Curiosity (Theodore Zeldin)


In 1933, on the slopes of Mount Carmel, a certain Theodore Zeldin was born, son to a former colonel of the Russian Czarist Army. The boy proved exceptionally bright and graduated from the University of London at the age of 17, with an education in history, philosophy and Latin. He progressed to Oxford, eventually becoming Dean of the college that conferred his doctorate. Since then, he’s taught at Oxford and Harvard, and distinguished himself as one of our most educated and colourful minds. Zeldin has crafted over a dozen intensely erudite books on speaking, hurting, loving, yearning and reaching. His five-volume History of French Passions is a full-bodied work, chronicling the habits and minutiae of French love, marriage, employment, boredom, leisure, and cuisine. This opus (along with his smaller writings) reminds us that human life is found in spaces. Spaces between the physical and the spiritual, gaps between our atavisms and novelties, between situations and aspirations. And most crucially – in talking, and in being together.

Deirdre Wilson, who briefly joins us, is a linguist and cognitive scientist, a pupil of Noam Chomsky, a professor at the University College London, and one of the developers of the relevance theory of communication. The above image was taken by Austrian-born photographer Ernst Haas.

Why not just kill yourself, in this stupid world?

Well, this is one of the surprising things about life – that even though there’s so much suffering and cruelty in it, people still want to live. Religion has tried to explain our tenacity: “well, there’s a better world, not in America, but in the next world, and you have to work in this world.” Ultimately, I think that hope is built into life, because life is all about reproducing life. If you cannot live yourself, you will produce something that will continue your existence; and if you cannot do it through children, you will do it through ideas, or benefactions. True suicide most often is a vision into nowhere. Which is why so many people commit suicide in a different way – by cutting themselves off from others, by partial mutilations of their personality. We have all committed partial suicide because we have killed capacities which we have but are not using.

Because these partial suicides can be, in a sense, useful. Do you think a person can be predisposed to a kind of un-success? Meaning that no matter how much they qualify their goals—

I think the cult of success is a misconceived one. Because it implies that one can arrive at a certain situation where one is successful. I think this has been destroyed by the scientific approach; the scientific approach dictates that we can always go further. And that every time we fail, it is a successful experiment. Supposing the world was blown up tomorrow, and some would survive, what would we do to reconstruct it? We obviously wouldn’t rebuild the old things again. We would say: “this didn’t work, and that didn’t work. Let’s see what we can do.” We would experiment. And some things might not work, and even after 50 attempts, we may have a worse world than our old one. But we’re trying things out – and that’s what distinguishes humans from animals. Of course, if you do science, you might tell me exactly how much imagination a rat has, or a goose…

So that’s it – the imagination – that’s what distinguishes us from animals?

There’s this book by Charles Foster, a colleague, called Being a Beast, in which he tried to, you know, become a beast. He is, in fact, by training a veterinary surgeon, so he knows about animals. And he went and buried himself in the soil and tried to live from ground level, and you know, ate worms, and all the rest of it. The interesting thing about that book is that, in the end, he feels very lonely. What we have that animals do not, is precisely this capacity to imagine that things need not be as they are. You know, I look at your face, but that is misleading. I look at this table in front of me and I may think it’s a table, but it’s made up of electric charges and so on, which of course I cannot see. This is an amazing – amazing – quality: to say that the world is an illusion. Whereas animals have a tremendous capacity to the see the world as it is, not God, not science-fiction.

Thus we need interpersonality? Because, on an individual basis, this sense of illusion can be confusing. How does one become lonely?

