On the essays shelf:
On the Pleasure of Hating, by William Hazlitt
How … how … can I describe this essay?? You really just have to read it for yourself, but I will give it a shot. In the first post I wrote about William Hazlitt’s essays, I gave some background as to who he was, what his interests were, what his journey was. He died in 1830, and his real years of productivity were in the last 20 years of his life. He had venues that would publish his work, a regular column called “The Round Table” in The Examiner, and a robust lecturing career. He had certainly made many enemies along the way, personal and political (he was a Whig, the Tory outlets worked hard to try to shut him down). He was always a man who had followed his own star (even just reading the bare bones facts of his life gives a sense of the chaotic nature of it: but isn’t that how life is for most of us? Life isn’t, in general, linear or neat.)
So. The essay today.
William Hazlitt, unlike a lot of intellectual-philosopher types (to generalize), had a great admiration for competitive sports, and anything involving physicality. He was writing in the early 19th century, and probably would have been apoplectic with joy in our current age, with 24/7 sports news channels. He was fascinated by athletes, by people who could DO things with their bodies. This, in general, was seen as a “low” topic at the time, although, of course, humanity has been into watching sports since probably the first cavemen played catch with a wooly mammoth bone.
As you can see in this superb essay, unlike anything else I can think of, the sheer fact of physical skill launched Hazlitt into the spheres of contemplation: what is greatness? what does it mean to be great? How is that different from genius? What can we learn from people like “the Indian jugglers”, who are so superior to us in this one thing in every possible way?
What I love about this essay (and it’s a monster: he spends about 5 pages describing the feats of the Indian jugglers, and then 10 pages discussing the Meaning of Life) is that he does not hide behind an objective narrator. He is not a dry newsman reporting just the facts. He greatly admired the essays of Montaigne, and was trying to bring back that form a little bit, in his own personal essays, where he wrote personally about his life, his travels, his books. William Hazlitt, as in, the “I” of the pieces, is IN the essays. “I did this, I saw this.” This style, hard as it may be to believe in this day and age, was not at all in vogue at the time. Hazlitt’s stuff stands out. Writing like that can be a great risk, because if the readers do not care for the “I” of the pieces, you’re screwed, in more ways than one. Because if they find you irritating, just as a voice, as a person, they won’t be able to tolerate listening to what you have to say. That’s the revolution behind Hazlitt’s essays: HE is so much in them, and when you read them it is as though he jumps back to life.
For example, in the opening paragraph of ‘The Indian Jugglers’, he watches an Indian juggler juggle four balls at one time. He is amazed at the skill and specificity of timing that that requires.
But listen to where his mind goes, immediately after his admiration for the juggler. It’s so funny, so delightful and human:
The hearing a speech in Parliament, drawled or stammered out by the Honourable Member or the Noble Lord, the ringing the changes on their common-places, which any one could repeat after them as well as they, stirs me not a jot, shakes not my good opinion of myself: but the seeing the Indian Jugglers does. It makes me ashamed of myself. I ask what there is that I can do as well as this! Nothing. What have I been doing all my life!
He did get criticism (a lot of it), for many reasons, one being that he seemed to “lift up” the lower things like sports and athletes. Wondering why/how was just not “done”. Everyone goes to the circus, but respectable people do not wonder about the circus performers. Or we do, but we certainly don’t write an essay about them, mentioning them in the same breath with Shakespeare. We do not show admiration for those who are clearly beyond the pale, in terms of respectability. Yes, we can clap and cheer when they eat fire or walk a trapeze, but that’s it. Analysis gives them far more respectability than they deserve. Like: this was actually some of the responses Hazlitt got to his pieces on sports and athletes. (And, frankly, some cerebral types today, the types who sniff “It’s only a game” in the face of some giant sports event, carry on that snobby tradition.) Hazlitt understood that sports shows us something to ourselves, it shows us our best tendencies, and what we are capable of, and it also shows us our weaknesses.
Other people may sit politely and watch a man juggle four balls, and clap, and then forget all about it. Not Hazlitt. It launches him into contemplation of the deepest kind. (It occurs to me to wonder if this may be one of the reasons why his work is still not as well-known as it should be? That people still may think it’s somewhat “silly” to go on and on and on in this way about a silly ATHLETE? It’s possible.) While, of course, this is about juggling, what it is really about is humanity, philosophy, and questioning. You can’t believe Hazlitt pulls it off.
But I’m a sports fan. I understand how sports can seem like a metaphor for … well …. everything, as well as being fascinating in and of themselves. So I try not to listen to the comments of those who do not get it, do not want to get it, and feel themselves superior (“It’s just a game. There are people starving in Africa.” Yawn.) Life’s too short for all of that.
I appreciate this essay so much, but like I said – it’s difficult to describe, or even excerpt. It’s online in its entirety in various places. Well worth your time. Hazlitt is so blown away by the skill of the jugglers, that he wants to know how … how … they got so good. And what is the nature of that goodness? Is it just skill? No, it has to be more than that. Is it greatness? Is it just timing? Is there genius involved? And what exactly is genius?
