Books: Cultural Amnesia — William Hazlitt |
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William Hazlitt (1778–1830) was the writer who put the English essay into the mainstream of English literature, and did so as much by his commentary on public affairs as by his attention to poetry, drama and literary history. He thus supplied the English-speaking countries (including America, where Henry Adams wrote very much like Hazlitt) with a new tradition of higher journalism that could be exploited to the full in the twentieth century, during which the dignity and worth of the essay form were taken for granted. (Other countries were less lucky: in Spain, for example, when Ortega said that the essay written for a newspaper or a periodical could be a vital form, he was thought provocative, because the heritage wasn’t there to back him up.) Hazlitt’s comprehensive grasp of contingent reality had a lot to do with his capacity for self-examination: his emotional life, for example, was a succession of disasters about which he had the courage to come clean, at least in part. “Well, I’ve had a happy life,” was a large-hearted thing for him to say when he died poor. Although he could be acerbic when on the attack, he was rarely vicious, and generosity will be the main impression he gives to the beginner, who would be advised to start with his later collections of pieces, because Hazlitt got better as he got older, his powers of reflection having more of his own experience on which to reflect. The volumes Winterslow and Sketches and Essays, both published posthumously, contain some of his best things, and nobody who reads them will succumb again to the seductive notion that a wide-ranging concern with all forms of creativity is a specifically modern, or post-modern, propensity.

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Burke’s style was forked and playful as the lightning, crested like the serpent.

WHAT AN ELECTRIFYING thing to say. I not only thought so when I first read it, but the actual word “electricity” came into my mind, no doubt because the word “lightning” was already there on the page. It didn’t bother me that I couldn’t think of many crested serpents. A cobra, perhaps, with those bits at the side of its head quivering; or perhaps he meant the arched neck crested like a wave as the serpent gets set to strike. Possibly there was a crested serpent somewhere in Shakespeare, and Hazlitt was making a subtle reference; or Shakespeare might have had a crested servant, and Hazlitt was remembering a sequence of sounds rather than a specific meaning. (“Be thou my crested servant, bear my shield / As token of two prides, both mine and thine” as the Duke of Alpacino does not say in The Good Woman of Sienna.) What mattered was the balance between the two pictures. The first picture was of things happening very quickly at random, and the second was of a pause, a poise. These pictures were matched by the two contrary movements of the sentence, prancing up to the comma, and then turning deliberate after it. Hazlitt had paid Burke’s style the double compliment of contesting it with a well-crafted sample of his own.

There can be no doubt that Burke (1729–1797) deserved it. As the greatest combined statesman, parliamentarian, philosopher and prose stylist of the century before Hazlitt’s, he was a fitting object for admiration even by a man of Hazlitt’s talents. We would scarcely need to say so if it was not for the suspicion that Hazlitt can sometimes arouse when singing in praise. Hazlitt made his living as a freelance journalist, and there has always been a tendency, for a man in that occupation, for the pen to run off on its own. Nobody tried harder than Hazlitt to keep the pen in check. His standards for his own originality were high. In his lecture on Shakespeare and Milton, he says, about Paradise Lost, one of his best ever things: “Wherever the figure of Satan is introduced, whether he walks or flies, ‘rising aloft incumbent on the dusky air,’it is illustrated with the most striking and appropriate images: so that we see it always before us, gigantic, irregular, portentous, uneasy, and disturbed—but dazzling in its faded splendour, the clouded ruins of a god.” The trouble with that is that it is too good. It is detectably better than anything he has been able to quote. Plenty of quotation from Milton decorates the lecture. Quoted lines helped to fill the hour, but decency demands we should presume that Hazlitt liked them. He found it hard, however, to point out any phrase from Milton that looms and resonates like the clouded ruins of a god. It looks exactly as if he coined the phrase to get himself interested.

With his writing about Burke, the same suspicion does not intrude. He has no secret reservations: he admires with a whole heart. We can tell that because he writes at his whole ease. Writers are at their best when they can do that—when they can do it at all. On the whole, writers find other writers hard to be enthusiastic about, even when the other writers are safely dead. It takes security in one’s own talent on top of generosity of soul. Philip Roth and Milan Kundera are both wonderfully admiring of Kafka: real generosity in both cases, because each entered Kafka’s territory, and must have felt him to be a competitor. It is easier to admire someone who is nothing like you, as Hemingway admired Ronald Firbank. Martin Amis’s praise of Saul Bellow is especially valuable because the younger writer is continually faced, when reading the older one, with things he himself would like to have said. In admiring Burke, Hazlitt showed magnanimity as well as taste, because Burke had the stature as a public figure that Hazlitt, in his own eyes, lacked. In our eyes, of course, his lack of pomposity is part of his dignity. But he was not to know that he would come so well out of his age—an age in which he was not even a poet, when almost everybody else was. As for the general principle contained in this encomium to Burke, it can hardly be followed as a recommendation, because it is too general. Laforgue wrote rather the same way about de Musset. These are recommendations to the reader’s attention, not incitements to action. The chief merit of the praise is that it does not fall short of its object. But it doesn’t really tell you anything specific. In the visually lavish but linguistically impoverished film Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio is not really much less informative when he draws Kate Winslet’s attention to Monet’s “use of colour.” Everyone with a considerable prose style varies the pace, picks up on the unexpected, rises to the occasion. That is what a style does. Burke’s style just did a lot of it. More important—as Hazlitt doesn’t forget to point out—Burke’s style didn’t do those things for their own sake. In other words, he was not just a stylist. But there again, nobody with a considerable style is.

