When endeavoring to tackle promise and its discontents, there is that obligation which borders on ritual to pay homage to the words of Cyril Connolly on that very subject. “Those whom the Gods would destroy,” he wrote in his treatise cum confessional, Enemies of Promise, “they first call promising.” Cyril Connolly never met an embodiment of tragic irony he didn’t like, chief among them taking a lifetime of personal disappointment and retconning it into a high priesthood of highbrow scribblers, and a patron sainthood of failure itself. Second to that was probably turning a steady and respectable duel career of elegant occasional writer and savvy magazine steward into a shameful afterthought. Perhaps, assuming push notifications can reach beyond the grave, Mr. Connolly would appreciate the ensuing irony of my denying him his dishonorable honor altogether.
Mind you, I seek not so much as to entomb Connolly’s words as to push them by the wheelchair into the toiletries closet for the better part of an afternoon to air out the musk. Certainly beneath the drama there is wisdom, such as the fact that high expectations alone do not engender greatness; indeed, they retard it. If they convey any notion that greatness requires work they do not convey the energy and focus to get it done. Nor do they adequately prepare the promising for the inevitable push and pull of adulthood, chiefly the lure of “creative industry” away from “art.” But in the end, Connolly’s wisdom is about as beneficial as the expectation he railed against when put into service to his own dilemma. I, in all my refined education and natural intellect, could not achieve what was expected of me, and so as Lucifer, I opt to reign in Hell.
However richly expressed it was, however deftly he brought his talents to bear on the faults of promise, there is at the center of his project a finely sculpted humblebrag. Desiring to cut down the ego at the knees, it only allowed the ego to simply sprout longer, sturdier shins. A failed genius is no less a genius, and he or she will dip into that brilliance to procure whatever validating amenities are within grasp, whether in booze, bylines, or beds. The failed genius schleps expended promise around as a hobo would a bindle, but acts it out with the gravity of a haunting war memory. Self-pity takes shelter with a simplistic binary vision of art split between hackwork and masterpiece, and life split between conclusive defeat and certain victory. It is possibly an amusing spectacle for those who have the time and patience to watch it.
This rigid conceit above all rests on the assumptions that everyone likes to hear such ghost stories, that promise is a monolith, and that promise is either distributed equally throughout or that those who get the most of it are the ones who matter.
Sitting alone in my off-campus house 10 years ago, on the verge of graduating, and having opted to sit out the senior trip to Ocean City, Maryland—or Ocean City, New Jersey—I had resolved to reinvent myself. Maybe “reinvent” is too strong a term, but the feeling of the moment and the memory of it now do not belie the sense that some variant of transformation had been initiated. My time at college, up until that point, had been one of ambivalence at best. It would be wrong to say that I was aimless; I loathed classes, but I wrote plays and co-edited the campus newspaper with a marked intensity, granted one that was not always to its benefit. Still, I was unfocused and with an interest that was keen in fits and starts, a dilemma parented by growing up in a culture that treated college as a means to an end and having undertaken it with minimal overhead direction. It was a rut, which I had managed to dig myself out of one spring evening by resolving to start what would eventually become Biopsy magazine.
I’m well aware that constantly circling back to that four-issue ‘zine is probably met with increasing annoyance, especially from readers who have not seen it (and there are many). But I cannot, at the same time, just deny its catalytic role in my development. Indeed, I’m convinced that had prior circumstances been in any way different, it would never have come to pass as it has, if it would have at all.
For much of my education, the term “writer” had been brandied about by various authority figures in reference to me. But ironically the term had an ill-defined character to it whenever it rolled off their tongues. No one quite understood how it related to me. And perhaps here, I am at fault. True enough I had a way with words that was, I suppose, noteworthy. This wasn’t so bad for fellow students who minded such things, but it caused the administration confusion for the most part, as it didn’t translate into noteworthy grades (solid B’s) or test scores (900 SAT, both times). I have a learning disability that required me to learn how to read in a roundabout way and which still afflicts me with an aversion to doing even simple math competently. “Special education” has improved by leaps and bounds over the decades, of course, but even then I had the sense of being shooed off into the corner in favor students with better data sets. Rightly or wrongly, it’s an attitude that carried over into my time at college, a small liberal arts operation that for unrelated reasons shall remain nameless.
A life led with little to no expectation of success, broadly speaking, is met with a bitterness at first that is understandable. How best is one to accept the reality that one is neither abject nor prized? It feels like a heavy cloud that dampens with a wholly arbitrary humidity. At every moment it hovered over me where it was clear that there was a standard of excellence and that I was often not meeting it. For much of the time, I dealt with it through sheer indifference. Why strain myself when there is no worthwhile endgame? With some exceptions, what was given me was not very interesting, so it was when I was left to my own devices (discovering Might magazine on Wikipedia, if you want to be specific) that it occurred to me that I was not cursed or burdened, but was quite possibly given the mother of all meal tickets.
Lovers of freedom tend to find easier comfort in the kind that is taken over the kind that is given. The convict released from prison or the nation swept of its tyranny each have ends too wide open for most people’s liking. The convict will right himself or will relapse, the nation will reorder or it will descend into chaos. But these are just murkier tales of the expected. People think very little of the kind of freedom that is just lying around because it is often just “waste” or “surplus.” But such is what ends up in the hands of those from whom nothing is expected. Those whose slates were left clean by others can now be dirtied themselves. Those from whom nothing is expected become simply the unexpected.
At the heart of Connolly’s “burden of expectation” is a reverence, possibly even a fetishization, of authority. It is the critic’s dilemma, the paralysis that asserts itself in anticipation of judgment, or the fits that overtake when one’s thirst for judgment cannot be quenched. It is a disaster that wills itself. The titular hero of Inside Llewyn Davis, for instance, has a deeply wrought artistic standard which he imposes on his peers while cultivating a sublime genius for chastisement, rejection, and back-alley pummeling. When one is unexpected, however, one learns to cast off the obligation to heed a judging overseer because the judging overseers have turned their sights away. One could become the murderer they vaguely pegged one as and they would be neither richer nor poorer for it; or one could sharpen their instincts and pool their own resources to seek their own logical and more fruitful conclusions. Imagine accepting mediocrity and never hearing Pacific Northwest grunge. Imagine heeding the judgments from above and never living below Canada.
But even a foundling freedom is an imperfect freedom, and Connolly-esque caution is, in the end, a useful piece of observance. It is not hard for the unexpected to embrace an individualism that corrodes into solipsism. Refusing to impose their standards on others, they turn as far inward as they can. Having been overlooked in one place, they fear both interest and ignorance everywhere else. Every instance that standard goes unmet creates deep laceration that will be picked at in perpetuity. Every outside response is either unfettered worship or unforgivable betrayal. The unexpected secede into a territory where they are more prone to distraction and misjudgment. They can be caught up in the thrill of action while neglecting the balance of meditation. Both are needed to pierce through cloudy disappointment that shades a many-colored wonder.