Theodore Zeldin

Why am I attracted to people who deliberately place themselves out of the mainstream?  As an undergraduate studying social anthropology, I had the amazing good fortune to have Edmund Leach as my tutor, who relished criticising and ‘rethinking’ the work of established scholars in his field (although, inevitably, he ended up becoming a solid part of the new establishment as a result).  In years of teaching management, it was Charles Handy who was my guide, another thinker always standing back from orthodoxy, asking new, sometimes provocative questions.  His analyses often rested on asking apparently simple questions, and, in doing so, turning thinking on its head.  Another ‘rethinker’.  Although I never met him, a third enthusiastic gadfly whose work I admire is Theodore Zeldin.

To read Theodore Zeldin is to confront a fascinating yet frustrating writer.  The son of Russian Jews, he was born ‘on the slopes of Mount Carmel’ in the 1930s (which was then part of Palestine, I believe, and is to be found close to the port of Haifa).  The family migrated, and he was educated in England.  He graduated from London University at the age of 17, and subsequently took a second undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford: both with first class honours!  His PhD was awarded when he was at Oxford’s St Anthony’s, where he was elected a Fellow, and Oxford was his home from then on.  He is known as a provocative outsider, ready to offer alternative viewpoints, not to be contrarian but to help us see other aspects of key issues.  His thinking has been informed by invitations to advise decision-makers in finance, law, medicine, IT, consulting, transport, manufacturing, insurance, design, arts, advertising, retailing, energy, human resources, government, and international organisations!  He has collected awards and prizes; a recognised intellectual he cites his hobbies as “gardening, painting and mending things”.  So English, and yes, a gadfly.

When A History of French Passions was published, a book of two thousand pages, one reviewer, Daniel Little, commented “there has never been anything like it” and that “possibly nothing would ever be the same again”. It was understandable.  Instead of a traditional historical analysis of public events, it covers a huge range of emotions and concerns, from the reasons people get worried, bored, hysterical or happy, on to eating habits, drinking, and dancing; from the joys and disasters of childhood, education and marriage to behaviour between women and men, and the satisfactions and challenges in various occupations and professions.  It also examines friendship, and the ways people fall out, arguments about art, fashion and literature (of every kind); as well as covering sports, music, reading newspapers, and even facing old age and death. Not a bad range, and that’s just a sample!

His approach was summarised by Gordon Wright in The Times Literary Supplement writing: “One emerges from several days of total immersion a bit dazed, scarcely knowing what to admire more about Dr Zeldin, his energy, his erudition, his imagination or his courage.  He writes as if each and every human activity deserves equal attention and has a more or less independent vitality. The formal structures and public ideologies that are claimed to hold society together are seen as influencing only a small part of people’s lives.”  Typically, in the preface to the French translation Zeldin wrote: “My aim is to undress you”, explaining that he wished to separate people from the myths they had inherited like hand-me-down clothes: rather than concentrating his search on justice, glory or any other ideal, he makes it clear he wishes to include all of his subjects’ contradictions and hesitations in order to reveal the complexity of their individual lives.  “To avoid repeating the received ideas about the past, I have burrowed into as many aspects of life as possible, that erudition has not hitherto explored.”  So French!

The chapters of his ‘History’ comprise dozens of intimate portraits, people from every social group, emphasising the private life behind the public persona, and the motivations hidden in their ideas and ambitions, seeking to reveal each character’s unique and many-sided reality.  Largely unconcerned about class and politics he focusses on the oddities and unpredictability of human interactions, and of the battles waging between the muddled feelings inside every self, every family, every workplace.  Another preoccupation is studying the tricks people use to bend or avoid rules and regulations, often described with humour.  One reviewer suggested it was as if Zeldin combined “the interests of the novelist with the techniques of the historian.  He’s a modern Balzac, but one capable of supporting his assertions with statistics.”

In his next major book, Zeldin sought to examine the many and apparently insuperable obstacles blocking human fulfilment, the consequences of fear, hatred and greed, or the turmoil produced by conflicting emotions.  In terms of the number of copies sold, The Intimate History of Humanity is the most successful of his books, and it continues to be bought all over the world, reprinted and constantly rediscovered anew.  It’s a history he makes relevant to contemporary concerns, and he throws a spanner into the idea of an immutable ‘human nature’.  You could say Zeldin replaces stability with unpredictability.

