A bit of wisdom, a lot of conversations
“One is only nominally alive if one is incapable of giving birth to thoughts one had never had before and of being inspired by what others think.” (p. 394)
Theodore Zeldin tries to sum up in this book what he thinks he has learned from his eight decades of conversations, some literal and direct face-to-face, others virtual in his very wide readings. Here he signals individuals from many times and places, from China and India to Sweden and (his special interest) France, and from earliest pagan times to today. The book is a joy to read, because he introduces us to so many resourceful and imaginative people, some of whom you may never have heard of, beginning with Hajj Sayyah (b. Sultanabad, Iran, 1836), an adventurer who came to know many countries and to learn their languages well enough to have conversations with, among others, United States President Ulysses S. Grant.
Zeldin’s main interest is to encourage us, all of us, to engage in conversations especially with strangers, who will have the most to teach us — and to do whatever we need to to escape boredom, the affliction that comes from routine and dull repetition. Almost all of Zeldin’s exemplary individuals are from Eurasia (the only American I remember from his book is Sam Maverick, a rich cattle-rancher and Texas politician, who wasn’t himself a “maverick” but gave us that word from his habit of leaving his cattle unbranded). You and I can add our own additional examples, of lives worth emulating or at least learning from, from other parts of the Americas or from Africa. I would nominate Aimé Césaire, for one, and of course there are many other candidates.
Zeldin’s philosophical conclusions from these encounters were much less interesting than the anecdotes, because they are mostly thoughts that I, and probably you, had long ago arrived at. But I was glad to encounter new details about familiar names (Rabindranath Tagore, for example) and to learn of people I had never suspected existed.