To be lonely is to be blind. That is to say, to fail to see the connections between people that are not obvious, and the connections between elements in society and inside people. It’s also the inability to be inspired by people, inspired no matter how disagreeable one may find them, or however marvellous they may be – to create something that had not been used before, new thoughts. I’m a trustee of a foundation that helps people in poor parts of the world, and we once invited some sheikhs from southern Iraq who live in rural conditions, almost those resembling the Bible. The most elementary situation. And I asked one of these sheikhs, all dressed up in their traditional garb: “are you ever lonely?” He couldn’t understand what “lonely” meant. Because to him there was no such thing as loneliness. He was surrounded by his tribe, and his king. And so this may lead one to consider a new definition of poverty. In ancient times, what made a man poor was that he had no family. Now it’s an inability to create one’s own, you might say, imaginary family, not necessarily a family that one likes, but one that brings new thoughts into one’s head. So I’m sitting alone in this room, but thoughts are coming to me from all sorts of places.

But sometimes you just need a hug.

It’s interesting, loneliness is a tremendous weight on the young generation. I’ve spoken to many people, particularly young women, who say they cannot find a man who will make them talk. Men don’t seem to be able to talk properly.

I don’t see why one would leave it at men. I think that many people have lost their ability to talk. Certainly, people chat now more than ever, but the substance… well,  I’d love it, for our purposes here, if we found some way to blame psychology for this. Could we?

It’s true, psychology has made a history of emphasising the need to know oneself. I do not think that is possible, and I don’t think that’s interesting. As we talked, the ideas that one has of oneself are largely illusions.

So a remedy to loneliness is to uncover the self in others. But what of the secluded lonely? I took a trip to the countryside recently, to meet some members of my family, and their known ones. An experience that stayed with me was the sight of a ninety-year-old man, living with his daughters, daughters brimming on seventy, maybe.

Well, it’s interesting you talk about that. One of the chapters I did not include in my latest book was about rural people. What I found in investigating them was that they were not lonely because they have all the circumstance you describe. These people were very connected to nature – and not in a banal way. They were very connected to the animals walking around in the forests. They had relationships with different forms of life. If you ask such people, even your relatives, if they’re lonely, most will say that they are not. We’ve lost this idea that there are many forms of life. It’s interesting how the latest scientific work on trees has suggested that trees communicate with each other — give warning to each other of climatic difficulties and so on. We’ve lost, in our urbanisation, this capacity to respect other forms of life.

I personally find gardening to be a source of encouragement. I see the difficulties of being a plant. The weather has been terrible this year; it’s been a massacre of plants. I have all these wild animals coming in here, into my garden, desperate for food. We have a life of eighty years, one hundred years, whatever it is. But as I look outside my window I see trees that have been there just as long. One has a different idea of time when examining these temporal relationships. So when you asked earlier what distinguishes us from animals, I can word my answer differently: we have memory. It’s not only our own memory, which is what psychologists have concentrated on. We can also acquire the memory of different people. We construct ourselves with inputs and our minds are therefore constantly capable of either being reinforced by new ideas or being emptied of ideas.

What keeps us from depersonalising our thoughts: pride—and love, I think? A love of love?     

This thing – ‘love’ – used to be much more practical in ancient times. More than fifty percent of the world is still living in those situations, where parents choose their children’s partner. Romantic love was a revolution. Saying: “we’re not going to listen to our parents. We’re going to listen to our chemistry, our instinct.” This breach between parents and children is one of the biggest events in history. But like with all revolutions, you have to move past them. We can move past romantic love. So what makes relationships last? People need to stimulate each other to be more than they are independently. If two people say the same thing and do the same thing all the time, it becomes static. Now what we need to move past is this love for security.

By some meaning, you need to complete that revolution.

The more you’re educated, the more likely you are to be bored. When people can procreate new ideas, that’s when life is exciting together. There is a different type of love that needs to be created by educated people. They just haven’t gotten around to creating it. There are all these books written by so-called gurus, saying that they can examine you and tell you who your partner should be. I think that’s all— well, for a different generation. I say, if one has stopped producing ideas, they are a dead object. I remember a woman writing to me after reading one of my books – The Intimate History of Humanity – and she was struck by the passage where I write that people now ask not “do you love me?”, but “why do you love me?” and “will you love me once I change?” I think friendship is the basis of love. Friendship has to be created and tested and gradually a trust develops. Friendship is a mutual search for truth, and a trust that a friend will tell you what others hide. If we were friends, I would tell you what I think about your pullover. But since we have never met before, politeness will prevent me from saying whatever it is, you see. And I would like to know what you think of my pullover. And I want to know what possible judgements can be made about my pullover. And about all the other things that can be said about you or me.

