Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Theodore Zeldin, Historian

Theodore Zeldin

For the first issue of UNIT magazine, Charlie Koolhaas I talked with Theodore Zeldin, a philosopher, historian and President of the Oxford Muse. Zeldin’s history books focus on the role of the individual and of emotions in all aspects of life. His book on Happiness, his Intimate History of Humanity and his BBC lectures on Conversation explore the art of living, and his project on The Future of Work, attempts to define a new model of business. As part of our exploration of the concept of lifestyle, Charlie and I talked with Zeldin about the evolution of the term, its unseen potential, and how it might mutate in China.

UNIT is partly an effort to improve our understanding of lifestyle by exploring alternatives that give the concept more complexity and possibility. Let’s start by talking about some models of lifestyle as they developed in Europe.

In the past, there have been different styles of life which have been more or less universally accepted; for example, for most of history the style of life which was most accepted was obedience. Do what your father said, do what everybody tells you to do, and you’re a good person.

Then the alternative was to become successful. Success means becoming rich. That involves sacrifice, and its originality is that it doesn’t involve any morals. If you can, somehow, get success you needn’t ask if you are worthy of success. It’s a different kind of approach to life, because success involves trampling over people. It’s a different idea of what life is about.
An alternative to that is the search for knowledge, which has been very insistent, over the last 200 years perhaps, in the belief that the more knowledge you have, the better your life will be. But we have found that this isn’t so: knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to wisdom, and the most learned people are not the most admirable.

Another alternative is to drop out, which was fashionable at different times last century. It’s a form of escape, but it’s very often unclear where one should to escape to; so, he just drops out. Then there is the kind of life that you have been through, which is one of talking about oneself, blaming oneself, thinking about oneself. That is now quite high up in Western priorities.

Most recently of all, the great ambition has been to be creative. I think that is an inadequate ambition, because it says nothing about the quality of the creativity. And many people who are supposedly creative are just reproducing and, for instance, much advertising is just repetition.
Now, we are inventing a new kind of lifestyle. And it’s not the lifestyle you find in the shops. A magazine which is able to convey that in a way which is dramatic, visual, and exciting, would have achieved enormous things. It’s very difficult. The easiest thing is to put all those naked women and women in beautiful dresses. But it’s too easy isn’t it…

Yes, but lifestyle magazines are partly about exposing and celebrating beautiful things.

I’m all in favor of beautiful objects, but the question is: what should one hold out as being the aspiration of the shop assistants? Should it be that she saves up like anything in order to buy a Gucci belt? I would say that what one should be thinking about is: what is a beautiful action? Not to say, “I will spend £1000 and buy a beautiful dress,” but what is a beautiful action? The person who made the dress did make a beautiful action. But your buying the dress is less beautiful. It’s recognition of its beauty, but not something that you created yourself.

We’ve done interviews with the rich people from all over Europe, and they are as grim as you can imagine. The amount of damage there is among the rich is extraordinary. And the folly would be for the new generation to become rich in China and then go the same way.

In the West, what happened to the poor? They became middle class and then imitated the rich. And the rich model is totally unsatisfactory. Magazines usually hold up the rich for admiration – he’s got a castle here and yacht there – but it’s not very interesting. It’s only when we get models of behavior that are worth admiration that we can say to the poor, “this is the way to life – this is lifestyle.”

What do you consider a model of behavior worth holding up?

My own view is: how can you be useful to other people? Instead of thinking about oneself, it is more interesting to discover other people. Whereas, for the last few centuries, the culture of introspection has dominated psychology and literature, I think we now can look forward to a time when, instead we will say, “What are other people like? Let us go and meet people who are different from ourselves; let us not ask ‘Who am I?’ but ‘Who are you?’”

This is the preliminary to a kind of search for adventure in the unknown. And what is peculiar about this is that the end result is not predictable. In all the other lifestyles, people knew where they were going to go, and in this new one we don’t know where we will go, and we may break our necks in the process, but we think that, in order to be fully alive, you have to discover what life is. It has many forms, and every civilization has produced a different picture of it. And until one has experienced as many aspects of these diverse forms of civilization, one cannot create a style of life for herself. This is not a style of life that you put on like a shirt; it is a style of life which is in constant movement.