None of this means that style and content are ever wholly separable. But neither are they so closely integrated that they can never be discussed separately. In the twentieth century, the United States became the laboratory for Frankenstein experiments in expository prose. In Britain after Bernard Shaw—or during Bernard Shaw, when you consider how long his fluent blarney set the pace—there was only so much sky left overhead for the forked lightning to be playful in: even T. S. Eliot, who abominated Shaw’s every opinion, acknowledged him as a master of prose style. (The only contemporary who ever did a convincing job of analysing the cliché content in Shaw’s prose was Flann O’Brien, and O’Brien had caught his giant compatriot in windy old age.) In America it was open house. Consider the jump from that lone bounty-hunter of a cultural journalist James Gibbons Huneker to the vaudeville double-act billed as H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. Huneker knew all there was to know about modern art, Europe and modern art in Europe: three linked subjects that he diligently made one. But his prose had no more interior life than John Reed’s. In Ten Days That Shook the World Reed made the Russian Revolution sound dull, but Huneker could make the whole modern upsurge in the arts sound dull—an even harder task.

With Mencken and Nathan, co-editors of The American Mercury and twin commentators on everything that roared in the Roaring Twenties, you are abruptly in a different world, where each man tries to embody his intellectual excitement in his style: to make his journalism, in fact, part of the creative outburst. Nathan overdid it to the extent that nobody now reads him, but Mencken at his best—in his reportage, in his memoirs and in his loving scholarship about the American language—worked the enviable trick of being always identifiable without wearing out his welcome. If admirers of his Prejudices had known what some of his prejudices were really like—his anti-Semitism would have earned a tick of approval from Alfred Rosenberg—they would have stopped reading soon enough, but a guardian angel riding in his forehead made sure that the stuff from his brain’s bilges didn’t get through from his secret diaries to the public page. Unlike the true nutty pamphleteer, Mencken could be selective about the application of his unbounded energy. Thus equipped, he set the standard for the individual voice in upmarket American journalism. Most remarkably, and right to the end, he managed to preserve, despite the tendency of American periodicals to over-edit, his unique individual rhythm.

Rhythm is never effortless. To achieve it, you must start rewriting in your head and then continue rewriting on the page. The hallmark of a seductive style is to extend natural speech rhythm over the distance of a complex sentence. In speech, Gore Vidal has always been a famous wit; and probably a well-rehearsed one, like Disraeli or Oscar Wilde. The rehearsed epigram is a piece of writing in itself. Kingsley Amis loathed the prepared epigram, but his own aphoristic remarks in conversation, though they sounded spontaneous, frequently bore the telltale signs of having been made ready: they were well made like an army bed, the polished kit precisely arranged on a blanket stretched tight, with hospital corners. Vidal chose the right place, where he could be properly overheard, to launch his salute for the nuptial arrangements of two Broadway artistes: “The rocks in his head fit the holes in hers.” But he didn’t choose just the delivery point, he chose the syntactical balance. Developed over a lifetime, this mastery of construction finally yielded a prose style that could express the most complicated argument as if it were being spoken. Many of his juniors, of whom I am only one, learned a lot from his example—and at a time in our own careers when we thought that we had already learned everything. But one of the things I learned incidentally was that Vidal’s transparent style could transmit a false argument as persuasively as it could express a true one. Vidal was at the height of his written eloquence when he began to advance his thesis that the United States provoked Imperial Japan into a war in the Pacific. The kind of proof he offered was on a par with Hitler’s proof that Poland had provoked Germany into a war in 1939, but the way he offered it was dazzling. Vidal’s bizarre démarche has quite serious implications for the world outlook of my own country’s intelligentsia—who should, in my view, be on their guard against any attempt to give aid and comfort to Japan’s recidivist right wing—but what matters here is that there could be no more cavernous discrepancy between the thing said and the way of saying it. The two things really are disjunct, and can be made to seem otherwise only by craft. Hazlitt, when he praised Burke’s style, was appreciating an artefact, and probably knew that he was. The penalities for not knowing are very large. When we start believing that a statement must be true simply because it is arrestingly put, we are in the first stages of being spellbound, and the later stages are a kind of slavery.

What is the use of being moral in a night-cellar, or wise in Bedlam?

This reproduces the cadences of Sir Thomas Browne’s “splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave.” The comma is the giveaway; it is placed at the same point of balance, as a fulcrum; and then the beam tips, as if your glance had weight. Echoes of a predecessor’s rhythm, pace and melody are rarely accidental. Hazlitt had read Browne’s sentence and remembered it. The words might not match, but everything else does. These underlying templates are the true transmission tunnels of influence from writer to writer through the ages, and the hardest thing for scholarship to get at. In painting, the echoes of shape are easier to detect. Kenneth Clark writes convincingly about Rembrandt’s absorption of every striking outline in the Renaissance: Rembrandt took in the shapes, rather than the iconography. It is the means, rather than the meaning, that travels through time.