This is a book I didn’t want to stop reading, so when I reached the end, I began again. After all, there is no reading, only re-reading.
Zeldin’s history aims at explaining how regular people have grappled with the question of how to live a fulfilling life throughout time. He distills these stories into powerful phrases that echo in your head. “Courage inevitably leads to unexpected results; that is what defines it, the willingness to meet the unexpected” (p77) and “The great consolation is to know that one is not repeating oneself, that one is moving on” (p226) and “Uncertainty is a precondition of freedom, but without it everything would be inevitable and there would be nothing to dream about” (p364). By revealing the thoughts and feelings of people he had a series of in depth conversations with in France, layered atop historical figures, he attempts to give us a broader perspective of how people have lived their lives over time. We are meant to learn to live, not only from our own limited experience, but standing on the shoulders of the rest of humanity. From geishas, to Alexander von Homboldt (18th century brilliant mind who researched and wrote across disciplines, highly influenced many other greats including Darwin, Poe), to Bedouin nomads and Zarathrustra, Ghandi, and regular people. Among the random facts I learned: Japanese women in the 10th century prized their lovers on the quality of leaving their beds (the men would leave early and send morning poems to their ladies).
Written in 1994, he anticipates what we feel the crunch of more severely today: “Leisure has become organised, and so full of opportunities too tempting to miss that is does not necessarily offer freedom. The wish to live as intensely as possible has subjected humans to the same dilemma as the waterflea, which lives 108 days at 8 degrees Centigrade, but only twenty-six days at 28 degrees, when its heartbeat is almost four times faster, though in either case its heart beats 15 million times in all. Technology has been a rapid heartbeat, compressing housework, travel, entertainment, squeezing more and more into the allotted span. Nobody expected that it would create the feeling that life moves too fast.” (p353)
Wisdom from geishas (p88):
You can avoid being a neurotic if you stop obsessively analysing what you imagine to be your character: never mind your faults, stop moaning about your complexes, do not pour out confessions about what you can and cannot do, like or desire. Treat each meeting with a person as an independent event… look after your mind by feeding it with poetry and music. Avoid creating an excessively rigid idea of your desires. Look upon yourself as an amoeba, floating through life, dividing: do not be afraid of losing your identity… allow your energy to circulate freely through the many sides of yourself. The looser, the more open and limitless your identity, the better.
On the evolution of the weekend (p354-355). Further reading could be done in Reid’s ‘The Decline of St Monday 1766-1876’:
There is a new sensitivity to the texture of time, to what makes it flow smoothly, agreeably, sensuously. People do dream of enjoying their work by doing it at a rhythm which suits them and varying their rhythm for different occupations. This notion of personal rhythm was what the Industrial Revolution attacked and tried to destroy. How that happened can be seen in the forgotten history of the weekend. The English word has been adopted by almost every language, but it represents a poisoned gift from the English to humanity.
In the artisan workshops of 18th c Birmingham, ‘the industry of the people was considered extraordinary; their peculiarity of life remarkable. They lived like the inhabitants of Spain, or after the custom of the Orientals. Three or four o’clock in the morning found them at work. At noon they rested; many enjoyed their siesta; others spent their time in the workshops eating and drinking, these places being often turned into taprooms and the apprentices into potboys; others again enjoyed themselves at marbles or in the skittle alley. Three or four hours were thus devoted to “play” and then came work again till eight or nine and sometimes ten, the whole year through.’ They worked hardest on Friday, handed their work in on Saturday, but took off Monday as well as Sunday, and often Tuesday as well, and sometimes even Wednesday. This was partly to recover from their drinking, partly to amuse themselves with dog and cock fights and pugilism… they followed the same principles as have guided Indian peasants, who decide what standard of living suits them, and work just as much as they need to maintain it.
The Saturday holiday was invented by manufacturers to eliminate this irregularity from their factories. They dethroned Saint Monday by a trick, offering a reduction of three hours on Saturday afternoon in return for work the whole of Monday… gradually Saturday was made into a shopping day; more and more money became necessary for the good life… a long war between the supporters and enemies of Saint Monday ended with a divorce between work and leisure.