Thursday, March 06, 2008

Connolly on "the mellow Stoicism" of Lord Chesterfield

In a deeply sympathetic brief essay on Cyril Connolly, Sven Birkerts writes of Connolly's occasional "venomous spray of self-loathing," occasioned by his disappointment in his own literary output when set against the great works that animated his life. Birkerts writes,
His adoration of genius could not but lead him into the most bitter self-reproach: "Why not me?"

The vigor and precision of the prose, however, were a rebuttal, for they partook, often, of something like genius. It was as if he had to contradict himself into brilliance.
The piece from which I drew the opening lines of yesterday's post, a review of Samuel Shellabarger's Lord Chesterfield (1935), reveals many of Connolly's virtues as both a prose writer and a sympathetic, attentive critic--in a mere five pages. Connolly, attuned to the "transitional age full of a certain beautiful clumsiness" in which Lord Chesterfield wrote poetry and wonderfully amoral letters to his bastard son, finds Chesterfield sympathetic; Shellabarger, on strictly religious grounds, does not. Connolly rightly points out the essential absurdity of Shellabarger's even troubling to write about this age:
Above all this is no subject for the religious, for it represents the first flowering in English life of the Roman spirit, with its urbanity, good sense, and stoical courage, the first reasonable, measured, intelligent attack which the Augustans launched on the citadel of happiness, after impregnating themselves with the spirit of Horace, the city-bred sophistication of Martial and Juvenal, and the solid qualities of the pagan world rather than the Renaissance's wild adaption of them.
It is a truism of biography that the writer inevitably ends up hating his subject, but Shellabarger seems to have begun by hating Chesterfield, and his unrelenting condemnation prevents him from appreciating anything the man accomplished. It's hard to disagree when Connolly, writing about Shellabarger's dismissal of Chesterfield's letters, writes,
A man who could write such a phrase as "Cunning is the dark sanctuary of incapacity" deserves more than moral condemnation.
Yet that fundamental disagreement does not prevent Connolly from giving Shellabarger what credit he deserves. I've drawn on Anthony Powell's paraphrase of this next line before, but it's worth presenting in its full context:
Granted that the author disapproves of Chesterfield, he has written a very interesting book about him, for he is intelligent enough to see that his life represents, as it were, the second line of defense of paganism, just as Rochester's, for instance, is the front line which apologists find almost too hot to hold and which they often have to evacuate.
Lord Rochester, presumably, would have scorned our offers of help regardless, preferring to gloriously fail to hold the front line himself.

Even Connolly's final, sharpest barb is leavened with an elegiac note of appreciation:
Those who are going to write about men of the world ought, I think, to like the world, but apart from this there is much that is interesting, understanding, and well-put in this biography, which has, indeed, a certain mournful epigraphic quality, appearing at a time when we seem about to bid a final farewell to the life of reason, and in a year that has witnessed the demolition of Chesterfield House, and the death of the last Earl of Chesterfield. The Cyrenaicism of Rochester killed him in his thirties, the mellow Stoicism of Chesterfield secured him happiness until he was eighty.
Three or four perceptive, memorable, even quotable lines in a five-page review, written on deadline--it may not have satisfied Connolly, but I'd sure think it a good day's work.

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