Tuesday, May 27, 2014

`Well, I've Had a Happy Life'

Jacques Barzun concludes his pages devoted to William Hazlitt in From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (2000) with these words: 

“Hazlitt as philosopher is not without originality. As for being philosophical in the ordinary sense, Hazlitt qualified for the label: after years of quasi persecution and disappointments, on his deathbed and no doubt thinking of his intimacy with art and literature, his last words were: `Well, I’ve had a happy life.’” 

I’ve always suspected the authenticity of the final words attributed to Hazlitt, which, though bracing, sound either hallucinatory or the creation of loving and highly imaginative survivors. Hazlitt had a positive genius for self-generated dissatisfaction and unhappiness (which goes a long way toward explaining his attraction to stupid politics – e.g., the French Revolution and Napoleon). Arnold Bennett judged the words reportedly uttered on the morning of Sept. 18, 1830, as “grossly untrue—a piece of bravado in the menacing face of death” (The Evening Standard Years, 1974).  In the most recent biography of the essayist, William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man (2008), Duncan Wu doesn’t question Hazlitt having uttered the words, but suggests they may have been the dying man’s reaction to his son, William Jr., telling him he was soon to be engaged to Kitty Reynell. More interestingly, Wu also suggests his final words were spoken “in the same spirit in which, at one of the darkest points of his life, he celebrated the inner freedom in which he had flourished.” He then quotes a passage from “Common Places,” a brief essay Hazlitt published in The Literary Review in 1823. Here is a portion of it: 

“I have had nothing to do all my life but to think, and have enjoyed the objects of thought, the sense of truth and beauty, in perfect integrity of soul. No one has said to me, Believe this, do that, say what we would have you; no one has come between me and my free-will; I have breathed the very air of truth and independence.” 

This sounds less like happiness than braggadocio, the posturing of an arch-Romantic. Hazlitt’s final words echo in those of another notably gifted unhappy soul, Gerard Manley Hopkins: “I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.” It sounds petty and quibbling to question the last utterances of the dying. Goethe famously wanted more light while Theodore Roosevelt wanted someone to turn off the light. I’ve been present for several deaths, and heard nothing memorable, except if we believe that every human death is memorable. I heard moaning, shallow breathing and long sighs, sounds uttered a billion times before. I never heard anything so inspired as Walter de la Mare’s “Too late for fruit, too soon for flowers,” or W.C. Fields’ “Goddamn the whole fucking world and everyone in it except you, Carlotta [Monti, the comedian’s mistress]!” Literary critics have no place at the deathbed except, of course, if they’re the ones dying.

1 comment:

George said...

Randall Jarrell led off "The Boyg, Peer Gynt, the One Only One" with "'Well, I have had a happy life, said Hazlitt'", the first verse ending "They all died well; that is, they died."

As for light, Guy Davenport writes that Noah Webster's last words were "The room is growing tenebrous": the bereaved family had to reach for a Webster's. That seems fitting for a lexicographer.