Dining With The Dead – 19th Century

Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche

Time travel? Solved. Now you’re whisked away to a century of your choosing to host a dinner with guests — famous guests, idols, gamechangers and rulebreakers, the weirdos.

It occurred to me recently that an interesting thread of articles would be a series on ‘Famous Dinner Guests from Century X’. No doubt there are better ways to divide up the years than by centuries, but centuries are neat and  something we all know.
Many talk of glorious days in years past in much better terms than deserved. Just as nature isn’t kind and beautiful, most of humanity has been a story of war, barbarism, tribalism, struggle, early death, leaders who clip the wings and chain the ankles of their people. Cast yourself 3000 years into the future; it’s a dystopian future, where our species has figured out the source code, immortality, and most importantly, time travel. You commit a crime for which the punishment is neo-death: you’ll be deimmortalised and cast back to a year in the past to see out the rest of your days. A guilty plea wins you the right to choose a year, and within reason, any place wherein there exists a recognised civilisation. The only condition is that you must choose a year before 1900.
The question is: what year do you choose? And the answer is: you are absolutely going to choose 1899. The reason is that life is just way more attractive at the time than almost anytime before it. Perhaps there are years wherein certain places paint a prettier picture in the history books, but our knowledge of what happened in nearer years obviously decreases the further back we go. Besides if you choose 1899, then age permitting you might even see the 60’s.
I bring this up first to finally put to bed the idea that you — and most persons — would really go back to your ‘favourite’ century and live till you kick the bucket. You wouldn’t. Second, it’s with the nearest century that I’ll start of this series — the 19th Century, or the 1800s.
Before I begin there’s the question of whether to select by birth year or by a point in their lives I’d like to share a glass. Aside from the possible interesting discussion about early environmental factors, I think birth year isn’t very interesting in this case: Buckminster Fuller is in my 19th Century selection, and eating dinner with a 5 year-old is not my favourite pastime. The latter option makes sense. 
There’s also the question of at what point in their lives I should send the invite. Something feels too fictional about being able to select Immanuel Kant in 1800 and Bertrand Russell in 1895. There’s only one dinner, and even the most voracious appetites can stretch a dinner to at most several hours. That said, the alternative isn’t much appealing either — namely picking a certain year in the given century and having my preferred guests at they age they come. This constraint is extreme; over the series of posts I’d not only miss out on several remarkable figures but many potentially fascinating combinations. Language-differences aside, would twenty-five year old Bertrand Russell have taken any interest in twenty-five year old Nietzsche? What about a dinner with Jung and Freud, post-divergence? I can’t let such questions remain unanswered.
As for language, we all fluently speak a common language and whatever other languages we know. This allows for the beauty of differences between languages to not be lost should they come up in conversation.
I’ll intentionally leave other variables unassigned. What is the ideal number of guests (and guests of such particular personalities!)? It might seem that a smaller number makes for more intimacy, and several people would water it down somewhat, but a decent number might in fact encourage more small conversations between 2-3 persons, where truly interesting things can happen. And what about having several dinners, with some invited to all, some only one, and so on? You could also split guests into groups, or do simple one-to-one dinners with each person. Like the food and drink, location, the year, I’ll leave you to decide. Do the happenings influence the future? Once again it’s up to you. This is, after all, a guest list.
19th Century Dinner Guest List
Charles Darwin (1809—1882)
In some other universe he’s Mother Nature’s other half; in ours he’s the one who catapulted our understanding of life from the fluffy and surreal realms of mysticism and Aristotelian spontaneous generation to the science classroom. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was a civilisation quake book.
Would he be very interesting to talk to? Like all persons of great historical import, the personality is going to be quite weird. This is where the presence of other guests is going to be crucial. Especially the next one.
