Genteel tradition

In 1911 Santayana was ready to leave the United States. In California (already liminal America), he said what he could not say in Boston:

The truth is that one-half of the American mind, that not occupied intensely in practical affairs, has remained, I will not say high-and-dry, but slightly becalmed; it has floated gently in the backwater, while, alongside, in invention and industry and social organization the other half of the mind was leaping down a sort of Niagara Rapids. This division may be found symbolized in American architecture: a neat reproduction of the colonial mansion – with some modern comforts introduced surreptitiously – stands beside the sky-scraper. The American Will inhabits the sky-scraper; the American Intellect inhabits the colonial mansion. The one is the sphere of the American man; the other, at least predominantly, of the American woman. The one is all aggressive enterprise; the other is all genteel tradition.

This phrase, “genteel tradition,” became the weapon of choice for the Mencken gang. They carried it in their hip pockets like a flask of violet perfume, ready to dash over an opponent’s head. And once the scent was on you, whatever you had to say, all anyone heard was the calico whine of a high-minded Protestant spinster.

But what did Santayana mean by it? He defines the genteel tradition as a form of anthropocentrism: an anthropocentrism that emulsifies transcendentalism – the sense that the world is your creation – with calvinism – the sense that the world is your fault. Historically he traces it to the seventeenth century and the renewal of orthodoxy.

That is where it comes from; but what is it?

The genteel tradition opposes education to life. It wants things to be done the right way, openly, and for the right reasons, or not done at all. It requires play to be exercise; thinking to be persuasion; learning to be study. It wants us to be unfettered and spontaneous, but not to run in the halls. It does not care what is avoided, unless it approves of what is done instead. Just avoiding apathy, boredom, ignorance, prejudice, and stupidity – in the judgment of the genteel tradition, avoiding them is only permissible when they are avoided properly.

Wealth, learning, and beneficence, even on a grand scale, must leave them cold, or positively alarm them, if these fine things are not tightly controlled and meted out according to some revealed absolute standard.

This should sound familiar; this is our world. Santayana thought the genteel tradition was dying; instead it enjoys absolute victory. It has coopted or outlasted every challenge made to it. How did this coffin case recover and reconquer?

In his speech Santayana names Whitman and William James as models of what was to come after the passing of the genteel tradition. How badly his prophecy failed shows in how unthinkable either man is as our contemporary.

Whitman’s generous sympathies would wither in our frost. How dare such a creature of privilege – white, male, educated – presume to contain us? His faith in active humanity – in discoverers, settlers, builders, farmers – is embarrassing. He accepts where we require indignation; he holds faith where we require doubt.

Whitman is an outcast, but James is worse off. He has been brought as low as a dead thinker can be brought. We say he anticipated recent discoveries – “now that we know everything, we can admit he was right all along.” And this is safe to say, because he has no heirs. Our psychology is blithely built on the compulsive, thoughtless quantification that he travestied.

We shelve pragmatism beside hypocrisy. A judgment that can be changed is a judgment that was never held properly. The impulse of the genteel tradition is theocratic: it will have you only hot or cold, never lukewarm.

Santayana’s examples have aged badly. Aggressive enterprise has been outsourced; skyscrapers turned out to be a gimmick, not half so efficient as the anomie of the exurban office park; the colonial mansion was not reproduced, but renovated.

More importantly, women made their own claim on the future: not just assuming male roles, but dignifying female ones. Gender is the worm in the apple of Santayana’s thought. Even for his period he is obtuse about it.

The American intellect is shy and feminine; it paints nature in water-colours; whereas the sharp masculine eye sees the world as a moving-picture – rapid, dramatic, vulgar, to be glanced at and used merely as a sign of what is going to happen next.

Santayana underrated women – women as people, and women as a subject. He observes a divide down the middle of humanity, and assumes that one side mirrors the other: one left, one right; one weak, one strong; one shy, one brash; one sentimental, one enterprising.

(In The Sense of Beauty, for example, while investigating the mutuality of sex and aesthetics, he infers that, because women are the most interesting thing in the world to men, men must be the most interesting thing in the world to women; whereas (aesthetically speaking) women are the most interesting thing in the world to men and women both.)

When Santayana made this metaphor – the genteel tradition is female, modernism is male – he corrupted his view of one dilemma with the quality of caricature that spoiled his view of the other. Thus he sketches both the genteel tradition and modernism (as he names its opposite) clownishly, in greasepaint. If the genteel tradition is feminine, retiring, domestic, careful, then the opposite must be masculine, daring, upthrusting, public. On these terms there is only one complete escapee from the genteel tradition in American letters: Ayn Rand. Ask a silly question, get a silly answer; posit the genteel tradition in Santayana’s playground terms and you get Objectivism.

Every form of modernism is tantamount to testosterism. It is the one thing every species of modernism had in common, the weakness they all shared; so when the thing happened that no one expected, they were all susceptible to it, and the genus went extinct.

(I cannot say how far Santayana is, himself, to blame; but even if others made the same mistake, it is still the same mistake, and bears the same analysis.)

The kind of thinking that modernism liked was the kind of thinking that felt most like work: laborious, therefore masculine, straightforward without the effeminate detours of inspiration or insight, muscular and tense, measurable in foot-pounds and horsepower.

So what happened? This is hard to see because Santayana’s future is our past. It belongs to the middle distance; we cannot see it for our own shadow.

What no one expected was the computer. Suddenly, there appeared the machine that proves there is no connection between how hard thinking feels and what it is worth. The labor theory of value does not apply. Thinking feels hardest when it is most trivial. Calculation is effortful, but not difficult – even a computer can do it.

Somehow we still admire feats of memorization and calculation. What computers prove is that these feats are dead ends. Mental mathematics, total recall, musical prodigality, are not signs of a powerful mind, but of a mind that has plenty of room because nothing else is going on inside it.

In this way the computer refutes modernism. Consider painting. Look across, from the first half of the twenty-first century, to the first half of the twentieth. What do we see there? We see nothing worth doing. There are no more pointillists, impressionists, cubists, because Photoshop trivializes them. There is no more abstract expressionism, no more suprematism, because the possibilities of these schools are exhausted by the screensaver.

“No,” I hear, “the computer no more refutes abstraction than the camera refutes representation.” But a painting is different from a photograph: one cannot see a photograph as a painting that could have been made, but wasn’t. But a work of modernism is always something that could have been generated by computer, but happened to be made by a human being.

(This definition applies to more than painting — Serialism, Brutalism, Oulipo, &c. — but less than everything that has been called modernist. Of course it could be that if everything that has been called modernism be admitted, then modernism has no definition. I draw the line here.)

If we mute the caricature – if we correct for Santayana’s error – what is left then? The idea of a genteel tradition will stand. But what of the accompanying diagnosis? Do we have that divided mind? Certainly we have inherited the division as Santayana made it, and as others elaborated it: we find ourselves obscurely constrained to destroy the genteel – even under other names, like pretentious or inauthentic — wherever we encounter it, like the tribe of Amalek.

But the things the genteel tradition wants and provides are good in themselves. There is sufficiency and even bounty in it. It preserves what might be lost, incubates what might be stillborn. But for the sake of these good things the genteel tradition sacrifices things that may be better. It smothers everything it touches with an anxious sobriety: it would rather leave us in marmoreal disgust, than let us enjoy too meltingly. This I oppose. I side with ecstasy, rhapsody, and multitude, if only from a distance.