Don’t forget Hazlitt
Antonella Gambotto-Burke, reviewing A C Grayling’s new book of essays seems to appreciate the essay as a genre. Very good.
The form, as he points out, has a distinguished history in the literary and philosophical tradition: Herodotus, Pliny, Plutarch, Michel de Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Samuel Johnson, Thomas De Quincey. The premise? To essay contributions to the one great conversation is to offer “pieces for a mosaic that would in sum depict something true about the human condition…
She doesn’t include Hazlitt though. I’m guessing that Grayling did, since he’s written a book about him, and anyone who’s read even one Hazlitt essay knows he is one of the stone geniuses of the form. He’s the single most under-read under-rated unaccountably obscure writers in the English language, in my view. He ought to be vastly better known than, say, Thackeray, Lamb, De Quincey, Orwell. Yes, Orwell. Orwell was good, but as a stylist he wasn’t within shouting distance of Hazlitt.
[H]e is really only yearning for a time when philosophers and artists could be superstars, in which the immaterial not only mattered but prevailed; in essence, a derailing of the democratising of our language (“This tendency is what, in the extreme, produces pidgins: simple clumsy languages incapable of nuance, detail, abstraction and precision”) and demotion of its elder gruntsmen (David Beckham, Shane Warne). His is a clarion call for constructive elitism.
That’s constructive elitism and also open elitism – thus (in my view) not really elitism at all, which is one reason I wish people wouldn’t throw the word around so easily. Real elitism has to do with closing doors to the horrid many. Simply saying that some interests are more enriching than others and that everyone should be urged to try them is the opposite of that kind of elitism, and so, in truth, not really elitism.