The Wit and Wisdom of Cyril Connolly (Part I)

Cyril Connolly

I feel Man to be of all living things the most biologically incompetent and ill-organized.

Cyril Connolly

Cyril Connolly (1903 – 1974) was an English literary critic and writer. One of his most famous books is Enemies of Promise (1938) in which he deals with topic of how to write a book that will last for at least 10 years.

His another important and clever work is The Unquiet Grave (1944) initially published under a pseudonym Palinurus. Palinurus (Palinūrus), in Virgil’s Aeneid, was the helmsman of Aeneas’ ship.

As the book was written during the Second World War, an important line of the book is Connolly’s try to reconnect the broken European thought, and to show the importance of French thinkers (such as Montaigne, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld) for the initial unity of European wisdom.

Besides developing his own worldviews in the fashion of French moralists, the book contains numerous quotes from Connolly’s favorite French authors. The entire book is written in the form of simple (diary) entries throughout the days of WW2, whose point was to enable Connolly to feel better in the tremulous times.

What are masterpieces? Let us name a few. The Odes and Epistles of Horace, the Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil, the Testament of Villon, the Essays of Montaigne, the Fables of La Fontaine, the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyere, the Fleurs du Mal and Intimate Journals of Baudelaire, the Poems of Pope and Leopardi, the Illuminations of Rimbaud, and Byron’s Don Juan. Such a catalogue reveals its author.

What is common in thought to these twelve writers ? Love of life and nature; lack of belief in the idea of progress; interest in, mingled with contempt for humanity.

To fashion a masterpiece, to weave a suit that will last some hundred years, it is necessary to feel, to think, and to write. These three activities must be co-ordinated…

We cannot think if we have no time to read, or feel if we are emotionally exhausted, or out of cheap materials create what will last. We cannot co-ordinate what is not there.

… our life has no more continuity than a pool in the rocks which the tide fills with foam and flotsam and then empties. Nothing remains in the end but the sediment which this flux deposits; ambergris valuable only to those who know how to use it.

‘Dry again?’ said the Crab to the Rock-Pool. ‘So would you be,’ replied the Rock-Pool, ‘if you had to satisfy, twice a day, the insatiable sea.’

As we grow older, in fact, we discover that the lives of most human beings are worthless except in so far as they contribute to the enrichment and emancipation of the spirit. However attractive in our youth animal graces may be, if in our maturity they have not led us to emend one character in the corrupt text of existence, then our time has been wasted. No one over thirty five is worth meeting who has not something to teach us,­ something more than we could learn by ourselves, from a book.

We pay for vice by the knowledge that we are wicked; we pay for pleasure when we find out too late that we are nothing; its accounts are kept in small change, but the total is as large.

The secret of happiness (and therefore of success) is to be in harmony with existence, to be always calm, always lucid, always willing, ‘to be joined to the universe without being more conscious of it than an idiot’, to let each wave of life wash us a little farther up the shore.

Obesity is a mental state, a disease brought on by boredom and disappointment; greed, like the love of comfort, is a kind of fear. The one way to get thin is to re-establish a purpose in life…

There are but two ways to be a good writer ( and no other kind is worth the being): one way is, like Homer, Shakespeare or Goethe, to accept life completely, the other (Pascal’s, Proust’s, Leopardi’s, Baudelaire’s), is to refuse ever to lose sight of its horror. One must be Prospero or Caliban; in between lie vast dissipated areas of weakness and pleasure.

Anxiety and remorse are the results of failing to advance spiritually. For this reason they follow close on pleasure, which is not necessarily harmful, but which, since it does not bring advancement with it, outrages that part of us which is concerned with. growth. Such ways of making time fly past as chess, bridge, drink and motoring accumulate guilt. But what constitutes the spiritual ideal? Is it the Nietzschean Superman, or his opposite, the Buddha? The spiritual trend of human beings would seem to be towards pacifism, vegetarianism, contemplative mysticism, the elimination of violent emotion and even of self-reproduction. But is it impossible to improve animal-man so that instead of being made to renounce his animal nature, he refines it? Can anxiety and remorse be avoided in that way? Imagine a cow or a pig which rejected the body for a ‘noble eight-fold way of self-enlightenment’. One would feel that there was a false calculation.

The spiritual life of man is the flowering of his bodily existence: there is a physical life which remains the perfect way of living for natural man, a life in close contact with nature, with the sun and the passage of the seasons, and rich in opportunities for equinoctial migrations and home-comings. This life has now become artificial, out ofreach of all but the rich or the obstinately free, yet until we can return to it we are unable to appreciate the potentialities of living. (Whales, branded in the Arctic, are found cruising in Antarctic waters; men, ringed in childhood, are observed, seventy·years later, under the same stone.) We may compare a human being to a fruit-tree whose purpose is its fruit, fruit out of all proportion to the tree’s value; yet, unless the tree receives its years of leisure, its requirements of sun and rain, the fruit never ripens. So it is with the spiritual virtues of man, for we have divided man into two kinds: those whose soil is so poor or the climate of whose lives so unsuitable that they can never bear, or those who are forced and cramped under glass, whose lives are so constricted by responsibility that they become all fruit; hasty, artificial and without flavour.

We progress through an intensifying of the power generated from the physical satisfaction of natural man, whose two worst enemies are apathy and delirium; the apathy which spreads outwards from the mechanical life, the delirium which results from the violent methods we use to escape from it.

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