Thursday, October 06, 2016

`Uncertain, Casual, Precarious Mode of Existence'

“If a person has no delicacy, he has you in his power . . .”

That’s the line that grabbed me. Its applications are myriad, from neighbors with barking dogs to presidential candidates. Delicacy implies thoughtfulness, courtesy, tact and some regard for others. It is the valve in our nature that keeps the boiler from blowing. Those unburdened with delicacy – call it empathy -- shout when they whisper. They recognize no rules of civility and mock those who do. We are at their mercy so long as we remain delicate. Hazlitt’s subject in “On the Want of Money” (1827) is bigger and, in a sense, less interesting, but never has want been anatomized with such gusto. Here is the phrase quoted above and some of the subsequent passage:

“If a person has no delicacy, he has you in his power, for you necessarily feel some towards him; and since he will take no denial, you must comply with his peremptory demands, or send for a constable, which out of respect for his character you will not do. . . . It is their facility in borrowing money that has ruined them. No one will set heartily to work, who has the face to enter a strange house, ask the master of it for a considerable loan, on some plausible and pompous pretext, and walk off with it in his pocket. You might as well suspect a highwayman of addicting himself to hard study in the intervals of his profession.”

Hazlitt is the poet of resentment and humiliation, about which he wrote not theoretically but from unhappy experience. He was forever scrambling after money, so his sentences glow with autobiographical heat. Frederic Raphael writes of him:

“. . . he was usually paid by the piece, like any Grub-street hack. His books, mostly reprints of essays and lectures, were never bestsellers. The quality of his work might be a function of his genius; its quantity was the fruit of penury: `It may be indelicate,’ he wrote, `but I am forced to write an article every week.’”

Note “indelicate.” Hazlitt’s sentence continues, as recalled by Henry Crabb Robinson: “. . . and I have not time to make one with so much delicacy as I otherwise should.” I know the feeling. There was a time years ago when money was squeakingly tight. I pulled in all the freelance work I could find and sold books I wish I had today. I went to sleep anxious and woke up in dread. Still, I ate three meals a day and paid most of the bills. This was not poverty. Hazlitt describes my temporary state like this:

“. . . that uncertain, casual, precarious mode of existence, in which the temptation to spend remains after the means are exhausted, the want of money joined with the hope and possibility of getting it, the intermediate state of difficulty and suspense between the last guinea or shilling and the next that we may have the good luck to encounter. This gap, this unwelcome interval constantly recurring, however shabbily got over, is really full of many anxieties, misgivings, mortifications, meannesses, and deplorable embarrassments of every description.”

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