William Hazlitt and a moment in time

clock big ben Moments are tiny elements of time… a cough, a sneeze, a glance…if we were to calculate how long it takes to react or to perform one of these events it would be correct to say…”just a moment”. And so we see that such a modest allotment, however, can manufacture an enormous memory…a memory so grand and so big that you can carry it about with you and resurrect that instant back into the present. A chance greeting with a dignitary in a receiving line, a hug from grandmother, or even the first time you listened to the air circling about in a conch shell…a moment that has endured for such a long duration that if it had been a rose it would have lost its brilliance and dried into a petrified flower.

Walk by a bakery and the wisp of baked goods will linger yet it was but a brief encounter that set the olfactory in motion. Small pleasures in comparison to big events do not always leave the same mark for it is not always the largest occasion that leaves the most favorable memory. Rather, there are moments which were not trifles happenings, but in its place have severed a wound or engraved a wedge so profound that its removal seems overpowering… a quick glib, a sarcastic comment, an angry glare… the same amount of time yet its effects we wish or hope would disappear as quickly as they were created. Moments in time happen in day and night and its effects are as different as its counterparts light and dark…

How often have we heard someone say.. ”Oh, wait just a moment,” or “ it will arrive in just a moment.” Yet we know deep down that the accuracy of the statement is not truthful; for the calculated “moment” dwindles in a quagmire of reinterpreted time.
A moment -in -time is a constant measurement like the twenty-four hours it takes the Earth to rotate; it is always the same yet the impact we feel in a given moment can be small or big, tiny or enormous, it can leave us feeling light in thought or heavy with burden, so little like a whisper yet so strong like a hurricane….strange …isn’t it?

william hazlitt 2 Today’s blog invites you back to revisit our esteemed thinker: William Hazlitt, a Romantic era writer. This English author and philosopher turned criticism into an art form. His prose and essays were eloquent in style and language, although not without controversy for he was a most principled and outspoken in his thinking.

Let us now take “a moment of time” to read a portion snipped from his essay, “Great and Little Things” (1821) . Here is the ever so expressive Mr. Hazlitt…

“ … The great and the little have, no doubt, a real existence in the nature of things; but they both find pretty much the same level in the mind of man. It is a common measure, which does not always accommodate itself to the size and importance of the objects it represents. It has a certain interest to spare for certain things (and no more) according to its humour and capacity; and neither likes to be stinted in its allowance, nor to muster up an unusual share of sympathy, just as the occasion may require. Perhaps, if we could recollect distinctly, we should discover that the two things that have affected us most in the course of our lives have been, one of them of the greatest, and the other of the smallest possible consequence. To let that pass as too fine a speculation, we know well enough that very trifling circumstances do give us great and daily annoyance, and as often prove too much for our philosophy and forbearance, as matters of the highest moment. A lump of soot spoiling a man’s dinner, a plate of toast falling in the ashes, the being disappointed of a ribbon to a cap or a ticket for a ball, have led to serious and almost tragical consequences…

The truth is, we pamper little griefs into great ones, and bear great ones as well as we can. We can afford to dally and play tricks with the one, but the others we have enough to do with, without any of the wantonness and bombast of passion—without the swaggering of Pistol or the insolence of King Cambyses’ vein. To great evils we submit; we resent little provocations. I have before now been disappointed of a hundred pound job and lost half a crown at rackets on the same day, and been more mortified at the latter than the former…”

First image: Big Ben: London

Esteemed thinker: William Hazlitt

Characters in a literary work are those persons or things that carry out the action the author has executed. They are the change agents of a story; the personalities that interact to weave a good tale. However, when we think of someone’s attributes, may they be considered good or bad, then we also are thinking of the word character. This one, the moral or ethical quality of an individual however, is much less easy to establish. For even though we may have known a person for a great while, just how well do we know their character?

