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 translating so long after its first appearance. And how well does it stand up to critical scrutiny after such a lapse of time?
These are not easy questions to answer, for the work belongs to a genre which modern academic specialization has made virtually extinct. An eclectic mixture of sociology, history, and psychology, The Civilizing Process is essentially a large-scale interpretation of Western psycho-social development, in the tradition of Comte, Marx, Spencer, or Max Weber. The reader’s first impression is that the two volumes are virtually separate books, for the first deals with the history of manners and the second with the formation of the modern state. In fact they are held together by the author’s conviction that state-making and changes in manners are closely connected. Even so, the work is not very well organized nor is it very elegantly written. The translation does not conceal the uningratiatingly polysyllabic character of the original. For all its wealth of insights and suggestions, the argument is complex, back-tracking, repetitive, and occasionally elusive. It is not surprising that Elias’s disciples should complain that the true meaning of the work has been repeatedly misunderstood.
In the first volume Elias sets out to show how the psychical makeup of modern civilized man has been determined by some fundamental changes in standards of shame and delicacy which occurred in Western Europe between the later Middle Ages and the nineteenth century. His method is to juxtapose long extracts from books on manners and etiquette drawn from different periods to show how radical these changes have been. He begins with the courtoisie of the Middle Ages. Medieval courtiers had table manners which distinguished them from unrefined peasants but those manners were elementary. Feudal lords ate with their hands, dipping their fingers into a common dish and drinking out of the same goblet. Contemporary guides to courtesy offered unsophisticated advice: don’t replace half-eaten food in the dish; don’t smack your lips; don’t blow your nose on the tablecloth, but use your fingers. Injunctions against gobbling food, scratching, and spitting were repeated over the centuries, without any discernible effect upon actual behaviour.
Around the beginning of the sixteenth century, however, standards began to rise. The new importance attached to table manners and outward bodily propriety was shown by the phenomenal success of Erasmus’s book on the subject, De Civilitate Morum Puerilium (On Civility in Boys), which appeared in 1526 and went into over 130 editions. Erasmus’s ideas on table manners were not very different from those of his medieval predecessors: polite persons could still eat with their fingers, but they should use only three of them, not the whole hand; they should wipe the spoon before passing it to a neighbor; and they should not scratch themselves, drink when their mouths were full, or lick the dish. The concept of “civility,” however, embraced much more than table manners. Erasmus discussed bodily carriage, gesture, dress, and facial expression. He gave advice on the disposal of spittle and the release of wind (one should cough gently so as to conceal the sound). He assumed that people might have to relieve themselves in public, but advised passers-by to pretend not to notice. All these maxims were set out in a matter-of-fact unembarrassed fashion. Erasmus’s “shame threshold” (as Elias calls it) was higher than that of his medieval predecessors, but he felt no inhibition about openly discussing matters which would later become too delicate to mention at all.
During the next three hundred years table manners became increasingly elaborate. The introduction of that vital implement, the fork (hitherto despised as effete), enabled men to distance themselves from the eating process by avoiding manual contact with the food. New rules for delicate behavior at table proliferated as people were expected to manipulate an increasingly complicated battery of utensils. By the later eighteenth century table napkins had to be placed on the knee, not fastened to a buttonhole; forks were not to be used for soup; coffee should not be drunk out of the saucer; bread should be broken, not cut. The use of the knife, that threatening symbol of violence, became increasingly restricted; it could be passed only by the handle; it should never be pointed at anyone, never put into the mouth, and never used for fish or vegetables. In the end it nearly withered away altogether. “Everything that can be eaten without a knife should be cut with a fork alone,” declared the Victorian manual Habits of Good Society (1859). Similar delicacy was shown in the presentation of food. It now seemed coarse and disgusting to serve large chunks of identifiable animals. The “joint” survived in England (as did the greater use of the knife), but elsewhere the tendency was to serve meat in such a way as to conceal its animal origins. The art of carving ceased to be an essential gentlemanly accomplishment.
