Departments

Versatility

Why is it surprising for someone to be versatile? When the question is finally asked, the usual answer is to blame capital-s Society. Society wants us to specialize; Society wants labor to be divided. Without Society, we would all be versatile. I do not dispute that the state of nature would be one of versatility. But I think it is really small-s society – common friendship, mere company – that keeps versatility rare.

The downside of versatility is that people who admire, or even share, one of your abilities may 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 they assume day job, and you have to explain: “No, I care about that too.” Being written off is actually something you can feel. It was not said but you still heard it: “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 taking sides. Your friend the writer calls in a technician 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 proves their own education that they cannot 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 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 discover that people are more versatile than they think they are, because they have not alllowed themselves to recognize, 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 at all.