Saturday, April 04, 2015

`It Exacts a Full Look at the Worst'

While a teacher of government at the London School of Economics, Harold Laski described in a Dec. 1, 1923 letter to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., his meeting with Thomas Hardy at the home of Arnold Bennett (how’s that for concentrated name-dropping?): 

“He was a great man indeed, carved out of granite, with that calm stoicism of outlook which comes from the power to accept the most bitter blows without repining. He was, I thought, unduly pessimistic about the world. But you could not be in his presence an hour without the sense that you had seen as good a thing as is made.” 

Of course, just one year earlier, Laski had become an executive member of the Fabian Society, a gauzy-headed herd of utopians who dabbled in eugenics. Among his fellow members was H.G. Wells, whom Laski mentions in the next sentence of his letter to Holmes: 

“It was a striking contrast that between [Hardy’s] calm quiet majesty of outlook, and H.G. Wells skipping eagerly and hurriedly from subject to subject, quickly angry and as quickly pleased, making opinions on the spur of the moment and contradicting himself in the next breath while Hardy was the agnostic on all things save where the reflection of years had given him the power to judge.” 

Laski deftly illustrates two contrasting human types. Wells is a familiar sort – glib, voluble, relentlessly optimistic, a performer working the room. Hardy is a rarer bird, all dignity and stoicism, a man who has seen and lost too much to indulge in palliative consolations. He will be dead in another four years at age eighty-seven. 

Earlier in 1923, Hardy had published the awkwardly titled Late Lyrics and Earlier, with Many Other Verses. In the prose “Apology” that serves as the volume’s introduction, he writes (amusingly) of its contents, “Some grave, positive, stark, delineations are interspersed among those of the passive, lighter, and traditional sort presumably nearer to stereotyped tastes.” He acknowledges his “pessimism” (the quotation marks are his), but says it is, “in truth, only such `questionings’ in the exploration of reality, and is the first step towards the soul’s betterment, and the body’s also. If I may be forgiven for quoting my own old words, let me repeat what I printed in this relation more than twenty years ago, and wrote much earlier, in a poem entitled `In Tenebris[II]’: 

“`If way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst.’” 

[Laski is quoted from the two-volume Holmes-Laski Letters, edited by Mark DeWolfe Howe and published by Harvard University Press in 1953.]

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