Life & Living VIII (The World)

For a long time, I wondered why I took an interest in housekeeping. Just the other day, I finally realized that it was room service.

Now, if it’s available at all, they call it something like “in-room dining.” It’s not the same, anyway. Real room service involves a large wheeled table with a portable oven mounted on its base. The oven is heated with a can of Sterno. Plates of breakfast fare ride up from the hotel kitchen on the oven shelves. A white-coated waiter (also required for fetish satisfaction) folds up the curved edges of the table, making it circular, and locks them in place. Then he sets the table, removing the hot plates from the oven and spreading the drinking glasses, cups and saucers, linen napkins and heavy flatware on top of the blazingly white tablecloth. There is a silver bud vase with flowers in it, carnations probably. There are silver pots of coffee, and maybe hot water for tea. The silver isn’t really silver, and yet it’s better than silver, not because you never have to polish it (I didn’t know that), but because you only see it when you’re having breakfast in a hotel suite. The white-coated waiter setting the table is as delightful as twenty Santas. Room service makes a present out of food.

It also provided the vision of a way of life that I knew to be old-fashioned, on the way out, just as the beaux-arts pretensions of the hotels that offered the best room service. Pillars and plasterwork, long corridors with heavy wooden doors in grandly molded frames; and the hotel silver and white-on-white napery — this was as close as I was going to get to the palaces of kings and cardinals who took the place of fairy-tale characters in my imagination. Grandeur appealed to me, although it was probably very important that I was never asked to do more than look at it.

It was my misfortune to grow up ever more casual times. They weren’t a good fit. I’m cautious by nature, and when I meet people I’m inclined to be reserved and somewhat formal. Getting to know you is not something that happens right away, and even checking up on an old friend takes a minute or two. I had to learn the hard way how useful small talk is. By the time I open up (as I always do if I’m comfortable), I know a great deal about the person or persons I’m with, at least for the purposes of our being together for the moment. Luckily, I’m very interested in family stories, so I tend to recall what people have told me in the past, and to ask after the more interesting relations. My inquiries are almost always met with a whiff of surprise — you remembered? — and I’m sure that some people think that I’m making an effort. But I’m not. Being casual and carefree, in contrast, was a lot of work. I tended to overdo it, and my behavior verged on the insolent and the presumptuous. For me, relaxing has nothing to do with letting go or laying back, whether or not I’m alone. I am by nature who closes the door when using the bathroom, even when no one else is at home.

My idea of home, then, was never very homely. And it was always centered on a dining table, not in a grouping of easy chairs. I felt most at home when there were other people in it, by which I mean guests. You might say that I learned to cook as a pretext for keeping people where I was most comfortable. I took a great interest in soups, because a meal of one course (dessert doesn’t count)  seemed mean to me. In reaction to my mother’s stripped-down approach, I larded the table, once I had one of my own, with unnecessary tableware, but even when that burned off with time I set the table as if I were running a nice restaurant, and I still do, even when it’s just Kathleen and me.

Once upon a time, it was possible to keep house without making any physical effort: that’s what servants are for. I have always been comfortable with household servants, but I am somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of them. So it has not bothered me that hiring the kind of servants whom I used to encounter in other people’s homes — some people’s — was almost always been beyond my means. I learned how to do it myself, and I got into the habit of doing it as often as it needed to be done. Because my idea of home centers on people enjoying dinner at a table, cleanliness is important to me only as a hygienic concern; dust accumulating in unseen corners does not bother me very much — unless I happen to see it. I am not a germophobe. I like tidiness, I like being presentable. I don’t much care about what I can’t see.

