The Amateur of Life

One of my all-time favourite essays on “amateur reason” is by the French poet Charles Baudelaire: The Painter of Modern Life, published in 1863. Funnily enough, this set piece of art criticism has been celebrated for many things, especially as a paean to modernity—remember Baudelaire’s famous modern dictum: “the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent”? But it has never been fêted for what I think it is: the best evocation of intellectual amateurism and critique of professional expertism. The amateurism in question is that of a singular man, Baudelaire says, an archetype we might say, a man who seeks no approval from anybody. He’s the nemesis of what constitutes self-promotional “success” today, of mediatised showboating. In fact, he wants to go about incognito, doesn’t even want Baudelaire to call him by name. So Baudelaire suppresses his name, uses instead M.G.—after Monsieur Guys, Constantin Guys, the painter of modern life.

No mere painter, Guys, no mere artist or professional specialist whose “conversations are limited to the narrowest of circles,” Guys was something more: “a man of the world,” Baudelaire says, a “world-minded” person, a person of the “whole world.” Guys hates to be called “specialist,” even hates the label “artist.” He hates to be tied down to an expertise like a serf tied to the soil, like an accountant tied to accounts. Guys wants to know everything, understand everything, appreciate all that happens on planet earth, its mysteries and miseries, its delights and charms, embroil himself in everything, depict it with paint on canvas, with pencil and charcoal on paper, with watercolours. How can somebody so open be an expert, a hired hand? Impossible. He’s passionate about passion. Baudelaire searches for the right epithet, calls Guys something thrilling: “a spiritual citizen of the universe.”

All of this is lightyears removed from today’s reality, from our cult of expertism, which is more akin to the blasé attitude Guys hates: the attitude of knowing everything, of having seen and done everything. Indeed, so much of what goes on in public life nowadays is a blasé privatised affair, the exclusive domain of policy wonks and business executives, of professional “experts.” Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation, into a representation done for and by experts, done from above and foisted down from above, onto a public, onto ordinary amateurs. Amateurs might want to have a say, might even be “experts” in their own right—in gardening, in amateur dramatics, in car mechanics, in painting—but what they say, and what they do, is taken as mere amusement, as something unimportant. Professional experts, by contrast, are people who apply themselves to specialisms in an important way. That’s how they’re commonly held. They’re there to be listened to, nodded at, taken seriously.

Experts know everything. To guard this expert status they must know everything. “Expert” becomes a pretext to say what you like in a certain context; it’s an opt-out clause, a denial of open-mindedness, of being inquisitive, of stretching your horizon. Experts affirm what they think they know matter-of-factly, never straying outside their comfort zones, where they’d be insecure, a non-expert, like the rest of us. So they play safe; expert circles shrink, vistas narrow, intellectual curiosity diminishes. Experts can’t drop their professional guard; an esoteric language sets them apart, gains entry into exclusive expert bodies, onto expert panels, ones strictly off-limits to rank amateurs, unless they’re the audience.

A staggering array of experts bodies now dominate the implementation of social needs and the adjudication of public utility. Expert managers and specialist middle-managers step up to the plate to bat at all levels of government; ditto economic policy; ditto health systems; ditto educational policy; ditto the business of science, its Research & Development, its scientific patents and intellectual property rights. Unaccountable agents head up the upper-echelons the Ministry of Finance and its regime of Accountancy Governance; elite technocrats and cabinet plutocrats, expert economists and accountants, consultants and advisors, think-tank experts offer not-so-laissez-faire encouragement to self-regulating market intensity; it’s these professional experts who try to maintain the functioning credibility and sustained viability of this fictitious commodity system, a reality of lies wherein economic crises are terribly truthful.