— Laughing —

In my own personal life, I was friends with my wife for about ten years before we got married. We each had boy and girlfriends. Our relationship has been a long discovery of each other, based on different situations. Professionally, my wife is in a field of interest to me, but in a different specialty. She’s very bold, she was offered a job at Oxford and rejected it to become a Ph.D. student under Chomsky. Very few people were brave enough to do that. I’ve always valued friendship with women, I’ve found that women were willing to talk about things men were less willing to talk about. We might say, about the more intimate things.

You believe men and women can be friends?

Very much so. I’ve been blessed with female friends. The dominance of sex is quite recent, really – sex was separated from love for many centuries. An attempt to explain everything through sexual attraction, I think, diminishes humans.

There have been people who say that, let me be crude, that men and women cannot even really understand each other.

Well, they’ll try anyway. That’s one of our great ambitions. At school we would fool around together – it wasn’t very profound. I recently was put in touch with my first girlfriend, age thirteen. It was really interesting talking to her. I hadn’t met her for sixty years. She found me rather frightening back then because I was more intellectually advanced – I was three years younger than my class. I learned a lot from her about the accident of attraction. Our relationship was based on nothing very solid. As a student I was quite a – I won’t say lonely – I was a very concentrated student. I used to go to library at nine o’clock and come back at ten o’clock. I was enthralled by what I studied, my friends were all the people I studied. I was completely captivated by the variety of humans. As a young person I was isolated, but intellectually far from it. Friendship with books is quite a possible thing. That’s something that I’ve kept. Books are my friends. These friends tell me about different kinds of life. My friends have always been different from myself.


If they’re artists, say, they tell me about their own ideas of what art is.

So different professionally–

I’m really interested in the relationship between professional activity and the private life. And the inability of people to combine the two, to make them relevant to each other. It’s something that I’ve learned from history, that it’s possible to connect those two worlds.

I remember hearing a talk you had with Richard Sennett, the sociologist, about work in the 21st century. He was saying, it seemed to me, that career has replaced character, if you’ll allow that formulation.

In my work with business people, I found how CEOs would come in at the age of 40 or 50, and say: “look, I’ve made this career, I have all this success, and I ask ‘what have I done with myself? I’ve messed up my life.’” I’ve seen this in billionaires, who are sometimes really pitiful in their feeling of loneliness, despite their billions. Successful business people tend to shut out the difficulties that they’re having with their children, for example.

It’s also that the mobility implied by a modern career can reveal a historically unprecedented range of experiences to a person. A range of spaces to have different conversations in, for example. There’s a lot that a well-curated career can do to invigorate personal character.

It’d be nice for some sociologist to calculate how many of those conversations are profound. I was impressed by a study made by a firm that manufactures beer, which wanted to know what kind of conversations resulted from two people having beers together. You’ll be surprised, they found them pretty superficial.


When I’ve been invited by companies and corporations to organise proper conversation inside the institutions, it’s amazing how the reactions of those people… For example, the heads of the British Ministry of Health came to Oxford and told me they want to have a conversation. The seven directors came because they wanted to talk to each other. And in the end they said: “we can’t do this, it’s not how we do it.” Because I made them talk not about their work, but about the problems of life. I’ve done that likewise with people in the Ministry of Finance, and so forth. There are all sorts of obstacles to substantive conversation. If I only think of my own college – I never really got to know many of my colleagues, very distinguished minds. We just exchanged superficiality and gossip. When I came to Harvard, did I get to know people there? Very superficially.

