Against Dilettantes
Detail from Anch’io Pittore (dilettante) by Giovanni Sottocornola (1885)

Against Dilettantes

Elena Shalneva
Elena Shalneva
8 min read

“Welcome to the country of amateurs,” a good friend said when I first arrived in England. That was 20 years ago and, now that I’ve had time to think about it, my friend stands corrected. He should have said, “Welcome to the country of dilettantes.” Because there is a difference, you see. While both species belong to the verminous family of the overambitious and the under-qualified, an amateur poses a lower environmental threat. Aware of his limitations, he keeps a certain distance from his subject and treats it with respect. A dilettante, regrettably, does no such thing.

Instead, a dilettante dabbles. In anything, everything, trying his hand at things he is not remotely qualified to do. A fellow with no linguistic training writes a book on the English language. Another fellow with no literary training writes a book of literary criticism. Hacks of every genre, from lifestyle to cookery, opine on politics and economics. I meet a lot of publishers. Where I come from, an average publisher has a postgraduate degree in philology and a pile of academic publications to her name. Not in this country. In this country, they just say “I love books” and smile.

The phenomenon is not just confined to England—so perhaps my friend was unfair to his countrymen. Elsewhere in the world, a writer of self-help books peppers his oeuvres with quotes from Nietzsche; a high school truant pontificates on the importance of science; and academics change disciplines as breezily as you and I change gloves: so, if last year she was a psychologist, this year she is a philologist, and, who knows, next year she might become a sociologist. (These fields rhyme, so why not?) And as for the corporate sector, “Make it up as you go along” may as well be the motto engraved on its crest. But then the corporate sector is an occurrence so unfortunate, perhaps it’s best not to talk about it at all.

In his book on the English language, the fellow with no linguistic training dispenses advice on its usage with the chutzpah of a Molière’s marquess who never studied anything in particular, but judges everything with fashionable assurance (I wish this glorious analogy were mine, but it’s Erich Auerbach’s). Don’t worry about grammar, this fellow posits, or style, or lexis, or rules of any kind—write and speak as it comes to you, and you’ll be fine. And I just want to call out: “Forgive me, but what do you know?” His book is an unfortunate sign of an environment that discourages specialist knowledge and allows the untutored to pass a hobby off as the real thing.

The fellow who penned a book of literary criticism has been knocking out book reviews for years. This is how they normally go: a summary of the plot, a list of “themes” and their political relevance, a catchy quote, an anecdote or two from the author’s life, a quick scan of other reviews—and he is done. With “critics” like this guiding our literary tastes, is it really a surprise that we yield so easily to ideological bullying from the extreme Left?

The Western literary canon is racist and patriarchal, the likes of Disrupt Texts declare—and we stand to attention and bob our heads in agreement. Because, on the surface, the evidence seems compelling: if you believe Harold Bloom, for every woman on the canon, there are at least four men. And then there are books like Don Quixote, we are told, with their middle-aged white male protagonists and outdated, misogynistic, downright sexist themes of chivalry. Why do we still read them? Society has long moved on, and so should our literary tastes. So let’s scrap Cervantes and replace him with Kamila Shamsie: her novels have a “strong female lead” and her themes come straight from the latest issue of the Guardian. And, not knowing how to object to such an apparently incontrovertible argument, the dilettante critic rolls with the punches again.

Oh dilettante critic, how much easier your life would be if you only knew how to do your job. Because the argument against Disrupt Texts is really quite basic. The reason the works of Western literary canon have carried through the ages has little to do with their political message, subject matter, or character types. The reason these books endure and will be read long after the writers of littérature engagée harping on a string of fashionable social trends are ridiculed and forgotten, is their aesthetic impact.

I need to clarify the term “aesthetic” as it is routinely misused: either applied as a synonym of “beautiful,” or dismissed altogether as some sort of obscurantist conjecture. It is neither. As a philosophical concept, “aesthetic” refers to a specific manner of assimilating reality whereby an object is apprehended in its sensual and spiritual entirety. Aesthetic emotion stands in marked contrast to traditional ways of perception that involve analysis, logical reasoning, and moral and practical judgement. Aesthetic emotion is also different from transcendental states caused by religious or mystical experiences in that its source—the aesthetic object—is tangible and real.

The following example will hopefully illustrate my point. Let’s say that, this year, I read two books about the Spanish Civil War: a history book and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. When I finish the former, I think about the facts I learned, the perspectives I discovered and the prose style I enjoyed. I conclude that the book was worthwhile, and I am satisfied. When I finish For Whom the Bell Tolls, however, no such thoughts occur. In fact, no thoughts occur at all: time stops and all that exists, at that moment in my world, is the image of Robert Jordan lying wounded against the trunk of an old pine tree and pulling the trigger of his submachine gun one last time.

