Tuesday, July 18, 2017

`Strength and Weakness of the Human Intellect'

“Whilst in Florence, Hazlitt, attired in a dress-coat and nankeen trousers half-way up his legs, leaving his stockings well visible over his shoes, presented himself at the Palazzo Medici and demanded to see Landor, an act of courage which excited the admiration and aroused the fears of the English residents.”

Yes, but for whom, Landor or Hazlitt? This was a meeting of tempestuous tempers. Both men raged at the world, perceiving insults where none was intended and issuing them for the sheer cranky fun of it. Arthur Krystal writes of Hazlitt: “The man suffered from intellectual Tourette’s syndrome: he simply could not keep his mouth shut.” And Adam Roberts, author of Landor’s Cleanness (2014), writes: “Landor was a choleric individual, given to sudden rages, whilst also magnanimous, kind-hearted and loyal to his friends.” It’s foolish to expect consistency of either man, except in the brilliance of much of their writing. The passage at the top is from Augustine Birrell’s William Hazlitt (1902), a title in the “English Men of Letters,” a series of biographies by prominent writers (Henry James on Hawthorne, Leslie Stephen on Dr. Johnson) and published by Macmillan. Birrell loves Hazlitt unconditionally, despite his prickly nature. Of the meeting with Landor he continues:

“The two men got on exceedingly well. Hazlitt has reviewed the first two volumes of the Imaginary Conversations in the Edinburgh [Review]; and though he had, with all the `spectacled gravity’ of an austere critic, found his author guilty of a strange lack of temper and decorum, and full of arrogance and caprice, he had also greatly delighted in many of the Conversations, and had written of them with feeling and enthusiasm.”

With volatile, mercurial temperaments, it’s futile to look for constancy, and it’s naïve to expect those we admire to unwaveringly like and admire each other. One would love to read the “imaginary conversations” of Hazlitt and Landor. Birrell notes that the two men shared “obvious resemblances,” and adds: “Both hated kings far better than they loved peoples. Neither of them was the least a democrat.” Here is Landor speaking of Hazlitt, giving praise while taking it away, as quoted by John Forster in his Life of Landor (1868):

“Hazlitt’s books are delightful to read, pleasant always, often eloquent and affecting in the extreme. But I don’t get much valuable criticism out of them. Coleridge was worth fifty of him in that respect. A point may be very sharp, and yet not go very deep; and the deficiency of penetrating may be the result of its fineness. A shoemaker whose shoes are always well pollisht [sic] and always neatly cut out, but rarely fit, is not of much use to us.”

And from 1824, here is the opening of Hazlitt’s review of Landor’s Imaginary Conversations:
“This work is as remarkable an instance as we have lately met with of the strength and weakness of the human intellect. It displays considerable originality, learning, acuteness, terseness of style, and force of invective — but it is spoiled and rendered abortive throughout by an utter want of temper, of self-knowledge, and decorum.”  

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