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Sunday, March 15, 2009

William Hazlitt: On the Pleasures of Hating

Amazing little book, this one. And going by Terry Eagleton's review of Duncan Wu's biography of the subject in this month's issue of Harper's Magazine (April 2009), it is nearly impossible to think how William Hazlitt escaped practically the entire 20th Century. Yet he is now being re-discovered in England and here in the Colonies as well thanks to "William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man." I didn't read this volume but rather a short collection of Hazlitt's essays entitled "On the Pleasures of Hating." On the article reviewing Wu's biography of Hazlitt, Eagleton describes Hazlitt as a wonder: "Rarely in the annals of British culture have art, politics, and philosophy been so densely interwoven" than in the writings of William Hazlitt. Eagleton goes on to explain that Hazlitt's "work of art obeyed no law but its own and could therefore be seen as a model of human autonomy." One has to revel in such a description, especially when the reader discovers that he is, indeed, in the presence of a thinking of tremendous caliber. William Hazlitt pulled no punches, and left everything on the page. I intend no pun with my previous statement, but the essay "The Fight" describes Hazlitt's travel to the spectacle that must have been boxing in its early stages very nicely. This essay made me think of Carol Joyce Oats' "On Boxing," and wondered if she ever (more than likely she has) read Hazlitt. The essay really doesn't say much about fighting or the fight itself, but to describe briefly the events that take place. The travels to and from the fight are filled with amazing description of 1800s England and its customs.

The essay "The Indian Jugglers" begins by Hazlitt encountering a street performer, and, being the critical man that he was, he begins by dissecting part by part the intricate motions and definitions of talent that make the juggler such an attractive subject. From this brief scene, Hazlitt takes on a topic I just happened to be thinking about the other day (coming up in a later post). Hazlitt's essay examines what precisely is that which we call genius, and draws a fairly good balance between the mechanical abilities (concrete/tangible) and the metaphysical intangibles of art. "This power is indifferently called genius, imagination, feeling, taste; but the manner in which it acts upon the mind can neither be defined by abstract rules, as is the case in science, nor verified by continual unvarying experiments, as is the case in mechanical performances... The hand and eye have done their part. There is only a want of taste and genius. It is after we enter upon that enchanted ground that the human mind begins to droop and flag as in a strange road, or in a thick mist, benighted and making little way with many attempts and many failures, and that the best of us only escape with half a triumph. The undefined and the imaginary are the regions that we must pass like Satan, difficult and doubtful, 'half flying, half on foot.'" He does limit the translation of the subject to the old-age formulae of that which "stands the test of time," a definition that more and more people are challenging today. Hazlitt, however, defends this position with the conservatism of his day, despite the fact that he was considered a radical and was a son of all the subversiveness of the Romantic age.

"On the Spirit of the Monarchy" is an attack upon the institution of royalty the likes of which took many thinkers to their premature death at the hands of authorities. Despite the fact that this essay is a bit dated, there's much here about politics that apply to today's political stage. A king ordained by God seems to Hazlitt ridiculous; his heretical views are in full display here--a rarity for his day. Similarly, the essay "What is the People?" bespeak of many of present day issues concerning Civil Rights, their violation or lack of observance and Supreme Power in general. Who are those that we elect to "serve" us, and how can we make sure they are doing their job? Hazlitt concludes that no amount of check and balances could assure such a thing, and, that the people are better of securing their own liberty by any means necessary.

"On Reason and Imagination" is the most philosophical of all the essays. Here Hazlitt considers what the rights of a conquered nation are (and here he is referring perhaps to the colonization of Africa by European powers), and how should the colonizing power administer the same. This is another essay that rings true today and it is certainly applicable to the War on Terrorism. Hazlitt is unabashed about his views; if he was intending not to be a militarist, he certainly failed a bit here. For example: "... the excesses committed by the victorious besiegers of a town do not attach to the nation committing them, but to the nature of that sort of warfare [war of annihilation], and are common to both sides." This type of thinking is what qualifies Hazlitt as a philosopher who was willing to consider all angles and not limit himself for the sake of acceptance.

The title essay, "On the Pleasures of Hating," is less polemic. There were very few passages that stood out, but that's just mainly my own interpretation. Of the many, however, that I underlined I believe this one best carries the meaning of the essay: "Does love of virtue denote any wish to discover or amend our own faults? No, but it atones for an obstinate adherence to our own vices by the most virulent intolerance to human frailties. This principle is of a most universal application. It extends to good as well as evil: if it makes us hate folly, it makes us no less dissatisfied with distinguished merit. If it inclines us to resent the wrongs of others, it impels us to be as impatient of their prosperity. We revenge injuries: we repay benefits with ingratitude. Even our strongest partialities and likings soon take this turn." I perhaps agree with this statement a bit too much to be objective in its interpretation. I do have to say that I enjoyed reading Hazlitt a great deal, and wouldn't mind picking up Duncan Wu's volume and learning more about this great man of letters.

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