Nikola Tesla (1856—1943)
To most today the word ’Tesla’ refers to either the car company, Elon Musk, the spaceman, or all three. Contrastingly, everyone knows what ‘Edison’ means. But the car company Tesla is named as such thanks to a lesser-known figure from the pre-light bulb days. There are many things to say about Nikola Tesla, many of which themselves would qualify him for placement on this list. The differences with Edison, addiction issues, the wacky ideas about wireless electricity, opposition to Einstein and a superior  theory which never materialised, the chastity and preference for solitude, relationship with nature (and  specifically pigeons), the near-death experience from cholera, the audacity in offering the only negative comment on Edison’s death, the unique and seldom-seen blend of mind as much in love with the known as the unknown: these things and many more shine light on why so many entities have been named after the great man.
Thomas Young (1773—1829)
Often described as ’The Last Man Who Knew Everything’ (a claim I reject), Thomas Young was, well just brilliant. I first looked into Young after encountering his name in a documentary on the pyramids. He was a renaissance-like figure: hands in every pie, jack and all trades and master of many. He established the wave theory of light, formulated Young’s Modulus (a mechanical property for measuring stiffness), created Young’s Temperament (a method for tuning instruments), made important contributions to haemodynamics, and helped decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs.  
Young is the true example of a Polymath. Francis Galton is another, and if not for the fact that he was a relative of Charles Darwin I would have perhaps picked instead.
Ada Lovelace (1815—1852)
The toss-up between Lovelace and Babbage is won by a Lady not just for the groundbreaking scientific work but for how hard it was to breakthrough in such a time when one doesn’t pass urine standing up. Lovelace’s life is a fascinating story of a mind obsessed with mathematics, computation (a word probably not used much in her time), and What is Possible; of struggle, fallout, famous collaborations, illness, and an unfortunate end. Similar to Tesla, she was as interested in the hard sciences as the humanities, calling her own approach one of ‘poetical science’ and herself a and ‘Analyst and Metaphysician’.
There are many famous names associated with Ada Lovelace. Indeed, according to the Historian Benjamin Woolley, Charles Babbage himself—the originator of the concept of programmable computers—sought to be associated with her because of her name. She was also the only legitimate child of Lord Byron.
I’d gladly (re)introduce her to my next guest.
Charles Dickens (1812—1870)
The multitudinous writers from this age make this selection a very difficult one, but Dickens has arguably had as great or more ripple-effect than all of them. His name and works are known worldwide; Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, and Dickensian are terms many will be familiar with. Praise from Leo Tolstoy is one thing; praise from Tolstoy, Orwell, G.K. Chesterton and Time Wolfe is another. Dickens was also English, so at least we have something in common.
Gandhi (1869—1948)
Of Indian heritage myself, Gandhi is one of the first picks. Whether he would eat, and whether he would opt for eating with his hands instead of fork-and-knife, is a trivial matter. What is most fascinating about Gandhi is how he’s misunderstood as being a soft, kind, non-powerful type of human. In actuality, Gandhi was a tamed Gujarati tiger. He was not against violence but pro-better alternatives.  He was a man of exceptional courage, strength, will and discipline. He was a profoundly influential leader, a great speaker, an extremely interesting figure. 
I’ve yet to address the question of whether I’d be able to tell my guests about the future, but since this is my fictional world I don’t think I would allow that to happen. It’d just take too much time. I want to know about them and how they think; I’m the host, the chef who combines two yet-paired ingredients to make something marvellous. I can’t be talking about twitter before flying cars, Donald Trump or Coronavirus. But for Gandhi only I might make an exception; it’d be fun to hear what he thought it would be in 2020, and what he thinks when I tell him if he was right.
Harriet Tubman (1822—1913)
Imagine being born into slavery, suffering all the documented pains, escaping, risking your freedom and life to rescue persons from slavery in meticulously-organised secrecy, spending many years at their medical service, serving as an armed scout and spy, and becoming a key figure in the Women’s Suffrage, and living to the age of ~91 at a time when the life-expectancy was around 53.5 years. Her story is truly remarkable.