Some believe that we can tell a man or woman’s character by looking into their eyes…as in the expression ‘the eyes are the windows to the soul’. The notion that we can detect one’s deep thoughts, decipher what makes a person tick, all with a casual glance is indeed intriguing… yet it makes us wonder if this prescription is a fact or merely a romantic perception. In the 1800s, right about the time photography was coming into the hands of ordinary folks, photographers such as the great Matthew Brady set their sights on portraiture to show a person’s noble character and Samuel G. Szabó who believed physical characteristics of the criminal psyche could be discerned through photography.

And then there are some who claim they can divulge a man or woman’s true character by the company they keep. At first blush this seems like logical reasoning for if one’s friends are scrupulous and trustworthy, then it would be fair to assume that the character of said individual would too be conscientious and honest. However, does that mean as we travel in and out of relationships the integrity of our character is examined with such fine tuned scrutiny that our traits would to be judged fickle like the disposition of a hungry bear? Vicious before it eats, but then when fully satisfied it is content and resumes in peaceful slumber. Is it possible then to postulate that a person can impersonate a different character and like a chameleon that can camouflage its appearance to suit its surroundings so too can the character be so easily disguised?

Alas then, how can we determine if human nature is designed to be a good judge of character? A man or woman in a relationship is often blind to the disposition of the attracted mate; even though others around see quite clearly that there is…shall we say…a marked flaw. And as time passes, a revelation appears, but not to anyone’s surprise…for like finding bones in a cemetery…sometimes we do not have to dig too deep to uncover the true character of a person.

William Hazlitt Today’s blog presents esteemed thinker: William Hazlitt (1778-1830). Born in Kent, England; he was an essayist, painter, and philosopher. Though he is a relatively an unknown to the 21st century reader, he was considered a great prose writer and important critic of the early 19th century’s Romantic period, making original contributions to appreciation of art, theatre, literature and philosophy. His essays could fill twenty volumes, making him one of England’s most prolific writers. Hazlitt was also a controversial journalist who, at the expense of his own chances for advancement, defended a radical stance that was actively persecuted in his day; an attack on the privileged and monarchy.

I now bid you good reading as you take time to venture into the prose of William Hazlitt. Take time and please do dally…for your full attention will not be wasted as I bring to you a snippet from an essay in his book Table Talk.

“ON THE KNOWLEDGE OF CHARACTER “
“It is astonishing, with all our opportunities and practice, how little we know of this subject. For myself, I feel that the more I learn, the less I understand it… There are various ways of getting at a knowledge of character—by looks, words, actions. The first of these, which seems the most superficial, is perhaps the safest, and least liable to deceive: nay, it is that which mankind, in spite of their pretending to the contrary, most generally go by. Professions pass for nothing, and actions may be counterfeited; but a man cannot help his looks. ‘Speech,’ said a celebrated wit, ‘was given to man to conceal his thoughts.’ Yet I do not know that the greatest hypocrites are the least silent. The mouth of Cromwell is pursed up in the portraits of him, as if he was afraid to trust himself with words. Lord Chesterfield advises us, if we wish to know the real sentiments of the person we are conversing with, to look in his face, for he can more easily command his words than his features. A man’s whole life may be picture painted of him by a great artist would probably stamp his true character on the canvas, and betray the secret to posterity…

I shall not say much of friendship as giving an insight into character, because it is often founded on mutual infirmities and prejudices. Friendships are frequently taken up on some sudden sympathy, and we see only as much as we please of one another’s characters afterwards. Intimate friends are not fair witnesses to character, any more than professed enemies. They cool, indeed, in time, part, and retain only a rankling grudge of past errors and oversights. Their testimony in the latter case is not quite free from suspicion.

One would think that near relations, who live constantly together, and always have done so, must be pretty well acquainted with one another’s characters. They are nearly in the dark about it. Familiarity confounds all traits of distinction: interest and prejudice take away the power of judging…”

First images selected from Metropolitan Museum in NYC: “Rogues, a Study of Characters “1860; photographer Samuel G. Szabó