“It tastes like licorice,” the girl said and put the glass down.
“That’s the way with everything.”
“Yes,” said the girl. “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.”
. . .
“I wanted to try this new drink. That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?”
– Ernest Hemingway
“Hills Like White Elephants” (1927)
it’s funny, the above might well be the bleakest and most succinct expression of existential malaise of the whole damned Lost Gen, but for all that it still hits a little close to the contemporary bone, i personally derive a significant amount of pleasure (existential, even) and affirmation from the trying of new drinks.¹ at least some of the time.
which may not say much for my spiritual health (i mean, i also like books and smiling dogs squinting in the sun), but it suggests at the least that i suffer little mauvaise foi² in my dilettance. at some point in the midst of my semi-intentional sabotage of my academic career and listless pursuit of literary recognition, it occurred to me that dilettant may well best describe my situation in, and relationship to, the world; a confusion of soft skills and partial knowledges, unified only by their status as what interests i have failed to pursue to expertise (and the possibly mistaken impression that they add to my charm). this could have been a disappointing revelation, given that dilettant probably hasn’t been used as a positive descriptor in the past two hundred and seventy five-odd years, but, like amateur, dilettante proves to have a kernel of etymological honesty in it.
roughly the same one, in fact. for where (as is fairly obvious) the root of amateur is love, and its essence to do something for the sake thereof (contrasted with the expert or professional), the root of dilettant is delectare – to delight. the dilettant, historically, delighted in art, specifically, but like the amateur was so-driven not by professional (read, problematically: “serious”) aims or strictures, but by the sheer delight of the thing. if “delight” seems like somewhat of a fluffy word, that is perhaps a good thing – the inability to pin down the qualities that make something delightful may be part of the charm (or is the charm the unpindownable?), and while “love” and “pleasure” are not far removed, both have the tendency to grow stiff and calcareous with the serious discourse that accretes around them. which is not to speak unilaterally ill of seriousness, indeed there is certainly something to be said for the gratifications of pleasures harder-won, but the love of pleasure and the love of love can be quite ponderous things absent delight.
in the early 18th century, the Society of Dilettanti was formed in London by a group of dukes and scholars and other professionally monied layabouts (NB: monied layabouts by profession, rather than professional classicists) to appreciate and promote the appreciation of Greek and Roman art, but equally to do so in a spirit of light-heartedness and considerable inebriation. Horace Walpole described them, i suppose disparagingly, as “a club for which the nominal qualification is having been in Italy, and the real one, being drunk,” although this reeks somewhat of the triumphalist moderation that mistakes the result for the object and reduces everything else to mere pretext. the dilettant understands, contra Brillat-Savarin, that just because one has ended up sotted and distended and groaning with one’s take it does not mean one failed to truly appreciate what was put before them.³
but the world despises a dabbler, and the dilettant remains hated for loving, unwanted for wanting.
actually that may not be true.
for what has the age of the internet, lifestyle entrepreneurship, and gutted pensions brought us but the exaltation of the non-professional expert and the professional dabbler? an author-turned-publisher-turned-cabinetmaker friend of mine pointed out that there’s probably not a barber, bartender, or business-owner under 37 in any urban centre who doesn’t have a creative writing degree and a stack of unsold hardcore band records clogging up their crawlspace. a valid argument! it demands a modification of my own, that might proceed by forcing a distinction between the dilettante and the amateur. i think that passion, driving passion in particular, is importantly absent from the portrait of the dilettant: if we are surrounded by affirming messages exhorting us to “Find the one thing you love more than anything else and do it for the rest of your life“, we less often hear the call to “Find a thing that is interesting and pursue it until your interest is exhausted, duuuude.” (if there was a little more mingling of these messages we might have a very different romantic culture, to boot)
there is something to be said, i think, for being compelled in a pursuit not by passion per se, or profession, but appreciation; to be comfortable with something less than mastery of an art or the all-consuming fire of devotion. to quote Philip Gilbert Hamerton against his own prickish grain, “If the essence of dilettantism is to be contented with imperfect attainment, I fear that all educated people must be considered dilettants.” in fact, when i first read that it took me a moment to realize that he was shit-talking educated people, rather than attempting to make peace with the imperfect.
all of which to say, i think i might try making my own vermouth.
¹ recently, Joe Beef’s take on the “Roman Coke”, which contains grappa, chinotto, and fernet branca, and tastes somehow like chocolate.
² i cannot get out of my head the suspicion that Sartre’s mauvaise foi (“bad faith”) was a pun on mauvais foie (“bad liver”), given that both French and English share a historical belief in the liver as the source of courage (see “lily-livered”; “avoir les foies blanc“), and bad faith by way of some oversimplification amounts basically to intellectual/existential cowardice. also, i like to make drinking related jokes about mauvaise foi, as one might expect.
³ i assert, in rough contradiction to what i have claimed elsewhere.