ENGLAND'S MISSING CRITIC
"Tom Paulin mused that maybe it is in the Westminster political stew that we find the mythical spine of Britain. Here you find the familiar stories of a Nation's dissenting imagination returning again and again to be told, either brilliantly and inspiringly -- think again of Churchill, think of Michael Foot, or stupidly -- think of the Tory liar Aitkin trying on 'the sword of justice' and cutting his own bollocks off with it as he tried to cut off the free thinking investigative heads of the Guardian newspaper. Or even weirdly -- think of Anne Widdecombe describing former Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard as having a 'touch of the night' about him, a brilliant and narratively freighted moment in political backstabbing performance art."
Richard Marshall reports on the Second Annual William Hazlitt Day-School at St Catherine's College, Oxford.
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Jim Martin's recent piece in 3AM demanding the right to protest and lamenting the loss of the dissenting spirit -- "When the hell did it become dangerous to protest? At what point did it suddenly make a whole lot of sense for us as a population to fear standing up for ourselves? Did I miss a memo somewhere along the way?" -- his context was in the recent G8 shin-dig in Canada and the rather useless anti-capitalist demos he witnessed there -- reminds us that there is something insidious and dangerous happening to politics. The New Labour 'Project' in Britain and its "end of politics" whispering campaign, has taken dissent out of the picture. It is suppression through co-option. Revolution is now a shop. Every rebel yell is quickly tagged to a franchise. It is the argumentative manner that is being lost, a forceful and independent spirit spiked, and an easy, careless politeness and fugitive, fashionable bondage has replaced it. It has eaten into our bowels and come to the vital parts. In Stewart Home, Mick Farren , Tariq Ali , Steven Wells, Germaine Greer, Tony Benn we still hear its noise, but there is such a clamour in opposition to it perhaps it will be destroyed if we don't take great care, and speedily.
Further to this, where now in England do we hear the grand dissenting speech, the set-piece moment of the tongue wagging loose with things and ideas? Such moments work as a suspension bridge between the spontaneous, the vernacular and the popular on the one hand and the learned, literary and printed on the other. Mediated narratives of popular, vernacular culture offer rich and varied testimonies to a sophisticated chronicle of right and wrong, of ways of evading or righting them, tales wrapped in fantasy and unreality, never purely oral because of the weaving in and out of written texts, classical and otherwise -- language conducted from mouth to page and back to mouth again -- but essentially depending on the crucial performative act, the living, disguised spontaneous moment of speech. It's the grandmother telling the little girl the story of Hansel and Gretel, it's Arthur Scargill asking his coal miners to fight on -- its the same wicked witch -- this time she's got a name -- Thatcher -- in the early 80s.
And in the latter performance there's an illusion of collusive intimacy. The person giving such a speech can at once speak to the many and yet seem still to be addressing each one in the crowd as an intimate, an individual. Preachers do it -- we can find ample evidence of this in, for example, the 20th century sermons of Ian Paisley or Dr Martin Lloyd Jones. We heard it too in the political oratory of Churchill, Michael Foot and maybe Neil Kinnock. Such performances are powerful because they act out, in language, acts of kindness and revenge, warnings and promises that fire up into the moment, crackle with persuasion and real event time, they tell stories as an act of social glue. Most of them retell older versions of themselves and such a storehouse of narrative acts to enhance reciprocal relations, communicate across time and space, even spaces of national self-interest and pride. Just as Grimm's fairy tales, self proclaimed as pure German Volk tales, are known to have come from all over the world before the Grimm's cornered them for a while, so too the tales politicians and preachers have to tell.
What is also interesting is that the very nature of such storytelling - the very qualities that give them their dubious reputation for being unreliable, not too truthful -- think about the scorn we heap upon our politicians, think about the way we have down-graded storytellers as tellers of truth and boosted the role of scientists instead -- without always noticing that to get their truths across the scientists are having to tell stories now, and very often the same stories -- those very qualities are also the very things that give them their authority too. They are potential conduits for seeing the world differently, seeing it afresh, mythical hopes conjured to build utopian desires and house those desires. These are sounds that have echoed from the bottom of the human heart, or at least, that is what they suggest. A forbidden door is opened to terra nova where different rules may apply.
