Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Hazlitt, I Hear Ya

The picturesque and dramatic do not keep pace with the useful and mechanical. The telegraphs that lately communicated the intelligence of the new revolution to all France within a few hours, are a wonderful contrivance; but they are less striking and appalling than the beacon fires (mentioned by Aeschylus,) which, lighted from hill-top to hill-top, announced the taking of Troy and the return of Agamemnon.
William Hazlitt, writing in "The Letter-Bell," likely the last essay he composed before his death in 1830. (The piece was published in 1831 by his son, in Monthly Magazine.) Typical of Hazlitt, the sentiment is grudgingly accepting and lyrically nostalgic, in this case for an era Hazlitt never experienced. That this is the last sentence in Hazlitt's last essay presses upon the mood, but it would be irresponsible, though irresistible, of me to read with too much hindsight. What strikes me in his observation is what Hazlitt elsewhere calls a connection with the universe: doesn't he sound a lot like those of us in the 21st Century grimly allowing for the Kindle while lamenting The Printed Book? Those a century before me who accepted the automobile while keening for the horse's nobility and servitude, for the preservation of tradition? I'll keep Hazlitt in mind—(I often do)—when I catch myself romanticizing and sentimentalizing the past, my one hand clutching my iPad, the other loose leaf paper. There's something comforting if vaguely embarrassing in the fact that each generation loudly protests the passing of its comforts. Hazlitt, of course, was merely repeating the mawkish gestures of earlier generations. The telegraph, or signal fires? The canvas, or the camera? The musty stacks, or Wikipedia? What's next week's precious complaint.


Richard Gilbert said...

Nice, Joe. Makes me think of Thoreau and his view of the telegraph and train, except he was a pure abstainer, and thus not nostalgic-sentimental, or presented himself to be. But, no doubt, Hazlitt was one smart guy. Somewhere I have his essays and must imbibe.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks, Richard. Metropolitan Writings is a great collection. I also recommend Jon Cook's Hazlitt In Love, a bio of his vexed romance(s). Great stuff. Back from your travels?

Richard Gilbert said...

Yep, back . . . physically!