In Praise of the Dilettante

Geoff Dyer Human Condition Essays Graywolf Press1.jpg

Matt Longabucco considers Geoff Dyer's dilettante ways in his new collection, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews. 

There’s something special about a great book you manage to find in a bookstore abroad. After all, you’re usually at your wit’s end, somehow, wandering the city, looking around at the silent art in the museums, and architecture, looking at yourself, the art, the architecture, the self—it can drive you nuts. This experience of aimless wandering happened to me a few years ago when I was living in Florence, Italy. At the time I was stuck, not sure what kind of writer I wanted to become, feeling the pull of the academic world even as I resisted it, clinging to my dilettantism, unable to articulate its value though I felt sure it was essential. It was on the horns of this dilemma when I discovered Out of Sheer Rage, the first book I’d read by the English novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer. I read it in two days. It was tonic. I had never heard of Dyer, but I fell immediately under the sway of his voice that bounced between neurotic and sly, then verged, suddenly and increasingly, into brilliance. The book ostensibly records his failure to write a long-planned academic study of D.H. Lawrence, probably the writer most important to Dyer thanks to their shared working-class backgrounds, proclivity for uncharacterizable forms, and cantankerous intelligence. The “failed” book on Lawrence turns out, of course, to be a book that is deeply about Lawrence, and about Dyer, too. Following in his hero’s footsteps, fretting about his ostensible inability to complete his task, Dyer distracts himself with a running commentary on Lawrence’s own travels and preoccupations that builds to an effective portrait of that writer’s unique and peripatetic mind. And it’s funny, too. The book describes, for example, a train journey Dyer took through Italy that ended in, what else, an endless stoppage during which a group of voluble Italian men disembark to play soccer beside the tracks as Dyer looks on in seething fury at the revolting self-satisfaction of an entire nation.

So why doesn’t he just write a book about Lawrence? Why make a point, in fact, of writing it by not writing it? Maybe to avoid the situation that he recalls in his essay “My Life as a Gate-Crasher”: “My first book had been about John Berger, a writer profoundly opposed to any kind of specialism. It was a boring, timid, sub-academic thing, almost a textbook (and, as such, an unintended insult to its subject).” Dyer reports that, once he finishes that book, his editor offers him the opportunity to follow it up with another on the subject of Raymond Williams. Dyer runs for the hills. His method thereafter is to avoid being typecast, and a survey of his now-long career reveals an insistence on shifting subjects from one book to the next. Dyer has by now written book-length studies about writers, photography, jazz, the First World War, and spiritual places (the last, a book that climaxes at Burning Man, evincing a love for the event that only a non-American could claim with a straight face), as well as novels and several collections’ worth of essays. The most recent of those collections, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, collects 21 years of his work on an impressive range of occasional subjects.

The reason for being peripatetic in his interests, as well as literally traveling the world (discoursing on Camus’s Algeria, Richard Misrach’s photographs, flying retired Soviet warplanes for recreation, having sex in hotels, and exploring New York’s Doughnut Plant, to name a few) is manifest time after time in Dyer’s work: it’s fun. And the fun has been going on a long time, as the author tells us in a spate of essays at the end of the book that serve as a mini-autobiography in serious fucking-off. You wind up envying him and the good fortune he doesn’t so much acknowledge as crows about. He writes, for example, of living on the dole in Brixton in the mid-1980s, when “Thatcherism had ushered in an era of high unemployment, but the safety net set up by the postwar commitment to the welfare state was just about intact,” which meant joining a kind of “aristocracy of welfare dependence,” a historical sweet spot of “boundless leisure.” He never looked back; after savoring a youth of rock shows, drugs, girlfriends, and vague artistic ambitions, he never did get a proper job and managed to make a true writer’s life that has brought him, of all things, to being one of the shruggingest public intellectuals we’ve got.

His novel Geoff in Venice, Jeff in Varanasi begins with an awfully familiar-sounding skinny English writer doing lots of coke with gorgeous women at the Venice Biennale and winds up with a similar (but differently named) figure meditating on death and the anomie that predates it in India’s poorest quarters. The novel’s progress is telling; Dyer never apologizes for the good times, but he’s no fool, either, as even the essay about the Brixton years (“On the Roof,” from 2002) closes with an intimation of mortality, which for Dyer boils down to boredom. Looking back at that effulgent time from middle age, he asks, “How did I go from being interested in everything to not being that bothered about anything?” The Brixton years are recalled for Dyer by his unearthing a photo taken of him and his friends just after they’d watched a major England football loss. But over time that insignificant event gets louder and louder, and in the present, sounds a profound note: “But looking back at the picture and its inscription, I realize it was familiar to me back then, that the taste of ashes in the mouth was as much a generalized premonition as it was a particular reaction to a football result. Destiny, I think, is not what lies in store for you; it’s what is already stored up inside you—and it’s as patient as death.”