Suggestively Tom Paulin mused that maybe it is in the Westminster political stew that we find the mythical spine of Britain. Here you find the familiar stories of a Nation's dissenting imagination returning again and again to be told, either brilliantly and inspiringly -- think again of Churchill, think of Michael Foot, or stupidly -- think of the Tory liar Aitkin trying on 'the sword of justice' and cutting his own bollocks off with it as he tried to cut off the free thinking investigative heads of the Guardian newspaper. Or even weirdly -- think of Anne Widdecombe describing former Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard as having a 'touch of the night' about him, a brilliant and narratively freighted moment in political backstabbing performance art. Artless tales, cunningly wrought, this is the national tradition, with a resistance to the encroachments of the prerogative and attachment to the liberties of the people -- be it right wing or left wing -- where its corruption is always the Miltonic "to love bondage more than liberty, / Bondage with ease [rather] than strenuous liberty."
Tom Paulin, it was Hazlitt who caught this argument first, who understood it and wrote it up in his strangely compelling, but now forgotten work, the 'Eloquence of the British Senate'. It's a book where Hazlitt has recorded his thoughts about the speeches of the House of Parliament -- the Senate of the title. A senate is a republican not a royalist political structure. Paulin thought Hazlitt maybe saw the British political system as being really a republic with a monarchy dangling off it, or maybe it was just wishful thinking on behalf of a dissenter who had Napoleon the destroyer of European monarchs as his hero. These days, you look at the British Prime Minister and are reminded of Nick Cohen's insight that, for all the talk of the new Presidential look to the role of the PM, the British PM is far less constrained than any US President, and therefore much more powerful. In fact, what the PM looks like increasingly, is a monarch.
Whatever, the eloquence Hazlitt captured was that of liberty and dissent, robust, dramatic and compelling -- so on Fox Hazlitt writes - "Everything showed the agitation of his mind. His tongue faltered, his voice became almost suffocated, and his face was bathed in tears. He was lost in the magnitude of his subject. He reeled and staggered under the load of his feeling which oppressed him…", he interrupts Burke's 1774 speech on the characters of Lord Chatham and Mr C. Townshend to say "Burke's speeches are to me, in this my parliamentary progress, what the Dyke's castle was to Sancho: I could be content to stay there longer than I am able. I have no inclination to leave the stately palaces, the verdant lawns, the sumptuous entertainments, the grave discourse, and pleasing sounds of music, to sally forth in search of bad roads, meagre fare and barren adventures. Charles Fox is indeed to come; but he is but the knight of the Green Surtout. Pitt is the brazen head, that delivers mysterious answers; and Sheridan, Master Peter with his puppet-show…" and we are reminded of how the genre has been changed, how perhaps the current political speeches have entered a new phase where the sound bite has worked like Disney and Ladybird Books have worked on fairy tales to rob us of the texture and complexity of this other kind of imagination. As Kinnock, the failed Labour leader discovered, good political dissenting speech is bad TV. So this most peculiar struggle to capture the obscure, mostly obscure, voices from the past was an attempt by Hazlitt to recommit to the imagination the need for such oratory and such stories. Paulin's dissenting, republican and left wing take on the present moment, where he is found combative in his attitude to the current struggles in Israel, for example, as well as dismissive of the New Labour/George Bush hegemony, finds its historical root in this relishing of speech. It is the crux of what he is about, and Hazlitt too.
The engaged political gusto of these speeches recalls the history of such acts where, at its best, in the rapid whirl of events, we get lifted up from the depths of woe to the highest contemplations on human life. The philosophically important Hazlitt of 'disinterestedness' -- the view that the human mind is as interested in other minds in the same way as it is interested in itself - reaches into his critical studies on art as well as politics. Uttera Natarajan made a case for suggesting the connection between Hazlitt and Ruskin. She saw Ruskin as heir to Hazlitt. Her examination of the Kantian roots of Hazlitt's thinking -- albeit his misunderstanding of Kant -- was followed by Philip Davies looking at the relationship between Hazlitt and Shakespeare in a talk entitled 'Dynamic Thinking.' Here Davies argued for the kind of dynamism that Hazlitt's prose embedded and which seemed curiously close to Mandelstam's idea of poetic construction in his 'Conversation About Dante'.
