I can’t remember the specifics of school years, but I can always remember my enemies. Colleen Shea, blonde, “pretty,” and popular, bore the title in elementary school. She of Worcester, Massachusetts stock — thin lips and pink skin, a nurse mother and firefighter father, CCD classes after school, and Friday night slumber parties to which I was not invited — Colleen sealed my fate as forever foreign, forever the weird new kid from Virginia with a single mom and funny accent. In math, while the class labored over improper fractions, I channeled all my frustration toward her, in her stupid overalls and tacky gelled bangs. Disgusting.
In high school, it was Alexis Lazaros, little Miss Perfect always vying to usurp my seat as the top history student in Mr. Khoury’s Advanced Placement class. I couldn’t stand her because she had no style to her history. She was technical, like a Chinese gymnast, simply memorizing the textbook for key names and dates without reveling in the humor of characters with nicknames like Preston “Bully” Brooks or Martin Van Buren, the Red Fox of Kinderhook. One of the most victorious moments of my life was when I defeated her in a game of American history Jeopardy! We went head to head for a dozen rounds after the rest of the class got knocked out. I still remember my winning answer: the Grimké sisters. I was full of bombast back then, and I probably told her to her face that she was my nemesis, which I realize, in hindsight, made me look insane.
Sometimes, especially in arduous and boring times, like a long flight or a dull class, I will pick someone out of a crowd to be my nemesis. My nemeses need not have harmed me, per se, but she or he will be selected for some ghastly, unforgivable trait. There was the Unquiet Canadian, a college-age fellow who, on a three-day boat trip down the Mekong River, barked his strange political analysis in my ear while trying to impress a girl. (He did pose the best rhetorical question I have ever heard: “Do you know the rape and molestation statistics of Canada?”). And of course, there are ubiquitous nemeses that follow one through life: the ex-girlfriends of current boyfriends, the man who sits with his legs splayed on the subway, the amateur connoisseur loudly explaining the art exhibit. Such nemeses are not a waste of energy or a repository of petty injuries. Rather, they give daily life a purpose. Like love, hate makes us remember that we are alive — but presents itself far more frequently. Today, we hear “hatred” and flinch, immediately associating the word with jihad or the KKK. But nemeses help us define and articulate our values. Hating helps us define what we are not.
Sei Shonagon and William Hazlitt, two radically different writers from radically different times and places, both were stubborn advocates of hate. Neither defined it in terms of superior races or religions but instead in terms of daily disgust, shameless behavior, spiders, fleas, barking dogs, charmlessness, odiousness, quarrels with friends. Shonagon’s and Hazlitt’s hating is more about disappointment: for Shonagon, in others; for Hazlitt, in himself. Though from different continents and centuries apart, both shared the experience of being outsiders, even though they ostensibly occupied lofty positions on the inside. A lady of the court, Shonagon enjoyed a perch atop Japan’s social pyramid. But her writing testifies to how she couldn’t stand the busybodies and gossips flitting about, the “ladies-in-waiting who want to know everything that is going on.” Hazlitt, though widely read and lauded in his day, could not harmonize with his intellectual peers, whether they were obscure or successful, because “we despise the one, and envy and are glad to mortify the other.”
Outsiders socially, Shonagon and Hazlitt must have felt further alienated because they were writers. If writers are paying the least bit of attention, then they must grapple with so many hateful things; they must shatter platitudes and grapple with challenging, often unpleasant subjects, or else risk being forgotten or ignored. The hater may not always be alone, but the writer certainly is.
As outsiders, Shonagon and Hazlitt took on hate, a subject more rich and eternal than love. Shonagon’s “Hateful Things” (circa 1000 A.D.) is a delectable list of bite-sized nuggets that encapsulate in no more than a few sentences the hell that is other people. The pieces are immediate (“If I am traveling in someone’s carriage and I hear it creaking, I dislike not only the noise but also the owner of the carriage”) and unsentimental (“Old people can really be quite shameless”) and whimsically, sweepingly universal (“Sometimes one greatly dislikes a person for no particular reason — and then that person goes and does something hateful.”) In short, packed prose, she writes about quotidian annoyances with elegant simplicity and affectionate craftsmanship. Reflecting the premium the Japanese court placed on manners and ceremony, Shonagon rains her admonishments on those who blatantly disregard etiquette: “Most people are too casual, not only in their letters but in their direct conversation.” But she is equally bothered by pretension: “A man who has nothing in particular to recommend to him but who speaks in an affected tone and poses as being elegant.” “Sometimes a person who is utterly devoid of charm will try to create a good impression by using very elegant language; yet he only succeeds in being ridiculous.” A thousand years later, we still know this guy.
