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The Importance of Doing Things Badly

(2009-05-19 21:25:38)


I. A. Williams was born in England and educated at Cambridge. After World War I he served as a correspondent for the London Times. Williams wrote several books on eighteenth-century poetry and drama, published widely in journals and magazines, and published collections of his own poetry. The following article first appeared in London’s The Outlook in 1923.

Perhaps the greatest threat to productivity in both work and play is the fear of doing things badly or wrong. This article offers some comfort. Williams points out that there are many things worth doing badly, and that our lives are enriched and our personalities enhanced by these activities. Two central examples, sports and music, are valuable to most people in proportion to how enthusiastically they do them, rather than how well.

Charles Lamb wrote a series of essays upon popular fallacies. I do not, at the moment, carry them very clearly in my memory; but, unless that treacherous servant misleads me more even than she usually does, he did not write of one piece of proverbial so-called wisdom that has always seemed to me to be peculiarly pernicious. And this saw, this scrap of specious advice, this untruth masquerading as logic, is one that I remember to have had hurled at my head at frequent intervals from my earliest youth right up to my present advanced age. How many times have I not been told that “If a thing is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well”?

Never was there a more untruthful word spoken in earnest. For the world is full of things that are worth doing, but certainly not worth doing well. Was it not so great a sage as Herbert Spencer[1] who said to the young man who had just beaten him at billiards, “Moderate skill, sir, is the sign of a good eye and a steady hand, but skill such as yours argues a youth misspent”? Is any game worth playing supremely well, at the price of constant practice and application?

Against the professional player I say nothing; he is a public entertainer, like any other, and by his skill in his particular sport he at least fulfills the first social duty of man—that of supporting himself and his family by his own legitimate exertions. But what is to be said of the crack amateur? To me he seems one of the most contemptible of mankind. He earns no money, but devotes himself, for the mere selfish pleasure of the thing, to some game, which he plays day in day out; he breaks down the salutary distinction between the amateur and the professional; eventually his skill deserts him, and he leaves behind him nothing that is of service to his fellow men—not a brick laid, not an acre ploughed, not a line written, not even a family supported and educated by his labor.

It is true that he has provided entertainment for a certain number of persons, but he has never had the pluck to submit himself to the test by which we demand that every entertainer should justify his choice of a calling—the demonstration of the fact that the public is willing to pay him for his entertainment . And, when his day is over, what is left, not even to the world, but to himself? Nothing but a name that is at once forgotten, or is remembered by stout gentlemen in clubs.

The playing of games, certainly, is a thing which is not worth doing well.

But that does not prove that it is not worth doing at all, as the proverb would, by implication, persuade us. There is nothing more agreeable and salutary than playing a game which one likes, and the circumstance of doing it badly interferes with the pleasure of no real devotee of any pastime. The man who minds whether or not he wins is no true sportsman—which observation is trite, but the rule it implies is seldom observed, and comparatively few people really play games for the sheer enjoyment of the playing. Is this not proved by the prence and popularity of handicaps? Why should we expect to be given points unless it be that we wish to win by means other than our own skill?

“Ah! but,” my reader may say, “the weaker player wants to receive points in order that he may give the stronger one a better game.” Really, I do not believe that that is so. Possible, sometimes, a strong and vainglorious player may wish to give points, in order that his victory may be the more notable. But I do not think that even this is the true explanation. That, I suspect, was given to me the other day by the secretary of a lawn-tennis tournament, in which I played. “Why all this nonsense of handicaps? Why not let us be squarely beaten, and done with it?” I asked him. “Because,” He replied, “if we did not give handicaps, none of the less good players would enter.” Is that not a confession that the majority of us have both realized the true value doing a trivial thing badly, for its own sake, and must needs have our minds buoyed and cheated into a false sense of excellence?

Moreover it is not only such intrinsically trivial things as games that are worth doing badly. This is a truth which, oddly enough, we accept freely of some things—but not of others—and as a thing which we are quite content to do ill let me instance acting. Acting, at its best, can be a great art, a thing worth doing supremely well, though its worth, like that of all interpretative arts, is lessened by its evanescence. For it works in the impermanent medium of human flesh and blood, and the thing that the actor create—for what we call an interpretative artist is really a creative artist working in a perishable medium—is an impression upon, an emotion or a thought aroused in, the minds of an audience, and is incapable of record.

