Saturday, January 05, 2008

The geneology of contrarianism

Marx’s journalism has suffered a shabby fate – it has not, to my knowledge, been fully collected. One of the nice things about the german site that hosts all of Marx and Engels work is that it is collected there. But in German, translated from the English. It should be collected in English. The man was the godfather of a certain kind of journalism, plus of course there is Marx’s wasplike gift of sting. Marx may have learned from Heine that a pun or an allusion to Shakespeare could leave a lasting burn on the skin of the Beast, but the way he worked this out, the way he would paste up a mosaic of facts and quotes from the newspapers of the time to display the full pattern and palimpset of the oppressor class foreshadowed all the great journalists of the twentieth century. Kraus may not have read him, but he employs the same techniques. So does Tucholsky.

In 1861, when Marx wrote “The American Question in England”, the British establishment, under the spell of “chivalry” as a chaser to imperial power and money, was engaged in the shabby business of support the Confederates on – of course – a strictly moral basis. This support had two aspects: one was the class aspect, and one was financial. As a class, the bourgeoisie, by this time, had gone beyond the old fights with the landholders, the old philanthropic enthusiasm for banning the slave trade. At this point, beyond its function as a wealthmaking potential colony, the South’s whole plantation system had already begun to exert a romantic vacationer’s allure.

Marx, of course, brings the buzz saw to the pleasure dome. What makes this particular article relevant is the way it shows the peekaboo structure of the establishment journalist’s ethos. As they do today, journalists then were happy to live on the surface and stenograph the conventional wisdom of the powerful; however, sometimes they seemed to display flashes of impressive analysis, as though they had up and resolved to dig deep and confront the old mole of history itself, in one of its moleways. Of course, those flashes – nowadays we would call this “contrarianism” – always seem to end up at the same place that the stenography work gets us to: as a bulwark of greed, lust for power, and apology for the politics of an inbred and narcissistic governing class.

Marx’s analysis of the dynamic between the North and the South, and the way it is treated in 1861 by the liberal (as in classically liberal) British press is an amazing work of compression and analysis. As Marx observes, the objections to the North’s hypocrisy and illegitimacy by the British press hide the true intentions of the press under the cover of a Pecksniffish display of moral authenticity. The article is occasioned by a pamphlet addressed to the British on the part of the Union by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The pamphlet was tossed around and given the kind of contrarian treatment by the British press in much the way, say, that the NYT, the Washington Post, and Slate treat Michael Moore’s work: as both wrong wrong wrong and tediously filled with things that are right right right – but the latter being things that we all knew, after all. We all knew them so well that we just didn’t bother to report them. They were known by everybody who counted in D.C., that is. Like: we all knew that the WMDs were just an excuse to invade a country the White House had decided from the very beginning that it was going to invade.

This elitist trifling, this overt intellectual corruption to which the knowing smirk stands in the same relation as the does the buboe to the black plague, has a long and dishonorable history. Marx and Henry Adams were both encountering it, in their different ways, in 1861. Here’s a lengthy excerpt:

We come nearer to the pith of the question by the following remark of The Examiner:

“Mrs. Stowe says: ‘The Slave party, finding they could no longer use the Union for their purposes, resolved to destroy it.’ There is here an admission that up to that time the Slave party had used the Union for their purposes, and it would have been well if Mrs. Stowe could have distinctly shown where it was that the North began to make its stand against Slavery.”