Where in Hazlitt we find this: "Chaucer's mind was consecutive, rather than discursive. He arrived at truth through a certain process; Shakespeare saw everything by intuition… [Chaucer's ideas] were kept separate, labelled, ticketed and parcelled out in a set form… They did not play into one another's hands. They did not re-act upon one another." (Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, Troilus and Cressida') we get this in Mandelstam as he dismisses film "… the modern film, metamorph of the tapeworm, turns into the wickedest parody of the use of prosodic instruments in poetic discourse, for its frames simply move forward without conflict, merely replacing one another." He goes on: "The quality and speed of poetry is determined by the speed and decisiveness with which it embodies its schemes and commands in diction, the instrumentless, lexical, purely quantitative verbal matter. One must traverse the full width of the river crammed with Chinese junks moving simultaneously in various directions - this is how the meaning of poetic discourse is created. The meaning, its itinerary, cannot be reconstructed by interrogating the boatmen: they will not be able to tell how and why we were skipping from junk to junk."
This reminds us not only of Hazlitt talking about Chaucer's 'set form' - the metamorph of the tapeworm', but also draws attention to the idea of speed - in discussing dramatic character and natural passion Hazlitt says that it is a matter of being able "… to feel keenly, as profoundly, as rapidly as possible…' Hazlitt, admiring Shakespeare, is talking about himself when he says ' Shakespeare saw everything by intuition…" and it connects us to Mandelstam where he says, "The process of creating this poem's form transcends our conceptions of literary invention and composition. It would be much more correct to recognise instinct as its guiding principle." He's talking about Dante's Divine Comedy here and like Hazlitt, he's also describing himself.
Hazlitt sees the writing in Shakespeare, and good writing per se, as a chemical process, 'fermentation', of 'continual composition and decomposition of its elements'. This is when he is discussing Shakespeare (see his lectures on English Poets, Shakespeare and Milton) and Mandelstam draws on chemical reaction imagery -- "Dante… is the greatest, the unrivalled master of transmutable and convertible poetic material, the earliest and simultaneously the most powerful chemical conductor of the poetic composition…"
And in this, there was the echo of Natarajan's Hazlitt/Ruskin, where words exist almost as a calligraphic product, which for Mandelstam is the inevitable result of the impulse to perform. So we return to speech, the vernacular pulse. This pulse which works a 'selector gallery in our own minds' where the mind depends upon itself alone and so can hold on to an ideal -- artistic and political -- even if there is no longer a reality that satisfies it. Using Hazlitt's moving essay 'Pictures At Burleigh House', Fiona Stafford caught the romantic death and art obsessed critical mind, where reality reveals itself, through time, to fail memory, and the mind is disappointed - "I could hardly find a trace of the impression which had been inlaid in my imagination…" is what this was all about. "Instead of broken wrinkles and indented flesh, I saw hard lines and stained canvas. I had seen better Rembrant's since, and had learned to see nature better. Was it a disadvantage then that for twenty years I had carried this fine idea in my brain…. Or did it much signify that it was much disturbed at last?" he asks. "Neither" comes his reply, "The picture was nothing to me: it was the idea it had suggested."
Hazlitt seemed to disturb the solid by turning everything into a liquid texture - freedom to think, to live and delight by resisting the petrific, the frozen, the hard and immoveable. He let nothing alone, and had no truck with anything that would stand on its dignity to prevent such liquid thoughts. John Whale discussed his essay on boxing, the grand tournament between Neate, the Bristol man and the celebrated Hickman, commonly called Gas for the honorary title of 'Champion of England' reported in The Morning Chronicle of 12th December, 1821 as being Hazlitt getting stuck into disrupting the Tory tasteful 'the Fancy'. This was the culture of regency pugilism, which Hazlitt wrote about with brazen and indomitable assurance, pestering Tories with it whilst lolling at his ease upon one of Bea Medley's elegant couches, enjoying the reviving comforts of a good tinney, smacking his chaffer over a glass of old hock, and topping his glim to a classic nicety, in order to throw a new light upon the elegant leaves of Roscoes 'Life of Lorenzo de Medici' as a composition for a new lecture at the Surrey Institution.
