Monday, January 26, 2009

Never So Trivial

Oscar said "people are never so trivial as when they take themselves seriously." I hope I haven't done, here. Truth be told, I have never taken much to myself at all. For the first time this morning, I've had occasion to read back over what I've written so far, and there is an awkward stateliness to the thing, but that is just my clumsy writing rather than any intent to appear more important than I am. I know my place, as the chambermaid said to the -- you know how those old jokes go. The triviality of this undertaking is, I hope, inherent to the form and not in my style, such as it is. I do take writing seriously, even this, but from respect for the language, not from any pretensions I might once have had to ever mastering it. That will never happen. I haven't the discipline, the ambition, the skill.

I have been lucky enough to live a charmed, which is to say, a dilettante's life, at least in my leisure. I have always had to work. I would not know now how to not. But, at my leisure, I am fortunate in having an understanding and indulgent mate; his house has filled up with my books, he tolerates my absence from him, to doodle and scribble and talk with friends. He, being admirably self-contained, accepts my more scattered interests, and if he sighs, sighs quietly. He allows me quiet, and with surprising and sustained interest listens to my burbling when I'm of a mind to natter. We met when I was quite young and he already a man. He might once have had hopes of me making something of myself other than the little I have, but experience has taught him to take me as I am and appear, amazingly, if not satisfied, then resigned. He has learned, when presented with some temporary enthusiasm; carved apple-heads, or collage, or a public reading of Dickens, to not ask me, as he once did about my writing, "what do you want to do with this?" Instead he smiles and sits through my readings, admires my handiwork, consoles me in my disappointments. He continues, as needed, to take me seriously, and so lets me laugh at myself without prompting, however strong the temptation, in twenty five years, must have been.

But I can not take myself seriously. I take my job seriously. I take such responsibilities as I've been given or inherited, as seriously, I hope, as as they deserve. But myself? Pshaw. Hazlitt said, "So have I loitered my life away reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me best." And so have I, but with the benefit, which poor Hazlitt lacked, of someone who loved me just as the muddle I am. So perhaps love has made me silly, or at least allowed me to continue so. But had I lacked it, would I then have been Hazlitt? No. What Hazlitt had that I lack -- beyond the trio of attributes listed at the close of the first paragraph above -- was genius.

Now, Samuel Butler would have had none of this. He said, in The Way of All Flesh, “I have no idea what genius is, but so far as I can form any conception about it, I should say it was a stupid word which cannot be too soon abandoned to scientific and literary claqueurs.” But being just such a clapper and naught else, I use the word for want of a better.

Hazlitt was a tempest; full and loud and furious. His eye was everywhere. His style, supremely assured, easy, fine. I own The Miscellaneous Works of William Hazlitt, In Five Volumes, published by Claxton, Remsen & Haffelfinger, Philadelphia, 1876. Lovely old books they are too; embossed green cloth covers, handsomely printed, sturdy still and easily browsed. I came on them in a used bookstore in Southern California, marked at a ridiculously low price, and bought them knowing next to nothing of Hazlitt except the little of him I met in Lamb, and perhaps his "Indian Juggler." But such a set must mean something. And in it I have found the best of English writing on Shakespeare, on art and painting, on boxing and writing and reason. Here is a writer of serious prose! With no triviality anywhere in him.

He wrote an extraordinary confession, Liber Amoris: Or, The New Pygmalion, almost unbearable to read in its vulnerability. He fell in love with an illiterate working girl and, in the estimation of his friends, threw himself away in the pursuit of her. It scandalized his friends. That he wrote about it honestly, nearly ruined him. Contemporary scholars are much enamoured of this book, it speaks to contemporary insecurities, I suppose, or to the bookish soul enthralled by the pretty face. I don't know. I could only read it once. His friends were right to worry, so far as I can see.

But in his essays, Hazlitt is all in all. He is not well served by the only edition available now; a paperback from Oxford University Press, edited -- viciously edited -- by some minor academic who seems to think he knows better than all who came before him, how to present this English master to the masses. After an introduction as dull as any lecture the professor's poor students must suffer through, "placing" Hazlitt dully in his times, etc., said professor then chops and drops great chunks of Hazlitt as if to stew all the juice out of him, and in so doing, somehow make him more palatable to the low standards of the academic High Table that presumably suits better the professor's own flat taste. It is criminal. Hazlitt had politics, radical for his time, and these are well in keeping with the present times, but he was also a supreme stylist, and that can not survive being picked at, and picked apart, to be cut to present fashion.

So reading Hazlitt means reading him whole, if only in a single essay. He is altogether too easy to quote. But quotation can be a disservice to such an artist, as it has been to Oscar, if one does not then seek out the works from which the clever phrases have been drawn. Hunt for a proper collection of Hazlitt's essays. They are hiding, unsuspected, in used bookshops all around. Our ancestors, in this, knew better than we, and printed his essays as they found them: complete and unabridged.

And I will go on reading happily, learning too little from so much worthy of imitation, in my cheap set of miscellaneous masterpieces, and writing no better than I do, perhaps no better than I can, even with William Hazlitt at my elbow.

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