The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners
Human Figurations: Essays for Norbert Elias
Norbert Elias is a highly original scholar whose work has been strangely neglected in the English-speaking world. In 1930 he was appointed assistant to Karl Mannheim in the department of sociology at the University of Frankfurt, housed on the ground floor of the celebrated Institut für Sozialforschung. Five years later he was a Jewish refugee in England and his academic career was in ruins. Both his parents died in Nazi Germany, his mother in Auschwitz. He held a temporary post at the London School of Economics, was detained in an internment camp for aliens, and spent a decade teaching extension courses for London University and working as a group therapist. Sociology was not then a popular subject in England and it was only in 1954 that he secured a proper academic position, this time at the University of Leicester. He retired in 1962, and is now over eighty years old.
His two-volume magnum opus, Über den Prozess der Zivilisation, was completed as long ago as 1936. It was printed in Germany and published three years later in Switzerland by a firm specially created to handle the works of authors who were forbidden or unwilling to publish in Nazi Germany. The book could scarcely have appeared at a less propitious time. In 1939 there was no demand in Germany for Jewish sociology, while eight hundred pages in daunting German from an obscure publisher were ill-calculated to appeal to readers in Britain or the United States, particularly on the very eve of the Second World War. The book attracted few reviews and, though occasionally drawn upon by later writers,1 was largely forgotten.
Yet when in 1969 a brave Swiss publisher brought out a second German edition the response was immediate. A French translation was commissioned and proved an instant success. Elias was lionized by admirers in Paris and The Netherlands. Human Configurations, his Festschrift, was published last year in Amsterdam, complete with memoirs by friends and pupils, photographs of the Frankfurt days, essays on the recipient’s leading ideas, and an invaluable bibliographical account by the Dutch sociologist Johan Goudsblom of the reception of Elias’s work, from the initial period of general indifference to the current phase of widespread enthusiasm.
Finally, nearly forty years after the book’s first appearance, we have an English translation of the first volume and a promise that the second will follow before the year is out. This grossly overdue event represents a triumph, not only over the vicissitudes of Nazi persecution and exile, but also over the more enduring obstacle of the author’s own perfectionism. Elias has apparently vetoed two successive English translations of The Civilizing Process because of their alleged deficiencies. “The persistent misunderstanding that he has encountered,” declares Goudsblom, “has strengthened his reluctance to consider a manuscript or even a set of corrected proofs ever to be really ready for publication.”
Now that this reluctance has at last been overcome, we may ask what it is about the book which has made it worth…
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