Sunday, September 18, 2011

`I Counsel Thee, Shut Not Thy Heart

It’s an intellectual parlor game, the fruit of late-night bull sessions, harmless if not taken seriously – setting up polarities between pairs of writers or thinkers, and dividing the world between them. One, we’re told, cannot be at once a Platonist and an Aristotelian. For George Steiner, the choice to be made was Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. (The answer, obviously: Chekhov.) The latest literary fight promoter is Arthur Krystal in “Slang-Whanger,” an essay about William Hazlitt in Except When I Write: Reflections of a Recovering Critic (Oxford University Press, 2011):

“Prepare yourself: you cannot be both a Coleridgean and a Hazlittean. I’m sorry, but it needed to be said. This doesn’t mean that you can’t like both `Kubla Khan’ and `The Indian Jugglers,’ but somewhere along the line you have to choose. It’s an ontological thing. Coleridge had an idealizing nature, Hazlitt a skeptical one. Coleridge gravitated toward the Absolute; Hazlitt fled from it.”
No, I don’t have to choose. Opposed writers are not matter and antimatter; they can coexist. To my tastes, Hazlitt must even coexist with himself. By that I mean, he ranks among the prose stylists I most admire, and yet he can be a nasty, argumentative cuss. His sentences, at their best, drip with “gusto,” the quality he prized above all others in literature and life (as did Marianne Moore, an unlikely Hazlittean). Krystal says: “Hazlitt takes language for a ride.” To confirm this, just read “The Fight,” “On Reading New Books” and “On the Pleasure of Hating.” In the last he writes:
The popularity of the most successful writers operates to wean us from them, by the cant and fuss that is made about them, by hearing their names everlastingly repeated, and by the number of ignorant and indiscriminate admirers they draw after them.”
We know what he means. Hazlitt’s prose makes palatable some of his crankiest moments, and ours. He makes hate loveable, fleetingly. This suggests the less attractive side of Hazlitt – several sides, actually: his nettlesome pettiness and imbecility about women and politics. He squandered his final years writing a four-volume biography of Napoleon. He’s a writer we can never whole-heartedly embrace. We love him and then we’re appalled by something he says, a reflection of the peculiar vacillation he repeatedly enacts. In “On the Pleasure of Hating” he writes:

“As to my old opinions, I am heartily sick of them. I have reason, for they have deceived me sadly. I was taught to think, and I was willing to believe, that genius was not a bawd, that virtue was not a mask, that liberty was not a name, that love had its seat in the human heart. Now I would care little if these words were struck out of the dictionary, or if I had never heard them. They are become to my ears a mockery and a dream.”

In this we hear the stammeringly fluent rhythms of a self-lacerating village scold. Krystal adores Hazlitt, who shows up in five of his twelve essays, and should be commended for his literary reclamation project. If there’ a choice to be made – and there isn’t – a more appropriate antagonist than Coleridge is a friend to him and Hazlitt, Charles Lamb. More than three years ago I wrote: “Hazlitt is the superior writer, I suppose, though I cast a sentimental vote for Lamb, a lovable man and essayist.” Today, for this reader, Lamb is champ, the greater essayist, big-hearted and generous enough to remain ever loyal to both Hazlitt and Coleridge, world-class egotists and soul-testers. In “The Two Races of Men” Lamb writes:

Reader, if haply thou art blessed with a moderate [book] collection, be shy of showing it; or if thy heart overfloweth to lend them, lend thy books; but let it be to such a one as S.T.C. [Coleridge] -- he will return them (generally anticipating the time appointed) with usury: enriched with annotations, tripling their value. I have had experience. Many are these precious MSS. of his -- (in matter oftentimes, and almost in quantity not unfrequently, vying with the originals) -- in no very clerkly hand -- legible in my Daniel: in old Burton; in Sir Thomas Browne; and those abstruser cogitations of the Greville, now, alas! wandering in Pagan lands. ---- I counsel thee, shut not thy heart, nor thy library, against S.T.C.”

One can’t imagine such devotion and humor out of Hazlitt, who died 181 years ago today.

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