By Cyril ConnollyChicago
That aphorism about the laurels and the lead must have seemed too good to pass up at the time, and it is not the only example of Connolly’s fatal ability to sacrifice (like Wilde) coherence or seriousness for a good line. “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall,” Connolly famously wrote, quite ignoring the many artists and authors who have been moved to work precisely because of their children. Famous for repartee and for believing that he could fashion one riposte that would work for every occasion, he “spent weeks in elaborating it. At that time the magic phrase seemed, ‘Dear me, how very uninteresting!’ If I had to choose one now it would be ‘This is a very bad moment for both of us.’” Announcing his election to an elite school club that normally scorned intellectuals, he showed a gift for simile by describing how the swells and toffs came rolling in to congratulate him, “like the college of cardinals arriving to congratulate some pious old freak whom fate had elevated to the throne of St Peter.” Nearly Wildean is his offhand observation, “Like many lazy people, once I started working I could not stop; perhaps that is why we avoid it.” Nonetheless, for throwaway effect, one of the most striking—and least Wildean—turns in the book is this one, which occurs in a catalog of volumes digested and authors chalked up: “Orwell lent me The Picture of Dorian Gray. But I could not swallow it. It was not necessary.” At that time Orwell was not at all famous, but Connolly got the point of him early on, even if he did not allow for the fact that here was an author who would adopt a child rather than have a hallway without a pram in it (and even if he could come up with the flabbergastingly inane view that Dorian Gray was, of all extraordinary things, “not necessary”).
Still, the willingness to take risks and be hit-or-miss was part of Connolly’s technique, which depended in turn on making difficult things look easy and vice versa: “By the time I had left Eton I knew by heart something of the literature of five civilizations.” This style—of effortless and almost bored superiority— is supposed to be the hallmark of the Oxford College to which Connolly subsequently took himself, but it is to preempt some of that charge, I think, that he makes quite a few references to his own physical ugliness and lack of sex appeal and, in the 1948 introduction, the following breezy concession: “On every page I have retouched the writing itself (it was Edmund Wilson who remarked that it was not a very well-written book and put me on to this).”
One might picture the dedication: “To Edmund Wilson, for helping me to see that this book was not very well written … ” The aspirant (male) writer, to whom the book is actually addressed, might learn more from this unguarded moment than from some of the more ostensibly sapient advice that is offered in part one. This section, which alternates rather oddly between witty recommendations of hedonism and dilettantism and some stern warnings against these things, contains the following almost bootstrap-oriented counsel:
When suffering from social envy of other writers there is only one cure—to work. Whatever consideration they are enjoying may then come your way and in any case by working you are doing what they would most envy you.
It doesn’t quite go on a knitted sampler, if only because its cynicism is a fraction too evident, but it will do.
Frivolity and brittleness—what Connolly himself termed his “futilitarianism”—will take you only so far. There is a sterner theme that unifies both halves of the book and supplies a sort of steel thread through the 1938 edition. In the section on “The Charlock’s Shade,” Connolly speaks very firmly to all those whose first concern is with their reputations:
A writer must grow used to the idea that culture as we know it may disappear and remain lost for ever or till it is excavated, a thousand years hence, from a new Herculaneum. Horace’s boast of immortality, his “non omnis moriar”, neither anticipated the hostility of the church nor the ignorance of the Dark Ages. Of his two thousand years of posthumous life, a thousand slid by in a coma. One has but to consider the dearth of writers in Italy and Germany, the extinction of the cultural activity of the Weimar republic or the war waged by those countries against the intelligentsia of Spain to perceive how ephemeral are the securest literary reputations, the most flourishing movements. At any moment the schools of Athens may be closed, the libraries burnt, the teachers exterminated, the language suppressed. Any posthumous fame or the existence of any posterity capable of appreciating the arts we care for, can be guaranteed only by fighting for it and for many who fight, there will be no stake in the future but a name on a war- memorial.
On the very last page of the book, almost as if he doesn’t know that he is repeating himself, he makes the same point in a more epigrammatic way:
In spite of the slow conversion of progressive ideas into the fact of history, the Dark Ages have a way of coming back. Civilisation—the world of affection and reason and freedom and justice—is a luxury which must be fought for, as dangerous to possess as an oil-field or an unlucky diamond.
The Connolly who wrote that second paragraph is the man who helped keep English letters alive during the war, finding enough paper on which to print his magazine Horizon and knowing where to get a decent bottle of wine even during the Blitz. The Connolly who wrote the first paragraph is the boy who was, despite his protests to the contrary, paying attention in the school chapel when the roll of honor was being read out, and while the bugles sounded for the fallen.
I cannot resist a closing irony of history. To illustrate his theory that English schoolboys grow rotten, so to speak, before they are ripe, Connolly selected an aristocratic contemporary named Alec Dunglass:
He was a votary of the esoteric Eton religion, the kind of graceful, tolerant, sleepy boy who is showered with favors and crowned with all the laurels, who is liked by the masters and admired by the boys without any apparent exertion on his part, without experiencing the ill-effects of success himself or arousing the pangs of envy in others. In the eighteenth century he would have become Prime Minister before he was thirty; as it was he appeared honorably ineligible for the struggle of life.
Even as Enemies of Promise was being published, but apparently without engaging Connolly’s notice, the “graceful, tolerant, sleepy” Lord Dunglass was acting as one of Neville Chamberlain’s private secretaries in the selling of Prague to Hitler at Munich. In 1963, under the more modest civilian name of Sir Alec Douglas- Home, he did in fact become a rather short-lived Tory prime minister. If there was one thing on which I would have wagered a good deal, it was the impossibility of Britain’s ever again being governed by a waistcoated charmer from that particular school. Yet here we are 70 years on, and the British Conservatives are led by an old Etonian named David Cameron, who was also a member of a Brideshead-type dining club at Oxford. And all the indications are that he could oust “New Labour” from power. I dare say you could call that promising.