Sunday, January 22, 2012

William Hazlitt – ‘Table Talk’

got side-tracked a few times whilst reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries. Her own book of essays, The Common Reader, which I thoroughly recommend, lists all the great things which were going on a hundred years prior to its publication:
Waverley, The Excursion, Kubla Khan, Don Juan, Hazlitt’s Essays, Pride and Prejudice, Hyperion and Prometheus Unbound were all published between 1800 and 1821.
A hundred years further on, it would not be difficult to compile a list of great things published between 1900 and... well, 1922, let’s stretch it to, to take in ‘The Waste Land’, Ulysses and Cops, but it needs that distance, I suppose. Woolf (whose Hogarth Press published ‘The Waste Land’, and turned down Ulysses) thinks her age has nothing comparable. She writes, too, about the decline of the essay form, and it would be hard to disagree with that. Nineteenth century literature has survived into the twenty first century as a clutch of classic novels, and there is much to be said for time’s pruning of the canon, but it doesn’t hurt to go off into the undergrowth once in a while.

Like Woolf’s diaries, Table Talk is endlessly quotable (it’s not bad at quoting, either). From a novel-reader’s point of view, it often seems very compressed, piling high the kind of truths which would be scattered amongst dramatised scenes in, say, a George Eliot novel. He pre-empts this in ‘On Genius and Common Sense’:
it is rather an odd objection to a work that it is made up entirely of ‘brilliant passages’ (p. 68)
Once again, I don’t think I can do better than to pick out some highlights.
The ideas we cherish most exist best in a kind of shadowy abstraction, and derive neither force nor interest from being exposed to public view. (pp. 7-8, ‘On the Pleasure of Painting’)
A topic of this sort of which the person himself may be considered as almost sole proprietor and patentee is an estate for life, free from all encumbrance of wit, thought, or study, you live upon it as a settled income; and others might as well think to eject you out of a capital freehold house and estate as think to desire you out of it into the wide world of common sense and argument. (pp. 87-8, ‘On People with One Idea’)
If we wish to know the force of human genius we should read Shakespeare. If we wish to see the insignificance of human learning we may study his commentators. (p. 110, ‘On the Ignorance of the Learned’)
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. (p. 122, from ‘The Indian Jugglers’)
The idea of what the public will think prevents the public from ever thinking at all, and acts as a spell on the exercise of private judgement, so that, in short, the public ear is at the mercy of the first impudent pretender who chooses to fill it with noisy assertions, or false surprises, or secret whispers. (p. 141, ‘On Living to One’s Self’)
Violent antipathies are always suspicious, and betray a secret affinity. (p. 228, ‘On Vulgarity and Affectation’)
But we may be sure of this, that when we see nothing but grossness and barbarism, or insipidity and verbiage, in a writer that is the god of a nation’s idolatry, it is we and not they who want true taste and feeling. (p. 321, ‘On Criticism’)
I hate anything that occupies more space that it is worth. I hate to see a load of bandboxes go along the street, and I hate to see a parcel of big words without anything in them. (p. 355, ‘On Familiar Style’)
Such are the qualifications and the apprenticeship necessary to make a man tolerated, to enable him to pass as a cipher, or to be admitted as a mere numerical unit, in any corporate body: to be a leader and dictator he must be diplomatic in impertinence, and officious in every dirty work. He must not merely conform to established prejudices; he must flatter them. He must not merely be insensible to the demands of moderation and equity; he must be loud against them. He must not simply fall in with all sorts of contemptible cabals and intrigues; he must be indefatigable in fomenting them, and setting everybody together about the ears. He must not only repeat but invent lies. (p. 389, ‘On Corporate Bodies’)
An actor, after having performed his part well, instead of courting further distinction, should affect obscurity, and ‘steal most guilty-like away,’ conscious of admiration that he can support nowhere but in his proper sphere. (p. 399, ‘Whether Actors ought to Sit in the Boxes?’)
Why should we prick the bubble that reflects the world, and turn it into a little soap and water? (p. 407, ibid.)
Two from ‘On Patronage and Puffing’, puffing first:
The truth is, we like to have something to admire ourselves, as well as to make other people gape and stare at; but then it must be a discovery of our own, an idol of our own making and setting up:– if others stumble on the discovery before us, or join in crying it to the skies, we then set to work to prove that it is a vulgar delusion, and show our sagacity and freedom from prejudice by pulling it in pieces with all the coolness imaginable. (p. 431)
And patronage, from the point of view of the patronised:
It is a piece of presumption in you to be seen walking on terra firma; you are required, at the risk of their friendship, to be always swimming in troubled waters, that they may have the credit of throwing out ropes, and sending out lifeboats to you, without ever bringing you ashore. (p. 439)
Professions pass for nothing, and actions may be counterfeited; but a man cannot help his looks. (p. 443, ‘On the Knowledge of Character’)
You will say, on the other hand, that there is no judging by appearances, as a general rule. No one, for instance, would take such a person for a very clever man without knowing who he was. Then, ten to one, he is not: he may have got the reputation but it is a mistake. […] The best part of his existence is dull, cloudy, leaden: the flashes of light that proceed from it, or streak it here and there, may dazzle others, but do not deceive himself. (p. 444, ibid.)
In looking back, it sometimes appears to me as if I had in a manner slept out my life in a dream or shadow on the side of the hill of knowledge, where I have fed on books, on thoughts, on pictures, and only heard in half-murmers the trampling of busy feet, or the noises of the throng below. (p. 475, ‘On the Fear of Death’)

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