An Intimate History of Humanity

by Theodore Zeldin

Once upon a time she met a marvellous professor of pharmacology, in whose laboratory she spent some time. He was world-famous and had worked in the USA, but had not a trace of arrogance, never spoke of his discoveries but always of his ‘team’, where only first names were used. That attitude is her ideal. She forgets that it is easy for world authorities to be friendly, whereas mediocrities have to show how important they are, or nobody would guess.

Indeed, he set himself up as the model physician, never demanding a fee from his pupils or his patients, saying he practised from “love of humanity … staying awake the greatest part of my nights not only for the sake of the sick but also for the beauty of study’. He lived modestly, possessing only two garments, two sets of household utensils and two slaves.

What we make of other people, and what we see in the mirror when we look at ourselves, depends on what we know of the world, what we believe to be possible, what memories we have, and whether our loyalties are to the past, the present or the future. Nothing influences our ability to cope with the difficulties of existence so much as the context in which we view them; the more contexts we can choose between, the less do the difficulties appear to be inevitable and insurmountable. The fact that the world has become fuller than ever of complexity of every kind may suggest at first that it is harder to find a way out of our dilemmas, but in reality the more complexities, the more crevices there are through which we can crawl.

When the German Democratic Republic collapsed in 1990, it was discovered that the secret police had files on six million individuals, over a third of its population: close friends, even members of the same family, had been denouncing one another as enemies. That may seem an aberration of a paranoid regime. But other countries might be surprised if they started collecting statistics about who is engaged in a secret war against whom.

One of those men on motorbikes who go round Paris clearing the streets of dog-shit told her he too found joy in his work, which suited his personality, because he loved the independence and hated dogs.

The collapse of gratitude was hastened by cynicism, envy and wit: some condemned it as being inspired only by a secret hope of greater favours, while others argued that humans so hate being inferior that their gratitude is a form of revenge, and that they repay the benefits they receive not from pleasure, but because they find obligation painful. Bernard Shaw asked, ‘Do you like gratitude? I don’t. If pity is akin to love, gratitude is akin to the other thing.’

But the great problem about creativity remains, that there is no guarantee that it will produce results that anybody will value, or understand, or indeed that are not imitation in disguise.

The Brothers of Purity of Basra wrote then, ‘The ideal and perfect man should be of East Persian origin, Arabic in faith, of Iraqi i.e. Babylonian education, a Hebrew in astuteness, a disciple of Christ in conduct, as pious as a Syrian monk, a Greek in individual sciences, an Indian in the interpretation of all mysteries, but lastly and especially a Sufi in his whole spiritual life’.

Though she was for long tempted by the grandeur of unlimited love, in the end she, and all her characters, were overwhelmed by everything they valued being so ephemeral, youth, love, power, social position. Their only solution was to say that it was very sad, and that it was very elegant to be able to recognise the beauty and the sadness of the world at the same time.

Murasaki’s individuality surrendered to the traditional Japanese solution for despair, which is to turn it into an aesthetic experience, to find beauty only in what is impermanent, to insist that unless beauty and love were fragile and perishable, they would not be beautiful.

The whole of history, so far, has been an attempt to get rid of uncertainty. But it is not just that life would be dull without it. Security by itself has ceased to be an adequate ideal, because it has never been foolproof. Plans almost always go wrong. In the process much experience is allowed to go to waste, even though failures can be recycled as opportunities. The shape of hope is always uncertain, and uncertainty is indispensable to hope.