a silent film of Santayana at the Clinica della Piccola Compagna di Maria in Rome, a hospital run by the Blue Nuns, where the philosopher and poet spent his last years.

In the film he is visited by an unidentified American serviceman after the liberation of Italy from the Germans.

One of the Americans known to have visited George Santayana many times in the same hospital at Rome was Gore Vidal.

This resounds to the credit of both Vidal and Santayana.

Vidal records the visits in his autobiographical writings.

How interested Vidal was in Santayana’s philosophy is not easily decided. But he was surely drawn by Santayana’s only novel, The Last Puritan, subtitled, A Memoir in the Form of a Novel.

The novel was published in 1935. It was made a selection of the Book of the Month Club in 1936, and that year was the second largest selling work of fiction in the United States, after Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

One cannot recall reading the novel. One has, on the other hand, read Santayana's philosophical writings closely, many of them over and over, and a few of his poems.

A common judgment of Santayana’s literary qualities is that he stands, with Emerson, at the head of the best prose writers of the so-called American Classical period.

It is easy enough to concur.

It is doubtful that anything but a small part of the reading public knew Santayana either as a philosopher or as the second greatest philosopher of the Americans after Charles Sanders Peirce. Indeed, that judgment may seem doubtful to many still today. Several who understand the subtly and closely honed logic of Santayana’s thought have pointed out that it is perhaps exactly his superb prose style that may interfere with many appreciating his logical and philosophical acumen.

That is a great pity and also speaks volumes about American philosophical and literary life, such as it is.

Santayana worked with words, it is true, not numbers. For all that his consistent and punctilious use of words rivals that of any master of the woodpiles of, say, symbolic logic.

One’s opinion on this matter is more specifically that Santayana’s Scepticism And Animal Faith is not only the single most important systematic treatise of American thinking (Peirce wrote in short and scattered notices mainly, many not published until after his death), but also one of the most original and decisive volumes in the history of modern philosophy, from at least, say, Descartes.

On the other hand, one has read most of Gore Vidal, including essays and novels, and some of the novels more than once after hiatus of years.

One supposes that, with a bit of Latin, one might take the preceding hiatus as plural.

is surely his most impressive novel, and that from someone who struggled with Libanius' densely allusioned, often cryptic letters and speeches in Greek.

After Julian, it would have to be Burr.

Of his lesser known works, one of the more interesting is a short novel, published in 1954, titled Messiah.

This is the tale of a mortician's assistant who has the enlightenment that death--taken as death of the body--has no dread.

He shares the enlightenment and thereby becomes a prophet, marketed by mass media and with one character who has a touch of Paul.

The tone is very light and the logic of it all plays havoc with matter and spirit, among other things.

Having now recalled it, one almost wishes to find time to read Santayana's novel to see how it fits with Vidal's, if at all.

According to Vidal, the last words Santayana said to him were, “I think you will have a happy life. Because you lack superstition.

One is surely to understand a pause after “life”.

To have a singular prophecy about one’s future from George Santayana is in itself no little distinction.

To have Santayana's prophecy hinge on the connection between happiness and superstition, or its lack, is even more distinctive.

As for Mark Twain's cat, in order for it to sit on cold stoves and avoid hot, and do it fairly regularly, would not the cat have to remember not only when it was burned but also when it was not burned, and have to connect it to a clear idea of a stove lid which is now this, now that?

This sounds almost Platonic.

An intriguing dimension is that unconscious and natural, and doing whatever a cat does thus, how would the cat bother to remember when it was not burned, let alone that it was not burned sitting on the stove lid?

At one end that almost sounds Nietzschean, at the other Epicurean.

Both are put off to another day, another stove lid.

By E. A. Costa (June 2009)

[copyright eac]

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