Words & Music

Fiction, Music, Poetry and the Occasional Drawing.

Monday, September 26, 2016

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 transcendental 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

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Fictional Humans of New York (FHONY) - Rudy


I dreamed of her again last night. You tell me, is it fair for the elements of my subconscious to conspire against me? Forgetting should be the easiest thing in the world. I do it all the time. I forget important shit, but her? Never. She had a habit or rubbing her index finger across her lower lip when she was on the phone. She adjusted her glasses with her left hand, must've been a lefty. She pronounced delicious with a bit of a lisp, like 'delisis.' Is there any earthly reason for remembering that? It's been years since I heard her say that, or anything else. At work today a guy asked for my phone number and I drew a complete blank. He must have thought I was a complete fucking moron, which I guess I am. My brain was too busy remembering the way she looked from behind, in jeans and boots leaning on a counter, to remember a random series of digits. 

One of her teeth was a little crooked.

When she was a little girl she had a pet bird named Herman. I don't need information like that cluttering up my crumbling mind. What kind of bird? A cockatiel. I'm sure she only mentioned him once, in passing, but nothing passes where's she's concerned. Except, of course, for her. 

She must have been a delightful little girl.

What did I do last weekend? What was the last movie I saw? What did I have for dinner last night? No fucking clue. What was her major in college? Business administration with a minor in psychology. She let that slip over drinks one night, along with a host of other meaningless shit that's engraved on the inside of my skull.

Her shoe size is 6 1/2. I don't know mine.

A tear slides down my nose before my head hits the pillow because I know I'm going to dream of her again tonight.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Lost Art of Letter Writing - The Letter Home



According to the postmark, this letter was sent on December 2, 1945. Three months earlier, and five days before my dad's 20th birthday, the Japanese formally surrendered. The war was over but soldiers, sailors, and airmen were  spending another Christmas away from home. Still, it must have been a joy to experience the first season in six years that wasn't lived under the cloud of a world war.

Ruth and Johnny were the aunt and uncle who raised my dad after his mother died.

Dear Ruth + Johnny,

Enclosed is $40. Twenty for each of you. I was going to buy you presents, but I don't know what you need so I thought you'd rather have the money to buy them yourselves.

This may be a few days early, but I'd rather you get it earlier than later. Hoping you both have a very Merry Christmas.


P.S. Next year I'll bring the presents to you personally (HAHA)

How do you like this card it sure smells pretty? (HA).

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Only Thing That Makes Sense

I can't read right now. The words keep tripping me up, obscuring the meaning of the thoughts they are meant to convey with their clumsy syllables and pronunciations. The trees do a better job of making meaning plain. They create oxygen to boot.

I can't hear the music. It's too loud. Obnoxious fingers attack strings and keys, and hot breath rushes over larynxes and reeds, strangling the delicacy of melody. The birds do a better job of singing. They also eat insects. Even water and wind understand the qualities of sound better than quarter notes on a treble clef.


I can't watch the screens. I don't believe their colors are true. The people in their images are hollow. I see mouths move and hear the sound of words but they express no thoughts or feelings.
The only thing that makes sense is the eternal growl, slap and whisper of Atlantic waves. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Jersey Shore Sketchbook - Dunes & Tunes

Here's another photo-and-sketch collage, put together from a trip to Lavallete, NJ last weekend. Nothing goes with dunes like tunes and no tunes go with the beach like the Beach Boys. 

This is the first song Brian Wilson ever wrote. In his own words: "Back in 1961, I'd never written a song in my life. I was nineteen years old. And I put myself to the test in my car one day. I was actually driving to a hot dog stand, and I actually created a melody in my head without being able to hear it on a piano. I sang it to myself; I didn't even sing it out loud in the car. When I got home that day, I finished the song, wrote the bridge, put the harmonies together and called it 'Surfer Girl'."

Little surfer little one
Made my heart come all undone
Do you love me?

Do you surfer girl?

I have watched you on the shore
Standing by the ocean's roar
Do you love me?

Do you surfer girl?

We could ride the surf together
While our love would grow

In my Woody I would take you 
Everywhere I go

So I say from me to you
I will make your dreams come true
Do you love me?

Do you surfer girl?
Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Catskills Sketchbook #3

There's a lot of magic left in this world. There's magic in love of course, and in religion if that's your kind of thing. There is magic in the first words and steps of an infant, and in an old man's dying breath. There are magic people (I'm looking at you), magic words, and magic places. For me, one of the most magical places is the Catskill Park in New York.
The banks of Mongaup Pond

Floating By A Tree
The beginnings of the park were more mundane than magical. The land that was called "Esopus" by Dutch settlers became the County of Ulster in 1683 under control of the Duke of York. In 1708, Johannes Hardenbergh was granted most of the land that was to become Catskill Park. By 1885 the County of Ulster was up to its ears in delinquent property taxes owed to New York State. One of the county's assembleymen, Cornelius Hardenbergh (great-great-great-grandson of Johannes) was elected in part because of his opposition to payment of the taxes, even though the County had lost its lawsuit against the state. At the Constitutional Convention of 1894 a deal was struck to forgive the taxes and establish New York's Forest Preserve including all public lands in the Catskill and Adirondack Parks with Article 14 specifying that they were to be kept "forever wild." These lands have a higher degree of protection than wild lands in any other state. The 287,000 acres of wild land in the Catskills (and 2.6 million acres in the Adirondacks) cannot be transferred without an amendment to the state constitution.

Paddle Your Own Canoe

In the southwest corner of Catskill Park is a 120 acre lake called Mongaup Pond. It's the largest body of water in the Catskills other than the three New York City reservoirs. Surrounding the lake are 154 campsites that are available May-October for $22 per night. Try to get a site on the outside of the loops to have direct access to the water and can you dock your boat on the site for the night. The campground rents kayaks, rowboats and canoes.

Is there a better way to begin a day than by paddling a canoe across the rippling surface of a misty pond, or a better way to end one than by sharing libations and conversations around a crackling campfire? Only one, in both instances.
Crackling Campfire