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"Tom Paulin began reinventing Hazlitt as a travel writer. Usually a crap genre, travel writing by Hazlitt was a way  of writing the Republican Sublime, a political writing that completed the urgent detail of a still-life by injecting movement, life, gusto, into his accounts of his European journeys. Travel writing then became something more like the stuff out of blues singers, fiddlers, balladeers, travellers and ramblers -- on the road like Woodie Guthrie rather than on holiday with Peter Mayle".

by Richard Marshall 


“The purpose of writing is to make it happen’ -- William Burroughs to Jasper Johns (1). ‘So is Hazlitt kind of like Burroughs, or Stewart Home (2) – into the art of plagiarism?’ Duncan Wu crosses out the thought. ‘Burroughs is sloppy with his plagiarism. Hazlitt isn’t doing plagiarism. He’s taking something and turning it into gold.’ The influence of art has a long time effect -- Tom Paulin wonders about Joyce and Hazlitt -- the question of using sources, running them out into a new deal, so -- ‘Nothing is new. Everybody just gets their chance -- most of it sounds recycled and shuffled around, watered down. Even rap records. I love that stuff but it’s not new, you need to hear that stuff all the time…there was this one guy, Big Brown, he wore a jail blanket… he was like Othello, he’d recite epics like some Roman orator, really backwater stuff though, Stagger Lee, Cocaine Smitty, Hattiesburg. Where were the record companies when he was around? Even him though, it’s like it was done thirty years before that… and God knows when else…’ -- this is Bob Dylan speaking in 1985 pinning down some of the wings of this conversation that’s taking place after the day’s done -- Hazlitt working out of the past to claim the present like a rambling bluesman and Duncan Wu like a strong record company man who heard it right and came in as the good guy. Who was there.

So these questions reach back through the long time. Wu put together The Selected Writings Of William Hazlitt (3) -- the Pickering Masters -- all nine solid hardback volumes like mysterious trace deposits of the day, the long distance time-machines this short time secured. Oxford ,16th June, 2001, a day of reaching back, reinventing, rediscovering, restoring the crucial years of the crucial life of 1778 to 1830 -- and what happened was an idea -- the idea that Hazlitt, now no longer neglected, is necessary reading, like Shakespeare, Hazlitt the greatest critic ever, the greatest prose master, the dissenter we need, and need now. A troublemaker. An old time republican dissenter genius.

‘But do you think that Hazlitt believed in the idea of multi personality?’ -- David Bromwich, a consulting editor of these magnificent books fired his question at Uttar Natarajan in the afternoon session and the connection between the eighteenth century Romantics and current sci fi became an eerie sub-current. For a moment it was possible to connect Hazlitt with cyber-punk, with Arnie in The 6th Day, with Philip K Dick -- and a whole raft of Star Trek episodes. Indeed Hazlitt’s philosophical metaphysic were forgrounded in the discussions throughout the day and subtle divisions and crackling inventiveness churned up the smooth surface smarm of academe’s usual killjoy naval-talk to create a deep and fertile furrow of energies. This was what a Hazlitt conference should be like: where argument, division -- that overgiven in-your-face quality of argumentative thinking -- is part of the reason Hazlitt is one of the most important figures of his time. More important than Wordsworth. More important than Shelley. Than any of them.

Bromwich spoke in the morning -- ‘On Critical character’ as did Jonathan Bate who discussed the green issue and Hazlitt in his talk ‘halfstrangers in the canon.’ AC Grayling seized on Hazlitt’s philosophical arguments in his piece ‘ Ethics and the Self in Hazlitt’ but this was a slight piece of work compared with the heavyweight contribution from Goldsmith College’s Uttara Natarajan who covered much of the same ground in a brilliant essay ‘Shelley’s Hazlitt’ -- brilliant because she seemed to seize upon the argument about imaginative sympathy and disinterestedness in a manner which exemplified the thesis as well as explicated it. Here was where the conference really burned up with the crackling fired up noise of big thinking and big language -- it was a bravado performance which combined panache and lovely cadence with incisive strong thought. What she did was explicate Hazlitt’s transcendental argument about the possibility of disinterestedness as being a necessary feature of having the idea of a self -- it was this that prompted Bromwich’s question about multiple personalities -- something he claimed Shelley totally believed in.

Before this John Whale had already set up an argument for placing the Liber Amoris at the centre of Hazlitt’s work -- to some of us this work is deeply nasty and misogynist. And so why did he write it? In 1820 Hazlitt moved to new lodgings in Southampton Buildings and promptly fell in love with his landlady’s daughter, Sarah Walker. Liber Amoris tells quite candidly the story of this obsessive futile passion, which ended disastrously when Walker revealed that she had been unfaithful to Hazlitt all along. An alternative view to that of Whale’s might suggest that if by placing this work centrally you were maintaining the view of Hazlitt as a masculinist Romantic then this would not be a good idea -- and clearly Hazlitt’s views on women do sometimes seem to be closer to our own Lord Archer’s than his many fans like to admit. If placing Liber Amoris to the fore is to signal a support for this type of ugly sexist stuff then Whale’s Hazlitt seems to be a bad Hazlitt to have. In the end though, this wasn’t the view of Hazlitt we heard from others and Natarajan just didn’t find anything in Liber Amoris crucial to anything at all.