Let me tell you of the Oxford Muse Foundation. It began as an organization meant to stimulate conversation, when my book on conversation garnered a tremendous amount of attention around the world. It’s now being translated into Chinese. So we organized conversations. We sat people down with menus in front of them, but not of food – menus of topics. There’s enormous hunger for conversation. The Foundation is now working in fourteen countries around the world. I remember I was once at the World Economic Forum at Davos, and there were all the top people in the world there. I organized many into pairs; I remember people asking me if conversation can be had in threes or fours, and I say no. You can have intensity and surprise in pairs. When I say you have to talk for at least two hours, people say: “we can’t talk for so long!” Well, you try it and you can. People have gone on for seven hours, they cannot stop. At Davos my wife talked to a very senior person, a very important man, and he poured out the troubles of his youth in a most dramatic way. That he had a really terrible father, who was often drunk, and how it was really painful. My wife asked: “how many people have you told this?” And he said: “not even my wife.”

And here was a stranger.

A psychotherapist fits a mould. He may ask you: “oh, describe your father…” But he won’t tell you, in a raw way, about his own current troubles. At best he will feed off of you and reciprocate some feeling…

Is there such a thing as a good time for conversation?

I’ll tell you, I found some of the Foundation’s work very sorely limited. I didn’t want people to view their conversations as entertainment, as relaxation. So we went into a second phase, where we would get people to write up their conversations. They would then walk around and show that like a passport. Now, I’ve taken a city in England – a down-and-out city. It has many problems, one third of the population is made of foreign immigrants, and so forth. It’s even classified as a city where it’s dangerous for women to go out on their own. But it’s also a city with lots of dynamism, spiritedness. And these are the contrasts of modern life. I’m trying to get different communities to talk to each other, and then to display those conversations back to them. I’d like to do this in the USA, in India. There’s a limit to what governments can do, by passing reforms that suit everybody. I’m interested in how people can change their lives one-by-one. That’s the second stage. The third stage of my work has had to do with work. I’ve become very interested by how people experience work. People are working harder; people are being more controlled by technologies. And how we can use work to make people better.

What is your profession? Have you reinvented it?

(laughs) That raises the question of whether one wants to have a profession. My profession is to discover what life is. I’m an explorer of life. (phone rings) Let me just answer this. Hello? Yes, who is that? Ah, Nigel, very glad to hear from you. Deirdre is here, Nigel. That was Nigel. He works at MIT. Where were we?

Are you a philosopher?

Well you see, my wife was trained as a philosopher, under the philosopher Paul Grice. They’re very clever people who do philosophy, focusing on the smallest issues. She even said that she lacked a sense of connection to life. Many people call me a philosopher, but that’s because I reflect on life. But that’s not what philosophers do. My wife keeps telling me that I mustn’t call myself a philosopher.

Deirdre Wilson, interjecting: “Theodore, get off the extension!”

What? I have turned it off.

But I am interested in what reality is, what truth is. I suppose I introduce much more than academic philosophers do. I’m trying to increase the varieties of humans, instead of saying: “humans do this, or humans do that.”

Deirdre Wilson, interjecting: “Theodore, will you put the extension back on the phone!”

What extension? What do you mean?

Deirdre Wilson: “On the telephone!”

What does that mean, “put the extension back on the phone!” I don’t understand what that means!

Deirdre Wilson: “We can hear your bloody voice!”

Well, I can’t see why. Ah yes, okay. Yes, it’s off now. Yes, it might have been pressed, yes.

Deirdre Wilson: “Such a bloody – [inaudible]!”

(laughs) Deirdre is talking with Nigel and they can hear us! It’s alright now.

Theodore, I wanted to ask about this label: “the historian”.

Yes, yes, about the professions. I suppose one of the things that I have done as a historian, I have tried to move history away from just recounting what happened, to a provocation of the imagination. History can give you instruction on what is possible to do, and, by my reading, that range is far greater than many people suspect.

Also, as per R. G. Collingwood, history is a way to give yourself, personally, more time. It’s one of the few tools we have to manipulate time.

