21 June 2015

Mostly Bunk

An Intimate History of Humanity
by Theodore Zeldin

I finished this book at the third try; on my first two attempts, made some years ago, I didn't even get to page 50. And though I finished it this time, I really, really disliked it.

Prof. Zeldin, like many European intellectuals, appears to have been greatly influenced by Karl Marx at some point in his youth. The influence shows, not so much in his political and economic views, as in his prose. Like Marx, he is fond of giant intuitive leaps, dialectical arguments and dogmatic statements couched as memorable aphorisms. My own educational background is Anglicized, literary and scientific, which puts me out of sympathy with this approach from the outset. Aware of this — and feeling the need to broaden my mind — I bit back my own critical responses to Zeldin’s writing and went at his book with as little prejudice and Anglo-Saxon cultural snobbery as was possible for me. It was not a successful experiment.

This book is mistitled. In no way is it a history of humanity, intimate or otherwise. It consists of a series of reports and reflections on the author’s conversations with dozens of Frenchwomen whom he has interviewed. Their occupations range from daily maid through counter clerk and executive trainer to mathematician and magazine editor. These women describe their lives and, particularly, their strategies for coping with life. Zeldin then discusses their strategies dialectically, invoking various cultures and historical epochs in which he believes similar solutions were tried, more or less successfully. This part — the actual history — is exhaustively referenced and doubtless accurate, but sketchily told, selective and not very insightful in terms of historical process.

Towards the end of the book, Zeldin attempts to sum up what conclusions he has reached from his conversations with these women, and comes up with what he calls six strategies humans beings use to get through life. They are obedience, negotiation, self-sufficient withdrawal from the world, the quest to make sense of things by increasing one's own knowledge, talkative self-revelation and applied creativity. I think we are supposed to believe this rather idiosyncratic classification contains or underpins all the other strategies any halfway intelligent person could identify, such as religious mania, moneygrubbing or alcoholism, but the author fails to demonstrate this satisfactorily.

Ultimately, Zeldin’s thesis is that, while the various ways in which humans have coped with life to date have all been more or less unsastisfactory, better ways are possible through more widespread and meaningful communication, and that, ultimately, this may bring about a step change in human nature, which he regards as mutable and capable of improvement. Here my attempt to be broadminded hit the wall. All the scientific, literary and historical evidence we have indicates to us that human nature is not malleable.

Zeldin never looks this unfortunate fact in the face. At one point the obstinacy of his refusal is so egregious it amounts to stupidity. This is when, in the course of (rightly) rejecting all prescriptive definitions of the ideal family, he states that ‘the family is the oldest of all human insititutions because it is the most flexible.’ This is very probably true, but it begs the question of what a family is — surely this Protean institution must have some traits that are common to all its numerous guises, and by which it can be defined? Worse yet, it begs the question of why we have families in the first place. Is the answer so obvious it need not be stated?

I don’t think so. And I think Zeldin’s avoidance of the issue identifies the great flaw in this ‘intellectually dazzling view of our past and future’, as Time magazine apparently regards it. In fact, culture is based on nature: human institutions are merely animal institutions, greatly elaborated and extended. Culture — and that includes the family as much as any other human institution — is the product of instinct. It is to biology, particularly evolutionary biology, that we must look for truthful answers to the great questions that have troubled social scientists, theologians and philosophers for thousands of years. That, at any rate, is my view, and though I gave it my best shot, An Intimate History of Humanity failed to shake it, or provide anything like a credible alternate perspective.

On the positive side, Zeldin writes well, and some of his aphorisms are superbly quotable. Unfortunately, not all of them stand up to close scrutiny. But this is a disposable book; unless you’re of a mind with the author, you will lose nothing by neglecting to read it.