Saturday, January 21, 2006

Dilettantes of the world, unite!

This afternoon, I was reading the acknowledgments page of a book in which the author thanks one prominent scholar for rescuing him "from the temptation of intellectual dilettantism".

On the academic playground, being accused of being a dilettante is akin to a bully calling you a "sissy". But the "temptation" of dilettantism was news to me...oh, yes, it's pleasurable at first and gives one a rush of knowledge but it soon becomes the first step down the slippery slope towards irrelevance and obscurity. One becomes an pitiable object of mockery at cocktail parties and scholarly conferences. As you try to worm your way into other people's conversations, offering a witty comment or two, you later walk up to the bar (cash bar for academics) and find you are the target of hushed giggles and whispers. You, my kind sir, have been called a dilettante!

Worse yet, in academia, one's untouchable status is often exposed in a footnote where another writer dismisses your ideas as mere dilettantism, unworthy of mention except to warn the reader that cleaning out her gutters would be a better use of her time than to spend it reading your work. If widely read by your peers, that dismissal acts as a white kid glove slapped across your face, calling the author either to defend himself on the playing field of battling rebuttals in journals or to resign himself to being an acknowledged--shudder!--dilettante.

I think scholars, amateur or professional, should reclaim the identity of dilettante. My dictionary cites dilettante as coming from the Italian word dilettare ("to delight") and meaning "a dabbler in an art or a field of knowledge", "a lover of fine arts", "a connoisseur". What the hell is wrong with that? Better to be a dabbler delighting in art and knowledge than to sit down to a Labor Day six hour marathon of "Everybody Loves Raymond" episodes; better to crack open a book on a Saturday afternoon or visit a gallery, park, or museum than spend the weekend shopping for plasma screen TVs; better to try to pull together a Greek meal for your Anglo family (with mixed results in my case) than to run into Burger King for a quick dinner fix.

So, DABBLE AWAY! Experiment in the arts! You might fail miserably but it's GREAT material for stories later in your life and you'll learn something about yourself. Explore some aspect of knowledge (Aviation? Winemaking? Python programming? Pierre Bourdieu? Ventriloquism? Divorce Law?) that you're curious about. Try to cook a complicated recipe from Katmandu! Make a mix tape (okay, dating myself here)!

Better to be a dabbler and a lover than a pompous ass who rests comfortably in her/his own small, self-important, and insular world. Break down those intellectual and cultural gates and walk down into the halls of knowledge proudly holding your Dilettante ID card. Now go...log off your computer and GO DO SOMETHING!