Arrested Development

Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic Monthly:

Book_2 Let us without delay get to the core statement of Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, which first appeared in 1938, survived a slightly revised reappearance in 1948, has just been reissued (and is very ably introduced by Alex Woloch) by the University of Chicago Press, and has seemed to challenge us to reconsider it in every intervening decade:

Promise! Fatal word, half-bribe and half-threat, round whose exact meaning centered many tearful childhood interviews. “But you promised you wouldn’t,” “but that wasn’t a promise,” “Yes it was — you haven’t kept your promise,” till the meaning expands and the burden of the oath under which we grew up becomes the burden of expectation which we can never fulfill. “Blossom and blossom and promise of blossom, but never a fruit” — the cry first heard in the nursery is taken up by the schoolmaster, the friendly aunt, the doting grandmother, the inverted bachelor uncle. Dons with long reproachful faces will utter it and the friends of dons; the shapes and simulacrums which our parents have taken, the father-substitutes and mother-types which we have projected will accuse us and all await our ritual suicide. Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.

If this were merely a cri de coeur of self-pity, emitted by a child of privilege who confuses his own spoiled embarrassment of choices with the shades of Wordsworth’s prison-house closing about the growing boy, we could safely ridicule and despise it. But one of Connolly’s great gifts was self-deprecation, and one of his easier styles was that of the tongue in the cheek. He puts one in mind of two of the great contemporaries about whom he wrote — George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh.

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