On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth

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Reading the most recent post of Levy (known back in Blighty as `the unthinking man's Derek Thomas' -- though I have always thought that Derek Thomas himself fulfilled that role quite adequately) reminded me of the radical writer and critic, William Hazlitt, who, in an essay entitled `On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth,' absolutely nailed what it feels like to be a young man of, say, eighteen to twenty five, in much the same way as Thin Lizzy's `The Boys are Back in Town' did for my generation.  If you have never read Hazlitt, you are missing a treat: an enemy of all cant and hypocrisy and one who made the prose of his criticism into a beautiful art form.  A true Republocrat if ever there was one.

Here is part of what he says about youth: `No young man believes he shall ever die.... There is a feeling of Eternity in youth which makes us amends for everything.  To be young is to be as one of the Immortals.  One half of time indeed is spent -- the other half remains in store for us with all its countless treasures, for there is no line drawn, and we see no limit to our hopes and wishes.... Death, old age, are words without a meaning, a dream, a fiction, with which we have nothing to do.  Others may have undergone, or may still undergo them -- we "bear a charmed life," which laughs to scorn all such idle fancies.  As in setting out on a delightful journey, we strain our sight ever forward... and see no end to prospect after prospect, new objects presenting themselves as we advance, so in the outset of life we see no end to our desires nor to the opportunities of gratifying them.'

Hazlitt wrote those words in 1827, long before anybody had ever heard of `yoof culture' or those ubiquitous middle aged men in soul patches, tee-shirts, suit jackets and faded jeans, felt the need to lecture those of us with teenage children about how kids today do not respect traditional authority any more, unlike  those young people in the late sixties.  So, perhaps, just perhaps, the reason young people do not give a fig for religion is because they never have done but have always thought of themselves as gods, Immortals, as Hazlitt puts it, and there is really only room for one god at a time in each life.  At twenty, I certainly thought I was destined to live forever, death being something for other people -- for old people; indeed, now in my forties I am only just starting to be disabused of the idea.   So The Daily Telegraph is really only telling us that not much has changed since 1827.

Of course, Hazlitt, unlike Liam and Paul, would not have touched a Telegraph with a proverbial bargepole.  But he is well worth reading; not only does he still provide first-rate social and cultural criticism; the sheer beauty of his prose makes reading him an almost sinful pleasure.
Posted October 6, 2010 @ 7:58 PM by Carl Trueman

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