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The Idea of Promise Posted on June 24th

Failed promise? 

I’ve recently been reading The Quarterly Conversation, a great literary criticism online journal (no less so because of my contributions). In this month’s issue, Jeremy Hatch reviews and muses on Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly. I’d never heard of Cyril Connolly, but both the premise of the book and a few snippets of his biography are fascinating. Connolly, who wrote in the 1930’s was described by his contemporaries as an example of extreme failed promise: 

 [Stephen] Spender listed a number of recently deceased friends whom he felt had not quite lived up to their promise, naming last among them Cyril Connolly.

“He used to write reviews that were extremely witty,” Spender said, every week for the Sunday Times. “He’d write [a thousand-word review] in a taxi going to the airport, he could do it so easily.”As if exasperated by this memory, Spender burst out with a rhetorical question: “How can one understand a person so gifted, who could do something so easily, [that he] should use his gifts so little?”

Connolly’s one enduring work is Enemies of Promise, a book about the circumstances and abilities an author needs to survive  beyond a decade, and why Connolly himself failed to live up to his own promise as a writer. The idea that a writer would write a book about the reasons for his artistic failure is mesmerizing, and Connolly seems to have developed a special understanding of what one needs to be a successful writer by enumerating all the qualities he lacked. Hatch’s article is well worth reading, and gives a better summary of Connolly’s complex project than I will here.

The article got me thinking about the difficult relationship between art, artists, and promise. Like all aspirant writers, I look to the future in hopes that I will one day “reach my potential,” whatever that may be. And, like all aspirant writers, every time I put pen to paper I see my potential retreat as rapidly as I try to meet it. It remains the same distance—unreachable—as ever. But I have always thought that the idea of “promise” is misleading, as it applies to both art and to a life’s possibilities in general.

In every great artist, as in every good piece of art, there is a sense of tension or unresolvedness. When such people are early in their careers, they are described as having “potential,” or “promise,” because there is an idea that some future accomplishment will unify and resolve these tensions.   The problem with this equation is that the very things that made them a “promising” artist in the first place were the contradictions and impossibilities within them, and these traits will persist whether or not they make good art (and are, in fact, a precondition of good art). The promise we perceive is not a projection into the future (they will one day achieve something) but in fact a permanent quality—a transfixing inconclusiveness.  Just as resolution saps the power of art (i.e. a story with a too tidy ending, a painting too perfectly balanced), an artist that “fulfilled” his promise (and thereby resolved all tensions) has also fulfilled the need to make art.  The best artists, paradoxically, give the impression that their best is yet to come, and the best art likewise gestures beyond itself.

Of course, this is not to say that a writer like Connolly could not have written more, or better. Certainly there are artists that do not do all that they can do. But rather than say they have not reached their promise, it would be more accurate to say that by not going where they can go, they do not reach their limitations and therefore cannot make aesthetic use of them.

On that obscure note, I give you a fitting excerpt from A Catalogue of Rare Movements, the chapbook of drawings and prose Curtis Rhodes and I put together. The work has just been released by Xexoxial Editions as issue 42 of Xerolage. The chapbook imagines 24 imagined art movements, one of which is very relevant to any discussion of potential and what could be.  Here is the text only (in the book, there’s an accompanying drawing) for that movement:

Couldism (Neo-Shouldism)

 The Neo-Shouldists, also known as the Couldists, built their art on regret. They drew beautiful pictures, gloriously controlled and delicately detailed. Then they overdid it with impulsive, stupid marks. Their work inevitably brought on clucks of the tongue, sighs, and head shaking. “Oh, what this could have been!” viewers would say. Since what should’ve been and could’ve been is always better than what is, the Couldists figured what their viewers imagined it might have been was even better than what it once was.

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