Each of the twenty-five chapters shows how a ‘fact of life’ which seems impossible to change becomes far less inflexible when its variations through the centuries are understood.  An early chapter, on ‘How men and women have slowly learned to have interesting conversations’ is a great introduction to his style.  It begins with Lydie, a police Corporal in Cognac, who is  presented as an exemplar of public service circumspection (she had to get permsission from her captain to speak to the author, who had to ask his colonel, who had to ask his general …), but who has a personal interest in the secret police and a desire to do something out of the ordinary.  It seems Cognac is a place with limited conversation opportunities, as we find listening to the greengrocer’s wife, and another woman who has her best discussions with her dog!  Many women reveal their husbands are boring.  One commented “The men earn our living.  We think for them.”  All this is a brief introduction into a much longer examination of conversation, across time and nations, ending with the observation that conversation needs the help of midwives to help in flourish, and that generally women show more skill in this.  His parting shot:  “Only when people learn to converse will they be equal”.

Every chapter begins with a conversation with a woman discussing what she makes of life, and then introduces evidence from other civilisations, past and present, suggesting that other options might be open to her, if she only saw her problems in a wider perspective.   His is a history of the world that takes as its subject the worries and uncertainties that all humans share, irrespective of where and when they have lived, rather than chronicling the rise and fall of various empires and economies. However, what keeps me reading and rereading is the kaleidoscope of ways Zeldin shows how we can react to and learn from humanity’s endless floundering through mistakes, regrets and never-ending hopes and aspirations.  The chapter ‘Why there has been more progress in cooking than in sex’ is an example of how the juxtaposition of apparently disconnected themes can give new meaning to sexual obsessions. We begin with a Spanish woman who has grown up in France, and learnt to be flamboyant, move on to Krafft-Ebing, the Kamasutra, West African fairy tales, and a Kung bushman’s observation that “One man does not have enough thoughts for one woman”.  We end, as is the case with every chapter, with learning something fascinating, in this case we are told “the Congolese author Sony Labour Tansi wrote that eroticism is the art of ‘cooking love well’ [which] reminds one there is still a vast amount to be discovered”.

The same approach is applied in the chapter on loneliness, where the history of research into the immune system is placed alongside suffering in solitude, each illuminating the other.  Zeldin presents personal relationships as the crucial element in determining the quality of life, and asks questions like: How has the desire that men feel for women, and for other men, altered through the centuries? Why has it become increasingly difficult to destroy one’s enemies? How have people freed themselves from fear by finding new fears? Why has friendship between men and women been so fragile?   Responses to his work are revealing of its diversity.  No wonder one reviewer wrote, ‘The most exciting and ambitious work of non-fiction I have read in more than a decade’, a view supported by innumerable comments on the internet giving many  different explanations of the book’s significance.  ‘He does not speak contemptuously of anyone’.  Another commented ‘I could not figure out why the book made me feel enraged.’  A diversity of responses as wide as the book: ‘There is so much wisdom here’, wrote a doctor, ‘so many rich historical threads, reading it is like eating a chocolate cake; each chapter is entirely enough to savour for a while, but you cannot wait to go back for more’. Not everyone has enjoyed the complexity.  One reader complained that he could not find an ‘underlying message’. Another suggested that the book ‘drives the reader to get involved in every way’ and as a result make his own beliefs and thoughts open to question.’

Like me, most have found his book compelling.  One fan commented ‘I took the book off the shelf in the bookshop, opened it somewhere in the middle to read a few sentences and was hooked. The wealth of his learning is amazing, the way he weaves together different disciplines, civilisations, ideas and ages is very eloquent and beautifully executed’.  Readers who said the portraits were ‘the best part of the book’ and ‘engrossing’ were contradicted by the person who preferred ‘the historical parts’, and was ‘no fan of biography, especially biographies of unknown anonymous people I don’t know.’  Yet another reader commented: ‘It is the first book of history I fell in love with. Still in love.’ I can add to all these views by reinforcing what another writer said:  ‘For years after I read it, I could not put it back on a bookshelf. To do so was like admitting that the reading was over, while I just wanted to keep exploring everything this book offered and opened up.’ Yes, and yet there were some others who have dismissed the book as ‘waffle’ and ‘garbage’. Every response imaginable.

