intellectuals and burning libraries

Hazlitt likes to tell you what loves and what he hates. He begins On Reason and Imagination with a declaration of hate right off the bat: “I hate people who have no notion of anything but generalities, and forms, and creeds, and naked propositions, even worse than I dislike those who cannot for the soul of them arrive at the comprehension of an abstract idea.” The critical parameters, here, are ultimately parameters of feeling. But this is not to say that the parameters are straightforward, or that feeling is direct. Passion has its ruses as well as reason does; in fact, it has more of them. It operates by contact, but contact is unpredictable. This is why the case isn’t settled by this Hazlitt’s statement of interest. For instance, the hatred here is about a certain perverse form of love – the love of a certain type for generalities and forms and creeds. And the hatred produces hierarchy – one type is hated more than another. Although what isn’t hated is the typical object of the obsession defining the type that is hated. So we are already in the mouth of the labyrinth.

Hazlitt wrote On Reason and Imagination, according to the edition edited by Duncan Wu, probably before April, 1823. This was almost a decade after Hazlitt had suffered the terrible blow of Bonaparte’s defeat. Hazlitt had experienced his era gather around him like a nightmare. He ‘set out in life with the French Revolution’ – his father was a Unitarian minister, within that dissenting set that welcomed the Revolution and formed the radical wing of the Whig party. For Hazlitt, Napoleon’s rise was symbolic of the bursting of the chains of class that the Revolution was all about, and the war system that arose in England, about which he is marvelously cutting and incisive, was symbolic of the essentially sneaking character of reaction. It was, at the base, a spy system put in place by a corrupt elite that saw its interest in speaking the rhetoric of liberty in order to have a cover under which it could settle down to its druthers, which consisted in cutting the throat of liberty and using massive debt to create an economic order that would favor it. Hazlitt had seen the generation of radicals that had at first welcomed the Revolution – Coleridge, Southey, Wordsworth – become lackies of the established order. His revulsion at this betrayal throbs through his work. But he also saw the radical side on which he cast himself increasingly turn to a rebarbative, utilitarian vocabulary, a rejection of the ‘unbought graces of life’ not because they were really bought by the sweat of the peasant and the worker, but because they were graces.

The problem that Hazlitt confronts in On Reason and Imagination is with his own side; it is a characteristic problem of the liberal intellectual. That intellectual finds that his radical sympathies push him to support groups and parties that are otherwise monopolized by his very antithesis – people who have no more sympathy with the imagination than your average businessman. But where the businessman dismisses imagination as a clog on greed, the radical considers it a serious mark of moral depravity, which one must sacrifice for the revolution. This crude demand provides the subtext for the comedy in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, with the obsolete liberal, Stepan Verkhovensky, discovering to his horror that his son, Pyotr, is an out and out nihilist – an existential philistine, so to speak. Herzen scented this same thing in Bazarov, the radical in Turgenev’s Father and Sons, although Herzen came at this as a socialist, while Dostoevsky, of course, was having his fun as a reactionary. The same relationship – the initial courtship, the alignment of beautiful thinker and hard body radical, the disillusionment and flight – structured the fellow traveler phenomena of the thirties. It is Gide and the Stalinists, or – again on the comic level – Ambrose Silk, in Evelyn Waugh’s Put out more Flags, and Parsnip and Pimpernell – the Auden/Isherwood pair of fashionable radicals. In actual fact, Auden and Isherwood bolted the poltical parties, too. What it is about the liberal intellectual, what it is is this: wherever he goes, he brings literature with him. And that is irredeemably of the ancien regime, irredeemably privileged to the party utilitarian. And if you can’t loot or burn it, at least you can demand that the intellectual give it up in some way – disparage it, assure us all of its essentially useless and valueless nature, of its contingency, of its not mattering. All of this futurity can be seen in Hazlitt’s essay, a preemptive strike in favor of the imagination. I’ll go on from here in another post.