Shonagon’s use of pronouns is revealing. When calling someone out on a foolish, affected manner, she is always speaking of a “he.” Despite her wit and education, Shonagon did not write for a public audience and was not known as a writer. In the eyes of men, she was probably dismissed along with the ladies-in-waiting she detests as frivolous. She cites many examples of being interrupted in “On Hateful Things,” which suggests the men in her life were constantly interjecting rather than listening. Perhaps this accounts for her stunning economy of phrase. It was a necessity.
William Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasure of Hating” is at the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum. While Shonagon circles her opponents and lands tight, direct jabs, Hazlitt orchestrates a long duel and then commits hara-kiri. He recounts daily annoyances such as pesky spiders and the distasteful schadenfreude one experiences reading the newspaper, then expands his sphere to condemn Christianity, vapid poetry, the pedantry of associating oneself with Shakespeare, Whigs, Tories, and Reformers all (perhaps most of English culture and many Englishmen), his former friends, and, most of all, himself. Midway through the essay, Hazlitt writes, “We hate old friends: we hate old books: we hate old opinions; and at last we come to hate ourselves.” After Hazlitt mortifies himself with this confession, he really lets the hatred rip in pages-long paragraphs of diatribes, held together with semicolons and punctuated with exclamation points because he means it! He unravels into misanthropy, set on fire with emotion that makes him sound like a raving lunatic madman preaching about hellfire and apocalypse on a street corner. Whereas Shonagon had to learn to get to her point quickly, Hazlitt’s sprawling sentences suggest that he felt entitled to pontificate. Or perhaps he was accustomed to being uninterrupted because he didn’t have any friends left.
While Hazlitt wrote for publication and Shonagon didn’t, their styles imply the opposite. Hazlitt’s unrestrained emotion flies off the page; he names names of those who wronged him, including Charles Lamb, under his nom de plume Elia. Like the insecure teens in Mean Girls, Hazlitt attempts to make himself feel a little better by bringing someone else down in his erudite Burn Book. As he puts it, “We grow tired of everything but turning others into ridicule, and congratulating ourselves on their defects.” But he is refreshingly self-aware (if not neurotic) about his project: “It is looks of dislike and scorn that I answer with the worst venom of my pen.” He is lonely and disappointed when he attempts to socialize: “The ghost of friendship meets me at the door, and sits with me all dinner-time.” He is brutally forthright and unselfconsciously obstinate, the way one would write in a locked diary.
Shonagon, too, finds herself disappointed when she tries to connect with others, namely the men who leave her in the morning, but she only momentarily reveals her true heart at the very end of the piece, when longingly fantasizing about the way a lover should take his leave: “The lady watches him go, and this moment of parting will remain among her most charming memories.” But not one to relinquish the upper hand, she subsequently describes another boorish suitor scurrying about the room and ends with, “One really begins to hate him.” Though she finds these gentlemen less than gentlemanly, she does not name names. Instead she carefully reconstructs her haughty authorial persona. Though she claims several times that her writing is purely personal, her translator Meredith McKinney notes, “there is a whiff of false modesty in these disclaimers.”
Hazlitt invokes the emotion of hating in fireworks of spleen exploding across the page, but Shonagan experiences hating with triumphant aplomb. She typically ends one of her descriptions with a definitive exclamation — “Oh, how hateful!” “What charmless behavior!” — almost like she is slamming the table in front of her as she writes. But for both writers, hating is revelatory. They relish in hatred’s fiery passion as others revel in love. The timelessness of hatred is evident in Shonagan; her list is as relevant today as it was a thousand years ago. As Hazlitt writes, “Hatred alone is immortal.”
Hate is not the actual opposite of love. Hatred is the opposite of a far more insidious and menacing emotion: apathy. Hazlitt notes that “we cannot bear a state of indifference and ennui.” When the tedium of our lives lulls us into nonchalance, then we are really in danger of blending into the wallpaper, of mattering little and to few. But when one hates something, one takes a stand for oneself and for one’s values. Hating is important because it keeps things interesting. It allows us to take the most omnipresent and heartbreaking emotion in life — disappointment — and weave it into something garish and bright. Even if you are just hurling silent insults at a nemesis who doesn’t know you exist, the effect is the same. You are awake.