One might suppose that The Examiner and the other oracles of public opinion in England had made themselves sufficiently familiar with the contemporaneous history to not need Mrs. Stowe’s information on such all-important points. The progressive abuse of the Union by the slave power, working through its alliance with the Northern Democratic party, is, so to say, the general formula of the United States history since the beginning of this century. The successive compromise measures mark the successive degrees of the encroachment by which the Union became more and more transformed into the slave of the slave-owner. Each of these compromises denotes a new encroachment of the South, a new concession of the North. At the same time none of the successive victories of the South was carried but after a hot contest with an antagonistic force in the North, appearing under different party names with different watchwords and under different colors. If the positive and final result of each single contest told in favor of the South, the attentive observer of history could not but see that every new advance of the slave power was a step forward to its ultimate defeat. Even at the times of the Missouri Compromise the contending forces were so evenly balanced that Jefferson, as we see from his memoirs, apprehended the Union to be in danger of splitting on that deadly antagonism. The encroachments of the slaveholding power reached their maximum point, when, by the Kansas-Nebraska bill, for the first time in the history of the United States, as Mr. Douglas himself confessed, every legal barrier to the diffusion of Slavery within the United States territories was broken down, when, afterward, a Northern candidate bought his Presidential nomination by pledging the Union to conquer or purchase in Cuba a new field of dominion for the slaveholder; when, later on, by the Dred Scott decision, diffusion of Slavery by the Federal power was proclaimed as the law of the American Constitution, and lastly, when the African slave-trade was de facto reopened on a larger scale than during the times of its legal existence. But, concurrently with this climax of Southern encroachments, carried by the connivance of the Northern Democratic party, there were unmistakable signs of Northern antagonistic agencies having gathered such strength as must soon turn the balance of power. The Kansas war, the formation of the Republican party, and the large vote cast for Mr. Frémont during the Presidential election of 1856, were so many palpable proofs that the North had accumulated sufficient energies to rectify the aberrations which United States history, under the slaveowners’ pressure, had undergone, for half a century, and to make it return to the true principles of its development. Apart from those political phenomena, there was one broad statistical and economical fact indicating that the abuse of the Federal Union by the slave interest had approached the point from which it would have to recede forcibly… That fact was the growth of the North-West, the immense strides its population had made from 1850 to 1860, and the new and reinvigorating influence it could not but bear on the destinies of the United States.
Now, was all this a secret chapter of history? Was “the admission” of Mrs. Beecher Stowe wanted to reveal to The Examiner and the other political illuminati of the London press the carefully hidden truth that “up to that time the Slave party had used the Union for their purposes?” Is it the fault of the American North that the English pressmen were taken quite unawares by the violent clash of the antagonistic forces, the friction of which was the moving power of its history for half a century? Is it the fault of the Americans that the English press mistake for the fanciful crotchet hatched in a single day what was in reality the matured result of long years of struggle? The very fact that the formation and the progress of the Republican party in America have hardly been noticed by the London press, speaks volumes as to the hollowness of its Anti-Slavery tirades. Take, for instance, the two antipodes of the London press, The London Times and Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper, the one the great organ of the respectable classes, and the other the only remaining organ of the working class. The former, not long before Mr. Buchanan’s career drew to an end, published an elaborate apology for his Administration and a defamatory libel against the Republican movement. Reynolds, on his part, was, during Mr. Buchanan’s stay at London, one of his minions, and since that time never missed an occasion to write him up and to write his adversaries down. How did it come to pass that the Republican party, whose platform was drawn up on the avowed antagonism to the encroachments of the Slaveocracy and the abuse of the Union by the slave interest, carried the day in the North? How, in the second instance, did it come to pass that the great bulk of the Northern Democratic party, flinging aside its old connexions with the leaders of Slaveocracy, setting at naught its traditions of half a century, sacrificing great commercial interests and greater political prejudices, rushed to the support of the present Republican Administration and offered it men and money with an unsparing hand?

Instead of answering these questions The Economist exclaims:

“Can we forget [...] that Abolitionists have habitually been as ferociously persecuted and maltreated in the North and West as in the South? Can it be denied that the testiness and half-heartedness, not to say insincerity, of the Government at Washington, have for years supplied the chief impediment which has thwarted our efforts for the effectual suppression of the slave trade on the coast of Africa; while a vast proportion of the clippers actually engaged in that trade have been built with Northern capital, owned by Northern merchants and manned by Northern seamen?”

This is, in fact, a masterly piece of logic. Anti-Slavery England cannot sympathize with the North breaking down the withering influence of slaveocracy, because she cannot forget that the North, while bound by that influence, supported the slave-trade, mobbed the Abolitionists, and had its Democratic institutions tainted by the slavedriver’s prejudices. She cannot sympathize with Mr. Lincoln’s Administration, because she had to find fault with Mr. Buchanan’s Administration. She must needs sullenly cavil at the present movement of the Northern resurrection, cheer up the Northern sympathizers with the slave-trade, branded in the Republican platform, and coquet with the Southern slaveocracy, setting up an empire of its own, because she cannot forget that the North of yesterday was not the North of to-day. The necessity of justifying its attitude by such pettifogging Old Bailey pleas proves more than anything else that the anti-Northern part of the English press is instigated by hidden motives, too mean and dastardly to be openly avowed.”

Pettifogging Old Bailey pleas have bloomed into a veritable system since Marx's day. We now have to put up with the apparatchiks of contrarianism, the misshaped avatars of inside information, working day after day to close off and erase any possibility of a serious discussion of the power elite, tirelessly in pursuit of the trivial, the apes of the Petro-Gun club. During elections is when you see these apes most at work...

