Books: The Renaissance man who's all talk

Conversation by Theodore Zeldin Harvill pounds 6.99
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The Independent Culture
During the last two decades, Theodore Zeldin, the most distinguished historian and student of France, has devoted himself to the exploration of new ways in which humanity can understand itself and its potential, and accordingly live more fully. The first fruit of this dedication was the remarkable Happiness (1988), a book which defies classification since it is at once a work of fiction - the account of a young woman's journey to Paradise - and a lateral survey of desiderata, intellectual and imaginative, social and personal, in three millennia and many cultures. It ends on a decided upbeat, a gentle clarion-call to self-liberation from conventions and cliches, and recognition of the necessity and beauty of variety:

"There was a whole new art to be discovered, of how to live intelligently with misunderstanding, of how to cope with the increasing complexity of individuals and the multiplicity of their moods; as individuals became more different from each other, there would be ever more scope for ingenuity and imagination. The Age of Communication has not really arrived yet; there was only talk about it and the Age of Talk was quite different ... there was a new renaissance on the way."

Since then Zeldin has given us An Intimate History of Humanity (1994) - "I want to show how, today, it is possible for individuals to form a fresh view both of their own personal history and humanity's whole record of cruelty, misunderstanding and joy" - and now Conversation, subtitled "How Talk Can Change Your Life", further contributes towards a new Renaissance (and key passages in Zeldin's latest book surely justify my use of the capital letter here).

There is no doubt that we are in an Age of Talk; the service industries demand it, discussion programmes mushroom on any and every topic, and one of the maxims of the day is British Telecom's "It's good to talk", BT even issuing a book on how most efficaciously to do this. At the same time, our talk more often than not fails to satisfy; we come away feeling that we have expressed ersatz ideas or emotions, those which we believed would be found acceptable but which do not have pressing reality for our truest selves - and that we have received the same. Zeldin writes: "A satisfying conversation is one which makes one say what one has never said before. For talk should be an experience, a shared one, the participants bonded in joy of an enterprise, surprising themselves because there is so much in each of them to be called forth - accumulated experience, accumulated knowledge, and (just as important) hopes, fantasies, dreams, as yet unformulated speculations. We can emerge from such talk with new perspectives on our own selves, on our fellows, on life itself. And actions, or activity, can follow. This kind of talk is the very stuff of the new age, of the Age of Communication in its profounder sense.

In his infectious ardour Zeldin challenges and dismisses certain idees recues we hold. He emphasises again what he first stated in The French (1983), that we are becoming more different rather than more alike. Societies are more mobile, more receptive of immigrants, with the consequence of "mixed" marriages; also we travel far, far more. Technology should not be viewed either as an anti-human force or an effective substitute for human beings; in fact it mirrors the aspirations and the limitations of our species. "(Engineers) know it is impossible to conceive an airplane which could not crash." Television promotes rather than undermines the art of conversation; indeed Brazilian soap operas have "the script ... rewritten the day before they are transmitted, to contain references to current events, so that the serial becomes a commentary on everyday life, a part of everybody's conversation."

Zeldin is currently pursuing his ideals into the domain of work, and what is perhaps the most challenging section of his new book surely adumbrates his next. Professions have become closed societies, with shibboleths and arcana all their own. It would be perfectly possible for short periods - say, six weeks, three months - to enter, with guidance, another person's profession, thus expanding one's own knowledge and awareness of how others live, and be of practical assistance. The Renaissance encouraged the diversification of abilities; the excitement of its ideas brought new forms of work into being. Surely our burgeoning Renaissance should do the same, and what better way to begin it than by genuine, communicating conversation?

When I reviewed Happiness I wrote: "I for one would not be surprised if this enthralling, original and virtuous book didn't bring about a revolution in my own life." And so it has turned out. Smaller-scale though it is, in fact the reprinting of six radio talks, Conversation may well do the same. And so presumably felt all those listeners who wrote to the BBC asking for the text of what amounted to Zeldin's own conversation.