Departments

Versatility

It is a commonplace that somehow capital-s Society prevents the otherwise natural burgeoning of versatility; it wants us to specialize, it wants labor to be divided. I do not dispute that versatility is a natural development; but I think it is small-s society, common company and friendship, that prevents it.

The problem of versatility is the certainty that the people who admire or even share one ability will be contemptuous of the others. "What have you been up to?" An elaborate series of asymmetrical values must be weighed to obtain the answer. It is safe to say building to a writer, unsafe to say writing to a builder; safe to say music to a mathematician, unsafe to say math to a musician. The worst is when day job is assumed, when it must be explained: "No, I care about that too." Being written off is actually something that can be felt. It is not said but it can still be heard: "Sorry, I thought you were one of us." Better to be a little apart and aloof from the beginning than to walk into that wall. Certainly if versatility were not nearly a religion to me I would have found some more presentable way to live.

Then there is the problem of sides. Your friend the writer has a technician in to fix the computer. Your friend thinks the technician is subhuman; the technician thinks your friend is braindead. Anything you say will either abet arrogance or insult ignorance; and so precisely because you understand both points of view, you cannot say anything. The gap is larger, the problem worse, when, say, a plumber is called in. Your friend thinks it a proof of their own education to be unable to talk to plumbers; the plumber thinks your friend is hardly fit to live. How do you stand—are you for the Morlocks or the Eloi?

But the worst problem is that of communication. Having a broader base of analogy, you understand faster, but often cannot explain why you understand. Your friend has some half-formed idea; you recognize the shape of it from some far-off source; you say, "That's just like..." But whatever you say, your friend hears gibberish. It does not matter that you understand; you have committed an error, you have lowered yourself with a blunder, as if you were the traveler-bore who kills conversations with "When I was in..."

Still I think versatility is natural. I often find people more versatile than they think themselves, because they have avoided recognizing in themselves abilities which it would be awkward to have others recognize in them. Society is at fault, but not our society; only the fact of society.