Miller Was Last Harvard Man to See Santayana
Perry Miller, professor of American Literature, was probably the last man from Harvard University to speak to the late philosopher, George Santayana '86.
In September, 1950, Miller interviewed Santayana for some two hours in the philosopher's tiny room overlooking a garden in his Roman convent. "I had the feeling," Miller recalled, "that I was in the presence of one of the great minds of our time. But I just couldn't like the man."
On this visit, Miller was accompanied by a "newspaperman friend," who worked for one of Rome's papers and wanted to interview Santayana. "He was afraid to go up alone. . . We bolstered each other."
Santayana greeted his callers dressed in old, worn clothing--a figure completely devoid of dash of affectation. Seeing him thus, Miller found it hard to puncture him as the handsome, well-dressed young man of the Harvard days, when William James called him "an elegant fish."
The philosopher "obviously had a malicious streak in him," Miller reported. Santayana, completely conscious of the fact that the newspaperman would try to draw him out on "big questions," adeptly side-stepped them, and avoided committing himself. "He wickedly made it tough for the poor fellow."
Most important Miller said, Santayana tolerated no small talk whatsoever. His visitors were hardly seated when ignoring the customary introductions, Santayana began reeling off ideas, opinions.
They discussed America, on which topic Santayana showed surprisingly great interest. "I believe he thought of himself as an American, and as belonging to American literature," Miller said. Santayana was extremely worried about the spread of Communism, which he though might bring the end of the world.
He was amusing--"maliciously amusing," as Miller pointed out--when they
Ralph Barton perry, Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, will discuss Santayana at 6:15 p.m. tonight over WGHB in a program called "Faculty Reports." began talking about Bertrand Russell. Alluding to Russell's second marriage, Santayana said that "In a man like 'Berty,' his passions are principles, and his principles are--well--passions."
Speaking of his days at Harvard, Santayana confessed that he hated President Eliot, and loved President Lowell--"a gentleman, a man of deep understanding." But Eliot was, for Santayana, the symbol of everything he loathed; he was "The Last Puritan," the figure of stubborn, stupid morality.
Miller Quite Impressed
Miller was quite impressed with the philosopher's complete self-objectivity. When Santayana referred to his near blindness, he spoke as if his eyes were nothing more than "a typewriter on the desk or a chair in the corner of the room." This absence of any real egotism, this lack of self pity, permeates his whole philosophy: for, Miller said, "at the very heart of his philosophy is a tremendous detachment."
Miller recounted an incident that occurred when Edmund Wilson wrote a profile on Santayana for "The New Yorker." In the article, Wilson refers to his "parchment skin and black eyes." Miller described Santayana's complexion as cherubic, and his eyes as an intense brown. "Poor reporting," the philosopher muttered to Miller.
Miller concluded: "It's a curious thing. I've been reading Santayana for 34 years. I think that people who get Santayana in their system never get him out.