The Plain Speaker

September 17, 2011

Drifted into the library late, with only a couple of hours left before it closed, too late to start on anything serious, or engage with any of those long-term projects that never get done. Needed something to read for two and a bit hours, on a slightly dull-witted, rainy afternoon. Sometimes I scratch around in these situations, plucking various titles from various shelves, and flicking through them in a desultory and unrewarding fashion before giving it all up as a bad job and skulking off to the pub. Today, however, I knew exactly which shelf to go to.

I took down The Plain Speaker, because I hadn’t delved into it before. I’m not going to go on about how he’s one of the best prose writers in English, and how his voice of compassion and reason – in that order – is as clear and honest as a church bell heard in the silence of a summer’s morning.

And although I found reading him today continually remarkable, as I always do, I just wanted to pick out two quotes where the pitch of my interest changed its note to one of sublime intensity, such as is more normally encountered when reading a poem that is revealing its greatness to you for the first time.

The first is from his essay On Dreams:

It should appear that I have never been in love, for the same reason. I never dream of the face of any one I am particularly attached to. I have thought almost to agony of the same person for years, nearly without ceasing, so as to have her face always before me, and to be haunted by a perpetual consciousness of disappointed passion, and yet I never in all that time dreamt of this person more than once or twice, and then not vividly. I conceive, therefore, that this perseverance of the imagination in a fruitless track must have been owing to mortified pride, to an intense desire and hope of good in the abstract, more than to love, which I consider as an individual and involuntary passion, and which therefore, when it is strong, must predominate over the fancy in sleep. I think myself into love, and dream myself out of it.

The second isn’t Hazlitt at all, but is a quotation from the memoirs of slavery abolitionist Granville Sharp, contained in Hazlitt’s remarkable anti-utilitarian essay Of Reason and the Imagination:

There was an example of eloquent moral reasoning connected with this subject, given in the work just referred to, which was not the less solid and profound, because it was produced by a burst of strong personal and momentary feeling. It is what follows:— “The name of a person having been mentioned in the presence of Naimbanna (a young African chieftain), who was understood by him to have publicly asserted something very degrading to the general character of Africans, he broke out into violent and vindictive language. He was immediately reminded of the Christian duty of forgiving his enemies; upon which he answered nearly in the following words:—’If a man should rob me of my money, I can forgive him; if a man should shoot at me, or try to stab me, I can forgive him; if a man should sell me and all my family to a slave-ship, so that we should pass all the rest of our days in slavery in the West Indies, I can forgive him; but’ (added he, rising from his seat with much emotion) ‘if a man takes away the character of the people of my country, I never can forgive him.’ Being asked why he would not extend his forgiveness to those who took away the character of the people of his country, he answered: ‘If a man should try to kill me, or should sell me and my family for slaves, he would do an injury to as many as he might kill or sell; but if any one takes away the character of Black people, that man injures Black people all over the world; and when he has once taken away their character, there is nothing which he may not do to Black people ever after. That man, for instance, will beat Black men, and say, Oh, it is only a Black man, why should not I beat him? That man will make slaves of Black people; for, when he has taken away their character, he will say, Oh, they are only Black people, why should not I make them slaves? That man will take away all the people of Africa if he can catch them; and if you ask him, But why do you take away all these people? he will say, Oh! they are only Black peoplethey are not like White peoplewhy should I not take them? That is the reason why I cannot forgive the man who takes away the character of the people of my country.'”—Memoirs Of Granville Sharp, p. 369.

But the entire essay is filled with things as stirring, such as when Hazlitt calls fools those who believe ‘their own shallow dogmas settle all questions best without any farther appeal’. Or when he says:

So with respect to the atrocities committed in the Slave-Trade, it could not be set up as a doubtful plea in their favour, that the actual and intolerable sufferings inflicted on the individuals were compensated by certain advantages in a commercial and political point of view—in a moral sense they cannot be compensated. They hurt the public mind: they harden and sear the natural feelings. The evil is monstrous and palpable; the pretended good is remote and contingent.

And although our current government does not directly sanction anything as grotesquely revolting as the African slave trade, Hazlitt’s description of the brutalisation of the public mind when it is asked to accept suffering for commercial or political advantage felt, as I read, like a barb aimed directly at the heart of Britain today.