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The uses of freedom, part 4: the hobbyist

August 5, 2012

[In part 1 of this series I stated as my null hypothesis the idea that “one should think and read, but never write.” Each post in this series will look at an activity engagement in which is incompatible with the null hypothesis, and at the various ways in which that activity can be justified.]

I suggested previously that the amateur poet makes us, if not scornful, at least uneasy. Perhaps our unease stems from the amateur’s pretensions–he both must and cannot think that what he does is Art. Perhaps; the hobbyist, however, suggests that this explanation is, if not wrong, at least incomplete. The hobbyist makes us uneasy too. If the amateur brings to mind adolescence, with its ambitious daydreams, the hobbyist brings to mind childhood, with its egoless monomania. The word “hobby” itself comes from “hobby-horse,” the children’s toy. The hobbyist allows his hobby to absorb him the way a child allows his hobby-horse, which seems to him a real horse, to become his entire world.

Now, some would say hobbies do not make us uneasy, and some would say hobbies are not necessarily creative. In fact, non-creative hobbies, such as sports, both do not unsettle us and are not hobbies in the traditional sense. The archetypal hobbyist is Uncle Toby from Tristram Shandy, whose hobby-horse is making life-size models of military fortifications. Hobbies in the traditional sense are closer to this than to playing soccer in one’s free time. Cooking, carpentry, and stamp collecting create an independent artifact of either good or bad quality, though never of artistic quality, and so can be considered creative; and it is precisely the creative hobbies that fill us with unease, and precisely to the extent that what they create is useless. Cooking is mostly innocent, since we must eat, and might as well eat well cheaply, but carpentry is somewhat odd, since most amateur carpenters make worse furniture than one finds in a store, and stamp collecting is downright eccentric.

For more literary evidence of the unease with which we view hobbyists, consider Judge Irwin, from Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, who makes miniature ballistas and catapults. The following passage takes place right after Warren’s narrator realizes that Irwin did not only make these models to entertain the narrator in his childhood, but has continued to work on them without the narrator; that in a way, the narrator is more grown up than Irwin:

And all at once I had the sight of Judge Irwin sitting up nights, back in the library, with catgut and steel wire and string and pliers and scissors on the desk beside him, and with his high old red-thatched head bent over, the yellow eyes gimleted upon the task. And seeing that picture in my head, I felt sad and embarrassed. I had never felt anything, one way or the other, about the Judge’s making those things in the first place, years back. When I was a kid it seemed natural that anybody in his right mind would want to make them, and read books about them, and make maps and models. And it had kept seeming right that the judge had made them. But the picture I had now in my head was different. I felt sad and embarrassed and, somehow, defrauded.

But Uncle Toby and Judge Irwin are both extreme characters in other ways; perhaps it’s different for normal people?

Consider Hank Schrader on Breaking Bad, who brews beer in his garage while trying to escape from his violent memories (S2E05). Now, Breaking Bad engages frequently in that great literary tradition of letting extraordinarily bad things happen to completely un-extraordinary people, and this is no exception. The implicit suggestion is always that the extraordinarily bad is the true nature of things. Here, we see Hank carefully capping bottle after bottle of beer while he tells his wife that he feels fine; later, we see him jump out of bed, thinking he hears gunfire, as the caps of bottle after over-carbonized bottle come off in explosive bursts. The world of Breaking Bad, I’d argue, suggests that Hank’s brewing is not just insufficient unto the evil of his day, but is an inadequate response to reality as a whole.

If this suggestion were correct, hobbies could not be justified, they could only be tolerated. But perhaps hobbies are only questionable if done beyond moderation–either to excess, or at inappropriate times. Though I’m generally unsympathetic to arguments from moderation–they’re a cop-out, a way to avoid identifying the real principle at work–let’s grant that excess is to be avoided. What, then, is to count as excellence?

But first, an interlude: I am, in a sense, a hobbyist. I build things with LEGOs, or at least I have, in the past, when I visit my parents’ house and have access to my childhood toys and all my brothers are there. (Since this will be less and less the case now that I’m in grad school I’m not sure I can say I build things rather than have built them.) Most recently, last month, we built a church, which we’ve christened the Basilica of St. Philip the Apostle (so named because one of St. Philip’s emblems is a spear, and it’s easy to make a LEGO minifigure statue of a man holding a spear). For the curious, the pictures are here; and here are some of the better ones:

Back to the question: to be an excellent hobbyist, I’d like to think, means engaging in one’s hobby both earnestly and whimsically, taking pride in one’s creations and yet attaching no value to them, not being childish but being childlike. That strikes me as a reasonable start to a definition, anyway. And according to that definition, building LEGO structures is almost the perfect hobby; they take great patience and effort, and can turn out rather impressively, but one still never forgets that one is playing with children’s toys, and whatever one builds, one will have to tear it down to have enough pieces for whatever comes next.

The strength of this definition, though, is also its weakness: it relies on paradoxes. They allow me to suggest something of my meaning, but are necessarily ambiguous, in two ways. First, in what they indicate: there is a certain attitude, very close to the one I’m endorsing, that I want to avoid at all costs, and it was in an attempt to avoid it that I used the word “whimsically” not “ironically”; I fear it is still not actually excluded. Second, in what they define: I offer this as a definition for “excellence at a hobby,” but it could just as plausibly have defined “excellence at an art” or “excellence at a sport.” I don’t think, however, that I want to define either of those things in this way; but why not?

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