I have given a lot of thought to the matter of men and what they perceive as drudgery. You can look as housework as drudgery, because it never comes to an end. There is no final achievement. The accomplishment, on the contrary, is an ongoing one, keep the house going. And so long as people are alive in a home, the house has to be kept fit. The open-endedness, rather than the nature of the work, is what makes men impatient with it. Men engage in a lot of hobbies that call for mindless labor that would be called drudgery if it did not end in the completion of a project. You make a little something — a model train engine, a birdhouse, even a batch of home-brew — and then you are done with it. I threw home-brew, because it’s a hobby if someone makes beer whenever he feels like it, but housework if the goal is making sure that there is always a supply of beer on hand. Making beer and cooking on grills are examples of housework that men seem ready to embrace. The secret seems to be spontaneity. Elective drudgery is not elective.

It will be argued that many shirk housework simply because it’s women’s work, and therefore taboo. But this kind of acculturated prejudice strikes me as somewhat circular. After all, it’s just as arguable, and even more likely, that women’s work is what it is because men don’t want to do it. I can’t say that I particularly like doing housework, but from an early age I knew that I liked the results, and it was clear that no one else was going to do it for me. Because I like the results, I have never felt put upon, even by myself. At the same time, I’ve had to be careful to scale my objectives to my laziness. I’ll be frank: I do as little housework as I can get away with. But I’m the judge of that. I make the bed every day, even when Kathleen is away on a trip. I started making the bed every day when I lived alone. It only takes a minute, really.

Someday there may be robots capable of doing everything that I do in the course of keeping house, but something about my experience with computers and automation tells me that no one is never going to bother to invent, much less produce and market at a reasonable price, a robot that would do the work quite the way I want it done. In other words, I do not foresee a future without labor. Even when every repetitive factory job has been assumed by a non-human device, there will still be drudgery — housekeeping. Possibly more of it than there is now, as resources become too dear to power vacuum cleaners and dishwashers.

> Am I going to argue that some drudgery is good for you? I don’t know yet.

Doing housework is an imperative to me because I cannot work in a disordered environment. I’m not one of those workers-from-home who resorts to housekeeping as a distraction from getting work done; being both lazy and candid, I don’t bother to fool myself, so that if I feel like not working and doing nothing, I don’t try to salve my bad conscience by polishing the silver. I just sit there and feel bad — until I get involved in what I’m reading. > Eventually, the drudgery is taken care of.

> Reading — if I am doing nothing else, I am reading. For me, reading is a kind of travel. Instead of new or different places and the different things that people eat there, I experience different ideas, and different ways of putting things.

> Writing is work. I may not make a living at it, but it’s what I do, and have done for thirty years. I could not read without writing, nor write without reading; and yet they remain very different activities. Writing is something more than work. When I write, I do something that I alone can do, because only I can write what I write. This is what distinguishes artistry from craftsmanship.

> What is work for most people?


In my early teens, at the beginning of my intellectual life, I was drawn to the Eighteenth Century. Most of the music that I loved was written then. Also, for many decades of that age, the old coexisted with the new. This was not an entirely comfortable coexistence, but the counterpoise of courtiers and philosophers appealed to me, as did the easing of manners, which was only an easing, not a complete relaxation. Long before I first heard Talleyrand’s immortal remark about the sweetness of life before the Revolution, I knew that many fortunate people — a handful in relation to the total population, but enough to create an international European society — enjoyed charmed lives. Lucky the ones who, like Voltaire, died before the old order collapsed. This was the world of Watteau and Mozart, of melancholy worn as an undergarment. Everything about the Eighteenth Century made me detest the one that followed, in which clumsy attempts were made to patch up the old ways while feelings were shouted rather than whispered. The smile of the Eighteenth Century is a sad smile, or, sometimes, the smile is all in the eyes. Nobody in the long age that followed knew how to smile at all; there were only grins.