In an allusion to the prophet who led the Hebrews to freedom from Egypt, she was nicknamed ‘Moses’. Her strategy for rescuing some 70 slaves, which involved disguise and the involvement of other trusted agents, was to travel at night, which minimised the chances of being caught by the numerous ‘hunters’ out for hefty bounties. She used the North Star as guidance, never lost a single passenger, and was never caught in spite of — especially later-on — a serious reward put on her capture.
She knows other guests.
Frederick Douglass (1818—1875)
It’s torturous to select any one of the many critical and brilliant writers from this period. Douglass was another. Like Tubman, he escaped from slavery; he then went onto become an abolitionist of immense notoriety for his remarkable oratory abilities and penetrating writings on antislavery. Prevalent during his time was the idea that blacks lacked the intellect to function as independents in the Free World. Other abolitionists were said to have viewed him as living-proof that such an idea was absurd. Such an idea was in large part why the slaves were mostly black; that they were inferior beings was a deeply-instilled idea. It’s why a prominent figure like Douglass was so crucial: not only was he a black man producing outstanding, original writings and giving seminal orations, he was a former slave, too.
There is some uncertainty as to whether Harriet Tubman and Douglass ever met physically, but they certainly worked together: 
The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day – you in the night. … The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown – of sacred memory – I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.
I am in love with such stories of truly extraordinary and often inconceivable feats of courage, wit, against-the-grainism, defiance, improbable achievement. Figures like Douglass are powerful antidotes to the still-commonly served poisons that intelligence is something only one person or people are in possession of; that the past determines the future, and therefore that you and I are defined by our past; that what’s widely accepted as impossible can become not only the possible but the reachable and the normal thanks to one or a few figures living by a code of unrelenting grit, other-worldly levels of valour, heart; who lock onto a mighty problem and do all they can do solve it; who’s stories assuredly make every one of ur stoutly proud to be human.
Abraham Lincoln (1809—1865)
Little reason needs to be given for this inclusion of this poverty-born, self-educated businessman, captain of the Illinois militia, underground raconteur, lover of poetry and books, and lawyer who went onto head the abolishment of slavery and lead some 31 million people through four tortuous years of civil war; a man otherwise known as the 16th president of the United States, and often described as the greatest yet.
That he was a polymath is something seldom given mention. He was; polymaths can’t only exist in mathematical and scientific domains. I’ve been forever-fascinated with polymathy, and I think he’d get on with many other guests. Of course he and Douglass had their differences — Douglass calling him the ‘White Man’s President’ — but ultimately they were after the same end. It’d be interesting to be the moderator between a conversation, I think.
The latter years of his life weren’t doomed only because of the assassination; he had understandably become more melancholic after the death of two of his sons, one to tuberculosis at the age of three, another the heart failure at the age of 18. 
Franz Liszt (1811—1886)
The classical musicians from this era include Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, both of whom I listen to more of than Liszt, but both probably bad dinner guests. Beethoven, famed fond counter of coffee beans, was deaf and apparently not very sociable (see Goethe’s words1); and Rachmaninoff is not as likely to be as good a conversationalist as Liszt. He was a handsome romantic in the romantic era, a beautiful player of the keys, known to get along with many other famous musicians of the time, and for some reason just asks to be invited without saying anything. The alternative here would be Chopin, who has similar style. 
Queen Victoria (1819—1901)
Another anti-specialist, Queen Victoria was a special kind of queen who reigned during a remarkable period (take this list of guests and possible guests). This period included the Great Famine, for which her involvement who have her dubbed ’The Famine Queen’; and the February Revolution, for which she played a key role in improving relations between Britain and France.
Journalling can of course mean many things, but almost always it means a person is interesting — especially if they’re doing it everyday and at such length. Victoria apparently wrote 2,500 words a day.