A lifestyle that is continuously refreshed by experience.

It is a lifestyle based on the creation of new kinds of people through intimate relations, understanding, and the expansion of curiosity beyond what is immediately available. It’s a constantly expanding lifestyle. The previous idea of being “in fashion” – just imitating, being like other people – is being replaced by the knowledge that you are different from other people, because your experience has been different, you know different kinds of people, and it gives a value to difference instead of shaming it.

Whereas in the past we were concerned with property or we were concerned with feeling good, which is what the American past decades have been about, now we’re concerned with relationships – how we treat each other and how we enhance each other by giving part of ourselves and getting part from the other person.

It may be that what one is creating out of this is a new kind of human being. I just had a visit from French Television. A group came to get a quote from me for one of their news bulletins. Afterwards, I talked to them and they said to me, “What is all this stuff about England seeking an identity?” I said, “It’s all bogus!” There is no such thing as identity – that’s why everyone is looking for it. There are no identities; it’s an out of date concept. The weakness of “the identity” is that it tries to give one description for 60 million people or one billion people. And that’s not possible. And that is why these identity things are misleading. None of us are satisfied to be just English. We want to be something else as well.

Or we want to be many things at the same time.

Yes. And this has never been an issue in the past, because there was an aristocracy, there were soldiers, there were priests… and they had to behave like priests or like soldiers. Now people don’t. Some do, some put on a suit and go and work in an office. Many people still do, of course. They have to do it, but it’s a mask.

We’ve always worn masks and we were comfortable in masks, because we thought that masks were what we had to wear, like clothes. And now we’ve become interested in what goes on inside. We want to be honest; a man and a woman who are not honest with each other is just a waste of time. This is the discovery in which we are engaged now.

We’re in the same situation now as people were in the 17th century, when they said, “What is the earth made of?” And people replied, “Earth, air, fire, and water.” Then a few scientists got up and said, “No, let’s look. What’s this stuff made of? It’s made of molecules, it’s made of atoms, it’s made of electrons.” We began looking at very small things, and we discovered more or less what the earth is made of. But we haven’t discovered what humans are made of – mentally, morally, and so on. That’s what we’ve got to discover. That to me is what the 21st century is about. It is about discovering who inhabits the world.

That implies that travel is central to this new lifestyle. I think this makes sense. Many Chinese lifestyle magazines are fascinated with travel, partly because it’s so difficult for Chinese people to go abroad.

Travel is about getting to know other people, and it’s much more interesting to have personal contact with a large variety of strangers, than simply to be told, “Strangers wear bell-bottom trousers.” [Lifestyle] magazines are always proposing to people, “Look, here’s this famous film star!”, but ultimately, what the person is interested in is himself. He wants to learn how to develop himself, how to be something a bit better than what he is at the moment.

People are keen not only to learn about others, but for others to appreciate them. Personal contact is something which you could emphasize; Unit could be the portal through which Chinese can access people all over the world. An exchange, in which a kind of warmth or friendship is established, could make a difference to their lives. Your magazine might well be the opening of a door for a lot of young people, if you give them the opportunity to meet others around the world.

When I told some Chinese friends that 80% of all English people are clinically depressed at some point, they were horrified. And their reasoning was so simple: they said, “How can you can depressed when you guys can watch any film and read any book and look up anything on the internet that you want to?” It was all about information for them, and they couldn’t imagine that information can confuse you or make things less clear.

That’s what could be very interesting in producing a magazine that is not only bilingual but bifocal. You could contrast the depressed European – why are you depressed? – [with the enthusiastic Chinese] – why are you not depressed? Put them both together, and they would see that there are so many things that they take for granted that they cannot see things clearly.
And the message to China would be then: it is not just a Chinese model that you offer us – don’t just talk about Confucius, talk about what all of you have got inside your heads. We need to know what’s inside your heads and you need to know what’s inside our heads.

Originally published in UNIT Magazine – June 2006