Engagement of another kind Posted on January 10, 2014

What is a dilettante? Someone to be admired, scorned or pitied? Would you admit to, or maybe claim, the title?

We had a lively debate about it the other night, one friend taking the fashionable view that it means uncommitted, non-serious, even amateur (and is therefore to be condemned). My view is pretty much the opposite: that it infers commitment of another sort, passionate interest rather than professional duty.

It depends on the context, of course: in medical matters we hope for certainty and rely on the apparatus of peer-reviewing. An amateur surgeon would not find many customers. In a different field, (planning matters concerning historic buildings are on my mind at present) the common sense and taste that an experienced dilettante can bring can be far more valuable than the callow judgements of a professional planner.

It is not uncommon for the long-brewed plans of an owner and his architect, arrived at after years of study of a site, its surroundings, its history and natural conditions, to be rejected – or certainly (almost inevitably) modified – by an individual who has no background knowledge of the matter. “I would prefer the door to be here”, or the window to be a casement, or a wall to be lower or higher, is a common, and completely outrageous, statement.

Outrageous because this individual’s opinion automatically acquires the authority of law. I don’t recommend questioning the qualifications, the judgement or even the bona fides of a planning officer. Seduction is more likely to produce the required result.

So yes, I am happy to call myself a dilettante – a word that means simply one who delights. A set of young aristocrats who made the Grand Tour in the mid 18th century (and were probably all at Eton together) met as a club under the name of the Dilettantes. Their inaugural meeting was painted by one of their members, Sir Joshua Reynolds. There are clubs and groups with similar leanings today, but who claims the delightful name?

And there’s another calling that has lost its meaning nowadays: that of the flâneur. A flâneur is one who strolls without intent – except to observe the world. Cornelia Otis Skinner, the author Our Hearts were Young and Gay, defined a flâneur as a ‘deliberately aimless pedestrian, without obligations or sense of urgency, who being French and therefore frugal, wastes nothing, including his time, which he spends with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet..’ The critic Charles Sainte Beuve called flânerie ‘the very opposite of doing nothing” ; Baudelaire called him ‘the botanist of the sidewalk’.

Need flânerie be limited to sidewalks, though – let alone to the French? How else to describe what I do in someone else’s garden?

Hugh’s Gardening Books

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Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book

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John Grimshaw’s Garden Diary