Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Muddy Face of Dilettantism

In Cees Nooteboom's novel Rituals, the art dealer Bernard Roozenboom says to Inni Wintrop, the central character:
"...You are incapable of selecting--a sure sign of lack of class. That's why you're nothing more than a dabbler. That is somebody who likes everything. Life's too short. The human condition does not allow it. You can only really find a thing beautiful if you know something about it. He who does not select will perish in the morass. Carelessness, lack of attention, not really knowing anything about anything, the muddy face of dilettantism. The second half of the twentieth century. More opportunities for everyone. More people knowing less about more. The spread of knowledge over as large an areas as possible. He who wants to skate over the surface will fall through the ice..."
Later, Inni contemplates Bernard's words. He recognizes that, by now, by the age of 45, certain paths that may once have been possible for him are now not. He thinks of the things he will never have time to know, to understand, and he is
...reminded [...] of his own visit to Chieng Mai, in northern Thailand, where he had wandered equally helplessly from temple to temple, book in hand. Books tell no lies, and he had let the facts, dates, and architectural styles trickle deeply into his brain. But at the same time, he kept that penetrating sense of impotence because he could not see why one building was so much older than another, because he could not read the signs, and in the last instance, because he had not been born a Thai. The nuances that gave those things their flavor would remain hidden from him because, quite simply, they were not his. Even in the colonial cathedral of Lima, where he was more at home, he had decided to let it pass before his eyes like a brilliant decor, no more. You did not have a thousand lives. You had only one.

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