What Good is Irony?
To my mind, Morris Grossman's principles for interpreting Santayana's writing
make good sense. This is so because I think that Santayana's work is, indeed,
saturated with irony, drama, literary tropes, and what Grossman calls "the
double moral grid."
Santayana doesn't exactly say that we must appreciate the innocence of the
things we hate and the truth of the things we frown on or deny until Soliloquies
in England nor that we are condemned to live a dramatic life in an undramatic
universe until Realms of Being nor that philosophy is good literature if it is good
for anything until Scepticism and Animal Faith nor, finally, that one community's
power is Inevitably another's domination until Dominations and Powers. But all
these themes are previewed or exemplified in Interpretations of Poetry and
Religion.1 Moreover, they hang together; they beg for one another; at least, this
is the point I aim to make, all too briefly, tonight.
THE DRAMA OF REPRESENTATION
Let me begin by saying that it is Important to note not only that Interpretations is
dramatic, but what dramas are going on there. Indeed, there are dramas within
dramas in the book. For example, there is a drama of contrary Romanticisms
(Emerson's, Whitman's, and Browning's), within a drama of contrary religions
(Pagan, Christian, Romantic, and Disillusioned), within a drama about
choosing inheritances under difficult circumstances (how best to maintain
continuity and coherence with our traditions when we suspect that the grand
designs we have inherited are fraught with illusions built on deception and self-
deception), within a drama that tries to solve the puzzle of representative
authority in a self-consciously historical culture (not how best to mirror, but
how best to speak for, stand for, and help to fulfill the interests of our culture's
constituents - interests assumed to be diverse, conflicting, and contingent).
To invoke another Grossmanian insight about Santayana, there is a
"controlled ambiguity" about these dramas, a deliberate attempt on Santayana's
part to permit any one of these plays to be the one the others play in.2 But the
last drama - the drama of representative authority in a historically contingent
world - is the one, I think, that counts most for understanding what makes
A version of this paper was presented as a response to the paper "Interpreting Interpretations," by
Morris Grossman, at the December 1989 meeting of the Santayana Society.
1 George Santayana, Inierpretalimts of Poetry and Religion, Charles Scribner's Sons: New York, 1900.
Hereafter cited in the text as IPR, or sometimes as Interpretations.
- See Morris Grossman, "Controlled Ambiguity." in Peter Caws, ed., Twr Centuries of Philosophy in
America, Rowan and Uuleiield: Totowa, 1980.