Tuesday, October 18, 2016


Defiance of the Contemporary

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), Round River (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 3-4:
The text of this sermon is taken from the gospel according to Ariosto. I do not know the chapter and verse, but this is what he says: 'How miserable are the idle hours of the ignorant man!' There are not many texts that I am able to accept as gospel truths, but this is one of them. I am willing to rise up and declare my belief that this text is literally true; true forward, true backward, true even before breakfast. The man who cannot enjoy his leisure is ignorant, though his degrees exhaust the alphabet, and the man who does enjoy his leisure is to some extent educated, though he has never seen the inside of a school. I cannot easily imagine a greater fallacy than for one who has several hobbies to speak on the subject to those who may have none. For this implies prescription of avocation by one person for another, which is the antithesis of whatever virtue may inhere in having any at all. You do not annex a hobby, the hobby annexes you. To prescribe a hobby would be dangerously akin to prescribing a wife—with about the same probability of a happy outcome.

Let it be understood, then, that this is merely an exchange of reflections among those already obsessed—for better or for worse—with the need of doing something queer. Let others listen if they will, and profit by our behavior if they can.

What is a hobby anyway? Where is the line of demarcation between hobbies and ordinary normal pursuits? I have been unable to answer this question to my own satisfaction. At first blush I am tempted to conclude that a satisfactory hobby must be in large degree useless, inefficient, laborious, or irrelevant. Certainly many of our most satisfying avocations today consist of making something by hand which machines can usually make more quickly and cheaply, and sometimes better. Nevertheless I must in fairness admit that in a different age the mere fashioning of a machine might have been an excellent hobby. Galileo, I fancy, derived a real and personal satisfaction when he set the ecclesiastical world on its ear by embodying in a new catapult some natural law that St. Peter had inadvertently omitted to catalogue. Today the invention of a new machine, however noteworthy to industry, would, as a hobby, be trite stuff. Perhaps we have here the real inwardness of our question: A hobby is a defiance of the contemporary. It is an assertion of those permanent values which the momentary eddies of social evolution have contravened or overlooked. If this is true, then we may also say that every hobbyist is inherently a radical, and that his tribe is inherently a minority.

Thanks to Ian Jackson for identifying the source of the quotation from Ariosto—Orlando Furioso, canto 34, stanza 75, line 3. Here is the stanza from the Valgrisi 1580 edition (also courtesy of Ian Jackson), followed by a transcription and my rough translation:

Le lacrime, e i sospiri de gli amanti,
L'inutil tempo, che si perde à gioco,
E l'otio lungo d'huomini ignoranti,
Vani disegni, che non han mai loco,
I vani desiderii sono tanti,
Che la più parte ingombran di quel loco.
Ciò che in somma qua giù perdesti mai,
Là sù salendo ritrouar potrai.

The tears and sighs of lovers,
The useless time wasted in gambling,
The interminable leisure of ignorant men,
Idle plans, which never come to fruition,
Unfulfilled longings—these are so plentiful
That they almost fill that place.
In short, whatever you've lost down here,
You can find again by climbing up there.

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