On wanting to be a diner not a dish

P.N. Furbank

  • The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser
    Viking, 432 pp, £17.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 670 84701 1

If I were offered one wish by a benevolent Providence, mine would be not to be squeamish – a miserable affliction which locks one out from so much within the walls of disgust and shame. It occurs to one how enormously this matter must figure for an anthropologist. There is a story told by Lévi-Strauss of some Brazilian tribe with whom he was staying, who spoke with the greatest scorn and a disgust of a certain species of maggot, which was found in abundance in their neighbourhood. It had even been rumoured, they said, that certain depraved persons stooped so far as to eat it. One day, however, on entering his lodgings, he found his hosts with their back turned, engaged in some mysterious activity. The game was up. With blushes they admitted that they were eating maggots; and, asking permission to taste one too, he found it delicious.

Lévi-Strauss has said that why people become anthropologists and study other societies is, almost always, because of a handicap: namely, that they are badly adjusted to their own society. It seems, though, that they might also have a predisposing advantage, that is a lack of squeamishness, over maggots or whatever else might be offered by way of hospitality – more, a positive expectation of enjoyment. The message one reads into Lévi-Strauss’s photos of his Bororo or Nambikwara acquaintances is that he got so far with them, partly anyway, through sheer charm and social ease – something hardly to be achieved without physical ease, the blessed state, to some of us unimaginable, of having no physical taboos.

Margaret Visser, a Classicist in Toronto, has produced a fascinating work in the field in which Lévi-Strauss has written so memorably – the history of table manners. Her book is crammed to overflowing with things that one would want to know. Did you realise that there are at least 132 main ways of sitting, only about thirty of them involving anything resembling a chair? That the ancient Greeks insisted on mixing their wine with sea water? Or that every day of his reign Louis XIV sent a solemn invitation to his brother ‘Monsieur’ to eat with him – an invitation which Monsieur, who found him a great trial, was unable not to accept? Were you aware that the host at an ancient Egyptian feast would affix a cone of scented fat to the top of each diner’s head, intended to melt and drizzle deliciously down his cheeks as the meal progressed? Did you know that formal etiquette requires (according to Emily Post) that when a very correct diner eats alone, four places should nevertheless be laid?

Visser has ranged as widely as possible, both in space and time, and explores her theme in a logical progression, beginning with that general imperative to ‘behave’ on which human society founds itself, and of which table manners – the rules and practices governing the sharing of food – are a supreme example. As she points out, the words ‘companion’ and ‘company’ derive from the sharing of panis (bread); and the portioning out of food presupposes, and no doubt helped give rise to, many basic human activities: ‘language (for discussing food past, present and future, for planning the acquisition of food, and deciding how to divide it out while preventing fights), technology (how to kill, cut, keep and carry), and morality (what is a just slice?)’. As she remarks, women also are an important social symbol used for the knitting together of families and tribes, and shared, stolen and used to enhance status. But though women can be shared, they cannot (unlike food) be divided; and this is a consideration that – since food is produced by murder, laceration and burning and is consumed by fierce biting – must lurk in the minds of those at a dinner table. ‘Behind each rule of table etiquette lurks the determination of each person present to be a diner not a dish.’

The theme of cannibalism, indeed, lies at the heart of Visser’s whole theory of table manners, and early on in her book she has a striking passage about the Eucharist.

As a meal, the Mass spans all the meanings of eating at once – from cannibalism to vegetarianism, from complete fusion of the group to utterly individual satisfaction, from the breaking of the most fearful of taboos to the gentlest and most comforting restoration ... There are tablecloths and napkins, candles, cups, plates, jugs and wash basins. The Eucharist celebration is a dinner, at which table manners are entirely necessary; for nothing like it – no ritual celebration whatever, not even the most ordinary lunch at a fast-food restaurant – can begin to be imagined unless the people participating in it commit themselves, both now and in the future, to behaving.

This last brings to mind another illumination, of the kind Visser’s book is full of. At the Last Supper, as we know, the apostle John lies ‘on Jesus’s breast’, but it seems we need not take this as any sign of special affection. Diners at a Jewish banquet would recline close together on a couch for two, each of them raised on his left elbow; and accordingly, to address one’s companion, one would have to lean on his chest. For John to droop over Christ’s shoulder or fall asleep in his lap, as in Renaissance paintings, would, says Visser, have been shocking bad manners.

Visser also discusses, though she does not solve, a problem which has always bothered one: how do the French, and not only they, get on, using the same word (in their case, hôte) for both ‘host’ and ‘guest’? The word hôte derives from hostis, or ‘enemy’ – a fact which of course sets one thinking – but the dictionaries are not very helpful about it. The Dictionnaire de l’ Académie says, feebly, no more than that the usage is very old; and though one gathers from the Trésor de la langue française that the ‘guest’ sense is later than the ‘host’ one and, in feudal law, indicated a free tenant in modest circumstances, it is not clear where this gets one. Visser’s account is that in ancient Rome a hospes or ‘host’ was a person who generously represented someone, not himself a citizen of Rome, before some Roman institution: thus, metaphorically, the host ‘was the stranger himself’. It is brilliant explanation which does not really explain.