For Elias these changes in table manners are not mere curiosities. On the contrary, they reflect fundamental shifts in human relationships. The men who ceased to eat from the same dish or drink from the same cup were separated by a new wall of restraint and embarrassment at the bodily functions of others. This new sense of shame was visible in many areas. Originally people spat on the floor; then they were encouraged to put their foot over the spittle; later they used a spittoon; finally even that symbol of delicacy disappeared and they ceased to spit in polite society altogether. In the same way they progressed from blowing their noses on their sleeves to using their left hand, to using only two fingers, to adopting a handkerchief (Erasmus left only two forks, but he owned thirty-nine handkerchiefs). Instead of sleeping naked, several to a bed, they put on night-clothes and converted bedrooms into private, intimate areas. Nudity became shameful and an unmade bed was an embarrassing spectacle. Similar inhibitions grew up around the bodily functions. In the sixteenth century it was considered dangerous to hold one’s wind; by the eighteenth century it was a major solecism to release it in company. Defecating and urinating became private activities, screened from public gaze. Language became more delicate. Prudery surrounded wedding ceremonies, prostitution, and the discussion of sexual matters. The aggressive impulses were inhibited. To express pleasure in violence, whether in mutilating one’s opponents in battle or in burning cats alive (an annual ceremony in sixteenth-century Paris), came to be regarded as “sick” or “infantile.”
All these changes were in the same direction. They involved the repression of spontaneous behavior, the distancing of men from their bodily functions, and the checking of physical impulses by self-imposed inhibition. In this way the courtoisie of the Middle Ages gave way to the “civility” of the Renaissance; and that in turn developed into what Europeans in the later eighteenth century were beginning to think of as “civilization.” The fork, the handkerchief, and the nightdress acquired a crucial symbolic value. Refined table manners, intense bodily control, and a high threshold of embarrassment were the essence of “civilized” behavior. The new inhibitions performed an essential social function, distinguishing adults from children, the upper and middle classes from their inferiors, and Western Europeans from “savages.”
Historians will recognize in Elias’s highly original analysis a great deal that is indubitably true. Anyone who studies the early modern period will soon come across one of those revealing cases of embarrassment produced by the accidental encounter of individuals living at different points along Elias’s curve of civilized standards. We think of the Elizabethan traveler Fynes Moryson reporting contemptuously that in Venice and Padua it was still common “to see an Italian sitting on the close stool and talking with his chamber-fellows while eating”; we recall the agonies of constipation undergone by the ex-dandy Beau Brummell, unable to endure the publicity of a French lavatory during his sojourn in a debtor’s jail at Caen; and we remember the similar horror of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, when at Scarborough in 1732 she was invited to use the emphatically communal facilities provided for ladies who had taken the purgative waters. Even today we are disconcerted when we chance on some anachronistic survival of a less inhibited age: the communion chalice or lovingcup, passing unwiped from mouth to mouth; the three-seater earth closet behind the picturesque English cottage; or the view in the early morning from the windows of the Taj Express of thousands of squatting Indians, unconcernedly defecating by the side of the track as the trainload of goggling Western tourists goes by.
Since no more detailed history of manners and bodily propriety has yet been written, the first volume of The Civilizing Process remains as much of a pioneering effort today as it was forty years ago. Elias’s outline of the subject still waits to be more fully developed. There are so many closely associated topics with which he did not deal: laughter and weeping, for example; or clothes and the treatment of body hair. The history of personal cleanliness gets only a passing footnote, while even his discussion of table manners is a mere sketch, based on a limited range of courtesy books, heavily dependent upon the earlier account by the social historian Alfred Franklin,2 and making no reference to such standard, albeit sociologically unsophisticated, accounts as Maurice Magendie’s La Politesse Mondaine (1925) or John E. Mason’s Gentlefolk in the Making (1935). Far more research needs to be done before all the nuances of national and local difference can begin to be understood.
