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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "My life is a failure.", 11 April 2011
This review is from: An Intimate History Of Humanity (Paperback)
Theodore Zeldin commences his brilliant, quirky, erudite, tour-de-force of the history of all humanity with the subject quote, made by a 51 year old French domestic servant. But why start a history, any history, by looking at admittedly one of life's very minor characters, and a self-confessed failure at that? But that is precisely one of Zeldin's principal points, and it certainly draws the reader in. Alistair Horne, another superb historian, used exactly the same technique in his equally excellent history, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 (New York Review Books Classics) when he quotes British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan who referred to the Algerian town of Setif as "A Town of No Great Interest," and proceeds to prove exactly the opposite. So too with Zeldin, who after a brief vignette of the servant, Juliette's life, goes on to say: "My purpose is different. Behind Juliette's misfortunes, I see all those who have lived but thought of themselves as failures, or been treated as such. The worst sense of failure was to realize that one had not really lived at all, not been seen as an independent human being, never been listened to, never been asked for an opinion, regarded as a chattel, the property of another." Zeldin segues into a discussion of slavery, real and de facto, the fate of the vast majority of humanity, be it self-imposed or imposed by others: "And today, all those who prefer to do what they are told rather than think for themselves and shoulder the responsibility..." And to those who have ever suffered through corporate meetings, Zeldin continues his theme loud and clear: "There has been a waste of an opportunity every time a meeting has taken place and nothing has happened...In most meetings, pride or caution still forbids one to say what one feels most deeply." The theme of slavery, in its many forms weaves it throughout Zeldin's account. Consider much latter in the book, from today's headlines a section proclaiming that "people agree to be bullied if they can bully someone else," the author says: "In real life, for the last 5,000 years, the vast majority of humans have been submissive, cringing before authority and, apart from short-lived outbursts of protest, sacrificing themselves so that a small minority could live in luxury." Or again, in another section: "Thus an elite accumulated power, enabling it to live in high luxury, and to stimulate the flowering of the arts, but civilization was for many little more than a protection racket."

The above is just one of the many topics in which Zeldin provokes thought about "the record book," what passes for our tales and accounts of the past, and how we relate to each other today. There is much on male-female relations, so stimulating no Viagra is needed. Consider some sample chapters: "How men and women have slowly learned to have interesting conversations," "How new forms of love have been invented," and "Why there has been more progress in cooking than in sex." In the second of those mentioned chapters, the author says: "Attraction became explosive when ignited by fun. Ibn Hazm, the most famous Arab authority on love, said, `Of love the first part is jesting and the last part right earnestness.'" Zeldin erudition allows him to draw from the world's cultures, so he can address the Chinese fetish on "how deformed feet became sexually arousing," and the culturally transcendent fetish of stilettos.

And on economics, Zeldin traces some of the problems that are bedeviling us today to the 18th Century doctor of nervous diseases, Bernard Mandeville, who wrote The Fable of the Bees and Other Writings: Or Private Vices, Publick Benefits Zeldin says: "The consumer society lost its sense of direction when it adopted two myths to guide it. The first was that private vices are the source of public prosperity. Avarice, pride, envy, and greed, rather than friendliness and kindness, are the necessary bases of a successful economy..." Zeldin has another section on astrology, and the enduring power of totally irrational beliefs on our behavior.

Zeldin is British, and has dedicate much of his life to writing about the French, so it is only natural that his historical examples are skewed toward the French experience. Being an intellectual there, he comments: "Personal vendettas and power struggles have, of course, been endemic in France's intellectual life..." He quotes Antoinette Fouque, who wrote for the publishing house "Seuil,": `Why did Beauvoir not join the Resistance, instead of cycling around the country, having affairs?' Figure that is a double pay-back. But then in a twinkle, he is in Japan, discussing The Tale of Genji (Penguin Classics), written between AD 1002 and 1022, and says: "Those who say Japan can only imitate will be astounded by this extraordinarily readable and intelligent precursor of Proust, Murasaki Shikibu."

If you've read only one history book, and are looking for the second, I'd highly recommend this one, which is our past from a refreshingly different, thought-provoking perspective, and is rich in endless nuggets of "the history you do not know." I must add Zeldin to my small, but growing list of 6-star books.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on October 11, 2010)
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 6 Feb 2012 14:54:58 GMT
Last edited by the author on 6 Feb 2012 16:16:54 GMT
Xavi #6 says:
Hi, good review but I don't believe zeldin is French.
I believe he is British but born in the middle east

In reply to an earlier post on 7 Feb 2012 13:20:15 GMT
Gulp!

You are absolutely correct... and the amazing part is that I KNEW (KNOW?) that Zeldin is British; yet I wrote that he is French. Bless Amazon's "edit function." I'll go back and change it now.

Thanks for reading the review, particularly with the careful eye.

- John Paul Jones
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