Experts are a self-perpetuating cabal who tell us what we must learn, what we must read, what needs to be sold, what aspect of public culture must to be written off, is without economic value, is “inefficient.” Experts tell us how we must present ourselves in public, how we must present ourselves to ourselves, how we must do our job, how we must talk and write. Experts tell us about our personalities and about our hopes and desires, about how we must live, and die. They tell us how to invest our money, if we have any, how much tax we should pay, and what our legal rights are. Experts even tell politicians how they should govern. It’s not that some experts are necessarily wrong; it’s more the mantle of power experts now assume, the worshiping of expertism, the degree to which the expert seems to rule supreme, are a law unto themselves, beyond ordinary, non-expert accountability. Experts are both a new church and a new mafia, seducing and extorting at one and the same time.

And then we have Baudelaire. Thank heavens for Baudelaire! Baudelaire tries to keep intact a romantic wisdom that seems ever more vital, more vitally needed than ever. The key section in The Painter of Modern Life is “The Artist, Man of the World, Man of Crowds, and Infant,” a subtle shift in dialectical logic, an amateur’s logic, though no less rigorous for it. To be sure, the movement from artist as specialist to man of the world, and then from man of the crowd to infant loosens the the grip any expert could hope to secure. It took one amateur to recognise his other, his semblable: Baudelaire is the painter of the painter of modern life, an artist who wrote art criticism for fun, about artists like Guys who often painted and scribbled for fun, for their own amusement, for pleasure. (The pleasure wasn’t always about content. Guys sketched modern death as well as modern life: for several years, on-the-spot, he drew battle scenes from the Crimean War, with fields strewn with human debris.)

Baudelaire didn’t consider art criticism or poetry as any kind of job, as any real métier, even if he sometimes got paid to do it, got tossed a few sous for his labours. He’d have done it for nothing anyway, and frequently did do it for nothing. But he was serious about his writing nonetheless, deadly serious. And although he seemed to write in solitary confinement, what he wrote was invariably destined for a wider, popular public. His Paris Spleen poems, like The Painter of Modern Life itself, weren’t written in learned literary reviews but featured as Op-Eds in Le Figaro. They were feuilletons of a roving reporter, episodes of modern vagabondage seen through the lens of a modern vagabond poet. Nothing could compare today. They were provocations rather pacifications, partial and political rather than paltry and platitudinal. The journalist-poet Baudelaire was equally serious as both a challenger and champion of “minor” artists like Constantin Guys, or of “major” ones like Eugène Delacroix, or Edgar Allan Poe, with whom Baudelaire fraternally bonded.

But Baudelaire never saw himself as a professional critic, as a professional anything for that matter. This wasn’t so much self-depreciation as self-affirmation, a furtive sidestep to unaccommodated and unco-opted amateurism, to free-floating outsiderness. Baudelaire had a distinct advantage here: he was never a university prof, was never crippled by wooden language, by academic tiffs, by career pretensions. He wasn’t hemmed in by methodological straightjackets, by the need to defend such-and-such a paradigm of thought. That’s perhaps what separates the specialist from the person of the world, the artist of the whole world who engages with the whole world. Willy-nilly they’ll have impact. Willy-nilly their point of departure is curiosity; Guys had it by the bundles; so did Baudelaire.

For the spiritual citizen of the universe, curiosity is a “fatal, irresistible passion.” Guys may have painted dandies and flâneurs but he certainly wasn’t one himself. The dandy and flâneur aspire to cold detachment, to indifferent restraint, rather like the today’s expert, who’s paid to behave “objectivity,” consulted for their passionless pragmatism, the antithesis of impassioned curiosity. The expert’s nonchalance is the nonchalance of numbers, of metrics, of hiding behind PowerPoint, of coolly voicing “facts” not opinions. Experts are demonstrative with data and deliverables; they are, like Baudelaire’s dandy, blasé “as a matter of policy.”

Spiritual citizens of the universe, though, are perpetually in convalescence (a strange term, I know, a term Baudelaire borrows from Poe), and here convalescence means taking stock after illness, maybe after a professional illness, after a near death experience that shakes you to your existential core. It’s the shock of recognition, a born-again realisation of who you really are. Convalescence is like “a return to childhood,” Baudelaire says, simultaneously a regression and eventual progression, seeing everything again as an infant sees everything, as you once saw everything: that is, with novelty, with newness and freshness, with curiosity, with a perception that’s “acute and magical.”

