Thursday, April 21, 2005

Dilettante, n. 1) A dabbler in an art or a field of knowledge. See Synonyms at amateur. 2) A lover of the fine arts; a connoisseur. (Source: My first encounter with this word was in an anecdote told by Daniel, in which his supervisor had described his thesis as "dilettantish and peripatetic". Daniel is now Dr Daniel. However, I felt, and still feel, that this is a fine example of Bourdieuian distinction in action; some years earlier the same academic had described an argument of mine as "specious", a word I'd had to look up.

When it became clear that I was too stupid* to pursue an academic career, I began to call myself a dilettante as a defensive manoeuvre. I thought of myself in the intellectual tradition of voracious generalists. Leonardo Da Vinci, after all, was a philosopher, a painter, an inventor, and (as Kramer memorably reminds us on Seinfeld) a power-napper. I think it's important to think of the second definition of 'dilettante' here: someone who pursues their multiple interests out of love, because they can't bear to abandon them, and they don't want the grinding reality of a 'job' to destroy that love.

I almost had myself convinced that my various interests (academia; journalism; fashion; writing and performing music) could even fruitfully intersect and cross-pollinate to lend me interesting insights. I was thinking this as recently as a week or two ago.

Then during the Comedy Festival, I realised the nasty reality of dilettantism: it makes it impossible to succeed at anything. Think of everyone you know who's successful at what they do. That's because that's all they care about.

While I was working three days a week, plus freelancing and preparing to launch a new magazine, other comedians were gigging, rehearsing, attracting sponsorship, preparing CDs and other merchandise, promoting their shows in the media, postering and flyering, and most of all, meeting and networking with other comedians. It was not enough for me to have a tolerably amusing show. If I wanted anyone actually to go to my show, and for other comedians to talk to me, I would have to devote my entire energies to being a comedian.

It might seem quite obvious and indeed pathetic that this had never occurred to me before. But I swear, I really did feel confident of becoming a media ho, with fingers profitably and commendably inserted in a number of different cultural industry pies. Ludicrous though it is, I really did think that each of my little successes laid the foundation for the next. Now, though, I can see that none of them are related, and that I have actually been pissing my adult life away on a succession of things leading nowhere. The flipside of wanting to do everything is being mediocre at everything, and being ignored or patronised because of it. The comments I made to this post demonstrate how painfully that nasty reality took root.

In moments of depression, I start to think that perhaps my mother was right, and I should have realised this about myself, given in to living death and pursued some corporate career. There is no room for dilettantism in the corporate sphere - unless you know precisely what you want out of life, you get trampled by people who do.

However, I now see that I face a tough choice. Which of my interests do I want to attempt a living from? Will it be:
A) journalism
B) academia
C) fashion
D) writing and performing music
Before Eddie locks it in, I would like to use one of my three lifelines and ask the audience. What do you think I'm best at?

* I tried really hard on my thesis. I worked seven days and often seven nights too. I showed up at my uni office every morning and sometimes stayed there all night. Some would argue that I was not stupid, but merely was not helped and indeed was actively obstructed by my supervisor. Others would point out that I was writing a thesis full-time without a scholarship, while working 24 hours a week in my job. But I believe a truly talented and committed person could and would have overcome these obstacles to produce a passable thesis with a mark high enough to obtain a PhD scholarship. I contend that my dilettantism pre-dated this entire thesis disaster, and in fact caused it.

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