Anatomy of the Dabbler

By Vivian Abenshushan
Translated by Adam Morris

The dabbler is a philosopher without a system; he believes, like Pascal, that “Since we cannot be universal and know all that is to be known of everything, we ought to know a little about everything. For it is far better to know something about everything than to know all about one thing. This universality is the best.” Nevertheless, there is a fate that joins the philosopher and the dabbler in a fraternal bond: that of being condemned to partial certainties. While the former strives to tame the disheveled mane of reality so that he can tolerate it, the dabbler operates according to the rules of chaos, without any attempt whatsoever to untangle reality’s impossible snarls. The difference isn’t of one gradation, but of method: one wishes to escape the arbitrariness of existence, imposing stiff rudders on his course; the other supposes that there is more wisdom in allowing oneself to be dragged along by the waves than in struggling against them.

We say that there are some men who go straight for the finish, like animals of prey facing down their quarry. The dabbler, in contrast, enjoys losing himself in roundabout detours and deviations; he is the indirect mosquito par excellence. Daring to nip and gnaw at the dreams of those who sleep in the comfort of dogmas, he stares down the angry theoretical swat. Without deceiving himself, he scrutinizes the slapping hand, probes it, and from there scampers off to the tip of the thumb with its endless veins and circumlocutions. And before burying himself in an idea, he abdicates, but not from exhaustion or evasion: from incredulity. Because as soon as he has gone too far, when he has discerned the peripheries and appearances of what is small and escapes his view, he discovers that there is no method of reducing the convolutions of skin, or of anything, to the narrow security of a precept. His gaze, microscopic and abysmal, forces him to experience the infinity of every one of his inklings, and thus to conceive of the world as a knot of knots in which every singular fact, every innocuous splinter, every sliver of event, conditions all the others and is modified by them. The dabbler can never get to the point, because at every step he discovers extraordinary associations between the most diverse materials: similarities, twists, exceptions, an alluvium of questions that progressively distance him from a general, or at least plausible, solution.

As he can only clear up a mystery by muddying it, the dabbler has undertaken hundreds of resolutions only to abandon them; his mental life leaves a wake of labyrinths in ruins, filled with unsolved puzzles, corridors and galleries that intersect and multiply, digressions that convert every footnote into a new discourse, delirious and unstoppable. But this, which could well be called neurasthenia, has given the dabbler one of his most notable qualities: his unattached and carefree character. Far from worrying about projects that he’s postponed, he sees in them the indirect manifestation of his true vocation, which is that of conversation. There, embroidering the idle lianas of an afternoon, his digressive nature finds itself at ease, since in conversation no parenthesis is too long or too useless. Instead, these digressions nurture the very principle of the dabbler, which is to scrutinize his subject matter from every angle, but without any sort of depth. He knows by experience that once a definitive argument appears in the middle of a conversation, spirits are extinguished, and people ask for the check and head home to sleep the night away on the pillow of some vain certainty. No such thing is possible in the company of the dabbler: his knowledge is so varied and the relations he establishes between things so subtle, that if someone is talking about genetics, he’ll arrive at carpentry or martial arts; without losing its way, the path of conversation is always arriving at forks that invariably postpone the pronouncement of any law or apothegm.

Thus, there is no discussion, no matter how foolish it may seem, to which the dabbler does not grant a second of his time, nor a theory, be it extravagant or shopworn, that he doesn’t season with uncommon examples. Possessed by the demon of useless collecting, the dabbler loves what interests no one else; for example, that a sneeze travels at 60 kilometers per hour, that for the Eskimos a nod is a negation and shaking one’s head an assent, that one day Gorky surprised Tolstoy by asking a lizard if it was happy, that underarm odor is called hyperhidrosis, that T.S. Eliot used to smear his face with green whenever he was depressed, that Newton didn’t elaborate the law of gravity because an apple fell on his head, but rather from the form in which women’s breasts drooped. His style of possession is to possess nothing, and for this he lives in luxury, casting off here and there some of his cleverly dislodged factoids, as if deep down he really wanted to demonstrate that all the wisdom that others have tried to appropriate for themselves is merely part of a wider knowledge from which they have been excluded.

