It’s a popular pastime to put together a list of people you’d invite for dinner. I’ve been working at my list for years, adding names to it very carefully and only after long consideration. A lot of people reel off names quickly, commonly referencing movie or sporting stars. Not me. By and large my criteria – never stated till now – is for people I can imagine having long and interesting conversations with. They’re people who either by their experience or intellect have a story to tell or an insight to share. Marilyn Monroe isn’t on my list (but Mohammed Ali might be).
One of the names on my list will be unknown to most people, but is an easy pick for me: Victor Serge. (Here’s an interesting and descriptive article on his life and times):
For mine, Victor Serge is one of the most fascinating characters of the last century. He lived a vivid life in exciting times and was brave enough to take a position on the events he was caught up in.
I found him through his writing, though that’s only one aspect of him. His books, autobiographical in essence, deal with the Russian revolution and its aftermath, and with the tumultuous times, he witnessed and was a participant in. His writing is candid. He presents as someone committed to understanding the truth of things, and not just the form of them. He was an anti-Stalinist, and while there is a strong humanist element to his books, they’re marked by great insight and intellectual depth.
Reading his books, I liked him – or, felt great respect at least. He’s one of those writers who would make me occasionally stop to think about what he had written. For that reason alone, I could imagine having long, stirring conversations with him.
Of course, he’s long dead, and exercises like this are not much more than indulgent list-making – fun all the same. It highlights a gap in my life though – who do I have to speak about these things with? I don’t reckon any of my friends would have a clue who Victor Serge is. Those conversations happen only in my head, and sometimes make an appearance on these pages.
It’s a pity. I like to ask questions, but there’s no-one to ask them of. Instead, I think on them. I wonder, I examine, but the debate is internal. It seems an obvious thing to me that one should engage in the broader questions of existence – history, culture and thought. These are our times, this is our life, and even if you don’t find it fascinating, then at least you must see something vital in addressing these themes.
So I say. In the meantime it means my public life goes on with very little of my private life on display.
I sometimes think that being a person with these interests locked away and invisible sets you apart. Everyone has a secret life, but these things, outside of your self, give you a perspective that few others share. That may be indulgent twaddle, but I find personally that my take on things is more detached because I have a broader view. Perspective takes on a literal sense then because everything is to scale – what looms large to many you see as being small and fleeting. It’s all happened before, and it doesn’t really matter that much anyway, and it will be resolved. There’s no advantage to such a perspective, it seems. The opposite may be true when the prevailing view is to the contrary.
It dilutes the take, but when everyone is manic and fraught, you run the risk of being viewed as a dilettante.