Hazlitt and Naipaul on Drowning

William Hazlitt’s “My First Acquaintance with Poets” contains a story featured in many books about Hazlitt – Tom Paulin’s The Day-Star of Liberty being one of my favorite of these books. The incident occurred while Hazlitt and Coleridge were walking and talking together. It served to strengthen Hazlitt in his belief that men are not naturally selfish.

“A fisherman gave Coleridge an account of a boy that had been drowned the day before, and that they had tried to save him at the risk of their own lives. He said ‘he did not know how it was that they had ventured, but, Sir, we have a nature towards one another.’”

This impressed Hazlitt as evidence for William Godwin’s conviction that, under ideal social conditions, we are naturally altruistic. I always found it an uplifting story, so it was with some dismay that I learned from Patrick French’s biography of V.S Naipaul, The World is What it is, that Naipaul, as a boy, had a diametrically opposed experience, which Naipaul wrote about to his first wife —

“When I was twelve, I went to the seaside. Three people – a brother & 2 sisters – had been drowned. They could have been saved, but the fishermen had wanted to know how much they would be paid! Oh, the terror I felt then. The fishermen pulled in the seine and brought in the bodies and caught an extraordinary number of catfish, always anxious to get at the helpless. The three bodies relaxed in the sand. The sun going down. And, from a cheap beach café, a gramophone: Bésame mucho” — Kiss me often, my darling, and say that you’ll always be mine. I don’t know what people of 12 feel, but I have never forgotten that.”
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