Acting, then, let me postulate—though I have only sketched ever so briefly the proof of my belief—can be a great art. But is anyone ever deterred from taking part in amateur theatricals by the consideration that he cannot act well? Not a bit of it! And quite rightly not, for acting is one of the things about which I am writing this essay—the things that are worth doing badly.

Another such thing is music; but here the proverbial fallacy again exerts its power, as it does not, for some obscure and unreasoning discrimination, in acting. Most people seem to think that if they cannot sing, or play the piano, fiddle, or sackbut, admirably well, they must not do any of these things at all. That they should not indiscriminately force their inferior performances upon the public, or even upon their acquaintances, I admit. But that there is no place “in the home” for inferior musical performances, is an untruth that I flatly deny.

How many sons and daughters have not, with a very small talent, given their parents—and even the less fondly prejudiced ears of their friends—great pleasure with the singing of simple songs? Then one day there comes to the singer the serpent of dissatisfaction; singing lessons are taken, and—if the pupil is of moderate talent and modest disposition—limitations are discovered. And then, in nine cases out of ten, the singing is dropped, like a hot penny. How many fathers have not banished music from their homes by encouraging their daughters to take singing lessons? Yet a home may be the fresher for singing that would deserve brickbats at a parish concert.

I may pause here to notice the curious exception that people who cannot on any account be persuaded to sing in the drawing-room, or even in the bath, will without hesitation uplift their tuneless voices at religious meetings or in church. There is a perfectly good and honorable explanation of this, I believe, but it belongs to the realm of metaphysics and is beyond my present scope.

This cursed belief, that if a thing is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well, is the cause of a great impoverishment in our private life, and also, to some extent, of the lowering of standards in our public life. For this tenet of proverbial faith has two effects on small talents: it leads modest persons not to exercise them at all, and immodest persons to attempt to do so too much and to force themselves upon the public. It leads to the decay of letter--writing and of the keeping of diaries, and, as surely, it leads to the publication of memoirs and diaries that should remain locked in the writers’ desks.

It leads Mr. Blank not to write verses at all—which he might very well do, for the sake of his own happiness, and for the amusement of his friends—and it leads Miss Dash to pester the overworked editors of various journals with her unsuccessful imitations of Mr. de la Mare,[2] Mr. Yeats[3], and Dr. Bridges.[4] The result is that our national artistic life now suffers from two great needs: A wider amateur practice of the arts, and a higher, more exclusive, prfessional standard. Until these are achieved we shall not get the best out of our souls.

The truth is, I conceive, that there is for most of us only one thing—beyond, of course, our duties of citizenship and our personal duties as sons, or husbands, or fathers, daughters, or wives, or mothers—that is worth doing well—that is to say, with all our energy. That one thing may be writing, or it may be making steam-engines, or laying bricks. Bt after that there are hundreds of things that are worth doing badly, with only part of our energy, for the sake of the relaxation they bring us, and for the contacts which they give us wth our minds. And the sooner England realizes this, as once she did, the happier, the more contented, the more gracious, will our land be.

There are even, I maintain, things that are in themselves better done badly than well. Consider fishing, where one’s whole pleasure is often spoiled by having to kill a fish. Now, if one could contrive always to try to catcha fish, and never to do so, one might—But that is aother story.
















它让布兰克先生从此不再写诗------其实他满可以继续写诗,为自乐和娱友;它令达什小姐拿自己拙劣的模仿之作(模仿德拉 梅尔先生、叶芝先生和布里奇斯博士)不断纠缠各大杂志劳累过度的编辑。这样的结果是,使我们国家的艺术生活处于两种奇缺之中:既缺乏业余爱好者的广泛参与,又缺乏高级、专门、职业化的规格。而我们只有实现了这两个目标,才能从心灵深处获取最杰出的东西。






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