13 oktober 2007


De Prins der Polemisten


Genoeg van mijzelf, lezer! Laat ik het eens over een ander hebben, en wel over De Prins der Polemisten.

Althans dat is, in vertaling, de titel van een recent boek van A.C. Grayling over één van mijn meest geliefde schrijvers, William Hazlitt, en Hazlitt is - net als Ton Sijbrands, die vandaag een aardig interview in de NRC heeft - een sans pareil.

Het is echter voor een Nederlander, zelfs indien hoogbegaafd, niet zo makkelijk om Hazlitt, die leefde van 1778-1830, naar waarde te schatten, en dat niet omdat hij zo onduidelijk schreef - dan was het nooit de Prins der Polemisten geweest - maar omdat hij zoveel vooronderstelt dat een modern-"opgeleide" Nederlander geheel niet in huis heeft, al sprak dat alles voor de universitair afgestudeerden van zijn tijd allemaal als vanzelfsprekend bekend bij ieder beschaafd mens.

En dan nog... Hazlitt is niet voor iedereen, zomin als Montaigne of Chamfort, omdat het kennelijk een speciaal soort intelligentie en karakter vergt, die allebei zeldzaam zijn, en nodig zijn om deze uitgelezen geesten  wèrkelijk naar waarde te kunnen schatten.

Maar ik had voor het moment genoeg van mijzelf, en geef u dus een stukje Hazlitt, over het menselijke-al-te-menselijke in de mens. Mijn tekst is uit 'On The Pleasure Of Hating', uit 1826:

Nature seems (the more we look into it) made up of antipathies: without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions, of men. The white streak in our own fortunes is brightened (or just rendered visible) by making all around it as dark as possible; so the rainbow paints its form upon the cloud. Is it pride? Is it envy? Is it the force of contrast? Is it weakness or malice? But so it is, that there is a secret affinity, a hankering after, evil in the human mind, and that it takes a perverse, but a fortunate delight in mischief, since it is a never-failing source of satisfaction. Pure good soon grows insipid, wants variety and spirit. Pain is a bittersweet, which never surfeits. Love turns, with a little indulgence, to indifference or disgust: hatred alone is immortal. --Do we not see this principle at work everywhere? Animals torment and worry one another without mercy: children kill flies for sport: every one reads the accidents and offences in a newspaper,  as the cream of the jest: a whole town runs to be present at a fire, and the spectator by no means exults to see it extinguished. It is better to have it so, but it diminishes the interest; and our feelings take part with our passions rather than with our understandings. Men assemble in crowds, with eager enthusiasm, to witness a tragedy: but if there were an execution going forward in the next street, as Mr. Burke observes, the theater would be left empty. A strange cur in a village, an idiot, a crazy woman, are set upon and baited by the whole community. Public nuisances are in the nature of public benefits. (*) How long did the Pope, the Bourbons, and the Inquisition keep the people of England in breath, and supply them with nick-names to vent their spleen upon! Had they done us any harm of late? No: but we have always a quantity of superfluous bile upon the stomach, and we wanted an object to let it out upon. How loth were we to give up our pious belief in ghosts and witches, because we liked to persecute the one, and frighten ourselves to death with the other! It is not the quality so much as the quantity of excitement that we are anxious about: we cannot hear a state of indifference and ennui: the mind seems to abhor a vacuum as much as ever nature was supposed to do.


What a strange being man is! Not content with doing all he can to vex and hurt his fellows here, 'upon this bank and shoal of time,' where one would think there were heartaches, pain, disappointment, anguish, tears, sighs, and groans enough, the bigoted maniac takes him to the top of the high peak of school divinity to hurl him down the yawning gulf of penal fire; his speculative malice asks eternity to wreak its infinite spite in, and calls on the Almighty to execute its relentless doom! The cannibals burn their enemies and eat them in good-fellowship with one another: meek Christian divines cast those who differ from them but a hair's-breadth, body and soul, into hellfire, for the glory of God and the good of His creatures! It is well that the power of such persons is not co-ordinate with their wills: indeed it is from the sense of their weakness and inability to control the opinions of others, that they thus 'outdo termagant,' and endeavour to frighten them into conformity by big words and monstrous denunciations.

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? Does any one suppose that the love of country in an Englishman implies any friendly feeling or disposition to serve another, bearing the same name? No, it means only hatred to the French or the inhabitants of any other country that we happen to be at war with for the time. Does the love of virtue denote any wish to discover or amend our own faults? No, but it atones for an obstinate adherence to our own vices by the most virulent intolerance to human frailties. This principle is of a most universal application. It extends to good as well as evil: if it makes us hate folly, it makes us no less dissatisfied with distinguished merit. If it inclines us to resent the wrongs of others, it impels us to be as impatient of their prosperity. We revenge injuries: we repay benefits with ingratitude. Even our strongest partialities and likings soon take this turn. 'That which was luscious as locusts, anon becomes bitter as coloquintida;' and love and friendship melt in their own fires. We hate old friends: we hate old books: we hate old opinions; and at last we come to hate ourselves.


I was taught to think, and I was willing to believe, that genius was not a bawd - that virtue was not a mask - that liberty was not a name - that love had its seat in the human heart. Now I would care little if these words were struck out of the dictionary, or if I had never heard them. They are become to my ears a mockery and a dream. Instead of patriots and friends of freedom, I see nothing but the tyrant and the slave, the people linked with kings to rivet on the chains of despotism and superstition. I see folly join with knavery, and together make up public spirit and public opinions. I see the insolent Tory, the blind Reformer, the coward Whig! If mankind had wished for what is right, they might have had it long ago. The theory is plain enough; but they are prone to mischief, 'to every good work reprobate.'

Zie ook: Gristendeugdzame haters van de haat, voor wie mij en Hazlitt nog niet genoeg haat om niet verder te willen lezen.

Ik wens u veel leesplezier. En een goed stel hersens.

(*) Noot MM: Dit is Mandeville's diagnose van de mens, in doorsnee en in meerderheid.

Maarten Maartensz


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