What Theodore Zeldin did next

One of the pioneers of the history of emotions is Theodore Zeldin, who wrote the five-volume History of French Passions way back in 1973, and then brought the history of the emotions into the mainstream with An Intimate History of Humanity, in 1994. So some of you may be wondering what he’s working on at the moment. The answer is he’s set up a foundation in Oxford, called the Oxford Muse, ‘to stimulate courage and invention in personal, professional and cultural life’. The unusual illustrations on the site are Zeldin’s own creations.

The foundation’s main project is promoting conversations around the world. Zeldin has come up with a format he calls ‘a feast of strangers’, which sounds a bit like a cannibal potluck, but is really an event wherein people turn up, get fed, and get paired off with a stranger for an hour and a half, then given a menu of topics to discuss, course-by-course. Over soup, you might be asked to discuss ‘how have your priorities changed over the years?’; while the fish course asks you to consider ‘when have you felt isolated?’

Speed dating it ain’t. For an hour and a half, it’s just you and the Other, going through the ‘process’ of deep conversation, finding out about each other, sharing, listening. Not sure I could take it. But perhaps that’s Zeldin’s point: we have erected more and more barriers to proper conversation, have walled ourselves in with iphones and headphones, have dwindled the resources of our attention, and our capacity to trust, share with and listen to others. You can hear a Radio 4 show from last week about the conversation project here.

The conversation menu format is often used in the School of Life’s philosophy meals, although they charge punters for the privilege, and allow them to change partner every course, which is contrary to Zeldin’s ‘deep conversation’ process. And they gather people who are quite similar and Bloomsbury-esque, while Zeldin wants us to converse deeply with people who are very different to us. Zeldin himself has taken his format all over the UK – Lewisham, Stratford, even an in-house session in IKEA, and all over the world. This month, he is organizing conversations in Beijing and Shanghai. He’s also experimenting with the format, like this conversation on wheels….