The root of the word ‘amateur’ is the Latin amare, ‘to love’, so the original meaning was ‘lover’. My brief etymological investigations have led me to understand that ‘amateurish’ came to mean ‘not professional’ in the late 1700s or early 1800s. The first meaning of ‘profession’ in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is: ‘The declaration or vow taken by a person entering a religious order’. Then it is ‘any solemn declaration or vow’. The root is Latin profess- pa. ppl. stem of profiteri declare aloud or publicly, formed as PRO- + fateri declare, avow.
"If the individual regards the external world merely as something to which he has to adapt, rather than as something in which his subjectivity can find fulfilment, his individuality disappears and his life becomes meaningless or futile." (Anthony Storr: Solitude (1))
When it appears that One is about to belong to an occupation or profession, One draws back. The assumption of an epithet, however praiseworthy, savours of loss. After the podium, One sees a high table and an incontrovertible way to hold a knife and fork.
Before I’m a teacher, writer, carpenter, electrician, I’m a collection of physical and intellectual faculties. Functioning in commercial structures demands the translation of these into an occupation. You, however, are unemployable.
– Máighréad Medbh (2)
The distinction is clear. The professional declares love and vows commitment, whereas the amateur only loves. One could, I suppose, imagine the amateur as a ball of sensibility swimming in its favourite matrix, and the professional as a syringe extracting the medium’s nutrients and applying them to a purpose. The great professionals morph from the ball to the syringe. The greater ones retain the sensibilities of the ball; the less great forget the soaking and proceed only with the practice. What is the nature of our relationship with the world that might compel us to be one or the other? Is the amateur selfish and/or lazy, an undeveloped human, baby-obsessed-with-own-toes?
I know many amateurs—people immersed and expert in subjects or activities for which they don’t get paid. Their ‘hobbies’ are their lives’ pivots, an essential brain-fuel. They are local historians, mythologists, astrologers, craftspeople, mechanics, stock market experts, opera buffs, bee-keepers, gardeners... pick your skill. My own father was an ‘amateur’ chess player. He was a champion, actually. He won at least one correspondence chess championship run by the Evening Herald newspaper and he was the mainstay of the town’s chess club. He found it hard to get on with people, so never took his gift further. Being from a working class background and forced to leave school early compounded his personal scenario. He joined the army, was, indeed, a professional soldier, both loving it and earning from it, but later worked as a labourer and could only snatch time for his beloved activity in the evenings—which he treated as a discipline, like any professional. The job was his ‘purgatory’. At least he found a conceptual purpose for it. He might have been a loner to begin with, but many people are made loners by a complex set of social circumstances, and so never reach their professional potential.
Language is not life; it gives life orders. Life does not speak; it listens and waits.– Brice Parain (3)
If you’re a writer with a ‘day job’ and are paid for writing, are you amateur or professional? ‘Professional’ seems to mean ‘full-time’, but in practice describes anyone who is paid for work done and who has a certain amount of specialist expertise. What, then, is the word for someone who gets paid for doing what they love, but who often produces work of dubious quality? What’s the word for someone who doesn’t get paid enough for what they love and must subsidise themselves with something they only tolerate?
You must not think yourself too humble for anything.
– Georg Christof Lichtenberg (4)
A notable amateur who morphed into a professional as a result of sheer commitment is Eric Hoffer, an American essayist and philosophical aphorist who worked as a labourer up to the age of 65. He described the American underclass as being ‘lumpy with talent’. If any underclass has been ‘lumpy with talent’, it has been the Irish underclass, the word ‘lumpy’ evoking for me the classic labourer’s hands.
...the fact that I, Renée, fifty-four years old, concierge and autodidact, am witness to the same changes that are animating the present-day elite—the little Pallières in their exclusive schools who read Marx then go off in gangs to watch Terminator...is a shock from which I can scarcely recover.
– Muriel Barbery (5)
The main feature of becoming professional is its implicit vow. For example, there’s a point at which you stop simply writing poems and become a poet. For many, to ‘be a poet’ is the purpose from the start, but a lot of us wanted to produce poetry and adopted the epithet only when given some sort of imprimatur. There’s often a remembered moment of transition and a concomitant crucial change in mentality. The element of productivity arises. You define yourself in relation to the art, the role, the public. You must address duty and pity. Your practice is no longer something you can just love and cavort with on a dance floor; you must stay with your chosen partner through the complex plod of everyday life.
