When Winston Churchill was turning 40 he decided to take up painting, as what he called his "pastime." In his early 70s, he then published a little book about it, Painting as a Pastime, including several color reproductions of what he considered his best paintings. Theyíre not bad, considering; I'd say they come a lot closer to looking "professional" than my cello playing comes to rivaling what youíll hear in the cello section of any first-class youth orchestra. Like me, as Iíve labored from the age of 31 to "get it right," Churchill worked at it; he chose not passive leisure-time fun but active leisure-time practice.
Weíll never know whether, like me, he spent an average of an hour a day at it. Weíll never know whether he ever felt, as I often have, overwhelmed by the sheer inaccessibility of any peak that could be called "excellence." We can be sure that when political crises struck, he would drop the paintbrush and take up the sword. But to me he appears to have been-at least for some years-a genuine "amateur," to use a word that I hope to rescue from the pejorative "amateurish."
Amo, amas, amat: the word amateur still in some languages speaks of loving pursuits-not of simply loving to have something or enjoy something passively, but to pursue some goal out of love.
To me Churchillís mistake in his account was in reducing his pursuit to a pastime, placing it in the same class as playing pinochle or solitaire. In witty defense of his leisure-time choice, he dwells mostly on why some such choice is useful to the brain of anyone who in other hours must work at more important things. He is "passing time" in order to relax the brain so that he can return to his real vocation refreshed.
Hereís how he begins, as if he really joins me in my emerging book about doing things for the love of doing them:
Broadly speaking, human beings may be divided into three classes: those who are toiled to death, those who are worried to death, and those who are bored to death....Rational, industrious, useful human beings [that is, those who are not bored and not worried to death] are divided into two classes: first, those whose work is work [only] and whose pleasure is pleasure; and secondly, those whose work and pleasure are one. Of these the former are the majority...But Fortuneís favored children belong to the second class. Their life is a natural harmony. For them the working hours are never long enough. Each day is a holiday, and ordinary holidays when they come are grudged as enforced interruptions in an absorbing vocation.
Since Churchill is obviously thinking of himself as in this lucky class, why should he seek a justification for spending many hours away from the desk, passing time irresponsibly elsewhere? Itís not surprising that he lands on the claim of its usefulness in serving the main task: While work for the love of the work is nice, even the happy worker needs a break. You should take up some pastime so that you can return to your work restored. "To both classes the need of an alternative outlook, of a change of atmosphere, of a diversion of effort, is essential..." In other words, as a statesman performing really important labors, presumably for the love of it, he needs a break and seeks ìa change of atmosphere," justified not because itís "for the love of it," but because it serves other, larger causes. It provides his overworked brain with a distraction from more important political work: The pastime provides a holiday to the really useful part of the statesmanís brain.
The same emphasis now comes from brain researchers who urge everyone to postpone senility by leading the brain into new territory-especially the kind of amateuring that makes intense demands. The July 1994 issue of Life magazine urges us not only to "do puzzles" or "fix something" but to take up dancing, or watercoloring, or-best of all-chamber playing: "Try a musical instrument. "As soon as you take up the violin, your brain has a whole new group of muscle-control problems to solve. But thatís nothing compared with what the brain has to do before the violinist can begin to read notes on a page and correlate them with his or her fingers to create tones.'" Or so Life reports Arnold Scheibel, of UCLAís Brain Research Institute, as saying.
As I go on taking lessons in my eighth decade, struggling still to master "thumb position" and scores of other problems, I would never deny that there can be such physiological benefits from chamber playing. But it distresses me to see Churchill and others turning that kind of benefit into the main point. G. K. Chesterton said of those who reduce the value of music to physiological effect-to its service to sound digestion: "They do not see that digestion exists for health, and health exists for life, and life exists for the love of music or beautiful things."
Now I strongly suspect that in the hours of actual painting Churchill felt in agreement with Chesterton: that politics exists for welfare, that welfare exists for life, and that life exists for the love of painting or other beautiful things. He must have felt, often, that "getting it right," doing it as best you can, for the love of doing it, was more important than whatever service it provided him at his desk the next day.
Churchill found that to paint well was harder than he had expected. And as I took up the cello, it turned out to be shockingly resistant to my efforts. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson on the fiddle, "there is nothing in which the power of art is shown so much as in playing the cello. In all other things we can do something at first. Any man will forge a bar of iron, if you give him a box, though a clumsy one; but give him a cello, and a cello bow, and he can do nothing." I would never recommend to anyone to come listen to me play; instead go spend your passive pastime hours listening to someone who can play well. But even better than that would be to drop this or that passive pastime (even one as rewarding as listening to top-rank cellists), no matter how much plain fun it yields, and choose some amateur practice, some demanding "lover" who will be hard to win but infinitely rewarding to pursue.
Can I be such a fanatical amateur as to suggest that the time Churchill spent painting was as important as, maybe sometimes even more important than, many of the hours he spent deciding on war strategies and election moves? Yes, I can. Though I would be cross if President Clinton, on a day when some military crisis loomed, spent the whole day playing the saxophone, I do wish that he could find an hour a day to work at getting a little better at it.
Is it surprising that to defend such a claim requires a full book?