Imagination flows. Cynicism lifts. New delights glimpsed. New odours breathed. Faculties revived. Genius, says Baudelaire, in a lovely passage, is “childhood recaptured at will, childhood equipped with an adult’s physical means to express itself, with the analytical mind that enables it to bring order into the sum of material involuntarily amassed.” What else is this but the restlessness of non-specialism, the pure delight of wanting to know, of not already knowing, of wanting to know something new: “To this deep and joyful curiosity,” says Baudelaire, “one needs to attribute the fixed gaze and animal ecstasy of children before the new, whatever it may be: faces and landscapes, lights and glimmerings, colours.” But to engage in the world with passion, with the animal ecstasy of the child, you need to get out into the world. Thus, the major methodological motif of the person of the world: épouser la foule, to marry or merge with the crowd, to feel the elemental passions of ordinary life as it is really lived—for better or for worse.

This puts methodological amateurism into practice, very different from professional posturing, when expert protagonists rarely venture out of the office or conference room, and just as infrequently stoop low into the depths of humanity, to see it from the bottom upwards, from the inside. Theirs is a methodological superiority; the very nature of being “expert” already sets you apart, puts you above it all, more knowledgeable than what’s down below, outside. It’s a gaze looking down, not immersion in. Experts parachute into distant lands for a few days; World Bankers “advise” about infrastructure or whatnot, young “expert” consultants at McKinsey’s, with its “global research and information professionals,” collect and collate data, do it online, from afar, throwing themselves into projects with which they have little experience or feel for, notwithstanding Ivy League credentials. (That’s one reason why you get expensive botched jobs. It’s a recurrent theme within professionalism: incompetence.)

A couple of times Baudelaire even adopts the word “amateur.” Alas, it’s bowdlerised in all English translations I’ve seen. So Anglophones lose Baudelaire’s play of meaning, never hear him say “amateur.” Indeed, sometimes he does mean “lover of”; other times what he means really is “amateur,” somebody who does things for the love of doing those things, who does it without pay, with great competence, because of a deep emotional attachment, because of passion and curiosity. Unlike professionals, they’re not alienated from their subject matter. In the original Le peintre de la vie moderne, listen to Baudelaire: “l’amateur de la vie fait du monde sa famille.” THE AMATEUR OF LIFE MAKES THE WORLD [THEIR] FAMILY. It’s a beautiful evocation, worth spelling out in uppercase. But it’s an evocation that gets a bad rap in the “official” translations: “The lover of life makes the world his family,” which strikes as something different. Especially if we compare the next sentence, where Baudelaire says: “l’amoureux de la vie universelle entre dans la foule comme dans un immense réservoir d’électricité.” “The lover of universal life moves into the crowd like they’re entering an immense reservoir of electricity.” That’s how we might put it in English. But we’re lost in translation: the lover of universal life and the amateur of life elide into one great love. Maybe that’s fair enough; but Baudelaire is quite clear: he says both “amateur” and “amoureux” and here we might assume he wants to make a distinction, that there are two different types of lovers and doers, hence two different words: the amateur of life and the lover of universal life.

Doubtless there are plenty of experts who love life, too. Doubtless a few want to break out of their narrow expert confines, be really multidisciplinary, really exploratory, maybe even critical, maybe even childlike again about their learning. I’m not sure. Maybe there are others who’d like to stop their expert performing, pull the curtain down, because they know it’s all a silly game of show, an act. One problem is that experts operate within a professional context, within a whole professionalised apparatus that pumps out its own professional ideology, which grips people, interpellates people, “hails” experts and laypeople alike, slots them into occupational roles, into boxes and moulds. And it’s hard to break out of these moulds.