I go to the things I love
with no thought of duty or pity.
– H. D. (6)
As usual, language and social norms create paradox. The blob in the matrix is a true lover, absorbing, seeking nothing, abandoning purpose for simple experience. The syringe is an instrument to be purposefully applied, even manipulated, and is often dependent on its target infusee. But the general view is that a committed artist, indeed any real professional, should be acting out of intense personal conviction, that is, ‘love’. With art, the contemporary professional is expected to communicate a sense of personal freedom to the audience. All contradictory. Personal freedom is amorphous. No-one is free except those who abandon themselves to unstructured whims, and these will eventually be penned either in prisons or mental institutions.
The hope is that, if money can’t buy you love, maybe love can buy you money. Amateurs are like unfaithful mates: they don’t want, or can’t, perform under the critical and demanding eyes of others; they can’t make enough to live on from their beloved pursuit; they must support a family; or they just can’t handle the discipline of the vow. Life becomes a compromise between what you must and what you want. There’s pain involved in unacknowledged effort. Your name will not go up in lights or down in history. You don’t know how to make a name for yourself out of a set of propensities. The professional does.
But the occupational compromise is not limited to the unfaithful worker. Practically all ‘professionals’ must perform a galaxy of extra functions in order to maintain a commercially viable profile. One must tweet and face-up, or at least that’s what we’re told. Some writers still avoid a lot of that. Their defection is testimony to the possibility of a different choice—to unname the whole process and do what seems most valuable.
Effort in any direction is to be respected. It is, after all, what humans do. Whether we apply our effort for the manifest good of the race is up to us. How do we know what’s redundant? Perhaps amateurs contribute the knowledge base that allows a professional to flourish. Perhaps amateurs are a source of inspiration and appreciation for professionals. No project can succeed without people who need or want it. As Bob Dylan says, ‘you’re gonna have to serve somebody’. But in this case, we should take the first slice for ourselves.
Always be mindful that your pursuits will maintain their integrity as long as they are of worth to you. Remember he who, when asked why he toiled so hard on a task that only had significance for a scant amount of people, replied: ‘A few, or one, or even none is plenty’. He speaks the truth; you and one companion are sufficient company, each for the other, as indeed you are for yourself. Let a crowd consist of one, and one be a crowd.
– Michel de Montaigne (7)
One works hard, attends to detail, holds to routine. It is futile. There is no arbiter, no approver, no dependant on this presence. The work could be done by an other just as well. One grows careless and sullen, makes deliberate mistakes, drugs Oneself oblivious.
If we obtain the approval of others, it’s usually because our actions are beneficial to them or the race. We’re programmed to keep moving and to produce. All activity is survival or its metaphors. I might accept what my nature proclaims as its needs, decide on priorities and modus operandi, seek no affirming seal.
– Máighréad Medbh (8)
(1) Storr, Anthony, Solitude, London: HarperCollins, 1997, P. 72.
(2) Medbh, Máighréad, Savage Solitude: Reflections of a Reluctant Loner, Colloquy no. 139: ‘unemployed’, Dublin: Dedalus Press, 2013, p. 168.
(3) Parain, Brice, Sur la dialectique, Paris: Gallimard, 1953. Quoted in Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Félix, A Thousand Plateaus, London & N. Y.: Continuum, 2012, p. 84.
(4) Lichtenberg, Georg Christof, The Waste Books, Notebook D no. 72, transl. with Introd. by R. J. Hollingdale, New York: New York Review of Books, 2000, p. 55.
(5) Barbery, Muriel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, London: Gallic Books, 2008, p. 73.
(6) Doolitle, Hilda (H. D.), Trilogy, Manchester: Carcanet Press Ltd, 1973.
(7) Montaigne, Michel de, Les Essais, Livre 1, l’édition Millanges de 1580. ‘De la Solitude’ (‘Of Solitude’), translation by Aonghus McGovern.
French text online at: http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/efts/ARTFL/projects/montaigne/1580essais1.html
(Quoted in Máighréad Medbh, Savage Solitude, no. 94, the voice of 'The Other', p. 114).
(8) Medbh, Máighréad, Savage Solitude: Reflections of a Reluctant Loner, Dublin: Dedalus Press, 2013, p. 114.