Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The English Comic Writers by William Hazlitt

Of Montaigne Hazlitt writes:

He did not in the abstract character of an author, undertake to say all that could be said upon a subject, but what in his capacity as an inquirer after truth he happened to know about it. He was neither a pedant nor a bigot. He neither supposed that he was bound to know all things, nor that all things were bound to conform to what he had fancied or would have them to be. In treating of men and manners, he spoke of them as he found them, not according to preconceived notions and abstract dogmas; and he began by teaching us what he himself was. 
( The Periodical Essayists from Lectures on The English Comic Writers given in 1818)

The recourse to classical ‘topoi’ in Montaigne was part of a normal education and therefore not pedantry. They are the stepping stones across the stream of his consciousness and to experience them as obstacles signifies our decline. Hazlitt in his remarks on the writers he considers favours robust and manly forthrightness over the glancing tastefulness of conventional moral attitudes. Steele’s soldierly vulgarity is preferred to the harmonious musings of Addison. As a man given to like combat Hazlitt was perhaps thinking of:

What arms the great Alexander used, is uncertain; however, the historian mentions, when he attacked Thalestris, it was only at single rapier; but the weapon soon failed; for it was always observed, that the Amazons had a sort of enchantment about them, which made the blade of the weapon, though of never so good metal, at every home push, lose its edge and grow feeble.
(from The Tatler no 31)

He impugns the Rambler essays of Johnson for the attitude evinced by him when out strolling in the streets of London with Boswell they were accosted by a bawd. ‘Girl, this will not do’ said Johnson.

His ' Letters from Correspondents,' in particular, are more pompous and unwieldly than what he writes in his own person. This want of relaxation and variety of manner has, I think, after the first effects of novelty and surprise were over, been prejudicial to the matter. It takes from the general power, not only to please, but to instruct The monotony of style produces an apparent monotony of ideas. What is really striking and valuable, is lost in the vain ostentation and circumlocution of the expression; for when we find the same pains and pomp of diction bestowed upon the most trifling as upon the most important parts of a sentence or discourse, we grow tired of distinguishing between pretension and reality, and are disposed to confound the tinsel and bombast of the phraseology with want of weight in the thoughts. Thus, from the imposing and oracular nature of the style, people are tempted at first to imagine that our author's speculations are all wisdom and profundity: till having found out their mistake in some instances, they suppose that there is nothing but common-place in them, concealed under verbiage^and pedantry; and in both they are wrong. 

The report of the correspondent Amicus may have given rise to this attack:

The anguish that I felt, left me no rest till I had, by your means, addressed myself to the publick on behalf of those forlorn creatures, the women of the town; whose misery here might satisfy the most rigorous censor, and whose participation of our common nature might surely induce us to endeavour, at least, their preservation from eternal punishment.
These were all once, if not virtuous, at least innocent; and might still have continued blameless and easy, but for the arts and insinuations of those whose rank, fortune, or education, furnished them with means to corrupt or to delude them. Let the libertine reflect a moment on the situation of that woman, who, being forsaken by her betrayer, is reduced to the necessity of turning prostitute for bread, and judge of the enormity of his guilt by the evils which it produces.
It cannot be doubted but that numbers follow this dreadful course of life, with shame, horrour, and regret; but where can they hope for refuge: "The world is not their friend, nor the world's law." Their sighs, and tears, and groans, are criminal in the eye of their tyrants, the bully and the bawd, who fatten on their misery, and threaten them with want or a gaol, if they show the least design of escaping from their bondage.
"To wipe all tears from off all faces," is a task too hard for mortals; but to alleviate misfortunes is often within the most limited power: yet the opportunities which every day affords of relieving the most wretched of human beings are overlooked and neglected, with equal disregard of policy and goodness.
( from The Rambler of Tuesday March 26th. 1751)

Hazlitt used prostitutes himself to relieve an appetite he experienced as a burden. Married love eluded him.


What happened to The Leftovers show? It’s going Down Under to die. The first two seasons were excellent, inventive, obscure and coherent in their strangeness. In this season sex scenes are a clear sign of poverty of invention. Add dismal profanity for an unhappy death. Sad!

