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WINTER

26th February


whole." The specialist can go on mining within a very narrow, intellectually fenced-in area without ever being disturbed by the burning issues of the day. "Specialisation, I have always felt, is laziness," writes Edward Said abruptly. However, this does not mean that specialists don't work extremely hard at their vocation. The work that they do, though, is often consumed with defending their area of professional expertise and this is the second damaging feature of professionalism. The studied maintenance of a professional reputation is a time-consuming business and involves the vigilant rebuttal and undermining of any interlopers on your intellectual territory. Lastly, Said argues that professional intellectuals drift towards power through the enticements of honours or research grants with political strings attached. The result is timidity, a desire not to rock the boat or be too outspoken. Don't do anything that might threaten the next offer to give a conference keynote or the invitation to join an editorial board. By contrast Said espouses a model of the intellectual as the passionate dilettante or committed dabbler. "The intellectual today ought to be an amateur," he concluded.

Making intellectual life a job has resulted in conventionalism and an aversion to risk taking. Also, vocational anxiety has stifled the joys and surprises of intellectual exploration. The word dilettante is derived from the Latin delectare, to 'delight'. There is something in Said's attempt to reclaim amateurism for

 


scholarship that offers a corrective to dull academic instrumentality. In today's university many would say that these are luxuries that can only be afforded by a very select few. The appeal to intellectual dilettantism might well turn out to be, as Max Farrar commented in a different context, the "prerogative of the very successful and the retired". Equally, amateurism might also be a licence just to do the difficult work of thinking badly or poor intellectual journalism. However, some of the most lucid writers and witnesses of the 20th century fit the model being suggested here. Primo Levi, for example, was both a professional chemist and a writer. His profession made him useful to the overseers of the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz during the year he spent in the chemical Kommando. His trade was key to his survival. On his return to Turin, the city where he lived all his life except for the year he spent in Auschwitz, he became a writer in part as a way of reckoning with the time he spent behind barbed wire. He was much more than merely a literary witness to the Nazi holocaust. He wrote novels, journalism and poetry on a wide variety of topics. Other People's Trades is a collection of essays originally published in Turin's newspaper La Stampa. The pieces range from literary reviews to social observation and philosophical fragments. Although he characterises himself as "too much a chemist and a chemist for too long to consider myself a real man of letters", Levi's incursions into the trades of other

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