Elias’s chronology may also need to be redrawn. His picture of a steady linear progression in standards would have been badly upset if he had started his researches earlier or finished later. He says almost nothing about classical antiquity, whose concepts of civility and urbanitas, it might be argued, the humanists of the Renaissance did little more than resurrect. His view of the Middle Ages seems unduly static; and he brushes aside too easily the return to informality and permissiveness in the mid-twentieth century. Elias argues that today’s day’s frankness about bodily functions has been made possible only by unprecedentedly high standards of internalized inhibition. It may indeed be greater masculine self-control that makes it safe for women to expose their bodies on the beach or on the stage. But what in 1935 seemed only a “slight recession” in delicacy has now assumed such dimensions that it has become distinctly implausible to argue that shame and refinement are the distinguishing features of Western civilization.
The underlying causes of the changes chronicled by Elias also remain uncertain. Most of his argument on this point is held over to the second part of the work and is only hinted at in the present volume. But he is emphatic that the causes were social rather than intellectual. It was not a belief in hygiene which generated the new fastidiousness about bodily functions; talk about germs and infection came much later and served only to rationalize standards that had already been established. Indeed the new manners flew in the face of contemporary medical advice, which emphasized the dangers of retaining wind or spittle. The courtesy books did not use hygienic arguments. What they stressed was the need to control one’s body out of respect for the sensibilities of others. “No carrion or excrement is to be shown to your companion,” advised one seventeenth-century conduct book, “for you know not how squeamish he is.”
Elias’s essential argument is that refinement grew as the social chain of human interdependence lengthened. In feudal society social groups had been so insulated from each other that courtoisie had little influence outside a restricted circle. But when the feudal nobility were tamed at the courts of the Renaissance princes, the courtiers were forced to control their bodily impulses so as to make themselves agreeable to the ruler, even though he did not at first extend the same courtesies to them: Louis XIV would receive in bed, just as the Marquise de Châtelet expected her manservant to pour out the hot water when she lay naked in the bath. In due course the new standards of civility became important to the courtiers, as a means of distancing themselves from their inferiors, and to the middle classes as an avenue of social advancement; though Elias argues that in Germany the bourgeoisie reacted against the courtly concept of “civilization” by developing their rival ideal of “Kultur.”
The growth of absolutism enhanced the process. Internal stability inhibited the aggressive impulses, while the establishment of an integrated state made it possible for the new norms of behavior to radiate outward. The growing complexity of social life forced an increasing number of people into relations of interdependence, ultimately making bodily propriety essential for everyone. The education in inhibitions which had begun at the Renaissance court was completed by the nuclear family. Today each newborn child is expected within a few years to acquire a sense of shame and delicacy which it has taken Western European man many centuries to develop.
This explanatory scheme is open to some obvious criticism. By contrast with Marx or Weber, Elias lays all his emphasis on the court rather than the bourgeoisie as the source of new standards of self-control. But it is hard not to feel that the court made a greater contribution to elaborate etiquette than it did to shame and delicacy. One need only recall the debauchery of Charles II’s entourage or the odors which assailed John Locke’s nostrils when he visited Fontainebleau to recognize that courtiers do not make wholly convincing apostles of bodily propriety. Neither is the relationship between absolutism and delicacy made very clear: royal authority may have inhibited the casual use of weapons, but the despotisms of the Orient did not develop Western table manners. Elias does not explain why the inhibitions took the form they did. Why was there greater shame about spitting than, say, sneezing? Or about evacuation than about eating? He wholly discounts the role of religion in modifying sensibilities, though others would emphasize the monastic prohibitions on spitting and coughing or the Protestant association between cleanliness and godliness. Elias appears to regard changes in ideas as no more than automatic responses to changes in social relationships.
Moreover, it is hard not to feel that his whole picture of “civilization” is excessively ethnocentric. At times he seems to suggest that non-European peoples were as spontaneous as little children in their attitude toward table manners and bodily functions. His interpretation takes little account of the Chinese, who, as he notices in passing, had managed to eliminate the knife from their tables long before Europeans were converted to the fork; or the North American Indians, who were celebrated for their stoical self-control in the face of bodily pain; or the Jamaican Negroes, who, as Sir Hans Sloane noted wonderingly in 1688, were in the habit of taking daily baths; or the West African people of whom one seventeenth-century observer remarked that “it is holden shame with them to let a fart”—a prejudice which badly strained their relations with some visiting Dutchmen who did not share the same inhibition.