“If it is not possible to access a total knowledge,” intuits the dabbler — and it’s just that, an intuition, because in him nothing ever suggests itself as a complete formulation — “since achieving it would require the simultaneous presence of the most heterogeneous facts, then it is necessary to flatten and flow like water in order to arrive at every possible point, to disseminate oneself in many forms, and not clumsily spin like a top over the same old point.” Thus, this rambling and nimble creature, the straying mosquito of knowledge, will only be appeased when he is out in the open, far from the academic’s tense concentration and the drowsy cubicle of his findings. His enlightenment shimmers: always in some other place, sizing up other possibilities of existence, other scales of value, other substances, other climates, other bodies, stretching a subtle web between people and deeds, without ever seeing himself constrained by the narrow perspective of his I or the rigidity of a single profession. Purposeless traveling and pilgrimages beyond the intellect (from physiognomy to crimes in vernacular song) are his greatest hobby. He is an ocular athlete: for the dabbler, to know is to see, not to untangle, nor to refute, nor tackle. He is the Argos of worldly experiences or, to put it plainly, a voyeur. His hundred eyes are shifting, gazing in all directions: they look above and below, to the miseries of the Cenacle and the ecstasy of the slums, the tremors of the planet and the crepitation of insects, the coitus of gorillas and the sophistications of the sadomasochist. Nothing scandalizes or bores him, because no analytic determination, no classificatory principle, impels him. Poets, libertines, saints, cabbies, ex-convicts: he observes everyone with the same voluptuous devotion. Wandering without a visible route or filiations, he lacks prejudice.

Some dismiss him as a Pharisee, an imposter; they do so arbitrarily, because he attends all churches, without belonging to any. One day he wields a plow, the next a treatise on crystallography. Today he frequents the meetings of numismatic associations; tomorrow those of Sanskrit lovers. There is no language that is foreign to him, although he doesn’t really speak any of them. What is disturbing about the dabbler is not only that he treats lunatics and heads of state with the same familiarity, or that he understands their languages and can converse with them, but rather that he has assimilated the Bible better than the priests and hermeneutics, without ever having been submitted to the same rigors of asceticism and study. An impertinent wonderer, an epicure of beliefs, a titleless sage. In short: a rogue who cannot be challenged, because he does not defend anything concrete. More than a parasite, he represents a dangerous and imprecise virus in the great official organism. Every one of his acts is a declaration without a signature, an account without interest. And it’s not unusual that in a world where only résumés and diplomas matter — rather than the course of one’s thought — he is plagued by incessant reproaches: “Why don’t you try to get a job? Why don’t you espouse some convenient superstition? Why don’t you do anything?” The most serious threat resides in the charisma that his intellectual versatility awakens, since although he arrives late in a group of strangers, the dabbler always finds a chair to pull up to the circle and begins to strip the halos from the so-called Masters of graduate schools, forcing bursts of laughter out of those who, until then, fawned between their yawns.

The most exasperating thing is that there is no way to sanction the sloth of someone who’s always busy with something. Indeed, the dabbler lives by proposing daily objectives that cancel themselves out in their realization, enterprises so disproportionate that no other mortal would even dare to imagine them. He seems a pretender, since who would ever believe that he’s working on a formula for the unforeseeable, on a summary of all sensations, on an alphabet of miseries? Deploying his talent in affairs that offer no limits, it seems that the only thing he can finish is failure and incompletion. But in fact, if out of everything that he begins there is nothing that the dabbler continues or concludes, it is because he aspires to be transitory, like any proof. To the proud strategist of postponement, no ecstasy is comparable to the prolonging of the record, the delay of the definite act. This is the method adopted by his love — his lust — of knowledge for knowledge’s sake: lengthily elaborate a work, maintain it suspended for years before desire, and as it approaches completion, abandon it for another. It will not have replaced his passion, but renewed it, since much later he will return to the work, always reconstituted and different, never undone by repetition, moth-eaten customs, or the deceit of habit. The dabbler only perseveres in his inconstancy, as everything that is possible for him is humiliating and disenchanting, and no longer desirable. For what remains of the philosopher and the mystic before a truth revealed, but apathy and boredom? He prefers to move through the nebulousness of incomplete projects, and if he resumes them and abandons them from one moment to the next, it isn’t because he thinks they aren’t worthwhile, but because he believes their greatness lies in their impossibility.