In truth, I liked the look and feel of the Eighteenth Century more than its substance. I liked the graceful, sophisticated atmosphere, which to my mind has never been recaptured. It took me many years to get round to taking a serious look at the ideas of the Enlightenment itself, and I cannot say that I have made much of my studies even yet. But the style of the philosophers appealed to me. They communicated in writings. Even then, I had the idea that this is how serious discussion must proceed. It is time-consuming; while engrossing, it is rarely exciting. But it is infinitely preferable to the rhetoric of debate. Debate is, quite simply, a game, a deformation of thought for the entertainment and egotism of smart young men, and, like most things that young people are good at, it ought to be left behind in maturity. There was certainly a good deal of debate in the Eighteenth Century, but it was subordinate to or at least buttressed by written arguments, as we see in the Federalist papers. Debate was embedded in discussion.

I liked these things without being entirely aware of them. Like most people, I thought that the Enlightenment was a progressive movement that sought to make the world a better place. That is how it has usually been presented, if only for the simple reason that the “results” of movement’s activities, its claims to fame, were the birth of liberal democracies and the new, scientific approach to the natural world. It has become fashionable to question these results, now that we can take a longer view of the consequences. You can argue that the thinkers of the Enlightenment were naïve about the unalloyed goodness of their novelties. But this seems wrong-headed to me, because I no longer look upon the Enlightenment as primarily a font of innovation. Rather it was a process of deconsecration.

This is not the place for an essay on the determination of Enlightenment figures to sweep away what they saw as feudal encumbrances that could no longer be worked around, but I will suggest that if the Seventeenth Century is best represented by Louis XIV’s arduous rather than ingenious balancing of old privilege and new money — he devoted every minute of every day to distracting the privileged with his vast, unending country-house party — the note of the Eighteenth Century is struck simply by Voltaire: Écrasez l’infâme. The “infamy” was the temporal Church, a meddlesome organization to put it mildly. To Voltaire and those who thought like him, the Church that had survived the Reformation presented an intolerable barrier to humane civil life. Its solutions to social problems were worse than the problems themselves. Anyone curious about the repressive power of a church-state alliance have only to glance at Putin’s Russia; as in de Valera’s Eire, it is not necessary for the state to counter civil dissent when a priesthood will do the work for free.

Were I a true student of the period, I could hazard a guess at the respective proportions, in Enlightenment texts, between positive proposals for improvement and negative attacks on feudal vestiges (which of course included the temporal Church, the greatest feudatory of them all). My impression is that the problems associated with what would be called the ancien régime attracted more attention than solutions. Tocqueville’s study, L’ancien régime et la Révolution, explores the many solutions that were proposed by Bourbon administrators. These men of affairs, not primarily philosophers, wanted to get things done, but their proposals often ran into conflict with vested interests that had a very lively  financial stake in leaving things as they were. In the end, these vested interests corrupted and polluted the sacral aura of the royal establishment. Insofar as the Enlightenment had a philosophical result, it was the annihilation of political will to rescue the crown when bankruptcy loomed.

So, although I remain attracted to the style of the Enlightenment, I can’t help seeing it as primarily destructive. That’s not to say that it was a “bad thing.” But destruction is violent and wounding. It creates emergencies that it is too impatient to deal with. Exhilaration is followed by confusion and worse. The fall of the Bastille erupted in a noisy explosion that lasted for twenty-five years. Amidst this disturbance, rather reminiscent of the rodents that began to flourish as the dinosaurs died off, small industrialists were changing the face of political economy and scarring the Earth in the process. Dark, Satanic mills proliferated while new constitutions were designed and tested. In England, which had spent its revolutionary enthusiasm more than a hundred years earlier, new fortunes bloomed and the nation prospered mightily. Its success was as widely imitated as possible. The costs of such prosperity would not be generally questioned until the 1960s, when movements to ban nuclear weapons as well as toxic pesticides attracted mainstream interest.

The destruction that began at the end of the Enlightenment has been continuing, we now see, ever since. There is a need for a new Enlightenment — this time, pursuing constructive aims. The central tool of this new construction, as I see it, is an understanding of the difference between human nature and humanity.

