Saturday, March 25, 2017

`A Half-Finished or Half-Ruined Fragment'

“There are few great books or great men that do not sadden us by a sense of incompleteness. The writer, we feel, is better than his work. His full power only reveals itself by flashes. There are blemishes in his design, due to mere oversight or indolence; his energy has flagged, or he has alloyed his pure gold to please the mob; or some burst of wayward passion has disturbed the fair proportions of his work, and the man himself is a half-finished or half-ruined fragment.”

The sentiment is utterly unfair, of course, and probably inevitable. Writers are pathologically inconsistent, as are readers. Even Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus. But when a writer we love writes badly, we question our love. Have I been hoodwinked? Played for a fool? Some of us will withdraw our devotion like jilted lovers. We wall off the writer in question as though he were a Superfund site, but his existence nags like a guilty conscience. Obviously, this applies only to dedicated readers, true partners, not the beneficiaries of one-night stands. They walk away guilt-free.

Or we can be mature about it and accept that writers are fallible in a peculiarly public way. We can value the first-rate and resign ourselves to the rest. It’s not personal. I would suggest that any writer who has given us a moment’s pleasure, who opens an unsuspected window, makes us laugh or turns a memorable phrase deserves some measure of gratitude. I remember the first time I read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in 1969. Then I read a critic who dismissed Ellison as a one-book has-been. I was outraged on behalf of the novelist, and remain convinced his novel is among the half-dozen best written by an American.

The author cited above is Leslie Stephen in his three-volume Hours in a Library (1874-79). His subject is William Hazlitt, a man and writer virtually custom-built for enthralling and disappointing readers. As a man, Hazlitt was a sputtering wreck. He was an idiot about women. He never had a friend he didn’t sooner or later alienate and offend. His politics were adolescent, he idolized Rousseau and squandered his final years writing a three-volume biography of Napoleon. Stephen notes the essayist’s capacity for “caustic scorn.” But he wrote essays with gusto and his prose is the most vivid in English since Browne’s. Stephen writes:  

“Hazlitt harps a good deal upon one string; but that string vibrates forcibly. His best passages are generally an accumulation of short, pithy sentences, shaped in strong feeling, and coloured by picturesque association; but repeating, rather than corroborating, each other. The last blow goes home, but each falls on the same place. He varies the phrase more than the thought; and sometimes he becomes obscure, because he is so absorbed in his own feelings that he forgets the very existence of strangers who require explanation. Read through Hazlitt, and this monotony becomes a little tiresome; but dip into him at intervals, and you will often be astonished that so vigorous a writer has not left some more enduring monument of his remarkable powers.”

Which, of course he has. Read “The Fight” again, an essay much esteemed by Stephen, though he is offended by boxing:

“. . . we agreed to adjourn to my lodgings to discuss measures with that cordiality which makes old friends like new, and new friends like old, on great occasions. We are cold to others only when we are dull in ourselves, and have neither thoughts nor feelings to impart to them. Give a man a topic in his head, a throb of pleasure in his heart, and he will be glad to share it with the first person he meets.”

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