History of French Passions  

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"In 1915 Dr. Edgar Berillon conveniently 'discovered' that Germans had intestines nine feet longer than all other humans, as well as being prone to polychesia (excessive defecation) and bromidrosis (body odour), by which criteria Berillon was able to uncover German spies and Germans masquerading as Alsatians. However absurd this pushing of racial ideas to their utmost extremes may now appear, it was nevertheless long possible to appear both erudite and scientific."--A History of French Passions (1993) by Theodore Zeldin

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History of French Passions (5 volumes: Ambition and Love; Intellect and Pride; Taste and Corruption; Politics and Anger; Anxiety and Hypocrisy) (1973–1977) is a book series by Theodore Zeldin.

When this book of two thousand pages, the fruit of twenty years of research, was published (re-issued in five volumes: Ambition and Love, Intellect and Pride, Taste and Corruption, Politics and Anger, Anxiety and Hypocrisy), the Revue française de science politique wrote that ‘there has never been anything like it’ and that possibly ‘nothing would ever be the same again’. It was surprising, first of all, by its scope. Instead of a narrative of public events, it described private emotions, the variations in the way people of many kinds worried, got bored, were hysterical or happy, ate, drank, danced, joked, experienced the pleasures and frustrations of childhood, education and marriage, behaved in their interactions between women and men, found satisfactions and suffering in a wide range of occupations and professions, made friends and enemies, sought privileges for themselves and protested against those of others, argued about taste in art, fashion, domestic decoration and literature (serious and junk), played sports, enjoyed music, read newspapers, performed as bureaucrats and technocrats, manipulated one another with verbosity or hypocrisy, faced old age and death and much more. It looked at each subject from unaccustomed perspectives, backed by a vast range of historical evidence, hitherto neglected even by French specialists. The Times Literary Supplement wrote: ‘One emerges from several days of total immersion a bit dazed, scarcely knowing what to admire more about Dr Zeldin, his energy, his erudition, his imagination or his courage’.

Secondly, Zeldin treats each human activity as deserving of equal attention and having a more or less independent vitality. The structures and ideologies that are generally assumed to hold society together he sees as influencing only a small part of people’s lives. Addressing his French audience in the preface to the French translation, he wrote: ’My aim is to undress you’, explaining that he wished to separate them from the myths they had inherited like hand-me-down clothes: the lives of ordinary people could not be summed up as a search for justice, glory or any other ideal; he wished to include all their contradictions and hesitations, to reveal the complexity of their individual reactions in the face of both personal fears and outside pressures, to distinguish between what they thought, what they said and what they did, to examine their illusions about themselves and the process that led them to accept these illusions as truths. ‘To avoid repeating the received ideas about the past, I have burrowed into as many aspects of life as possible, that erudition has not hitherto explored.’

Thirdly, the book contains innumerable intimate ‘portraits in prose’ of individuals from every social group, emphasising the private life behind the public persona, and the unpublicised motivations concealed in ideas and ambitions, as though scrutinising humanity at the atomic level and finding every atom different, every character unique and many-sided, composed of a mass of smaller particles. The old generalisations about classes and parties melt away. Zeldin is the historian of human complexity, of the unpredictability of human interaction, and of the battles waging between muddled feelings inside every self, every family, every workplace. He diverts attention away from legalistic regulations to the cunning subterfuges people use to bend or avoid them, and he does so with a humour which is most often gentle but sometimes ferocious.

Some readers were troubled, or even angered, by the book’s challenge to so many deeply held convictions and by its unconventional construction, juxtaposing seemingly unrelated passions and showing unsuspected resonances between them, in preference to links of cause and effect or chronological narrative. Some deplored that he was defying the duty of a historian to provide all-embracing explanations of the events of the past. Some did not appreciate his downplaying the influence of political and ideological divisions on daily life. Others complained that he gave prominence to subjects different from those studied in history classes at school or university and so would not help students to pass their examinations. Zeldin’s picture of reality is indeed deliberately fragmented, with clashing sensitivities fomenting uncontrollable turbulence; he scavenges through the debris of disagreement and difference so as to view life from multiple perspectives.

The explanation, said one reviewer, was that Zeldin combined ‘the interests of the novelist with the techniques of the historian… He is a modern Balzac, but one capable of supporting his assertions with statistics.’ ‘He is our new La Bruyère’, said another, because of the prominence he gave to character and temperament and the absurdities they generate. The book ‘reads like a novel’, said a third, with a ‘succession of dazzling portraits, of surprising revelations, and of analyses which fascinate and disturb at the same time’.

It evoked an atmosphere of a country in which everyone was talking at the same time and could not hear what others said, but, yet another reviewer concluded, Zeldin ‘succeeded in solving the problem of describing chaos and confusion in a way which does not distort them… Occasionally books appear which can immediately be identified as classics; to wait for the judgement of posterity is entirely unnecessary. Theodore Zeldin’s book…has just taken its legitimate place on the shelf beside Gibbon, Burckhardt and the other giants’.

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