I mean, this is bold writing. Fearless. Any aspiring writer, who wants to OWN his or her topic, would do well to study Hazlitt.
On the Pleasure of Hating, ‘The Indian Jugglers’, by William Hazlitt
Greatness is great power, producing great effects. It is not enough that a man has great power in himself, he must shew it to all the world in a way that cannot be hid or gainsaid. He must fill up a certain idea in the public mind. I have no other notion of greatness than this two-fold definition, great results springing from great inherent energy. The great in visible objects has relation to that which extends over space: the great in mental ones has to do with space and time. No man is truly great, who is great only in his life-time. The test of greatness is the page of history. Nothing can be said to be great that has a distinct limit, or that borders on something evidently greater than itself. Besides, what is short-lived and pampered into mere notoriety, is of a gross and vulgar quality in itself. A Lord Mayor is hardly a great man. A city orator or patriot of the day only shew, by reaching the height of their wishes, the distance they are at from any true ambition. Popularity is neither fame nor greatness. A king (as such) is not a great man. He has great power, but it is not his own. He merely wields the lever of the state, which a child, an idiot, or a madman can do. It is the office, not the man we gaze at. Any one else in the same situation would be just as much an object of abject curiosity. We laugh at the country girl who having seen a king expressed her disappointment by saying, ‘Why, he is only a man!’ Yet, knowing this, we run to see a king as if he was something more than a man. – To display the greatest powers, unless they are applied to great purposes, makes nothing for the character of greatness. To throw a barley-corn through the eye of a needle, to multiply nine figures by nine in the memory, argues infinite dexterity of body and capacity of mind, but nothing comes of either. There is a surprising power at work, but the effects are not proportionate, or such as take hold of the imagination. To impress the idea of power on others, they must be made in some way to feel it. It must be communicated to their understandings in the shape of an increase of knowledge, or it must subdue and overawe them by subjecting their wills. Admiration, to be solid and lasting, must be founded on proofs from which we have no means of escaping; it is neither a slight nor a voluntary gift. A mathematician who solves a profound problem, a poet who creates an image of beauty in the mind that was not there before, imparts knowledge and power to others, in which his greatness and his fame consists, and on which it reposes. Jedediah Burton will be forgotten; but Napier’s bones will live. Lawgivers, philosophers, founders of religion, conquerors and heroes, inventors and great geniuses in arts and sciences, are great men; for they are great public benefactors, or formidable scourges to mankind. Among ourselves, Shakespear, Newton, Bacon, Milton, Cromwell, were great men; for they shewed power by acts and thoughts, which have not yet been consigned to oblivion. They must needs be men of lofty stature, whose shadows lengthen out to remote posterity. A great farce-writer may be a great man; for Moliere was but a great farce-writer. In my mind, the author of Don Quixote was a great man. So have there been many others. A great chess-player is not a great man, for he leaves the world as he found it. No act terminating in itself constitutes greatness. This will apply to all displays of power or trials of skill, which are confined to the momentary, individual effort, and construct no permanent image or trophy of themselves without them. Is not an actor then a great man, because ‘he dies and leaves the world no copy?’ I must make an exception for Mrs. Siddons, or else give up my definition of greatness for her sake. A man at the top of his profession is not therefore a great man. He is great in his way, but that is all, unless he shews the marks of a great moving intellect so that we trace the master-mind, and can sympathise with the springs that urge him on. The rest is but a craft or mystery. Hunter was a great man – that any one might see without the smallest skill in surgery. His style and manner shewed the man. He would set about cutting up the carcass of a whale with the same greatness of gusto that Michael Angelo would have hewn a block of marble. Lord Nelson was a great naval commander; but for myself, I have not much opinion of a sea-faring life. Sir Humphry Davy is great chemist, but I am not sure that he is a great man. I am not a bit the wiser for any of his discoveries, nor I never met with any one that was. But it is in the nature of greatness to propagate an idea of itself, as wave impels wave, circle without circle. It is a contradiction in terms for a coxcomb to be a great man. A really great man has always an idea of something greater than himself. I have observed that certain sectaries and polemical writers have no higher compliment to pay their most shining lights than to say that ‘Such a one was a considerable man in his day.’ Some new elucidation of a text sets aside the authority of the old interpretation, and a ‘great scholar’s memory outlives him half a century,’ at the utmost. A rich man is not a great man, except to his dependants and his steward. A lord is a great man in the idea we have of his ancestry, and probably of himself, if we know nothing of him but his title. I have heard a story of two bishops, one of whom said (speaking of St. Peter’s at Rome) that when he first entered it, he was rather awe-struck, but that as he walked up it, his mind seemed to swell and dilate with it, and at last to fill the whole building – the other said that as he saw more of it, he appeared to himself to grow less and less every step he took, and in the end to dwindle into nothing. This was in some respects a striking picture of a great and little . mind – for greatness sympathises with greatness, and littleness shrinks into itself. The one might have become a Wolsey; the other was only fit to become a Mendicant Friar – or there might have been court-reasons for making him a bishop. The French have to me a character of littleness in all about them; but they have produced three great men that belong to every country, Moliere, Rabelais, and Montaigne.