It seems however, that you could argue that just as in his prose Hazlitt wanted to keep everything moving -- he resisted the deadness of still-life by injecting smoke into scenes, great accidents of movement, so the scene lived, changed, like the questing mind itself -- so maybe his weird passion was part of this same motivation, an attempt to resist the pressure of an inert married life through a kind of sexual fury, the fathomless bundle of incoherence that sits down to breakfast, reaching out to be more type than man and more passion than type. It’s this that really buries into your head when you read Hazlitt -- you’re asking yourself the same kind of mad questions that he asked of, say, the sea ‘rolled round the earth, smiling in its sleep, waked into fury, fathomless, boundless, a huge world of water-drops -- whence it is, wither goes it, is it of eternity or of nothing?’ -- well, this is extraordinary stuff, vital, its a necessary richness, and is the same kind of thing that happens when you hear a creative genius like Dylan questioning and answering his own voice: ‘When did Abraham break his father’s idols? I think it was last Tuesday’ (Interview given in1985).

But the final shot of the day was the hour and a quarter plenary lecture by Tom Paulin who began reinventing Hazlitt as a travel writer. Usually a crap genre, travel writing by Hazlitt was a way of writing the Republican Sublime, a political writing that completed the urgent detail of a still-life by injecting movement, life, gusto, into his accounts of his European journeys. Travel writing then became something more like the stuff out of blues singers, fiddlers, balladeers, travellers and ramblers -- on the road like Woodie Guthrie rather than on holiday with Peter Mayle. The lecture was itself a serious, crazy, greased-up lightning talk -- it fair darted and jabbed along, unflinched by asides and sudden insights which seemed to be hitting his mind just then, there, at the time he spoke. It was one of those times when you see thinking happening, the grapple and dash of a kind of inspired erudite thought, and it was the sometime stupendous dazzle of what might be done, must be done, in great English prose.

Paulin is probably the closest we get in the present day to the qualities most admired in Hazlitt --‘prose that … went the nearest to the verge of poetry and yet never fell over’. To this business of prose -- that’s the heart of the thing for Paulin’s Hazlitt -- prose as being different from poetry ‘like the chamois from the eagle: it climbs to an almost equal height, touches upon a cloud, overlooks a precipice, is picturesque, sublime – but all the while, instead of soaring through the air, it stands upon a rocky cliff, clambers up by abrupt and intricate ways, and browses on the roughest bark, or crops the tender flower.’ So in Paulin’s lecture we were given the still-life possibility of a lecture which he then detonated through injecting the ‘smoke’ of asides, thoughts happening to the moment, to now, a kind of listening-in quality so you were given the impression that he too, Paulin himself, was learning off whatever he was saying and being surprised, woken up, amused, scandalised or whatever by the things he was hearing . The sound of the prose: Paulin read Hazlitt’s lines and pounced on the sounds, the cadences and their connections, Paulin’s approach turns Hazlitt into some improvisory bluesman like Robert Johnson or perhaps a fairground preacherman, restlessly trying out for some truth through perfecting a strong prose style.  Hazlitt’s never felt more like a live presence than in the hands of this Paulin. It's a writing that works out of the dissenting, republican flow of Bunyon, Defoe, Edwards, Melville, Twain and all that. Kind of miraculous.

Throughout there’s this argument within Hazlitt -- Hazlitt tormenting himself with this argument about whether what he is doing -- working prose to its final upper limits -- can ever have the reach of poetry. It’s a question for our times too, where the idea that some of our greatest writers might be now essayists, diarists, letter writers (think of Norman Mailer, Christopher Hitchens, Hunter S Thompson, Gore Vidal, Iain Sinclair, Tom Paulin himself ) there’s a case for saying that if we’re going to value these in the future it’s going to be their non-fiction prose that carries them on. So maybe this is indeed a time for Hazlitt.

Duncan Wu, the editor of those nine volumes of The Selected Writings Of William Hazlitt as well as a paperback selecton of Hazlitt’s writings, he presided over all this. He knows why it is important, his passion brought about this day and already there’s a sense that something bigger will happen in the future. He’s also part of the Hazlitt Memorial Fund Committee that includes Melvyn Bragg, Michael Foot, AC Grayling, Annalena McAfee (editor of the Guardian Saturday Review) , Ian Mayes (Reader’s Editor of the Guardian), Tim Miller, Andrew Motion and Tom Paulin. This group is looking to have Hazlitt’s grave in St Anne’s churchyard in Soho marked with something better than the existing flat stone with a faded inscription bearing only his name and dates. I’ve got a feeling that the set of prose works Wu edited and for which Tom Paulin wrote the introduction will serve as something equal to any newly carved stone.

1. William Burroughs The Adding Machine Calder 1985 p61. 2. Stewart Home Neoism, Plagiarism & Praxis AK Press 1995. The Selected Writings of William Hazlitt. The Pickering masters -- 9 Volume Set edited by Duncan Wu. Consulting editors David Bromwich, Roy Park, Tom Paulin. With an introduction by Tom Paulin. Pickering and Chatto Publishers, 1998.

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Richard Marshall.

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