I return to Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave as I do to my favorite drink: I know what to expect, and I have probably had one too many encounters with it, but I always come away pleased, refreshed, consoled–and maybe even inspired. Connolly was, at the time this work was written, approaching the age I am now approaching. He was struggling with the disappointment of not having produced that which he suspected he was capable of producing, a feeling that I, too, have come to know all too well. He was also coping with a recent divorce. Because of this, I gave a copy to someone whose wife had left him and their two little girls. He found great comfort in this work. In fact, he said that it was one of two books that he carried with him while roaming Scotland.
What I reread today–Connolly writes:
I am now forced to admit that anxiety is my true condition, occasionally intruded on by work, pleasure, melancholy or despair.
How apt this is. Perhaps this describes any modern person; I know that this describes me. I am a pacer. I pace when I teach. I pace when I think. I fidget when I try to explain things. Both my parents are nervous people, so, naturally, I blame them. Many of the animals that they have taken in have, quite humorously, assumed their nervous personalities, much in the way that spouses begin to resemble each other.
Ever since I was a child, I have played this destructive game: I will replay an event or day ad infinitum, morbidly adding an element of chaos or destruction to each replay. I have never, as far as I can remember, been able to take anything for what it is and accept it. Everything is tinged with doom.
For Connolly, his primary source of anxiety was not producing anything of lasting value. He comments, “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.” For him, this meant producing a masterpiece, for “the true function of the writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence.”
I fear that cowardice and laziness will keep me from writing what I know that I can write were I only to focus and to commit. The hope of producing something of value is one of the most driving forces in my life, as I do not believe I have much else to contribute to the “enrichment of the spirit” apart from my writing.
I am a persistent, stubborn fatalist. I do not expect things to work out for me in any area of life, yet I stupidly–perhaps–trudge forward. I doubt my abilities as a teacher. I know that I can be a fickle and selfish friend. I am a moody and only reluctantly faithful son. I can be petty, cruel, and vicious. What can I even say about my romantic failures? Much, but I will maintain a prudential silence in that regard. Above all, as we have gathered from Boethius, the rota fortunae cannot be predicted to spin any one way with any consistency. Perhaps the only consistency is that we will be consistently disappointed, especially when our individual vices have yet to be rooted.
I feel that I am authentic only when I write in that I am fulfilling what I was meant to do. All other times, I may as well be working that summer job to tide me over until the fall. How much of life is, for what it is worth, a summer job?