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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

on dilettantism

Ever since I learned the meaning of the word dilettante, I have lived in fear.

Here is the definition in my Merriam Webster's:

dilettante n [It, fr. prp. of dilettare to delight, fr. L dilectare--more at DELIGHT] (1748) 1 : an admirer or lover of the arts 2 : a person having a superficial interest in an art or a branch of knowledge : DABBLER syn see AMATEUR

And on to one of my favorite features of the Merriam Webster's, a paragraph on synonyms, in this case under its entry for amateur:


amateur n, often attrib [F, fr. L amator lover, fr. amare to love] (1784) 1 : DEVOTEE, ADMIRER 2 : one who engages in a pursuit, study, science, or sport as a pastime rather than as a profession 3 : one lacking in experience and competence in an art or science

syn AMATEUR, DILETTANTE, DABBLER, TYRO mean a person who follows a pursuit without attaining proficiency or professional status. AMATEUR often applies to one practicing an art without mastery of its essentials (a painting obviously done by an amateur); in sports it may also suggest not so much lack of skill but avoidance of direct remuneration (remained an amateur despite lucrative offers). DILETTANTE may apply to the lover of an art rather than its skilled practitioner but usu. implies elegant trifling in the arts and an absence of serious commitment (had no patience for dilettantes). DABBLER suggests desultory habits of work and lack of persistence (had remained a dabbler who started novels but never finished them). TYRO implies inexperience often combined with audacity with resulting crudeness or blundering (shows talent but is still a mere tyro).

What makes me think I might be a dilettante? For one thing, I have a wide range of interests, and I pursue them all to some extent. Since time spent on one thing is necessarily time you're not spending on another, this inevitably means a certain scattering of focus. I remember tussling over the question of whether to enter the Arts faculty or Science at university. I mulled the question for two years while I was out of school, then, still unsure, opted for a program that kept my options open. (In the event, I dropped out of first year, nullifying the question altogether.)

Earlier, as a teenager, I was very passionate about playing chess, and wondered whether I might be potentially good enough to pursue it seriously (I wasn't). Later, in my 20s, I set up a garage band with a couple of friends, and found great enjoyment in playing with them (our sound, found through trial and error, turned out to be basically R & B--a surprise to all of us). I considered making that a vocation, but again, did not.

At around the same time I was passionate about my spiritual quest for meaning and truth. I felt that the only wholehearted way of expressing that passion would be to make it the top priority in my life, and specifically to immerse myself in a spiritual education, as at a Zen monastery in Japan. I considered it, but again did not follow through, feeling dilettantish about something in which I regarded dilettantism as particularly shameful.

Another passion at that time was astrology: a field that I had dismissed as obvious bunk, but that, in my quest for other ways of knowing, now beckoned to me. I included it in my studies, and got some tutoring from a prominent Vancouver astrologer. But it takes long time to become good enough at astrology to be paid as a consultant, and anyway, I lacked the consistent passion for it.

And there perhaps is where my true fear of dilettantism stems from: the feeling that the hallmark of the dilettante is inconstant pursuit of a field of effort or study. And of that I knew I was certainly guilty. Where was the commitment? Where was the passion? I was an intellectual and artistic philanderer, endlessly chasing skirt.

Always in the background was the vocation of writing. I knew could write--and I wanted to. But the question was: what do I write? What do I have to say? I launched on ambitious projects that mostly did not see completion. I fretted that it could take me years, decades, to find something worthwhile to say to my fellow human beings. What would I do in the meantime?

What indeed. I suppose the answer lies in my life to date. Yes, I've certainly known success: I got The Odyssey on the air, and that was no mean feat. But I've also toiled in blue-collar and office jobs, with stretches away from wage-labor to pursue my craft. Indeed, that's what I'm doing right now. At a time when some of my friends are starting to muse about retirement, I'm still tooling up for production.

For some reason, I recall an old TV ad for California wines, in which Orson Welles intoned the tag-line, "Paul Masson will serve no wine before its time." Well, this wine has been in the bottle, in the cave, a good long time. Has it merely been forgotten? Or is a wise vintner keeping his eye on it, ready to draw it from darkness and serve in its own good time?


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