I use “humanity” here as if it were the same kind of word as “generosity,” to describe not the mass of human beings but an outlook toward other people. Indeed, generosity is a component of humanity, along with decency and self-respect. All of these impulses, which I think are rooted in our human nature, strive to restrain other forces in human nature, most particularly anger and fear, but all the famous vices generally. They share the fault of objectifying other people, which is the inhuman act. We cannot squash human nature, but we can do a great deal to remind ourselves, and to build habits in support of this understanding, that other people are as fully human as ourselves, and that their seeming to be wrong or mistaken does nothing to diminish this status. The difference between self-respect and narcissism is that self-respect reminds us that we ourselves are often, perhaps usually, wrong or mistaken.

Instead of retreading a lot of very familiar pathways through the difficulties of behaving better than we do, and so forth, I’d like to offer a high-order instance of humanity at work on human nature. It will not, at first look, appear to concern other people, My insight comes from a personal experience that might look so peculiar to me that it could have no application to anyone else. It might almost seem trivial. But I expect that the point I’m going to make is a valuable one.

Readers with sizeable collections of classical recordings will probably grasp my point more quickly than others, as will jazz and American Song Book collectors. Not so much rock or Broadway show tunes, though. What immediately distinguishes a large classical recording collection from the most encyclopedic rock collection is the separateness of composers, the people who write music, from performers, those who play it. This separateness manifests itself in multiple recordings of the same compositions. Any sizeable collection of classical recordings will include several recordings of the same favorite works. It might be Tchaikovksy’s Pathétique Symphony — once upon a time, it surely would have been — or it might be a half-dozen recordings of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. And as for operas! I still remember being amazed, more than amazed, to hear that the early Warhol collector, Robert Scull (whose fortune came from taxis), possessed all thirteen recordings of his favorite opera, Don Giovanni. It was surprising enough that there were thirteen recordings, but nothing spoke “opulence” to me more loudly than Scull’s complete collection. (At the time, I’m not sure that the Solti Ring was complete — there were no recordings of Wagner’s tetraology.)

I don’t see the new Enlightenment as primarily political. Reforming political life is obviously essential, but reform no longer needs new laws. There are plenty of old ones. There are too many laws, many designed to benefit special interests. If the political system has been abused, we must bear in mind that it is nonetheless a human system, and we do not punish the victims of abuse, much less set out to destroy them.

All that’s required is a certain piety.

The piety that I have in mind is more like the Roman or the Chinese virtue (xiao), not the religious attitude. The idea that piety is filial, a duty of sons toward their fathers, is explicit in both. My piety would be somewhat different, in that the object of the pious person’s respect would not be the father (or, in the Roman extension, the fatherland. Instead, father and son alike would save their deepest respect for the World, and for the one medium in which we all participate in the World: language.


You could say that I retired early. Until the age of thirty-nine, I was conventionally occupied. Either I was in school or I was at work. There was nothing spectacular about my career, but it was not fundamentally strange, either. When I was thirty-nine, I was fired, or I resigned; when I left the office on that last day, I knew that I could show up for work the next, but decided not to. From then on, retired from regular life, you could say that I was a man of leisure.

I myself believe that I was always a man of leisure. My attention was always drawn primarily to understanding the World that I lived in, and this World of mine was always the World, the layer of human culture that has risen from the Earth since the first human societies. To the geology of the globe, people bring a stratum of projects and pursuits that, in my time, has thickened to the point of endangering what underlies it. Is that an accident, a coincidence? Was my interest in the World a response to the destructive power of nuclear weapons, a throbbing leitmotif during my early years? I’m inclined to say “no,” that I should have been fascinated by the World anyway, but good sense suggests that my embrace of the World is much greater than it would have been had I had only myself to think about. My World has always been a World on the brink of annihilation. No sooner had we got used to bombs than we saw what we were doing to the environment. Did it take the bomb to scare us into attending to the risks of climate change? It is hard to deny a connection. And yet I cannot say that I have given much thought to the end of the World. I have always believed that understanding how the World works (which involves learning a lot about how it doesn’t work) is the best, if not the only way, of keeping it in working order.