There was an avalanche of evidence against O.J. from which the defence team managed to take away a few snowballs and say - ‘there you see it’s not an avalanche at all’ thereby giving some reason, any reason, for the jury to do what it wanted to do. Their deliberation was shambolic. The documentary was superb. I will watch this again. Fred Goldman came out of it well as the Nemesis with the club of legal pursuit.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

The Sage Abides - Upadesa Sahasri

82. The disciple said, How then am I who am changeless, the knower, as you say, of all the mental modifications, the objects of my knowledge?

83. The teacher said to him, I told you the right thing. The very fact (that you know simultaneously all the mental modifications) was adduced by me as the reason why you are eternally immutable.

This is the insight which is confirmed by the protphaenomenon of Deep Sleep or Sushupti which I have written about extensively. The disciple fascinated by the constantly changing contents of consciousness is identifying with this mutability. He takes his Self to be those contents that are somehow knowing themselves. If that were the case then the contents would be known sequentially and the problem of identity would devolve into a ‘binding problem’. How does that series of conscious states related to the various sense modes come together or know itself as a series (Hume). The teacher cuts through the starting point for complex Buddhistic theories of the self, skandhas etc., by reminding the disciple that all mental states/modifications are known simultaneously. I would add that they are attended to sequentially according to a practical hierarchy.

Not identifying with the contents of consciousness gives the sage’s personality that bright alertness and lack of fixity. There are no special states of mind for him to focus on. In the chapter on Abiding in the Self Astavakra declares:

A stage of life or no stage of life, meditation, control of mental functions - finding that these cause distraction to me, thus verily do I firmly abide.
(Astavakra Samhita Chap.XII.7)

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Fake News

April 21st. 1832.
There have been three silent revolutions in England: —first, when the professions fell off from the church; secondly, when literature fell off from the professions ; and, thirdly, when the press fell off from literature.
Common phrases are, as it were, so stereotyped now by conventional use, that it is really much easier to write on the ordinary politics of the day in the common newspaper style, than it is to make a good pair of shoes. An apprentice has as much to learn now to be a shoemaker as ever he had ; but an ignorant coxcomb with a competent want of honesty, may very effectively wield a pen in a newspaper office with infinitely less pains and preparation than were necessary formerly.
(from Table Talk)

Things have not improved particularly since the professionalisation of journalism in Ireland via a communications degree. Previously the better writers might have started out as office boys and brewers of tea and attenders at conflagrations to count the tenders. Gradually they came to develop their independent style and views. Now the graduates are quite progressively predictable and not worth reading or should I say not worth paying for the privilege of reading. For news I read aertel headlines being aware that any interpretation past the bare facts will be a partisan distortion.

Friday, 12 May 2017

The Indian Jugglers Part 2

Moving from one sort of Indian Jugglery, Advaitic contortions, to another we note William Hazlitt asking himself:

The hearing a speech in Parliament drawled or stammered out by the Honourable Member or the Noble Lord; the ringing the changes on their common-places, which any one could repeat after them as well as they, stirs me not a jot, shakes not my good opinion of myself; but the seeing the Indian Jugglers does. It makes me ashamed of myself. I ask what there is that I can do as well as this? Nothing. What have I been doing all my life? Have I been idle, or have I nothing to show for all my labour and pains? Or have I passed my time in pouring words like water into empty sieves, rolling a stone up a hill and then down again, trying to prove an argument in the teeth of facts, and looking for causes in the dark and not finding them? 

Is this an irritating display of false modesty or inverse humilty? The skill that he developed as a painter under the instruction of his brother John was marked and if he chose to abandon painting for journalism, even of the higher sort, his justification that he would never be a Titian or a Rembrandt lacks scale. Why not be an excellent William Hazlitt? Looking at his portraits of which there are some examples remaining I consider them to have a firmness of line and the tincture of life and freedom. His refusal to leave out the warts was a hindrance to his professional progress and that characteristic he carried into his writing and life.

The willing submission to what is there issuing from the enforced humility of the copyist endued him with the realisation of the difference between mere mechanical skill which ought to service artistic vision but very often supplants it.

This power is indifferently called genius, imagination, feeling, taste; but the manner in which it acts upon the mind can neither be defined by abstract rules, as is the case in science, nor verified by continual, unvarying experiments, as is the case in mechanical performances. The mechanical excellence of the Dutch painters in colouring and handling is that which comes the nearest in fine art to the perfection of certain manual exhibitions of skill. The truth of the effect and the facility with which it is produced are equally admirable. Up to a certain point everything is faultless. The hand and eye have done their part. There is only a want of taste and genius. It is after we enter upon that enchanted ground that the human mind begins to droop and flag as in a strange road, or in a thick mist, benighted and making little way with many attempts and many failures, and that the best of us only escape with half a triumph. The undefined and the imaginary are the regions that we must pass like Satan, difficult and doubtful, ‘half flying, half on foot.’ The object in sense is a positive thing, and execution comes with practice.

