Thursday, November 18, 2010

William Hazlitt vs. Cap'n Crunch

In the 1820s William Hazlitt published his great essay “On The Pleasure Of Hating.” Ranting, confessing, bemused, hands-in-air, Hazlitt takes on man’s capacity for intense dislike, slotting it crankily among our passions. It’s a riot of an essay, a little strange, overheated and rambling, starting with an odious little spider and spreading across Europe. He essays political affairs, friendship, religion, tyranny, office politics, and art — and the dejection that comes after something’s lost its magical hold on us.  On once-striking books (and substitute just about anything here for books, as Hazlitt does): “We take a dislike to our favourite books, after a time, for the same reason. We cannot read the same works for ever. Our honey-moon, even though we wed the Muse, must come to an end; and is followed by indifference, if not by disgust.” I love the dark little secret tucked away near the end of the essay.  Hazlitt's grieving the fading over time of art's charms:
we afterwards miss the accompanying circumstances, and instead of transferring the recollection of them to the favourable side, regret what we have lost, and strive in vain to bring back "the irrevocable hour" — wondering in some instances how we survive it, and at the melancholy blank that is left behind! The pleasure rises to its height in some moment of calm solitude or intoxicating sympathy, declines ever after, and from the comparison and conscious falling-off, leaves rather a sense of satiety and irksomeness behind it... 
Then he recalls a favorite painting by a favorite painter, Titian:
I don't know why, but an air breathes from his landscapes, pure, refreshing, as if it came from other years; there is a look in his faces that never passes away. I saw one the other day. Amidst the heartless desolation and glittering finery of Fonthill, there is a portfolio of the Dresden Gallery. It opens, and a young female head looks from it; a child, yet woman grown; with an air of rustic innocence and the graces of a princess, her eyes like those of doves, the lips about to open, a smile of pleasure dimpling the whole face, the jewels sparkling in her crisped hair, her youthful shape compressed in a rich antique dress, as the bursting leaves contain the April buds! Why do I not call up this image of gentle sweetness, and place it as a perpetual barrier between mischance and me? — It is because pleasure asks a greater effort of the mind to support it than pain; and we turn after a little idle dalliance from what we love to what we hate! 
Hazlitt, you crank, I've got you: it’s too much work keeping buoyant the airless enchantment of love.  Relationships take work.  You should know that.  Loss is inevitable, and what are our choices: lament? Whine? Hate? Reconciliation?  On some days Hazlitt’s argument with the world strikes me as petulant and lazy, on other days cynical and immature, but always humane and honest.


I wonder where nostalgia fits. I’ve worried before about her seductions, her dewy, moist-eyed substitution of writerly diligence with airy mawkishness. And at the risk of courting eye-rolls, and groans all around: I had a dream the other night about a favorite toy when I was a kid, the Cap’n Crunch Spy Kit, an early-70s premium.  I begged my mom to save the box tops. We dutifully collected enough, mailed them in and, during an agonizing, very-20th century wait, I looked longingly at the approaching mailman.  (Six to eight weeks.) When the compact brown envelope finally arrived I opened up it with joy and disbelief. A tailing remnant of 1960’s spy fascination, the "Seadog Spy Kit" was blue molded plastic — “attache”-shaped, clip-on-belt style — and held inside a siren whistle, Morse Code and decoder, a "message flasher," a sundial, and compass. Man, I loved it.  The boring D.C. suburban sun and coordinates rendered the sundial and compass oddly uninteresting, but the Morse Code and decoder vaulted me into all kinds of imaginative play.  It was a little kit of stories, my Spy Kit, all for me.  And I happily revisited those day-log possibilities in my dream.

Fast forward: 2010.  What do I do upon waking, of course, but head to the Internet and, within minutes, find images of the Spy Kit.  And yes, thanks to the largess of online auction and eBay sellers, I was transported back to days when my imagination demanded just the barest of plastic props to stage hours of drama, melodramatic and otherwise.  The air-conditioned basement, the humid backyard, the infinite expanse of the crab apple tree branches....

The nostalgic pleasures I felt when looking at the long-gone spy kit — that remarkable frisson experienced when an object matches its imagined doppelganger —  were, of course, warm, fuzzy, head-lifting, etc..  I see Hazlitt over there in the corner, fuming, but with an eyebrow lifted.  William, if I've been reading you correctly, you must hate nostalgia, that charmer between past pleasure and present regret.  But nostalgia's hard to hate; in fact nostalgia's too easy to love.  Was this what Hazlitt was steeling himself against?  I've no doubt that his wide-ranging observations about Continental politics and religion, poisoned and rendered cynically stagnant by man's capacity to hate, were urgent, dearly-held; I've no doubt that his friendships that curdled did so irrevocably and sadly, as happens.  But I'm happily skeptical of his lamenting art's failure to rouse us consistently.  The work (sorry, but it is work) of the spectator, the reader, the listener, is to reenter the work once the enchantment has faded, to find a way back in to what once was so effortlessly entered, even before we saw the door.  Substitute love, friendship, work.

Nostalgia?  Well, it's a way in, isn't it?  A pleasant tide that carries us back to a source of wonder and mystery.  (Nostos: homecoming!)  But we have to be wary of the course it takes us on, as nostalgia can just as easily settle us in a field of soft, fragrant forgetfulness as a field of hard, jarring stones.  In one we remember what we want, in the other we remember what we must.  Nostalgia is a great mode of remembering, but it can render us lazy rememberers.

1 comment:

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