Saturday, 12 April 2008

Review: The Pleasure of Hating by William Hazlitt

The Pleasure of Hating This is the sixth book I (randomly) picked to read out of the Penguin Great Ideas Series. It's number 12 in the list and part of series one (the red series).

Like most (all?) of the 'Great Ideas', I had no idea what 'The Pleasure of Hating' was about before I started it. So I was somewhat surprised to start reading the first chapter/essay ('The Fight') to find it very much in the same tone as Jerome K. Jerome's 'Three Men in a Boat', which is fiction!! It isn't, apparently, but is instead Hazlitt's account of a fight in December 1821, between William Neate and Thomas Hickman, The Gasman (and his travel there and back). While I assumed (given the nature of the book) it wasn't fiction, and I could definitely read it as a piece of satire, it is also (apparently) a commentary on journalism (as laid out in this rather interesting post on the Penguin Classics blog), something I have to admit that I *didn't* pick up at the time.

The other essays in this volume are a little more conventionally written, and all beautifully so. The second, 'The Indian Jugglers', was probably my favourite because of the way Hazlitt slyly weaves in the real topic of the essay - the differences between cleverness and genius - into an introduction that seems to follow on in tone from 'The Fight'. I loved the way how Hazlitt touched so many different topics in this essay, finishing with the (rather charming) obituary of one John Cavanagh, a famous fives hands-player.

'On Reason and Imagination' was another favorite, arguing (rather interestingly) that:

Logic should enrich and invigorate its decisions by the use of imagination

I am a scientist and so reason generally holds sway with me. The idea that 'imagination' should play a part in decision making seemed rather novel, however when I then thought about decisions made using logic alone, but with insufficient data or too narrow a view (and there are numerous historical examples), then it seemed to make sense. Perhaps we are seeing the injection of some 'imaginations' in studies with more holistic multi-disciplinary approach, incorporating social and physical sciences. I also liked this essay because Jean-Jacques Rousseau's 'The Social Contract' was given as an example of an argument based on cold, hard reason (which I could appreciate having read it very recently because of the Great Ideas books!!), which Hazlitt argued was not appropriate for arguments based on human nature.

I have to admit that 'What is the People?' left me indifferent. However, 'On the Spirit of the Monarchy' was notable because of Hazlitt's fairly scathing attack on the monarchy (not that I disagreed). I also loved the quote at the start (not Hazlitt's) equating poets with Tories and mathematicians with Whigs, and then also to 'that wise, plodding, unpoetical people, the Dutch'. How droll! Hazlitt argues that man's craving for the Monarchy is the search for 'The One'. I have no idea whether 'The One' had the same romantic connotations as it does now, but I do wonder if mankind's 'craving' has now been transplanted to more common people - the winners of reality TV shows such as Big Brother or Pop Idol.

The collection ends with the title essay 'The Pleasure of Hating', in which Hazlitt's description of hate ranges from beautiful descriptions of his involuntary feelings towards a spider on the floor to discussions of why humans must fight and hate. I could agree with many of the statements Hazlitt makes in this essay and - all in all, I am very impressed with the collection. I'd be interested in reading more of Hazlitt's essays, although I think the work that most interests me may be 'The Spirit of the Age', a collection of portraits of his contemporaries, including Lamb, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Jeremy Bentham, and Sir Walter Scott.

(As always, there's more on Hazlitt over at Wikipedia)

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