Biographers have concluded her as being emotional, obstinate, honest, and straight-talking; in other words, she’s my kind of dinner guest.
Dostoevsky (1821—1881)
Tempted as I am to use the 12th and final placement on Nietzsche, I cannot. Dostoevsky’s affect has been greater, he’s more read and studied, and the body of work is greater; plus there’s interesting overlap between the two. His writings are more accessible, and he’d almost certainly be a good conversationalist, especially after drinks. On the other hand, Nietzsche would probably not have been a good guest: he’d not be drinking, and moustache aside, I fear he’d be either completely withdrawn or too obscene.
The Idiot is one of my favourite books. Crime and PunishmentThe Brothers Karamazov, Notes from Underground… — so many masterful works, most of which I’ve yet to understand.
It’s often said that novelists were the first and are the best psychologists. This is undoubtedly true. And perhaps Fyodor Dostoevsky is the greatest of them all.
Others considered: Goethe, Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Shackleton, Galton, Thomas Carlyle, Ramanujan, Charles Babbage, Marie Curie, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Van Gogh, Picasso, Walt Whitman, Matthew Arnold, Emily Dickinson, Karl Marx, Rasputin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Mata Hari, Balzac, Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Marcel Proust, Leo Tolstoy, Henry Thoreau, Henry, Freud.
Glassless Pre-Toast
A question worth investigating is how often such dinners happened in the past. How often did the dinosaurs from separate continents come together and jam? How often did minds from field X share their ideas with minds from field Y, in-person? How often where minds from field X forced to articulate their ideas in a way in which minds from field Y could comprehend them? The act of articulating implicit knowledge increases its Cross-Domain Availability (CDA). When I try to explain some yet-properly-articulated principle related to programming, or how to wire a plug, how to shoot a hoop, or whatever, I am making that knowledge more readily available for use in other areas; I am moving it from the specialised realm to the general; I am increasing it’s CDA. And just as implicit knowledge can exist within an individual so too can it within the group, culture, and entire domain. It’s often acknowledged that cross-pollination is fruitful, and this is the main reason why.
It’s hard to find recorded examples of such get-togethers from history. There’s the Manhattan Project, Ben Franklin’s Junto, and the Bloomsbury Group. But these weren’t one-off dinners, and the number of domains involved was still pretty limited. For example, The Manhattan Project consisted primarily of scientists and engineers, with Richard Feynman being the only notable one with a pronounced level of contrarianism and weirdness. 
Maybe examples are hard to find because they’re usually informal, rarely recorded, or just buried too deep in the history books. Another reason might be difficult dynamics. Planned conversations and interviews rarely lead to anything original. Conversation done right is one consisting of many tangents, interruptions, unexpected twists and turns, passion, heated moments, and lost threads. So I’ll only use the following conversation starters as backups:
  • Darwin and Tesla — Pigeons. Darwin experimented with the birds — breeding them to test The Theory — and Tesla loved them more than Women. Would the two greats clash?
  • Liszt and Dostoevsky — Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, others. What does each think of other giants in music, and why? What remains undone in musicspace?
  • Dickens and Tesla — Mark Twain. Nikola Tesla admired Mark Twain’s work, and in later life they became friends. Twain admire Dickens (though not his reading), so would Tesla and Dickens get along? 
  • Dickens and Dostoevsky — The Great Hoax. If I break my rule or drink too much wine and wind up speaking of events from the future, I might bring up how one A.D. Harvey fabricated a famous meeting between the two greats in London — a fabrication believed to be truth for many years, even making it into at least two Dickens Biographies.
  • Thomas Young, Ada Lovelace, Liszt — The Mathematics in Music
Next in the series will be an 18th Century Dinner, which is just as exciting a prospect if not more. Until then, salut.


  1. “His talent amazed me; unfortunately he is an utterly untamed personality, who is not altogether wrong in holding the world to be detestable, but surely does not make it any more enjoyable […] by his attitude.

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