His Satan is of course Milton’s from Paradise Lost Bk.II. together with his own characteristic slight misquote:

That fury stayed —
Quenched in a boggy Syrtis, neither sea,
Nor good dry land — nigh foundered, on he fares,
Treading the crude consistence, half on foot,
Half flying; behoves him now both oar and sail.

Activity and the Changeless in Upadesa Sahasri

76. The disciple said, Knowledge is the meaning of a root and therefore surely consists of a change; and the Knower (as you say) is of a changeless nature. This is a contradiction.

77. Teacher: It is not so. For the word knowledge is used only in a secondary sense to mean a change called an action, the meaning of a root. A modification of the intellect called an action ends in a result in itself which is the reflection of Knowledge, the Self. It is for this reason that this modification is called knowledge in a secondary sense, just as the action of cutting a thing in two is secondarily called its separation in two which is the ultimate result of the action of cutting the thing.
(from Upadesa Sahasri Chap.II:The Knowledge of the Changeless)

The idea here, as I understand it, is that you have various inflections of the root ‘know’ e.g. knowing, known, knowable, knowledge. By implication you have also the polar opposite of ‘not know’ or ‘ignorance’ and its cognates. So we seem to have a condition i.e. knowledge, that arises out of activity or is an activity and is therefore not changeless. The Teacher does not deny that there is activity but he holds that it is only by being pervaded by Consciousness that knowledge arises out of it. Without that there would be no body of knowledge. This is the ‘secondary sense’ or ‘reflection’ of knowledge. In the cinema screen analogy, it’s as though the action had to pass through the permanent screen in order to be known.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Indian Jugglers by William Hazlitt (part 1)

Why anyone would spend their good money on a Fine Arts post graduate degree in Creative Writing when they have Table Talk by Hazlitt to read is clear to me. It’s the belief in instruction by osmosis or the sense that being in the presence of a master practitioner will cause a spark to jump. Also there is the corrective adjustment of your story offal that brings out the delightful oddity of your vision. Hazlitt describe the relationship between what can be taught and learned and what is true art:

You can put a child apprentice to a tumbler or rope-dancer with a comfortable prospect of success, if they are but sound of wind and limb; but you cannot do the same thing in painting. The odds are a million to one. You may make indeed as many Haydons and H——s as you put into that sort of machine, but not one Reynolds amongst them all, with his grace, his grandeur, his blandness of gusto, ‘in tones and gestures hit,’ unless you could make the man over again. To snatch this grace beyond the reach of art is then the height of art — where fine art begins, and where mechanical skill ends. The soft suffusion of the soul, the speechless breathing eloquence, the looks ‘commercing with the skies,’ the ever-shifting forms of an eternal principle, that which is seen but for a moment, but dwells in the heart always, and is only seized as it passes by strong and secret sympathy, must be taught by nature and genius, not by rules or study. It is suggested by feeling, not by laborious microscopic inspection; in seeking for it without, we lose the harmonious clue to it within; and in aiming to grasp the substance, we let the very spirit of art evaporate.

Calling those writing courses fine art degrees is a sad irony; not that Hazlitt in his need for folding green energy would not have set up a school and given good value. Eschew double negatives as tending to induce a state of bafflement would be a tenet of his I don’t doubt. What else might I fail to learn from him besides the sweet irascibility of which I am an apt student. The Lucknow boys will have learned that Hazlitt could revise and eliminate cf:Immortality, 2 versions the bum note. In the case of The Indian Jugglers it would be hard to find any. What of the caudal obituary for John Kavanaugh? Is it there to fill up the quire? If you have ever played a sport or practised a craft seriously you will know that beyond the mechanical skill there is pure effortless flow. We know that it’s art but we don’t like to say so in case it might be thought that another locker room is needed.

It’s a very fine day here and there is a lot to do in the garden. I will get back to a consideration of The Indian Jugglers this evening.
((Rule No.1: Write to please yourself))