Disrupt Texts and its allies are waging a silly war. Telling us what books we should like—essentially trying to decree a literary taste—is an endeavour as hopeless as trying to decree a sexual taste. Date powerful men of your own social level, they tell me, they are a safe bet. They are, but they are also thick at the waist and balding. Looking at them reminds me of HR departments and airport luggage queues. It makes me very upset. So I date men with heaving hair and skateboards, on which they cut down my road with feral grace. Read this book, they tell me, it addresses some pertinent issues of the day. And so it does, and it may even do it well. But I will read Hemingway instead. His works go back a while, and they say his characters are macho. But no matter! Because the image of Robert Jordan pulling the trigger of his submachine gun one last time will be with me when I die.

Aesthetic emotion is a powerful thing. Just like the sexual impulse, it is immediate, irrational, elemental, and complete. It cannot be mandated or controlled. And, just as we lust after people who knock us out, rather than the “safe bets,” we read the books that knock us out, rather than those deemed relevant or timely. So we will always read the canon. And if a literary critic does not understand the prevalence of aesthetic effect over the subject matter (important though the latter may be), he should go to university and study. Or maybe choose a different profession altogether.

And, finally, the one-in-four statistic sounds about right: because for every Jane Austen, there is a Shakespeare, a Dostoyevsky, a Goethe, and a Flaubert—each, let’s be honest, far outranking Austen in genius.

Internet forums are a bastion of dilettantism. Here you might object that this is what forums are meant to be: amateurs exchanging views on subjects in which they have no professional expertise. And that would be fine, if only this lack of expertise were acknowledged, the necessary humility displayed, and the spirit of inquiry manifested. Instead, internet forums are a cesspit of militant ignorance where a coven of village philosophers bash each other with tendentious doctrines, dubious Wikipedia citations, and asseverations so outlandish they leave you stupefied. Like dustman Alfred Doolittle from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (a glorious character and one of my all-time favourites), I could just hear them declare: “I’m a thinking man and game for politics or religion or social reform same as all the other amusements.” And they may add: “But I also slap on a pseudonym, so I can throw around some real rubbish and no one will know I’m a moron.”

There exists a view, grotesque in its inanity but common nevertheless, that the humanities, by merit of not being an exact science, are more of a hobby than a discipline and, as such, are a level playing field for anyone who is able to read. “But I read Sartre!” someone may proclaim and proceed to explain to my idiot self this immensely complex writer. But here is the thing: more often than not, “reading” something without academic guidance means very little indeed. For example, if I read Sartre’s La Nausée raw and unprepared, all I would get out of it is a rather slow story of a neurotic young man with an irrational fear of day-to-day objects. If a university mentor led me to study the philosophies of phenomenology and existentialism first, however, I would quickly recognise that La Nausée depicts a typical existentialist character, and the seemingly harmless objects that surround him—tree roots, park benches, train seats—represent the world and its meaninglessness, and trigger repulsion and disgust. I guess for some readers, the superficial story of a man afraid of park benches might suffice. But for everyone else, the satisfaction of discovering Sartre’s full creative intent is well worth the extra study.

So, does this mean that we should only communicate on the subjects in which we have formal expertise? Well, yeah! This generally favoured approach is also called “knowing what you are talking about.” There is an exception, however. And that is if your name is Michel de Montaigne.

“Authors communicate themselves to the world by some special and extrinsic mark; I am the first to do so by my general being, as Michel de Montaigne, not as a grammarian or a poet or a lawyer,” wrote Montaigne in Book 3 of his Essays. And communicate himself he did, over 20 years and more than a thousand pages, on all sorts of subjects that captured his interest, but of which he had only a lay view. Did he have the right to do this?

He did. For two reasons. First, Montaigne’s relative ignorance was both explicitly stated and deliberate. The purpose of his Essays was not to explore his subjects, but to explore himself, and Montaigne used the example of his life as the basis for developing a moral philosophy, finding the right way to live (vivre à propos). Second, Montaigne was a remarkable man, and his rich, erudite, supremely gifted personality glimmers from the page, illuminating every subject and delighting us with his unexpected takes. Montaigne offered his “general being” to the world—and it was the subject well worth offering.

Alas, most dilettantes fall well short of remarkable, and so their “general being” is best confined to a close circle of family and friends. And the reasons a dilettante subjects us to his amateur pursuits are far less noble than Montaigne’s, and are likely to include overconfidence, laziness, and an intellectual inability to properly master the subject at hand.

But master that subject he should. Any branch of knowledge has systems, methodologies, continuities, principles, concepts, and terms developed by centuries of scholarly effort. And if you attempt to add to this knowledge, you can only do it from the position of rigorous formal education. Same for any attempts to disrupt. If you are bold (and talented) enough to challenge the tradition—go ahead. But remember, you can only break the rules if you know them in the first place.

You may argue that we are doing just fine with the dilettantes, and that my views are too rigid: publishers with no literary background can pick good books, activists with no understanding of science can make the right environmental calls. They can—just as Matt Damon’s janitor in Good Will Hunting could solve an MIT math equation, having never studied maths. The problem is, there are not many Will Huntings around. And to all the other dabblers out there, I will only say that punching well above your weight is a really stupid look.

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Elena Shalneva

Elena Shalneva writes about books, film, and culture. Her work has appeared in Standpoint, City AM, and the Article.