B.. b… but LI was going to segue from this long Marx sequence into the Iowa caucuses. Huh, well, this post is long enough as it is.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

James Wood and LI's Reviewer Envy

LI writes reviews. We’ve completed a good thousand reviews over the past decade, mostly small things for Publishers Weekly. When you write reviews as a job, you soon get to know the routines that go into the review in the same way that, say, the debt collector making a telephone call soon acquires an easy sense for how to squeeze the other end of the line.

For some reason, this autumn saw more articles than usual about the decline of book reviewing in the papers, which all of us free lancers know all about. Just as we know that newspaper editors, on the whole, don’t understand how bound up their own fate is with the fate of reading matter. Since the reviewer page doesn’t generate the revenue or the online hits that the movie review section does, the book review section is given the orphan’s share. But what the movie review section does is point the reader away from reading material, and once you have ingrained that habit, reading material, which includes newspapers, starts dropping below the horizon of your life.

So much for special pleading. I intrude the facts of my own bio only to establish a parti pris. I am one of those people who is unimpressed with James Wood. He is, for a book reviewer, a bit of a star. Media places took note when he was hired away from the New Republic by the New Yorker this summer. Now, writing for the New Yorker, for a book reviewer, is to be in a job that was held, at various times, by the likes of Dorothy Parker and Edmund Wilson. It is to the kind of book reviewing I do as the Supreme Court is to a traffic judge in Williamson County, Texas. So much much envy goes into my overall view of James Wood.

And of course there is the problem he has with ‘hysterical realism,’ his name for what Delillo and Pynchon do. It isn’t really better than the literature of paranoia, which is the phrase by which it used to be earmarked. Wood is one of those English writers, like Martin Amis, who take Saul Bellow as the iconic great American novelist. They love the Essayismus in Bellow, they loved the dialogue with the great dead. They loved the comic turns, and Bellow’s damned familiarity with what C. Wright Mills called The Power Elite – whether in academia, or in the literary salons, or in politics, or even in the Mafia – vide Humboldt’s gift. And I understand that. One of the great things about Bellow is his confidence that the writer is one of the power elite. There’s not the anxious social sense that academic critics show about that elite, that resentment barely disguised by an ill digested Marxism. However, because Bellow’s territory is so much the Power Elite ego, his sense of what is happening in America is always a bit shaky. That phrase of his I love – the ‘moronic inferno’ – is exactly the skyscraper office view of what is happening on the street. There is no place in Bellow for voices from the moronic inferno to be heard.

Which separates him absolutely from someone like Delillo. Delillo’s worst book, Cosmopolis, is an attempt to beam up to the billionaire mindset. His great novels, however, are all about going into and out of the moronic inferno. It is a babel of technospeaks in there, and he has an exact ear for them. There’s a beautiful passage in Running Dog in that contemplates the military fetish for the names of hardware, a fetish that has mutated and flourished beyond reckoning in this software addled country; but that is merely one of the hundreds of intricately fetishized lingos, from gangsta rap to self help which Delillo loves to sample. Bellow, of course, felt those lingos creeping up the skyscraper as a threat, as the very heart of the moronic, that tongue grafitti threatening our very ability to think about life and death and meaning. And Wood follows Bellow here. This is why Wood can remark that Underworld is a failure and pen a glowing review about the last Coetzee novel, Diary of a Bad Year – which was a truly embarrassing mess. If you have absorbed Bellow as your model contemporary novelist, you are going to be a sucker for stories in which old men making sweeping humanistic gestures while entertaining the hots for younger women.

Coetzee’s novel is about a novelist with the initials J.C. (which is a reviewer’s opportunity to make English class clucking sounds, gravely informing the reader that we are not to confuse J.C. with the author – why, it is all a clever fiction! Wood, of course, doesn’t miss that opportunity) who writes a series of essays deploring the war in Iraq, America in general, and advancing some remarkably dumb views about biology and evolution to explain his take on feminism. He also writes some personal essays (“Class: write an essay about your encounter with a tree! in five hundred words or less”). These essays are put at the top of the page – at the bottom, at the footnote level, a drama takes place. J.C. notices a woman in his condo at the laundry with a divine behind. He makes friends with her, in a creepy way, by taking her on as a secretary. Her boyfriend is an investment banker, a spouter of neo-liberal arguments, and in general a thug who comes up with a scheme for robbing J.C. of all his Nobel Prize loot using J.C.'s fondness for his girlfriend. After the banker and the girlfriend go to J.C.’s apartment for a celebration of the publication of his essay book, the girlfriend breaks up with Mr. Thug – it turns out that he got drunk and said mean things to J.C. Unheard of, that. There is an implication in that breakup that the young woman has "learned to be herself" through association with the lecherous but impotent old writer. That fantasy of both lusting after a young beauty and improving her mind somehow makes me cringe - of fantasies of beauty and the old beast, I much prefer the final scene of The Blue Angel.

