Friday, November 16, 2018
What it is
The other day I paired Plutarch's “Consolation to his Wife” (1st century AD) with William Hazlitt's “On the Pleasure of Hating" (early 19th century). I asked my students to imagine the essays fighting each other in a boxing ring or back alley: Which essay would win? And why? The conversation's always fun, and often illuminating, as my students debate the strengths and vulnerabilities of each essay, each of which offers a philosophy of how to live. How do we move through our days while grieving or dealing with ordinary setbacks: with consolation or hate? Ideal stoicism or lower passions? Deliberate remove or hot takes? What I especially love is the liveliness of conversation about essays that are hundreds and hundreds of years old, the issues raised in them as relevant to twenty-something lives as anything, the writers' act of writing and exploring part of a long tradition my students are engaging. When Hazlitt complains about a favorite painting fading from his imagination, the early joys it brought him dulled by the passage of time, my students substitute their own favorite song, video, or meme that's lost its luster. And the centuries dissolve. A student once dismissed Hazlitt as sounding like a "cranky blogger," and to a semester that description rings hilariously true and accurate to my classes. "The memorable essay...is not place- or time-bound," says Joyce Carol Oates. "It survives the occasion of its original composition." I wrote this on the title page of my copy.