Monday, January 26, 2009

Six ways of traveling through life

I have been reading An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin, an Oxford historian. His method is to interview people and then use his findings to comment about modern life. Or, as he explains in his preface: "Each of my chapters begins with the portrait of a living person who has desires and regrets in which you may perhaps recognise something of yourself, but who is also restrained by attitudes inherited from origins long forgotten."

I can wholeheartedly endorse neither Zeldin's methods nor his conclusions. His selection of interviews seems to skew toward lament and decay. And there is too much of the sensitive historian recording the sighs of wounded creatures. But, given the material he has chosen, Zeldin's conclusions are usually sound. I was especially impressed with Chapter 23, "How people choose a way of life, and how it does not wholly satisfy them." He writes about six very different women. Then he summarizes what he has learned about them in describing six different ways of traveling through life. I have extracted his topic sentences:

"Humans have so far distilled six lessons from their attempts to find the best way of surviving with the minimum of pain. They seem to have concluded that there are six ways of traveling through life, six forms of transport.

The first way is to obey, to defer to the wisdom of others, to accept life as it is. In the past, probably the majority of humans traveled by this method, often because they were forced to, but no less because it promises peace of mind and the reassurance of being in harmony with one's neighbors.

The second method of traveling is as a negotiator, bargaining to get the best possible deal out of life.

The third option is to cultivate one's garden, to shut leaders, rivals and prying neighbors out of one's world and to concentrate on private life.

The fourth way is to search for knowledge.

The fifth way is to talk, to pour out one's opinions, to reveal oneself to others, to get rid of one's gloom by bringing out all ones' secrets, memories, fantasies, conscious and unconscious, advancing by smashing hypocrisy and decorum.

These five methods of transport through life retain their attractions, despite their disappointments. There remains a sixth which has been tried much less, called 'being creative', which is like travel by rocket."

Not bad for a British intellectual, writing a stylish tour de force for other intellectuals. But surely there are other methods of transport.