Aphorisms and Where to Find Them October 31, 2017

Speaking of Cyril Connolly. Even though he isn’t much read anymore, we still remember more than his “pram in the hall” aphorism. But are any of them true?

“Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.”

I was recently in the supermarket when a kid of maybe eight or nine asked her father why she couldn’t have a bag of delicious non-food — BBQ chips, I think — and it was a genuine question implying, What’s wrong with them? I don’t understand.

The father answered, “That’s a stupid question. Do you know why that’s a stupid question? Because you’re being stupid. It’s a trend lately, you being stupid.”

He was the sort of man I don’t like anyhow, a vain-looking New Age-y whiner with a spiritual man bun. He looked proud of what he’d said, as if he’d been witty.

The girl looked confused and anxious. She would probably remember that repetition of stupid, stupid, stupid. Internalize; isn’t that the term? And although we’re socialized not to step in, I smiled and said to her, “I like questions.”

Then I drew a bead on the father and said, “I’m sure there’s a reason for not liking chips?”

When I stepped in once before, years ago, a woman who’d been lousy to her kid suddenly looked tired and stuttered, apologizing unnecessarily to me and then, crucially, to her kid.

This time, Mr. Invisible-Man-Bun told me what I could do with myself in anatomically-impossible terms, after which I said, “Your kid is listening,” and covertly gave him the finger. Although it ended there, I walked away thinking it could be the seed for a Baroness von Sketch-style comedy riff off that self-righteous meme, It takes a village to raise a child. Mayhem in the supermarket etc.

But that poor little girl.

The Connolly quote is really about writers, and of course there are pressures involved in being anointed “promising.” British public school boy Connolly knew all about that. His online biographical sketches list more unfinished books than finished ones, as if he felt he couldn’t meet expectations and was terrified of failure.

Yet that “promising” label has always opened doors: historically to public school types. It builds them up, as the egregious supermarket father failed to build up his daughter. It’s hard to face expectations of being The Next Big Thing. But it’s worse to be like that poor little girl and get doors slammed in your face, facing a whinny of sarcasm as you’re shut down, your perfectly valid questions ignored.

Given the tendency to fail to apply the “promising” label to non-British public school types, whether women, writers of colour, aboriginal writers and LGBQT writers, I propose this amendment: “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first ignore.”

What comes after can be worse, but let’s start there.


This blog originally appeared on Open Book, where I was writer-in-residence for the month of June. You can check out all the month’s blogs here.