All of this is written in something like a non-style. To praise it (and somehow, I can’t believe that Wood actually liked Diary of a Bad Year, just as I can’t believe that he didn’t recognize the greatness of Underworld), Wood has to adjust our expectations. So this is how he begins:

“There are people who think of J. M. Coetzee as a cold writer, and he might agree, or pretend to agree. “If he were a warmer person he would no doubt find it all easier: life, love, poetry,” he writes of himself in his memoir “Youth.” “But warmth is not in his nature.” The protagonist of Coetzee’s new novel, “Diary of a Bad Year” (Viking; $24.95), is, like his creator, an aging South African novelist resident in Australia, who muses at one moment that his father surely thought him a selfish child “who has turned into a cold man.” His art, he laments, is “not great-souled.” It lacks “generosity, fails to celebrate life, lacks love.”

Yet this is the cold air just beyond the reach of a fire. Coetzee’s chaste, exact, ashen prose may look like the very embers of restraint, but it is drawn, again and again, to passionate extremity: an uneducated gardener forced to live like an animal off the South African earth (“Life & Times of Michael K”); a white woman dying of cancer while a black township burns, and writing, in her last days, a letter of brutal truths to her daughter (“Age of Iron”); a white woman raped on her farm by a gang of black men, and impregnated (“Disgrace”); a recent amputee, the victim of a road accident that mangled a leg, helpless in his Adelaide apartment, and awkwardly in love with his Croatian nurse (“Slow Man”). Coetzee seems compelled to test his celebrated restraint against subjects and ideas whose extremity challenges novelistic representation.”

With that exciting beginning, you figure there is going to be action galore in Diary of a Bad Year, observed with a fine anatomist’s eye. But where Wood writes cold, one should not think cool – one should think, “as in oatmeal that has been left out for a day.”

In the review, Wood barely covers the tendentious job he has laid out for himself. The job is, how to make a silk purse out of a cold dead sow's ear. He takes the obvious flaws that he should be pondering as a reviewer, and weaves them into an appreciation of the artistry of the writer – so artful that the awfulness on hand is simply an indication of the greater genius! Thus you get something like this:

The central characters of both “Elizabeth Costello,” which appeared in 2003, and “Diary of a Bad Year” are novelists, and novelists in the act of dispensing strong opinions. Elizabeth Costello has been giving public lectures, which are reproduced in the novel; the protagonist of Coetzee’s new book has been asked by his German publisher to contribute to a volume of essays that will gather the “Strong Opinions” (this is its proposed title) of six prominent contemporary writers. Many of the protagonist’s essays are reproduced in the novel we are reading. Naturally, the reader wants to make Coetzee’s novels confessional, to claim these opinions as his rightful children. But Coetzee explicitly complicates the question of his paternity, so that these books read less like confessions than like books about confession.
Lest that sound dry, it should be said that “Diary of a Bad Year” is an involving, argumentative, moving novel: if not quite “great-souled,” then deep-souled. Coetzee smudges the traces of his authorial DNA by using a framing device that both hints at and disavows connections between the novelist protagonist and the actual writer. The South African novelist at the center of the new book is teasingly called “Señor C” by his neighbors, but he is by no means identical to J. M. Coetzee, who was born in South Africa in 1940, taught at the University of Chicago before moving to Australia, and won the Nobel Prize in 2003. Señor C is six years older than the Nobel Laureate, often writes elegantly and sometimes a bit demotically (“Most scientists can’t write for toffee,” he claims at one point), and expresses regret that people think of him not as a novelist but as “a pedant who dabbles in fiction.” Distinguished he may be, but he feels obscure, overlooked, worn out. Stockholm has not, apparently, called. He lives in an apartment block in Sydney, where he meets Anya, an attractive young neighbor who is currently unemployed but used to be a receptionist in “the hospitality industry.” Like the elderly Nathan Zuckerman, he is uselessly afflicted with desire, and smothers his lust by asking Anya if she would like to type up the “strong opinions” he has been speaking into a Dictaphone. After a formulaic demurral—as in bank-heist movies, the last important addition to the team always spends a scene resisting—she agrees. Anya calls him Señor C because, it seems, she had thought that he was a South American novelist. Señor C’s strong opinions are divided into thirty-one brief chapters, with titles like “On intelligent design” and “On Guantanamo Bay.” They are a confounding mixture of the banal, the extreme, and the scintillating. Inevitably, his attacks on George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Guantánamo, though righteous, have a slightly overinhabited quality, as if too many other people had been squatting in their public rooms. Coetzee, I suspect, wants us to reflect on the differences in rhetoric between public and private ideas. A passage like the following, from a chapter entitled “On terrorism,” sounds like a bull with a bullhorn, and is very different in tone from the more feline Coetzee, who would surely rather have his claws pulled than commit to print the phrase “It’s déjà vu all over again”.