Among all men, no one admires and despises the dabbler as much as the specialist. Here we have the exact representation of the will to clear purposes, the indefatigable ant of knowledge. The specialist also suffers from vertigo when faced with the multiplication of knowledge. But more humble than his counterpart, he preemptively renounces any attempt to encompass its infinite extension. Child of an era in which almost everything is known — that is the conviction that sustains his patient optimism — the labor of the specialist consists of supporting the great construction of the world encyclopedia, filling in holes, and filling out files. If he were to have been born a few centuries earlier, he would charge like an explorer into vast, uncharted domains. Today the only thing left to conquer is a wrinkle on a mastodon. But such a conquest, contrary to what one might think, is not simple. It demands a homogenous life, well circumscribed, filled with resignation and martyrdom; to advance is to remain forever in the same place, like a mule doing laps around the gristmill: that is his task. In order to occupy one of the few chairs that have been vacated, his days consist of the saintly rejection of any idea that comes from the depths of his disquietudes. Only then, in absolute solitude, will he proceed to scrutinize a point until he reduces it to its most absurd expression, the only one which hasn’t been explained and desiccated, such as the invasion of the louse in the Sotavento Islands during the second Spanish expedition and its effect on the moods of African slaves (not all of them, only those coming from subtropical regions, in particular from the first section of the Kalahari desert, where the wildlife, very poor, consists of camels and some flocks of sheep, goats, and lice). Bewitched by his own fatality, the specialist knows that he will never beget anything new in the world, adding at most a few polished redundancies.

Although it’s true that only a few crumbs remain from the banquet of knowledge, the specialist treasures them as if they were pearls of wisdom. In general terms, he’s a paranoiac: “I have renounced everything to cultivate my own little plot of earth, and I won’t allow anyone to snatch it away.” It is perhaps for this reason that he writes in an incomprehensible jargon, as though it were taxing to share his secrets. It’s not unusual then, that being so ascetic and stingy, he detests the lust and prodigality of the dabbler. Could there be anything more uncomfortable and unpardonable than the sociability of someone who wanders through the world without a legal basis for his daily toils?

Knowing everything about one thing, living and dying by the extenuation of a concept, condemning himself forever to sustain an argument in whose foundation he no longer believes, the specialist lives continually in an empire of terror. He is the potential victim of that book or article which he hasn’t read, but which sooner or later will arrive in his hands to conquer his patrimony and eat away at his certainties, calling attention to the holes through which his negligence has begun to show. For the dabbler, on the other hand, the library is a proliferate brothel, a place for the temptations that the specialist renounces at every step for fear of losing his way and perverting the clarity of his purpose. At the end of the day, the specialist does not know what he hates more: his torticollis or the lightheartedness of the dabbler who wanders between mountains of books, opening channels between one thing and another or turning everything upside down, as if leaving the library with one’s concepts undone were for him a perverse hobby. Worse, the dirty habits of the dabbler gradually obtain better results than his. This is because the specialist, having eliminated from his method the vision of a whole, and feeling curiosity only for predictable outcomes, sometimes wastes time with false clues and, without realizing it, passes over the real ones, such that he never ends up finding his route. His wagers are like the lottery tickets that are just one number short of glory, that lucky circumstance into which the dabbler inevitably falls and which, all of a sudden, concentrates the diffuse, collects loose ends, and completes the winning combination.

Ultimately, the rapaciousness of the dabbler, his disposition to lose himself in the train of chaotic experiences and readings that shape his life, does not have any other end than to propitiate this moment in which disorder suddenly manifests itself as unity. Assuredly, he never reaches the forbidding glories of the laboratory scientist. It’s even probable that he will always be awaiting the impossible day when all of the threads he’s cast off into the tangled mess of the world will sketch a perfect organic figure on the intricate carpet of his spirit. Or perhaps he will find the strand too late — though not without emotion — already close to death. Even so, he will not have discovered anything new. He will simply comprehend, for himself, that truth is inaccessible and people impenetrable. But once immersed in his deficient omniscience, he will not die with the bitter scowl of the philosopher or the pathetic veneer of the specialist. Far from the domes and churches, he will lie in the pauper’s grave of his inclinations, with the satisfied smile of a scoundrel.

Vivian Abenshushan is the author of numerous essays and short stories. Her writing has appeared in magazines and literary journals across Mexico, as well as in several literary anthologies. Her book of stories El clan de los insomnes (Clan of Insomniacs,Tusquets, 2004) won Mexico’s Gilberto Owen National Prize in 2002. The present essay is taken from her collection Una habitación ordenada (A Disorderly Room, DGE Ediciones, 2007). A new collection, Escritos para desocupados (Writings for the Unoccupied), was published in 2013 by Sur+ Ediciones. She resides in Mexico City.

Adam Morris is a writer and translator living in San Francisco. His translation of Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog-Eyes will appear in spring 2014 from Melville House.