When I first started studying, writing, and teaching creative nonfiction, I generally found myself attracted to contemporary American authors—Tobias Wolff, Phillip Lopate, Joan Didion, and others. They wrote in a language I immediately understood and made references to figures and events that were at least somewhat familiar. Even if I didn’t actually watch The Mickey Mouse Club or had never lived in New York City, I was aware that such things existed, and they weren’t all that far away from me. I had a little more trouble with older writers, because of that tired undergraduate complaint “I just couldn’t relate.” Yes, dear reader, your humble blogger was once one of those students who felt like his inability to immediately “get it” was always the fault of the writer—that the reader had no obligation to do any work himself.
I’m much less stupid now, of course, and as a result, I’m now able to really enjoy the opportunity to teach William Hazlitt’s "On the Pleasure of Hating," an essay I just couldn’t appreciate the first time I read it in my early twenties, but find I enjoy—and “relate to”—more and more as I’m dragged, kicking and screaming, towards middle age. And I’ve been developing ways to get my own students to appreciate—and perhaps even “relate to”—Hazlitt’s 19th century text.
First of all, what’s not to love about an essay called “On the Pleasures of Hating”? As far as awesome titles go, this one’s only approached by Phillip Lopate’s “Against Joie de Vivre.” As a reader, when you see a title like that, all you can really do is blink, raise your eyebrows quizzically, then shrug and say, “Well, okay. I’m listening.” It’s like if someone said to you, “You know what I hate? Orgasms.” You’re pretty sure you’ll disagree with this person, but you’re dying to hear the reasoning behind such an outrageous position.
People frequently don’t want to agree with Hazlitt’s contention that hating is a pleasurable act– particularly well-intentioned college students (and even their bleeding-heart professors). Hatred is a scourge, after all. It’s something we’re trying to eradicate. “Some people might find pleasure in hating, but I—as a liberated, open-minded person—certainly do not, and I don’t think most other people do either.”
Yeah? Then tell me, why are the Kardashian sisters famous?
Think about it—Kim, Khloe, and the other one only exist in our culture so that we can hate them. You know it. I know it. And our students know it too. Oh, sure—many of us have probably decided that those girls shouldn’t be judged so harshly, and that there’s something a little creepy and misogynist about our culture’s fascination with—and condemnation of—the things that these attractive though rather vapid young women say. But nevertheless, these reality stars—and others like them—are presented to us for our collective loathing. And frequently, we oblige—even if it’s just by laughing when Joel McHale or Beavis and Butthead belittle them.
“Nature seems (the more we look into it),” Hazlitt writes, “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.” We’d be the lotus-eaters without the awesome buzz. Without something contemptible to react against, I tell my students, there would be no progress or productivity—we’d simply be filled with an unearned contentment.
One of the main objections some students—and even this professor, once upon a time– have to this essay is the knowledge (eloquently expressed by James Baldwin in “Notes of a Native Son”) that hatred consumes and destroys people. “Sure, anger is useful and important,” these people can say, “but you have to guard against being hateful, otherwise you destroy yourself.” I do believe that’s true, but I also don’t think that truth negates Hazlitt’s point that hating can feel quite good. Because Hazlitt does not advocate being hateful, he’s advocating hating– in appropriate measure. Hazlitt tells us:
The echoes of liberty had awakened once more in Spain, and the mornings of human hope dawned again: but that dawn has been overcast by the foul breath of bigotry, and those reviving sounds stifled by fresh cries from the time-rent towers of the Inquisition – man yielding (as it is fit he should) first to brute force, but more to the innate perversity and dastard spirit of his own nature which leaves no room for farther hope or disappointment.
The hatefulness he sees in other people is one more thing to hate. So we understand that hatefulness is never to be understood as virtue. But certain types of hatred—perhaps, say, a hatred of ignorance, or intolerance, or injustice– is proper, necessary, and– above all– pleasurable.
There is any number of directions to take a class after a discussion of Hazlitt. We might have a group discussion about the things we hate, and note the enthusiasm and giddiness and pleasure that people exhibit as they say things like, “Yes! I think Coldplay sucks too!” or “Man, those talking baby E-Trade commercials are annoying!” Of course, this essay might lend itself to a cool writing assignment. I have been thinking about asking students to write about the things they hate, but I’ve been a bit concerned that I would get a collection of essays expressing their authors’ contempt for racism or sexism or homophobia or hate crimes or the last season of Lost—you know, low-hanging fruit. But recently—as a result of editing and revising this very blog post—a friend pointed out to me that an exercise devoted to writing about hating something everybody else loves might make for an insightful, reflective assignment. I’m now brainstorming an idea for an essay about why Tom Hanks should have just called it quits right after Bachelor Party…
How would you go about teaching Hazlitt? Any thoughts on writing assignments his essay might inspire? Most importantly, what do you hate that everyone else seems to just adore?