I agree with that. Personally, I’ve broken up the study of the past into, sort of, molecular pieces. All my works have focused on human individuals, taking them as the atoms of history as it were. So I haven’t looked at classes or movements, haven’t generalized like that. I’ve tried to produce something like impressionism, with little dots. It’s personal history, it’s free history. As for my accomplishments, uh, well, my wife who just interrupted us, I have very good relations with my wife, something I’ve discovered is rare for over fifty percent of the Western population. You may think of problems in politics, but our failures in private life are enormous.

Do you think people will follow you? You’ve mentioned to me before that there may be another hundred years of work left for you, in discovering ways to personalize work, to get people talking and to drag them out of themselves.

I’m convinced that the concept of a guru – someone who tells people what they should do – is mythological. One should not think of disciples. The notion of influencing others – I don’t think it’s supported by historical evidence.

Does that worry you?

I’ve made a very basic, memorable point: that everything should be done to actively get people to not only confabulate, but to have profound interactions with as many partners as possible. That may be a happy society. Beyond that, well, ideas are like lovers: they meet, they make love, and the progeny is quite totally different. So while you’re at it, you might as well be good at making love.

Are you averse, almost irrationally, to some kinds of people? Do some just piss you off?

We had a man in Oxford, who held a very senior position in the University. One could only describe him as an egotistical man who was forcing his own opinion, being authoritarian. I didn’t like that. But then I came to understand it: he was a very weak person, it takes a lot of weakness to try to make the world fit you. Some think that’s strength, but it’s weakness. It’s no good hating some of the people who are now causing calamities, one needs to understand them, and one needs to keep an awareness of the scent of weakness.

And what of daily frustrations?

I’m consistently frustrated by politics. I find it bizarre that one carries a passport indicating only their territorial allegiance. Does one not also belong to a republic of literatures, and arts? Why is there no citizenship of the mental state? The nation was a great attempt to get people living together to believe in a common ambition. But it was a failure. Increasingly, there is an amazing – amazing – amount of opposition. We have got to find new solutions. And do remember that nations are not so old. We may have to find other solutions.

You know, I think both of us agree that food is an underappreciated common basis for human interaction. Everyone loves food; belligerent nations consume each other’s cuisines.  

I was one of the first to write pages about gastronomy in a standard history book, The Oxford History of Europe. I convinced my colleagues to admit someone who, in fact, was an ambassador, but was very interested in food, and wanted to study food. One of my aims, and accomplishments, has been to make food worthy of serious, university-level study. We call it the Oxford Food Symposium.

What have you discovered?

We are eating only a small portion of the edible spectrum. A really minute proportion – we have concentrated on just three staples. We are also running out of water – there needs to be a great rethinking of agriculture, in terms of synthetically produced crops, efficient water-transport systems, the recycling of edible materials, so forth. Further, we have to consider whether food can be made something inexpensive. That is to say, there is much talk of giving everyone a universal income. But I think – no, people will just want more money, and then you’ll have money dominating their lives, but not even through work. My question is if we can make food like birds or grass or breathing – how can we make food easier?

Alcohol – is it useful?

I haven’t had alcohol since I was eighteen. One of the first things that happened when I arrived to Oxford was that I was handed a glass of Sherry. I hated it. I abstained since. I taste wine because I’ve been made a chevalier of certain wine orders. But, to be honest, well, I like lucidity. Humans have shown the capacity to learn, far greater than any other creature. You know, in China, at one point, all civil servants were required to be adept artistically. I often ask people bluntly: are you fully alive, or only twenty-five percent alive? It’s remarkable how people recognize that they could, with a little more effort, be more lucid, be more alive. But they don’t feel the motivation to do it, because they’re isolated. None of us are a hundred percent alive.

How can the consumer society be used to promote living?