Oddly enough, it’s perhaps hardest of all for experts to break out. They’ve constructed an iron-cage around themselves, a prison-house in which they’re at once warders and inmates. A lot has to do with the “reputation economy,” with the ever-expanding industry of branding and blanding personal identity. Could we ever imagine Baudelaire or Constantin Guys giving a flying fuck about reputation? As if what they wrote or drew was ever dictated by the endless anxiety of worrying about how they appeared before professional audiences, about how they should forget disagreement, fall into line with the pleasing conformity of groupthink. It’s unimaginable. That’s why we might label Baudelaire and Guys “sincere,” that they were sincere about themselves and about what they did—they were authentic, we might also say. Fear of losing professional face in the reputation economy is a dead-ringer for insincerity, and, God forbid, for being struck off the exclusive “Directory of Experts.”

Most university academics now appear on their institution’s “Directory of Experts.” Here we have a searchable, alphabetic database of the “Research Expertise” of every faculty member, there as a resource for intrepid journalists who have an afternoon to write a story. Who to call to get the appropriate scoop about such-and-such a field? Who can offer the suitably condensed juicy soundbite? It’s all there for media offing, a simple list of words of wisdom journalists can use and abuse. If we hit a letter (either name or expert field), we can get a scholar’s intellectual profile, distilled into a half-dozen expertise keywords, a peculiar and particular branding that all universities have, that every “Centre of Excellence” peddles, which means every university. How to judge the most excellent amidst all this excellence? Which expert out of an endless roster of experts? Who is the most expert expert? Maybe there’s even a “Baudelaire” keyword, an expert on being an amateur in life? Maybe then we can get the relevant lowdown on poetry and wine, on melancholia and moroseness. I wonder which media might be interested?

Within these expert Yellow Pages, moving in and out of categories, if ever the whim strikes you, is a tricky affair. It’s like Agent Mulder or Scully from the X-Files: you’re typecasted and you can’t do anything else; no matter what, you’re gonna always be Agent Scully and Mulder. Disciplinary border controls and intellectual gatekeepers won’t give security clearance, won’t let you enter into unknown intellectual territories, into other thought-spaces where you’ve no reputation, no expertise—unless you bribe them with your big grant money. It’s a lost cause. Baudelaire’s wasn’t the only vie maudite, the only accursed life. Meanwhile, amateurs have their work cut out, too. To seek amateurism, says Baudelaire, is “damnation already done.” Amateurism will be your joy, for sure, but also your eternal curse, your perpetual challenge. It’ll be your mutiny in search of personal authenticity, your quest to tell the truth about yourself in a world that rewards you for telling lies, for playing its game, its Great Game. When you’ve persuaded yourself that bad faith is really good faith, and that you get a big payoff from society’s bad faith, you’re well on the way to living with your inauthentic self. It takes great acts of courage or folly to do otherwise, sometimes self-destructive acts of courage, like Baudelaire’s.

And here there’ll be a politics, always they’ll be a politics. The politics of amateurism is about dismantling our giant professional machine, stripping it of its legitimacy, of its functioning credibility. This dismantling has to be done from the inside as well as from the outside, from inside and outside of professional “expert” camps. It’s a drama involving double agents and great refusers, who’ll call out to others, to those who know how to strategise and disrupt; to those whose value systems are intact. Professional experts will have amateur alter-egos and shadow selves, Edward Snowden-like whistleblowers yearning to break free, warning of the totalitarian expert nightmare we’re all somehow entangled in. Double agents and great refusers will know how resistance today isn’t so much about what you do as who you are, ontological as opposed to epistemological, something that cuts right inside you, into your passionate beliefs, into your convalescence, into your democratic hopes and anti-professional desires. Resistance, in other words, needs to be wholesale, a total way of Being. Walter Benjamin reckoned Baudelaire was “an agent of the secret discontent of his class within its own rule.” Maybe we can see Baudelaire as an agent of secret discontent within our own professional class system, a secret amateur trying to shrug off “expertise.” He’s inviting us on a voyage yet condemning us forever to be an accomplice in a haunting and heartfelt ideal.

About Andy Merrifield

Writer, Urbanist, Marxist, Educator
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