Friday, August 10, 2007
That Happiest and Most Frustrating of Curses – Dilettantism
Dilettantism is mostly used in a pejorative and dismissive sense, namely that the dilettante is an amateur, a dabbler and even a trifler. Indeed, Carl Gustave Jung who was an amazing genius capable of going into depth in widely diverse subjects such as mythology, history, philology, philosophy, theology, psychiatry, psychology, modern and classical languages, the sciences and of course, alchemy was accused of being “the most cursed dilettante.” (cf. the marvellous introduction of Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology, by Dr. Sonu Shamdasani, Cambridge University Press, 2003 for a summary of Jung’s encyclopaedic interests and the depths of his studies where this shallow criticism is cited.)
Years ago I remember sitting beside Dr Gabriel Daly, O.S.A., lecturer in theology at T.C.D. As a young student in the Augustinian Order of Priests for some three years of my life I had the privilege of living in the House of Studies at Ballyboden here in Dublin where also another learned man resided namely the late Wood Quay man F.X. Martin, O.S.A. who was then Professor of Medieval History at UCD. So meal times were always stimulating especially when Gabriel and Xavier were present. The repartee was learned to say the least. Both had done their primary degrees in history at Oxbridge – Gabriel at Oxford and F.X. at Cambridge and had followed them up with Doctorates not too long after. This was quite unusual at the time for two Irish priests, but the provincial knew he had two exceptional scholars in these two men. Both have written many books, F. X. on history needless to say while Gabriel wrote much on historical theology and especially on modernism. Unfortunately F.X. is dead a number of years while Gabriel is still alive and still writing. I visited F.X.’s grave and those of other former confreres recently in Glasnevin Cemetery. One poor man, Paddy Mullery I see died at 39. I remember his bringing me for a drive in the Comeragh Mountains when I was a student.
I recall one conversation I had with Gabriel when we were talking about some scholar or other and Gabriel’s assessment was that “unfortunately like a rather poor general A deployed his forces on too broad a front to make any appreciable impression on the enemy.” Good metaphor for a dilettante I should think. I learnt a lot from Gabriel – he wrote and spoke like an Oxford don and needless to say still does. I have not met him since I left religion way back in 1986. I learnt the cut and thrust of debate from him and a delight in the use of proper language.
Another of my teachers at college was the late great John Devitt who taught me English literature at Mater Dei in the late 70s of the last century. Unfortunately, John died this May gone and I luckily got to his funeral. Anyway, one day John told me that I was absolutely mad. Why? Well in 1979 at 21 I was recommended by the Head of the Education Department for an M.Ed. in T.C.D., but I had to turn it down as unfortunately my family had no money and they needed me to go to work to bring in some money. When John heard I was heading to teach in O’Connell’s and had planned to do a B.A. by night in Mathematics and Irish he blew a gasket and said, “Huh, a waste of time and money. It’s way more profitable always to go ahead and do postgraduate studies. What’s the point in going sideways?” Logically, he was right. I have spent my life going sideways, picking up bits and pieces of degrees and diplomas here and there without ever going ahead as it were. All my qualifications are divergent, indeed and my subjects are Theology, Philosophy, Education, English, Irish, Maths, History and Italian, all of which I’m qualified to teach to Leaving Certificate level with the exception of History. I can teach both Theology and Philosophy at College level having a License to teach these subjects in a seminary or college. Obviously the STL is a Pontifical or Roman degree and is recognised as being of Master’s level. It is my one regret I never pursue my studies to Doctoral level, though I had lost all my interest in theology in my late thirties. I’m now more interested in Philosophy and Psychology and read a lot in these two areas.
So I am a dilettante, and it is at one and the same time the happiest and most frustrating of curses. You always feel you have never gone far enough into anything. Maybe I have a low boredom threshold. Maybe it’s because I find so many things interesting. Gabriel was right. I am that general who deployed his forces on too broad a front and indeed I never did manage to breach the enemy’s front line. Now, pushing 50, I feel that I have not achieved all the things I could have achieved in life. Now psychology has caught my interest and I have enrolled in a psychotherapy degree for the coming October 2007 which I hope to follow with an M.Phil in psychoanalysis at TCD in 2008-9. I don’t know where this will all lead, but there I go. As a Buddhist friend of mine puts it:”wherever you go there you are!”
Anyway, whatever the future may hold I don’t know. The struggle is to live for now and in the now. That’s what all the schools of philosophy and psychology and all the great spiritualities of the Great Religions advise. Anyone who has read these pages before will know that I am enamoured with the academic world, but I count academic qualifications all as straws in the wind and a poor second to happiness in life. I was speaking to a young Romanian Dublin Bus driver this afternoon. He likes his job, but is a fully qualified music teacher at home. He’s able to give some private classes to keep his musical interests up and keeps happy that way. One of my favourite uncles on my mother’s side was James Brophy who died in 2002 aged 90 and he was one of the happiest men I had the privilege to know. He was a gardener all his life both in Stephen’s Green and Leinster Lawn which is now the car park for the T.D.s. Very few of my relatives have degrees – most of them are tradesmen and civil servants. All of them are happy without degrees. That’s okay with me because having a degree is like having a trade, just another way of earning a living. I’ll die a dilettante, but I’m happy.
I thought I'd upload an old picture of me as a monk. This picture was taken when I was 28, a few months before I left the "brotherhood." I spent three years from time I was 25 until I was 28 with the Augustinians. They were good times as I studied a lot and got to work with alcoholics, drug addicts, the elderly and the dying. It was an eye-opener to say the least!