The truth surely is that there has never been a society without its own standards of politeness, shame, delicacy, and bodily control. This fact was brought home by Marcel Mauss in his famous essay on “The Techniques of the Body,”3 published in the same year as that in which The Civilizing Process was completed. Different peoples are squeamish about different things: unlike their Persian contemporaries, seventeenth-century Englishmen did not consider it shameful for a man to urinate standing. But all societies generate instinctual renunciation, bodily coordination, and internalized shame. To eat politely in West Africa, using only two fingers and avoiding the use of the left hand, is just as demanding for the uninitiated as the use of the knife and fork. Elias may be right to imply that the West developed a peculiarly intense feeling of shame about the bodily functions. But the point has yet to be demonstrated.
Norbert Elias never claimed to offer a definitive interpretation and it would be absurd to reproach him for not using more anthropological evidence. He had set out to master so many different disciplines as it was. His two volumes offer a single-handed interpretation of Western historical development, full of marvelous insights which scholars are only now beginning to develop.4 They also offer a challenge to practitioners in each of the disciplines upon which they draw.
To historians Elias shows the vital importance of the history of manners, a subject which has too long received no more than anecdotal treatment. Fortunately, historical fashions have changed since 1939, and an English translation of his book is likely to get a much more sympathetic reception than it would have then.
To psychoanalysts Elias shows that it is possible to inject a much-needed historical dimension into Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents: the superego, on whose predominance the whole civilizing process depends, is less an immutable feature of the human psyche than the product of a long-drawn-out process of historical development. Elias has other, more speculative, hypotheses which will appeal to the psychoanalytically minded. It was, he suggests, the widening gulf between the self-control of the public persona and the unbuttoned relaxation of bathroom, bedroom, and lavatory which generated the popular conception of the individual as a split personality, wearing a mask before others, but having a “true” self, locked away, private and inaccessible. He even maintains that without the new standards of internalized self-control the scientific discoveries of the early modern period would have been impossible. The acceptance of a heliocentric universe required in scientists a new capacity to detach themselves from the object studied and a readiness to study nature for its own sake, rather than in terms of its supposed purpose and meaning for men.
Sociologists, however, seem to Elias to have remained in an unregenerate, geocentric state, and it is for them, particularly Talcott Parsons and his followers, that his greatest strictures are reserved. They have largely ignored his book because they are uninterested in history, regarding equilibrium rather than development as the normal state. They have also confused matters by postulating a wholly false antithesis between “the individual” and “society.” But men, says Elias, are not windowless monads, closed to the outside world, save when they engage in the atomistic “interaction” of conventional social science. On the contrary, they are always dependent on each other and, like dancers, can only exist in some particular configuration. History is the story of how configurations change as the dancers merge and regroup into new formations, changing their pace and posture accordingly. Sociologists, therefore, should return to history. For the dance that they study is a dance to the music of time.
March 9, 1978
Curiously, neither of the only two English authors to make extensive use of the original German edition was an academic. One was the Labour politician Patrick Gordon Walker, who gave an extensive summary of its arguments in his idiosyncratic Restatement of Liberty (1951). The other was Harold Nicolson, who used it for his rather flippant Good Behaviour (1955). ↩
Compiler of La Vie privée d’autrefois (Paris, 1887-1902), whose twenty-seven volumes contain many still-unexploited riches. ↩
Originally published in Journal de Psychologie 32 (1936); reprinted in the many editions of his Sociologie et anthropologie. ↩
Human Figurations contains a valuable essay by H.G. Koenigsberger, who draws upon Elias’s theory of absolutism in order to construct a general explanation of the fate of representative institutions in early modern Europe. ↩