BOOK REVIEW / Age of curiosity: 'An Intimate History of Humanity' - Theodore Zeldin: Sinclair-Stevenson 20 pounds

Alain de Botton@alaindebotton
Saturday 01 October 1994 23:02

THE Oxford historian Theodore Zeldin has taken the academically unfashionable step of writing a book which aims to change our lives. It is an accessible, audacious and thought- provoking work which presents history as a liberating force, one which can reveal the multiplicity of human possibilities, and thereby free us from the impasses of the present.

Zeldin's title is somewhat misleading. This is no history in the chronological sense, nor is it specifically a study of love and friendship. Rather, the book asks a host of questions about the nature of human needs and desires, amounting to a grand survey of the ends of life. It is divided into 25 essays, with such titles as 'How men and women have slowly learned to have interesting conversations', 'How people have freed themselves from fear by finding new fears', and 'How even astrologers resist their destiny'.

The innovative part of Zeldin's project is the way he mixes general reflections with concrete settings, as he couples his thoughts to the lives of real people he has interviewed, who are mainly French and female (he admits to finding women more interesting than men). The women are ordinary - bureaucrats, journalists, housekeepers, mothers - but Zeldin endows them with extraordinary significance by linking their concerns to world history. Zeldin shuttles from late-20th-century topics which would not be out of place in the pages of Cosmopolitan to discussions of ancient Chinese philosophy and the European Enlightenment. Each chapter ends with a reading list, 'to suggest directions in which the reader's imagination can travel, according to its own tastes, in the same way as a few drinks might be tasted after a meal,' explains Zeldin, who likes drawing dietary analogies and is joint chairman of the Oxford Food Symposium. The effect flatteringly endows the everyday with global significance, though Zeldin's greater intention is to fight the idea of historical determinism.

By tracing how concepts of personal fulfilment, sexual relations or family obligation have differed across time, Zeldin encourages us to envisage altering them again, if we wish: 'I have tried to open up the memories of the whole of humanity, and to use them to place the dilemmas of the present in a perspective which is not dominated by the idea of perpetual conflict.'

Because Zeldin's ambitions are great, he is an easy target for those who would argue that he has bitten off more than he can chew. The prose reflects a general difficulty of finding a common language in which to do justice to the big ideas. Anglo-Saxon culture shuns generalisation and distrusts the grand statement, and Zeldin does sometimes hover precariously over the dividing line separating profundity from banality ('In every life there is an element of victory over fear, which needs to be searched for, though it may be a false victory').

The best chapters in the book marshal examples to nourish a brilliantly illuminating argument, the worst replace psychological or philosophical insight with long lists of facts telling us little other than that Zeldin has read a lot of history. These individual failings reflect a general problem of focus; there are enough common themes in the book to suggest that Zeldin is not simply presenting us with disparate thoughts on the meaning of life, but he lacks the rigour to pull them to a conclusion - beyond his initial point that the past shows us ways we can live differently in the future.

But this does not detract from the triumph. Zeldin's is an optimistic work, deeply humane and sensitively concerned with finding answers to the knots in which we tie ourselves. It is without cynicism, full of possibility and enthusiasm. 'The age of discovery has rarely begun . . . curiosity is expanding as never before,' declares Zeldin, in sharp contrast to the majority of contemporary cultural commentators who make Spengler look an optimist.

Zeldin's feat is to display his sincerity in a way which makes it seem churlish to accuse him of mawkishness when he writes, 'It is in the power of everybody, with a little courage, to hold out a hand to someone different, to listen, to attempt to increase, by even a tiny amount, the quantity of kindness and humanity in the world.'

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