Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Age of the Dilettante

I was reading William Hazlitt's essay on Jeremy Bentham, and it struck me that a well-written essay is a very fine thing.  If well-written, an essay may invoke admiration even when one disagrees with the author.  I don't disagree with much of what Hazlitt writes concerning Bentham, but think that certain of his assertions regarding that remarkable man and his work would send Bentham spinning in his grave, if he was in a grave and not for the most part sitting stuffed in a chair at University College London.  I think though that one might disagree with a skilled essayist and still enjoy and benefit from reading his/her essays.

A good essay is a coolly intelligent, witty, ostensibly analytic, discerning bit of observation and commentary, and so I fear essays will become rarer and rarer in these exclamatory, frenetic times of mere assertion.  Montaigne is generally considered the inventor of the "modern" essay, and remains a model.  I can think of few I would consider able essayists in recent history.  Gore Vidal wrote some fine ones indeed, but seems now to lack the patience needed to engage in this kind of effort.  The late Christopher Hitchens wrote some admirable essays, though he became more of a polemicist than an essayist over time.  The same may be said of his fellow "new atheists" in my opinion.  They say John Updike wrote formidable essays, but I must confess I have never been inclined to read anything he wrote.  George Orwell was an impressive essayist; Graham Greene was as well.

The technology which now allows us to spray our opinions over the world with little or no effort (and which makes this blog possible, of course) may lead to the extinction of the essay, or at least of any extended essay--and perhaps much else.  We bloggers, texters, Twitterers, etc. become used to expressing ourselves effortlessly, and unfortunately that which is done without effort is often done without thought, or at least without skill, and skill is essential to a good essay.  It's useful to pause, now and then, to see if one is making any sense, or is capable of making sense out of what one is observing or reading and to pause today is to not react, and reacting immediately is what we seem to feel is appropriate if not necessary.  And react is something we most certainly can do; we can respond to most anything in an instant, without reflection or effort, and are increasingly inclined to do just that.

A good essay is an examination of someone or thing, and examination requires reflection.  Reflection is not encouraged when one may be incessantly interrupted, or when one seeks intrusion, through the nominally beneficial technology we have with which to amuse and enlighten ourselves.  Those commercials where smug possessors of technology mock others as being "so 15 seconds ago" are amusing in some respects, foreboding in others.

We may be seeing the beginning of the Age of the Dilettante, where all are not by choice but necessarily somewhat knowledgeable regarding but without real commitment to any art, theory, subject, philosophy, person, association simply because we may know them superficially with such ease.  We must strain ourselves to learn something well, indeed to even to think, when information is forthwith available.  I wonder if we will find the effort to be too much of an inconvenience.

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