Most people are not interested in the World. What they see in the World is little more than the setting of their own lives. Generally, they would prefer a more attractive setting than the one they see (or have). They pay no attention to settings that they do not desire. (This, I think, is what makes poverty so intractable a problem: its myriad kinds of unattractiveness repel the healthy imagination.) When they say that they would like to make the World a better place, whether for their children or for their customers, they really don’t know what they’re talking about. Which is to say that they’re talking about little more than localized improvements in settings. But the World is not in fact a setting. It is an organism, comparable perhaps to a digestive tract in which we flourish — or don’t — as microbes. There might be much to learn from this comparison. In the end, though, the World is unlike anything else, and there is only the one.

Almost everything about the World is completely transitory. Hugs, burials, conversations, transcontinental flights, promotions, earthquakes — all come and go, leaving little in the way of long-term traces, even earthquakes. Man the maker of things has introduced a range of constructions that simulate permanence, but most of these things are too utilitarian and common to attract attention. Their importance is as transitory as we are, even if they outlive us. Only rarely does something harden and detach itself from the rumbling hum of human life and stand as a monument. Our experience of monuments does not go back very far, even if the duration of the species is the yardstick. Only much more recently have we decided to preserve monuments that no longer really mean anything to us — to save them as a record of things that our forebears found important. Thousands upon thousands of books have been printed since Gutenberg introduced his press, but most of them have sunk into oblivion, and many even further, leaving no trace for scholars. The books that the most strenuously well-educated person can be expected to read is probably fewer than ten thousand, more than anyone can live long enough to read but a slim fraction of the total number of titles. Just to know a fragment of this World of monuments is the work of a lifetime.

It is my belief that the monuments save human life from the meaninglessness that stretches beneath its transitory quality. Here it is useful to distinguish knowledge of the World from tourism. I shan’t belabor the point. Most of what passes for education in today’s society, especially at the higher levels, is little more than tourism, a version of the Grand Tour that wealthy young Englishmen used to take before shouldering adult responsibilities (such as marriage). To the extent that college courses do something besides nurture professional skills, they rarely engage the student more deeply in the matter under study than a passenger in a tourist coach is engaged by what he sees out the windows or experiences in the half-hour of a stop. Worse, this first exposure is taken to suffice: to have read Shakespeare is to have seen Rome. You do it and get on with life.

A Gothic cathedral on a bright day is impressive to anyone. But it is merely a spectacle, no different from a stadium concert, unless one knows why it was built. One begins by grasping that cathedrals were very, very hard to build. They required stupefying effort. Why did powerful men consider such a diversion of resources important? You can read some quick answers in any brochure, but to understand the ardor that each cathedral makes concrete you must know a good deal about the lives that people led in those days, and what they thought was important. You must understand a great deal about medieval conceptions of the universe, not to mention Catholic dogma. You must know better than to reduce the cathedral to a monarch’s assertion of prestige. You must understand most of all that the enthusiasm for building cathedrals burned brightly for less than a century in any given place. In England, the passion for Gothic styles passed from contemporary to antiquarian at some point prior to 1500, and without a hitch. You must understand why nobody got round to mounting spires on Westminster Abbey until nearly five centuries after the church was consecrated. To know the World, you must understand a lot of things like that, and also how they interconnect.

The difference between tourism and knowledge is that knowledge can be shared. Knowledge is not knowledge until it is shared: until it is expressed, in language that can be understood, knowledge is a mirage. I think that it would be fairly easy to teach a child to respect the World, or at least to convey the importance of doing so. Teaching a child to express what it knows is more difficult. I am not concerned here with the manifestly unequal distribution of literary gifts. I am concerned rather only with those who possess them in abundance — and who abuse them.