The main hobby for relaxation now is going shopping. When one lived several hundred years ago, one would be communing with nature, one would be more observant. I’m not saying that we should go back, but, well…

You know, I’ve sinned. I’ve purchased many books that I didn’t later read. But shopping, consuming, spending – these things can be a great benefit for one’s mental health.

How would you distinguish between that and drinking alcohol?

Both can certainly be very ritualistic. But shopping is much more of a spectacle.

Well, maybe in the future, as digital goods and digital forms of purchasing continue to expand, shops will be more like museums for human ingenuity. You get to appreciate, fiddle with and try out the things that you would otherwise not purchase.

Shopping is indeed pretending. These trinkets are rendered so mundane the second you exchange some paper for them. Talk to me a bit about the act of pretending. I remember a very eerie experience of going to an opera and feeling it all around me – in the man on stage, moving like people never do, and in myself. A swelling of shame and confusion. I think it has infected many of my other experiences with art and social living, this hidden affair with fakery.

It’s interesting. There are many women who concern themselves with how they look, and are looking for some external show of approval. There is the question, on the other hand, if your main interest is simply making people think well of you. If you start to see love as a kind of understanding, and you wish to be loved, not just tacitly approved of, you will not engage in deception. Pretence is an obstacle to discovery – it’s a deliberate form of deceit. And why should one consciously involve oneself in deceit?

When you were first talking about illusion, I wanted to ask: what’s a great illusion that you’ve had?

I lived with a lack of illusions. That is to say, I didn’t know what I was doing. That is worse than having an illusion. You come to college, you’re writing essays, and you’re doing what you’re told. You go to work, you do your job, you’re doing what you’re told. You go out with friends – you are doing what you’re told. That’s a sort of emptiness, a sort of blankness of illusion. Conversely, stupidity is an inability to see one’s limitations. Stupid people don’t feel unintelligent. But historically, an idiot has been someone who has been outside the norm. In Athens, an idiot didn’t participate in the public realm. I’ve come to think of every human being as a heretic. Many people try to avoid that by putting on what you call the pretense, they try to act a role. Yet biologically, individuals are increasingly revealed to be so unique from one another. Only when we realize this can we be brought together. I say, everyone should try this; one of the most pleasurable experiences, which we’re encoded to enjoy, is the bringing together of enemies. I remember organizing highly successful meetings between Armenians and Turks. I made them talk about things other than, made them talk about things like what it means to be alive.


Theodore Zeldin’s painting, untitled

How important to you are non-verbal forms of communication, visuals?

There’s a great book by an academic, Laura Otis – Rethinking Thought. It doesn’t give many answers, but it conveys the human need to take in the whole of life – taste, sound and colour. There’s an interview with Salman Rushdie, the writer, and an interview with Elizabeth Blackburn, the biologist. It shows how much the feeling of thinking can vary, and how many different personalised strategies individuals have – dancers, physicists, artists, business people. Words are very important to me, but I also paint. One learns a lot from painting, learns a lot about the imagination. I’ve thought of organising events where people react to paintings in a controlled way, to observe the differences between our imaginations. Many people seem to be especially stirred by visuals. There is a purpose in finding a theory of how to make people more receptive to learning.

Disraeli wrote that one should only read biographies, for that is life without theory.

Well, we need to understand which types of new ideas people will find interesting, and which they will dismiss.

And what of writing for dead people? Audiences that exist, only in another form, who cannot dish out cash at a bookstore?

Writing to the past, you say? You see, it’s a bit unfair, I think those spirits, by their nature, have made us their audience. Our great, uninterrupted, performance is in death.

I’ll say, reading your Passions, I got the impression that the French may challenge even the dead in that respect.

Yes, you know, I was assigned, as a young scholar, to read the papers of Lord Salisbury, and I thought: “this is boring.” And when I began to study the French, there it was – explosion! The French enlarged me. I say the greatest mystery of our time is that we do not know what resides in each of our heads. In the past we could dismiss people, but now we’re past that. And our curiosity destroys our fear.

Oxford, United Kingdom, October 2016

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