What to say about that magnificent, ass covering sentence: “Coetzee, I suspect, wants us to reflect on the differences in rhetoric between public and private ideas?” It is perfect James Wood. There’s the stubbornness of the resistant text, which indeed consists of page after page of subdeb punditry – and there is the higher purpose, surely a higher purpose than mere vanity, that it serves when thrown at us in the guise of a novel, trimmed out with a halfhearted story that, in all, doesn't even make for a decent anecdote. Whereas the feline Delillo would simply be tossed about for 'It’s déjà vu all over again', with Coetzee one is witnessing the very birth of irony in this millionth reiteration of the Yogi Berra phrase.

Huh. I didn’t mean to go on so long, but obviously Wood’s tastes bug me – and more, his tastelessness bugs me. Wood’s reputation is partly built on his stern, prosecutorial essays on the likes of Delillo, Toni Morrison, etc., but I believe his rep rests, as well, on his appreciation of the old guys. I don’t think he is untalented as a critic – I liked the essay on War and Peace from the week before, although I did think he went on a little too much with the idea of Tolstoy’s characters being warmer blooded than the rest of us. But I do not at all like the praise of the second rate. Diary of a Bad Year was badly conceived, the essays are poorly written, and the machinations with the characters are cartoonishly dumb. Frustratingly, I don’t feel like Wood would disagree with that judgment – the hedging in the review is all too blatant, an exercise in misdirecting the reader. That, that I find to be disheartening. Far better Wood the prosecutor of hysterical realism than Wood, the sycophant of Great and the Good.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

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.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New year's eve traditions

Ah, New Year’s eve!

I know many of LI’s readers will be out tonight. Some of you will be breaking into deserted houses and cleaning out the valuables before the besotted party goers come home. Others will be spraying graffiti on limos, or tossing bricks through store windows, or engaging in other socially valuable anarcho pranks. Others, like LI, are planning on a quiet evening of glue sniffing and Solaris. But whatever rocks your boat, do it tonight with a pure heart! Here’s a little video from Turbostaat to get you started – any of you who are planning on joining the Russian mafia should take notes!

And of course, tonight is the night we traditionally think kindly of the late Rick James.

Monday, December 31, 2007

oh you sweettooth generations!

In our last post, we used G.E. Moore as our intercessor to think about John Stuart Mill. Our interest in the weird troping of happiness in Mill’s Autobiography was piqued by Colin Heydt’s essay on Mill and Internal Culture, which we intended to pursue next. Instead, we are going to perform our usual zigzag – LI is a veritable encyclopedia of zigzags, and damme if I’m going to change now, mes droogs et droogesses – and advert to William Hazlitt.

Hazlitt was a dogged critic and reader of Bentham, wrote one of the great essays about him in the Spirit of the Age, and, as well, made a sidelong attack on James Mill in On Reason and Imagination, an essay that does a lot, even as that lot has, until recently, escaped consideration. In the last ten years, however, there's been a mini-Hazlitt revival in lit crit circles. It is with the latter essay I’d like to start. But start what? Start considering the structure involved in positing an object that is lost if you search for it – the object in question being that mood/emotion/assessment/feeling, happiness. Mill's bland usage of the term conceals, as Moore points out, a divided meaning that slips between that which is the equivalent of the good and that which requires – to use phenomenological language – an aboutness. Moore thinks that we can affect a logical analysis keeping these two senses apart, and that this is how we will start out doing ethics in a proper way; but one wonders, after Moore has won his logical victory, what exactly he has shown. Or rather, one wonders why he thinks that the impulses that are gathered under the naturalistic fallacy can be sorted out simply by better semantics. Perhaps the logical conflation of happiness with the good does arise simply from a mistake in the language of discourse; but instead of simply correcting that mistake, perhaps we should try to chart the deeper structure of it in the mythologies of everyday life.

For that kind of business, Hazlitt was your man. He was not only an essayist, but an artist and a philosopher. A Jacobin who never betrayed the cause, at the same time he was resistant to thinking that the sweetness of life was a mere aristocratic bauble, or that it could be atomized, packaged and sold by means of a calculus of pleasure and pain to a succession of sweettooth generations. And in these intuitions he seems to be our natural intercessor.

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...