Expressing a lie is to counterfeit knowledge. Highly-educated people can be fooled by lies, but the overarching idea of education is to inculcate an ability to recognize counterfeit, or at least unlikely statements. People without educations are relatively defenseless in the face of lies; their best protection is to refuse to learn anything. In our democracy, they cannot count on educated guardians, because educated Americans have demonstrated very little evidence of the piety that I am calling for. Careless speech in political contexts is a kind of lying. Claiming to be sure of something that you don’t recall having checked is as irresponsible as lying. Too much political discourse today amounts to mendacity, whether or not it is intended to mislead.

And then there is advertising. Advertising is an impious abuse of language. It is best to say so at the outset, to put it on a par with the other poisonous side-effects of the industrial revolution. The best thing to be said about advertising is that it seemed harmless at first; by the time its toxic capacities were demonstrated by the mass distribution of political propaganda, advertising was an industry in its own right. Locking it in place, like the keystone of an arch, was its relationship to mass media, which quickly thrived on the advertising model of earning revenue. You may pay for your copy of the newspaper, and of course you must buy your own radio or television. But advertisers foot the bill for content. Few sectors of the culture/entertainment complex are free of advertising, and even they (books, feature films) float in a sea of information that is paid for by advertisers.

According to a curious axiom, the cheaper the access to a source of advertising, the more pernicious the advertising usually is. Affluent people can pay for advertising-free media; they also tend to support media outlets where advertisers are expected to be constructively veracious: a luxury cruise advertised in The New Yorker is more likely to be genuinely luxurious than a cruise advertised in People. By another rule, content in the vicinity of cheap advertising tends to amount to little more than self-advertisement. Take I Love Lucy. Although the scripts follow the conventions of the well-made play, the show is about how funny it is. The realism of I Love Lucy is pretty much the realism of an advertisement in which two neighbors discuss furniture polish. I own a boxed set of the series and watch it often and with pleasure. I did not pay attention to it as a child, but discovered it in my twenties. For a long time, I marveled at its formal rigor. Then I found something even more marvelous to admire: the show is about nothing, and that is the point of it.

I raise I Love Lucy precisely to give tone to my scolding. No matter what we think of advertising, we’re not getting rid of it anytime soon. That oughtn’t to stop us, though, from grasping the evil inherent in the manipulative use of language.

The purpose of advertising is to distract us from our humane undertakings by tricking our human nature into

Knowledge of the World requires years of non-academic study. How do you open yourself to the concentrated teaching of a great painting? Preliminary techniques can be taught, but that is all; to get anywhere, you must teach yourself to experience the picture. What does this mean? Very little, if you try to express it anyone else. A pile of abstract nouns, meaningless to anyone who has not had any experience of paintings and possibly interfering for those who do.

The painting, the Pyramid — it doesn’t matter which. You know the World when you understand that time ticks very differently in it.

From an early age, perhaps from the moment that I first learned the term, I have regarded myself — suspiciously — as an auto-didact. I have never believed that it was good thing to be. Auto-didacts are hardly distinguishable from knowledgable cranks — there is always something a little off about self-taught expertise. There is often a sour resentment, because the people who went to school to learn something can be so sniffy about their degrees. The only way to validate teaching yourself something is to change the very nature of the field that you have tried to master, and that is what I hope to do here.

I have taught myself about leisure. There has been no one else to do it.

Perhaps it’s not the mot juste; perhaps “leisure” has been too hopelessly corrupted by the lifestyle business and its claims to offer pastimes and equipment for the occupation of free  time. At the same time, “leisure” is an old-fashioned word, as if it denoted something as outmoded as chamber pots; most people believe that leisure no longer exists, or that is is known only to the very rich. Something about modern economics has driven it away, like government sinecures.

But leisure is not free time. It is the passion that fills free time with a sense of purpose that has no purpose other than to explore itself. It is a connoisseurship of the world. It takes years to acquire, and there is no guarantee that the investment will be rewarded.


No one can know the whole World, of course. I have no idea how much of the World one has to know in order to know the World.

Leisure: to live in the World.