The National Museum of Australia, inspired by An Intimate History, translated Zeldin’s method into an exhibition of the emotions of the Australians, explaining them by delving into their memories of the past.  In support of this rejection of the convention that nations define themselves by recounting their achievements in chronological order, it quoted this passage from Zeldin’s preface: ‘You will not find history laid out in these pages as it is in museums, with each empire and each period carefully separated.  I am writing about what will not lie still, about the past which is alive in people’s minds today.’

An Intimate History of Humanity is one of the books that sits close by me in the evening.  If I am not certain I want to start another book, all I have to do is open it at random and read a chapter.  It never fails to delight, intrigue and challenge me.  How about Chapter 17, which is headed ‘How travellers are becoming the largest nation in the world, and how they have learned not to see only what they are looking for’.  I have used that chapter as a text when I am working with a group from overseas.  I ask them to think about what they might see as they travel to a new city.  After exploring ideas, I ask them to read the chapter.

Early on in the chapter, they confront Caroline.  “Caroline is not the only one in her office who is restless.  Most of the young people move on after a few years.  But she does not share their ambition.  A brilliant career is not her aim: “I did not know what I wanted to do when I left school; I feel I have done well to have reached such a high position.  I don’t wish to be managing director; I don’t have the background.  If I were a graduate of a top university, I would want to justify it.  But I am satisfied with my post.”   Unfortunately, the people she meets at work don’t excite her.  She went on holiday with an English engineer, hoping it added a touch of exoticism, but he lacked imagination:  “he was almost sad, too academic in his attitude to what is forbidden”.  Surprised?  The French are less disciplined, so she has no trouble finding a truly anarchic Frenchman.  She longs to be able “to surprise others”.

From Caroline we move on to travellers.  Zeldin explains Hippolyte Taine, a 19th Century historian, said there were “six kinds of tourists.  The first travel for the pleasure of moving, absorbed in counting the distance they have covered.  The second go with a guide book, from which they never separate themselves: “They eat trout in the places it recommends and argue with the innkeeper when his price is higher than the one it gives.”  The third travel only in groups, or with their families, trying to avoid strange foods, concentrating on saving money.  The fourth have only one purpose, to eat.  The fifth are hunters, seeking particular objects, rare antiques or plants.  Finally there are those who “look at the mountains from their hotel window… enjoy their siesta and read their newspaper lounging in a chair, after which they say they have seen the Pyrenees’.  There will doubtless always be tourists wishing to repeat these routines, but there are other possibilities.  Tourists may be content to look at places and things, but travel is also, more interestingly, the discovery of people: it is travail, it requires effort, and its reward is a transformation of both the visitor and the host.”  I had to read on!

Part of what makes his writing so compelling, so fascinating, is that accounts are full of non-sequiturs and hilarious asides.  Describing Frenchman Vincent Le Blanc, who ran away to sea at the age of fourteen in 1568 and did not return until he was seventy.  “After visiting every known continent, he at last found a wife in Brazil, but she turned out to be, as he said, ‘one of the most terrible women in the world’”!!   One of the more famous travellers he includes is Sir Richard Burton .  Zeldin tells us Burton was  an accomplished liar.  He joined the Indian army, which gave him the opportunity to learn half a dozen languages:  he began disguising himself as a Persian merchant of cloth and jewellery, which enabled him to enter the closed world of women, even the harem.  The way to get to know a people, he claimed, was to know the women.  So began a lifelong devotion to sexology, in the course of which he translated the Kamasutra, the Perfumed Garden and the Arabian Nights.  Not a boring Englishman!

Zeldin ends the chapter by commenting “After the history of nations and of families, there is another history to be written, of those who were misfits in one or the other, or felt incomplete in them, and who created new affinities far away from their birthplace.  Travellers have been a nation of a special kind, without frontiers, and they are becoming the largest nation in the world, as travel becomes no longer a mere distraction but an essential part of a whole person’s diet.  Today over 400 million people travel between continents each year.”

Finally, he adds, “The most admirable characters in the history of travel are those who have been most useful to their hosts.  A journey is successful when the traveller returns as an ambassador for the country he has visited, just as an actor is most successful when he enters into a character and discovers something of himself in the part he plays.”  Frustrating, the end doesn’t suit the beginning of the chapter.  For me, it’s not about being an ambassador, even though that’s valuable, but it’s the analogy to acting that rings true.  Visiting other countries, we’re offered the chance to learn more about ourselves, a benefit many travellers don’t grasp, even though they had the opportunity.  Zeldin, like travel, keeps my brain alight!