Sunday, March 13, 2011

I think I have Hazlitt's problem with Michelangelo

More and more, I respect William Hazlitt. I would always have conceded his genius as an essayist and polemicist (not the same thing, unless you're a Republican); but I never would have thought to mature with affinity for his arbitration of Romanticism's distinction between imagination and understanding, as life seems to encourage these days.

From my father's example I acquired the gift for feeling love for a man where, to most people, I suppose gratitude would have to do. His response to Michelangelo locates an unease I regard as natural and undeniable, yet so percipient as to be attractive and brave.

We are likely always to have to deal with Michelangelo's grandeur, but with Hazlitt's perspective I think we can heal ourselves of idolatry. We desire this relationship with a cre-ative form which is about ourselves, unless we are Republican and need one to dominate us. With On Gusto, he begins:

Michelangelo's forms are full of gusto. They everywhere obtrude the sense of power upon the eye. His limbs convey an idea of muscular strength, of moral grandeur, and even of intellectual dignity: they are firm, commanding, broad, and massy, and capable of executing with ease

the determined purposes of the will. His faces have no other expression than his figures, conscious power and capacity. They appear only to think what they shall do, and to know that they can do it .. the gusto of Michelangelo consists in expressing energy of will without proportionable sensibility.

A false and tragic, sterile eroticism hoists this famous figure as its idol to this day. It was important for Hazlitt to detect the automaton within the mold we know so well. It was important for Simone Weil to frame its character for us in her wartime masterpiece on the Iliad: 

The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man's flesh shrinks away - that 'x' that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.

Hazlitt's great essay on Coriolanus anticipates Weil's reading of the Iliad completely, and illustrates the comparison he draws in On Gusto, between Michelangelo and Correggio - In Correggio's faces as well as figures we see neither bones nor muscles, but then what a soul is there, full of sweetness and of grace .. There is sentiment enough in a hand painted by Correggio to set up a school of history painters.

The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power. The imagination is an exaggerating and exclusive faculty: it takes from one thing to add to another: it accumulates circumstances together to give the greatest possible effect to a favourite object. The understanding is a dividing and measuring faculty: it judges of things not according to their immediate impression on the mind, but according to their relations to one another. The one is a monopolising faculty, which seeks the greatest quantity of present excitement by inequality and disproportion; the other is a distributive faculty, which seeks the greatest quantity of ultimate good, by justice and proportion.

That our news is full of a culture spun off its core by accelerating aggrandisement over proportion and justice, has brought Hazlitt from the classroom of the well-educated to the ramparts of humane dealing in all our callings. Merely to think of Wisconsin is to embrace Hazlitt's qualms with David, his horror of Coriolanus - in which the spectators halloo and encourage the strong to set upon the weak, and cry havoc in the chase though they do not share in the spoil. We may depend upon it that what men delight to read in books, they will put in practice in reality.

We study the Iliad, and Coriolanus as its relay in our language. Do we not remember being given this language, as spoils to be distributed; and was this gift no spark of purest gratitude, to draw on even in a darker time? We have friends to care for, lives to live for with it still.

William Hazlitt (1778-1830)
Ronald Blythe, editor
Selected Writings
Penguin English Library, 1970©

Simone Weil
The Iliad, or the poem of force
Christopher Benfey, editor
War and the Iliad
New York Review Books, 2005©


  1. Your first photo today, the youth in contemplative relaxation, reminds one of Rudolf Nureyev at 25 off the coast of Monaco. He is drinking the first warmth of life.

  2. Yes, one thought very much the same thing. It is too bad that this posting drew little remark, but I can certainly see why - the argument, while coherent, is not expanded enough in text, a frequent limitation of the model I've adopted. Its popularity, in the statistical summaries, depends I suppose on the illustrations. Any fragment of that monster in the middle of the courtyard is bound to draw its weight.

    Hazlitt is one of the gods' critics and rhetoricians; his reading of Coriolanus, a play no one likes at all, is the very best I've read (and I read remarks on Shakespeare for fun, but also because I would believe I would have betrayed my time in life if I did not; I think Coleridge is pretty marvelous in this vein); and the subject is central to the blog. Somehow we will revisit it. Shall I warn you? :)

  3. The monster's fragment draws its own weight because one is compelled to honor immortal gods so long as nature is indiscriminate in its unfeeling. Under duress we do penitence for barbarism. The first photo is of one alone, and the last of two joined at the lips. Omnicognisant?i

  4. I do not understand the penitential comment, and invite you to reduce it to my level in e-mail or here. As for the last 3 syllables, you may substitute "valent" or "vorous," at your discretion. :)

  5. Cognizant of those feelings found discriminately among the civilized, one would expect penitence freely given for barbarism. To give what is owed under duress reproduces the fallen nature, as in the Hebrew transliterated, "Hashomer ahi anokhi?" The apparent, wrapped in the enigma of the invisible conscience under duress, is inconsolable. One leaves the last three syllables as are. The intent is to pay compliment in distress to the noble blue linen. The moon fills the valley with dew by night and the sun consumes it by day. Neither invented nor discovered; rather, realized.

  6. Thanks .. but I was getting kind of used to "-vorous." :)