He’s not just letting us down easy, and it’s a clear-eyed moment. But nor does it negate the fun, which really matters, too, for both personal and literary reasons. At some level, Dyer tells us, his life has been shaped in reaction to his working-class parents, who worked so hard all their lives, after surviving the Depression, that they finally “internalized their oppression” and could only value a life of labor (though they bequeathed him the solid values he appreciates, too). Not so for Dyer, a self-professed “scholarship boy” who saw his horizons expand and with them the conviction that life was for living (and artful slacking). That keen taste for possibility is at the heart of Dyer’s worship of Lawrence, and it takes shape in his wide-ranging amateur spirit. As Dyer asserts, “it’s not what you know that’s important; it’s what your passion gives you the potential to discover.”

I know what you’re thinking: does that sentiment, rehearsed over 400 pages, finally make the reader chafe? After all, 20-odd years of writing and its attendant research have to have produced some expertise, and it can start to seem perverse to cling to this vision of a writer just happening upon every interest and insight. And yet Dyer manages to walk the walk, both in terms of who fascinates him—other amateurs and outsiders, often, and the seemingly secondary, genre-unclassified works of the writers he admires—and in terms of the amazingly fresh eye he retains. There’s no system or theory to serve, here, though there are guides such as Raymond Williams or Roland Barthes. Instead, there’s a remarkable ability to encounter objects of contemplation and name what’s visible, in the style of Dyer’s mentor John Berger. And nowhere is this discipline more delectable, both to Dyer and to his readers, than when he writes about photographs.

Dyer can lead your eye around a photograph like no one else. I took a pretty good look at the picture of a young Dyer that accompanies the essay about his Brixton years. But it wasn’t until I read this sentence, halfway through the essay, that I looked back and saw it: “A clue is perhaps to be found on the ground, just behind the gnarled root of my right knee. I am referring, obviously, to my infamous homemade bong.” Oh, right—it was there all along. And it’s not just noticing that he excels at, it’s enlivening. Of a Robert Capa photo—a soldier and a woman walking a bicycle down a path in Sicily in 1943—Dyer offers this tour-de-force paragraph of slow-burning attention giving onto poignant meaning-making:

The hot Mediterranean landscape. Dust on the bicycle tires. The sun on her tanned arms. Their shadows mingling. The flutter of butterflies above the tangled hedgerow. The crumbling wall at the field’s edge is the result not of the sudden obliteration of bombs, but of the slow attrition of the seasons. It is possible to grow old in this landscape. All the sounds—the rustle of cicadas, the noise of his boots on the road, the slow whir of the bicycle (his or hers? it has a crossbar)—offer an irenic contrast to the deafening machinery of tanks and artillery. The photograph would be diminished without the bicycle; it would be ruined without her long hair. Her hair says: this is how she was when he left, she has not changed, she has remained true to him. 

With this sensitivity to visible details and their relationships and implications, Dyer can make images speak. As he says elsewhere, “if you look hard enough a photo will always answer your question.” Indeed, the answer they give is particularly pitched to Dyer’s sensibility: all photos say, here is something undeniably knowable but, at the same time, only momentarily and partially so, such that its possibilities remain tantalizingly intact. For all its glamour and modernity and melancholy, photography, in Dyer’s imagination, turns out to be a humble but vital medium that mirrors his own natural way of understanding the world.

From the moment I discovered him, Dyer spoke to me of this life lived in the service of interest and fascination, and a writerly stance of humility wedded, paradoxically, to bravado and cheek. These essays reveal him as a thinker for his time, unwilling to miss the big, swirling picture but not dissolving into it, either—his sense of how pleasurable it is to be aware of the world is the very quality that keeps him whole. It’s what keeps us reading—why on earth would we want to miss out on the fun?

* * * Matt Longabucco’s poems have appeared in Clock, With+Stand, Painted Bride Quarterly, Conduit, Pleiades, and Washington Square. He teaches writing and literature in the Liberal Studies Program at New York University, and co-curates the POD reading series in Park Slope. He lives with his wife and daughter in Brooklyn.