Review: The Last Puritan by George Santanaya

George Santayana

The line is so familiar it could have come from Shakespeare or scripture:

 Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

The man who came up with the line was Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, known to the English-speaking world as George Santayana. I was so intrigued by Mr. Santayana’s famous quote that I did some research on him and found that he had published a novel. Only one, but an exceptional one called The Last Puritan.

Mother Foucault’s Bookshop

It’s fitting for a book written in a past almost beyond remembering that The Last Puritan is out of print. Thanks to the greatest wonder of the modern age, the internet, I was able to find a copy on the crowded shelves of Mother Foucault’s Bookshop in Portland, OR from the comfort of my couch in the Bronx.

The Last Puritan was published in 1935 and it would be an understatement to say they don’t write them like this anymore. The only way a book like this could be written now would be as an homage or satire of a sensibility that no longer exists. Most works of literary fiction these days come from authors with a masters degree in fine arts. Nothing against them, but like a congress packed with millionaires, they offer a limited, if talented, scope. Santayana’s degree was a  Ph. D. in philosophy.
The mind of the world is content to potter about with surfaces and numbers and machinery: it has been caught in the wheels of its own inventions, and its lovely motor has run away with it. The optimists call it progress. But I won’t keep repeating things that are false and producing things that are useless and promising myself things that are impossible. Either the truth or nothing.
The hero of The Last Puritan is named Oliver Alden. He is a complex person who grows in ways that most fictional characters, and most of us non-fictional ones, would find too challenging. I appreciated his struggles and recognized some of them as my own: the search for truth and clear-eyed maturity;

I am walking out into the night, into my true life, into the inexorable humdrum punctual company of real things. I am falling back upon my deeper self. I may hardly be able to see the stars, after the blinding light of the theatre, but there they are; and gradually they will become visible again, I shall recognise them, I shall call each of them by its old name.

 The daily battle with a meaningless job;

It was an old story that he had a transcendenta
l mind, like a duck’s back: it shed and rejected everything that merely happened to flow by. Nothing existed for him save that which his moral tentacles were ready to seize. Now, however, he discovered that this vital principle had an unexpected corollary: not only did he scorn delights, but he found laborious days intolerable. Work when it was exercise, when it was art and free adventure, he loved and bloomed in: but casual, servile, imposed work was crippling and wasteful. It destroyed its instrument, it destroyed his soul; and he very much doubted whether the social engine that required it served any good purpose.

Understanding the nature of love;

If people could know everything, absolutely everything, about one another, would they love one another more or less? More, Oliver thought; and that was why life was so uncomfortable and hateful in a world where everybody was hiding his conduct and his true feelings from everybody else.

Staring down the barrel of age, cocktail in hand;

Was it right to be transported out of oneself at all? Wasn’t it just a shirking, a mere escape and delusion? Wasn’t it what had created all false religions? And when the spell of that sort of dream had faded and you looked about you in the grey of the morning, or in the grey of old age, wasn’t it what led you to suicide? If men had no imagination they could feel no discouragement. Perhaps all this religion and philosophy and poetry and art were a disease to be killed off presently by natural selection.
Some writers, like some painters and musicians, are masters or mistresses of their craft and though Santayana knew his way around the English language he was not a craftsman. This novel could just as well have been a painting or a symphony because it is a showcase for ideas, not for the method of expressing them. One of the more profound ideas in The Last Puritan can be summed up in another of Santayana’s quotes:

Wisdom comes by disillusionment.

It’s a hard way to learn, but lessons learned that way are not easily forgotten. One of the characters shares her wisdom with Oliver in these words:

I don’t care to deceive myself. At my age it’s not worth while. Those imaginary comforts only spread the wretchedness out thin, turn you into a poor simpering, self-deceiving hypocrite, and spoil the few honest pleasures you might still have enjoyed. The great sacrifice is imposed on us in any case. We are all bereft. Even if death seems to spare us, time itself slowly kills everything we love. Our children grow up and escape us; they become not ours. Better be brave, my dear Oliver: better be generous and say to this terrible fate that weaves our lives so sadly together: Do what you will. Take my treasures away singly, or take them all at once. You will have taken my heart with them. This empty hulk is not me, that remains stranded here.

One of the most striking features of The Last Puritan is the way the first world war creeps into its characters’ lives. There’s an ominous pull to the history we cannot remember or escape, and it can be deadly.

Our young men will drop like apples in a wet year in the orchard, some green and some ripe and some rotten and each with an iron worm in him.
There are people in my country, fifty million or more, who cannot remember the problem with electing an ignorant narcissist, or why we originally decided to reject rule by the most ruthless bully. The flip side to me for not remembering the past is the strange phenomenon I found as I read this book of identifying a little too closely with a character from a hundred years ago. I can’t imagine what that condemns me to. But maybe the dilemma is best summed up by another great writer, this one with a graduate degree in anthropology, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.:
 I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.
Santayana’s drawing of Oliver Alden

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