Ten thousand women nurture the children of the city every day; one of those children becomes a novelist and enlightens the lives of many others. Perhaps the novelist is a mother herself. Let us hope that she can do well at both!


With respect to earnings, we find ourselves in a world divided into three very unequal classes. At the top, there are people who are too wealthy to require further earnings. It would be interesting to know what percentage of this group, which I would arbitrarily mark off as those with incomes from all sources in a post-tax excess of five million dollars a year, nevertheless continues to earn income. There are, of course, people with much smaller annual incomes who earn nothing, but they do not figure in this discussion, because they don’t compete for a slice of available earnings.

At the other end of the scale, we have the group called “unskilled workers.” It would be interesting to have a much clearer picture of the various reasons why people find themselves in this group. In the absence of such a picture, we are distracted by two surmises: first, that people are too lazy to do better, and, second, that people would do better if they had the benefit of skills training, also known as “education.”

In the middle, we find a galaxy of clusters, each of which is made up of “skilled” or “professional” workers who specialize in some activity or other. You will find members of dozens of such clusters in any hospital, from X-ray technicians to brain surgeons to HR managers. The barriers to entry to each cluster — the educational credentials required — vary greatly, as does the availability of on-the-job training, which used to be the common credential (overseen by guilds) but which is now increasingly unusual. There are a number of fields that seem to be so dependent on “people skills” — I’m thinking of salesmen — that academic training is regarded is supererogatory, but these fields, too, are shrinking, as “sales” itself gives way to “marketing.”

Barriers to entry are always justified by their apparent assurance of public benefit. We especially don’t want the idiot children of the rich burnishing their reputations as doctors and engineers without having demonstrated acceptable levels of competence. Or so we say. Barriers to entry have always had the effect of blocking advances from lower socio-economic levels. I’m not sure that they still do. I often feel that education has been almost fully extended to everyone who can benefit from it. And yet I am also aware that a great deal of what’s called education is dubious or borderline fraudulent. Certainly higher education is in need of utterly fundamental reform. Nevertheless, the current model, which at the more remunerative levels imposes a common higher education as a prerequisite to professional training, is not a bad one.

Turning all this around, we see that almost all educated people belong to professions of one kind or another. There is no reason to acquire educational credentials other than to acquire professional credentials. Even artists need MFAs.

One problem with professional training is what the French call déformation professionelle. Déformation here is a false cognate: it does not really mean “deformation.” Untranslatably, it means something more like “anti-training,” something that might well make you worse at your job than you would have been without the training (formation). The salient of déformation is a professionally-tinged lack of sympathy will all those outside the profession. Those outside the profession are lesser beings, incapable of understanding the world with the professional’s insight. But of course it is that insight that is deformed. The fallacy is to jump from the mastery of special skills to the assumption of wisdom. “We do it this way because this way is best.” In fact professional standards are shaped, in fine grain, by accidents and stumbles. The test of time may be nothing more than an impedance to progress.

Another problem with professional expertise is that it is incompatible with the rigors of the free market. The free market generally regards all workers as unskilled — that is to say, as having the skills required to do a job but nothing more. The public, however, expects professionals to bear many public benefits in mind, benefits that alter the meaning of skilled performance. No professional is expected to focus exclusively on earning money. The social contract underlying all professional credentials requires professionals to avoid practices that are contrary to the public interest. Because we do live in a free market society, professional pledges are flouted all the time, which is one of the reasons why professionals are so widely mistrusted, even by other professionals.

A third difficulty is that no profession is or can be charged with overseeing the World. It is my contention that comprehending the World is incompatible with professional training. Even without outright déformation, professional training has an unavoidably narrowing effect on the intellect. Each profession privileges certain facts and certain arrangements. Lyric skill will not aid the run of research biologists. There is no need for an attorney to master the calculus. No particular skill set will ever be comprehensive enough to encompass the World.

If I argue that encompassing the World lies beyond the accumulation of skills, then I am suggesting that the World-watcher is not someone who performs certain operations.