It comes as a surprise to Anglo-Saxons, reading the Kama Sutra, to find so little jokiness, so much order and philosophy, put into sexual manners; and something of the same kind is true with table manners. Here, according to Japanese teaching, are the seven kinds of bad manners with chopsticks:

neburi-bashi, or licking chopsticks with the tongue; mogi-kui, or using your mouth to remove rice sticking to your chopsticks; komi-bashi, or forcing several things into your mouth with chopsticks; utsuri-bashi, or breaking the rule that a mouthful of rice is to be taken between every two bites of meat, fish, or vegetables; saguri-bashi, or searching with chopsticks to see if anything more of what you like is left in the dish; hashi-namari, or hesitation whether to take one thing or another; and sora-bashi, or, with chopsticks, putting back food you had intended to eat.

Roland Barthes was eulogistic about chopsticks and the way the Japanese use them, finding in it some of the measured care that a mother uses in moving a child. ‘The instrument never pierces, cuts, or slits, never wounds but only selects, turns, shifts. For the chopsticks ... in order to divide, must separate, part, peck, instead of cutting and piercing, in the manner of implements.’ How this state of affairs is brought about is, of course, another matter. In a Japanese restaurant I once went to, at the very table and only a few inches from my fingers, a razor-sharp Samurai cleaver kept whizzing down, dismembering a turbot in most unmaternal fashion. Still, no one could say this violence was ‘mystified’ so there may be no reason to quarrel with Barthes.

We need to ask ourselves what genre of book Visser’s is. She is evidently deep into ancient history, as well as medieval and Renaissance etiquette books, colonial memoirs, cookery books of all nations, and American fashion magazines. The staple of her reading, however, is modern anthropology. Her pages, upon almost any set of table customs, are full of explanations, in many cases anthropological ones. ‘We’ do so-and-so, she is inclined to say – we cross our knives and forks, align the creases in our tablecloths or iron them out, leave a sacrificial morsel on the plate or take great pains to scrape the plate clean – as an expression of such-and-such an intention, fear, taboo, or socio-moral aspiration, defined in anthropological terminology. This might mislead us: in fact, hers is not the anthropological approach. The unjudging tone of this absorbing book, for all its sophisticated scholarship, derives from elsewhere and is queerly familiar. It reminds one, not so much of the hard-won ‘neutrality’ of anthropology, as of the helpful advice in excellent ancient Baedekers. If one had accepted an invitation to an Igbo residence in Nigeria, or, by dint of time travel, to a symposium in ancient Athens, this would be just the book to mug up. It puts one in mind, too, of the Badminton Library and its guides to bridge, golf or coarse fishing. Visser, one detects, is an enthusiast for table manners. One is even reminded of enjoyable days in one’s youth, reading the ‘How and Why’ sections of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Treasury. (Why does the top of a factory-chimney have a projecting rim? Why does a top-hat have a silken band?)

The clue to Visser’s book lies in its use of the pronoun ‘we’, which ranges uninterruptedly from the very narrowly here and now, i.e. the English-speaking or European culture of the Nineties (‘We do cling to the – largely unexamined – ideal that we should strive to be “natural” ’), to the distant past (‘We once needed quite heavy washing, when we ate with our hands’), and indeed to the very dawn of socialised humanity. An anthropologist, evidently, cannot allow himself or herself such easy identifications. To an anthropologist, in face-to-face relations with the objects of his enquiry, the question who ‘we’ are (or ‘I’ am) is bound to be intensely fraught, and he will have to ask himself those unsettling questions which Lévi-Strauss raises so powerfully in Tristes tropiques. He will be forced to examine his prejudices, his loyalties or disloyalties, and his squeamishnesses – whereas the most squeamish, without too much perturbation, can manage merely to turn the pages of a book. This is indeed to say that an anthropologist will have to find the right place in his life for value-judgments, and he may come, for instance, to some such conclusion as Lévi-Strauss: that in proportion as an anthropologist is unjudging towards other cultures, he had a duty to be active in judging his own.

Margaret Visser is clearly charmed by the whole spectacle of table manners, and some of them she evokes with an extra touch of warmth: for instance the practice of accepting gifts not with one but with two hands. In Malawi, she tells us, they have a riddle: ‘What do even Europeans respect?’ Answer, ‘a peanut’: ‘Even they always hold it in both hands’ (i.e. to shell it). She is also ready to assess losses and gains and is aware of the cost of raising the walls of embarrassment and shame. She remarks, too, very sensibly, that modern egalitarianism ‘is as much a compensation for the walls which separate each individual from everyone else as it is an ideology and a purely moral ideal’. ‘We’ form anonymous hurrying crowds, she says, sleep in separate rooms, live and eat in separate quarters, and move about within the closed doors of metal vehicles. ‘When we meet, therefore, with the express purpose of socialising, we cannot afford to be distant.’ She also gives a passing sideways look at another question of values, the ruses and rhetorical stratagems by which ‘manners’ can be used to conceal aggression: the role, for instance, of ‘good taste’ (meaning simplicity) as the last bastion of privilege, or of that ‘grace’ which a hundred courtesy books tell one cannot be learned from books. Not for her, on the other hand – at least in this book – the existential doubts and self-questionings of the ethnographer. Half etiquette book, half ‘anatomy’, as sheer voracious and triumphant encyclopedism this brimming book could, however, hardly be bettered. In reading it one feels oneself to be observing the Chinese Scustom of attending several dinners in one night.