William Hazlitt, ‘The Pleasure of Hating’

It is somewhat telling of William Hazlitt (1778-1830) that he had the audacity and courage to write and publish an essay called ‘The Pleasure of Hating’—often described as a ‘classic of spleen’.

Hazlitt is an arch-romantic in both inspiration and execution. His ideas, for example, inspired Keats and his notion of ‘negative sensibility’. He is revolutionary in approach and often presents himself as a critic of the monarchy and a social reformer. Unlike Wordsworth, for example, who began as a revolutionary but whose outlook became more conservative with old age, Hazlitt remained unrepentant in his antagonism towards power and his writing about social justice.

Hazlitt was also a fine literary critic and theatre reviewer, especially interested in Shakespeare. His Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays remains a well-known text in theatre reviewing, particularly in the way Hazlitt helped reinforce the character focused and literary approach to Shakespeare’s drama that would be dominant for a good 150 years after his death.

In ‘The Pleasure of Hating’, Hazlitt is not writing about Shakespeare, but as he often does, he scatters numerous allusions (sometimes overtly and sometimes less so) to Shakespeare’s plays. In Shakespeare, Hazlitt finds a voice that he often integrates with his own as he explores topics of universal significance that go beyond cultural and historical specificity.

Thus, for example, Hazlitt writes about the instinctive, visceral hate that arises every so often, not only in real life but also in our religious and political ideas:

we throw aside the trammels of civilization, the flimsy veil of humanity. “Off, you lendings!” The wild beast resumes its sway within us, we feel like hunting animals, and as the hound starts in his sleep and rushes on the chase in fancy the heart rouses itself in its native lair, and utters a wild cry of joy, at being restored once more to freedom and lawless unrestrained impulses. Every one has his full swing, or goes to the Devil his own way. 

Hazlitt thinks of the human instinct to hunt each other through Shakespeare’s King Lear (the idea is captured brilliantly by Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of the play in the 1985 film, Ran, especially in the opening sequence).

He studies the effects of raw feeling on human behavior. It’s as if he’s speaking to us, today in 2017, when he links religion and patriotism to the poisonous effects of hate:

The pleasure of hating, like a poisonous mineral, eats into the heart of religion, and turns it to rankling spleen and bigotry; it makes patriotism an excuse for carrying fire, pestilence, and famine into other lands: it leaves to virtue nothing but the spirit of censoriousness, and a narrow, jealous, inquisitorial watchfulness over the actions and motives of others. What have the different sects, creeds, doctrines in religion been but so many pretexts set up for men to wrangle, to quarrel, to tear one another in pieces about, like a target as a mark to shoot at?

But as elsewhere in Hazlitt, I’m particularly intrigued by those passages in which Hazlitt turns to his personal life. And here, his particular bent of character, his moodiness and his intellectual honesty that is not compromised even if his words will make enemies of his acquaintances comes to the surface. Follow him here as he talks about some of his old ‘friends’:

I have observed that few of those whom I have formerly known most intimate, continue on the same friendly footing, or combine the steadiness with the warmth of attachment. I have been acquainted with two or three knots of inseparable companions, who saw each other “six days in the week;” that have been broken up and dispersed. I have quarrelled with almost all my old friends’ (they might say this is owing to my bad temper, but) they have also quarrelled with one another. […]They are scattered, like last year’s snow. Some of them are dead, or gone to live at a distance, or pass one another in the street like strangers, or if they stop to speak, do it as coolly and try to cut one another as soon as possible. Some of us have grown rich, others poor. Some have got places under Government, others a niche in the Quarterly Review. Some of us have dearly earned a name in the world; whilst others remain in their original privacy. We despise the one, and envy and are glad to mortify the other. Times are changed; we cannot revive our old feelings; and we avoid the sight, and are uneasy in the presence of, those who remind us of our infirmity […]. Old friendships are like meats served up repeatedly, cold, comfortless, and distasteful. The stomach turns against them.

What saves Hazlitt from coming across as simply a misanthropist, which he definitely isn’t, are both the tendency to be critical of himself – “As to my old opinions, I am heartily sick of them” – and his passion for life that he shows, for example, in ‘On Going a Journey’, but also, paradoxically, even in an essay like ‘The Pleasure of Hating’ with its desire to expose that which needs to be exposed. Otherwise, writes Hazlitt, ‘What chance is there of the success of real passion?

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