Many critics count it lucky for literature that T. S. Eliot abandoned a career in philosophy. But it was at least as fortunate that he studied the subject in the first place, because his masterpieces — and modernism itself — might have been inspired by a solitary line from one of his Harvard philosophy professors: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana wrote that aphorism in the first volume of The Life of Reason, published in 1906 — just a year before Eliot became a Harvard undergraduate — and it was destined to become one of the most quoted (and misquoted) lines of the 20th century. It also encapsulates, as well as any other single sentence, the project of literary modernism, of which Eliot would become the most famous practitioner.
I realize that this sounds counterintuitive, but bear with me. Yes, any first-year English major can tell you that the first modernists — the bohemian, Oscar Wilde generation — were rebels against the past, seeking to free themselves from the constricting shackles of Victorianism. But as modernism took shape, it was actually steeped in the past. Though author Jeffrey Hart — a former NR senior editor — never mentions it, Santayana’s maxim permeates his interesting new book about modernism. (Hart points out that Eliot studied with Santayana — but only in the context of a shared enthusiasm for a poet of the distant past: “Dante was enjoying a vogue at Harvard.”)