Yet intimations of a twisted darkness in this most romantic of romantic imaginations smoked up throughout the day. Sex was a constant aside that meant there were uneasy grumblings of Hazlitt's attitude towards women. Was he a spanker? Did he have to flee from something of that order, some mad sex attack on a maid which might have destroyed him and his reputation had not Coleridge and Wordsworth come to his aid and covered up the scandal -- at no small risk to themselves? His personal life was a tangled mess, from his bad relationship with his brother in law John Stoddard whom Hazlitt apparently unfairly bad-mouthed as being a reactionary bastard when he was no such thing -- this was the theme of Stephen Burley's paper -- to his wild treatment of Coleridge which was the focus of Duncan Wu's enthralling story. 'Rancouir and Rabies -- Coleridge, Hazlitt and Jeffrey in Dialogue' spanned the period from January 1798 when the nineteen year old Hazlitt heard Coleridge preach in Shrewsbury and took him back to Wem to meet his father and May the same year when Hazlitt visited Alfoxden to meet Coleridge and Wordsworth, an event which inspired his 'Expostulation and Reply' and 'The Tables Turned' through to the later period, spanning 1816 to 1817, throughout which 'The Examiner' published its spiteful anonymous review (written by Hazlitt) of 'Christobel', 'Kubla Khan' and 'The Pains Of Sleep' through to The Courier newspaper refuting the Edinburgh Review notice of Coleridge's 'Biographia.'
It was a piece which someone should commission Wu to write up as a book -- a fantastic story of weird and vicious behaviour from Hazlitt which seems brilliantly demented and not a little mad. Coleridge was drugged out of his head by the time it all started and was therefore not able to defend himself from the crazed and personal attacks of Hazlitt. Hazlitt put into print not just criticism of the writing but put his personal, private knowledge of Coleridge's drug taking out there too, betraying intimacies which takes the attacks further than a mere lit crit hatchet-job. Mind you, even as just lit crit splenetic, they're pretty devastating - "…He is without a strong feeling of the existence of anything out of himself; and he has neither purposes nor passions of his own to make him wish it to be. All that he does or thinks is involuntary; even his perversity and self-will are so. They are nothing but a necessity of yielding to the slightest motive. Everlasting inconsequentiality marls all that he attempts. All his impulses are loose, airy, devious, casual…Kubla Khan, we think only shews that Mr Coleridge can write better nonsense verses than any man in England. It is not a poem, but a musical composition… Till he can do something better, we would rather hear no more of him."
On top of these comments there was also the awareness, that years before the nineteen year old Hazlitt had found Coleridge an unsurpassing poet "…He is the earliest friend I ever had, and I will add to increase the obligation, that he is the only person from whom I ever learnt anything in conversation. He was the only person I ever knew who answered to my idea of a man of genius, and that idea at the time I first became acquainted with Mr Coleridge was somewhat higher than it is at present…" and his Lay-sermon of 1798 of such stuff that "… were I to live entire centuries, the sweet time of my youth could never be reborn for me - nor could it ever be erased from my memory…" He was the promise of the future, of the dissenting spirit itself and as such he came to be, like Wordsworth, hope betrayed -- a right wing self-serving pomposity.
Wu dramatised all this in a bravado performance where the melodrama of the outrage was sketched out into the late afternoon from a few notes and formidable knowledge and was a highlight of the day. But the unsettling quality of the story itself was also something we took away with us, the failure of youth's promise to blossom, for heroes to live up to our hopes. 'Never follow leaders' -- we sit after the last century offered us Hitler and Stalin and currently Bin Laden and other Messianic figures who stir something of the rebellious heart but end in nasty, stiff hearted idiocy -- theocracies of nationalism, socialism or religion which are monstrous fancies of our meddling intellect. It is part of this need to destroy idols that preserves the dissenting spirit. And the liquid, chemical thought also carries within it the need to be ever moving, antinomian, self-critical, dialectical, looking even at its own past judgements with a basilisk stare. Disinterestedness as the ability to see the strength of ones opponent even whilst retaining the judgement that you still disagree - and well, that's just another side to this approach. Wu's was thus an important moment, and an important story to tell.
The conference was about Hazlitt but it placed him within the heart of a very contemporary debate. The collapse of Marxism has meant that there has been a gaping hole in the theoretical armoury of the left. Post-modernism has been described as the 'ism' that saved Marxism's irrelevant ass but has been itself a hostage to right wing fortunes! The ability of Hazlittian dissent to bring together philosophy, history, drama, politics, the visual arts and literary criticism offers a suggestive alternative to po-mo. The roots are Unitarianism and are perhaps as interesting a place for plain speaking revolutionary left wingers to regroup as any other.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall believes in low tech approaches to this high tech stuff in order to close the gap between people. So he has a home-made approach to writing and interviewing and reviewing. He wants to bring back the unqualified and the uncommercial and works off his instincts. He makes a point of honour out of spoiling his chances.