Norbert Elias died in Amsterdam in 1990, shortly after his 93rd birthday. His achievements were recognised only late in life. He was 57 when he first gained a permanent university post, and his work was not widely known until the late Sixties. When the recognition came it was abundant, however: honorary doctorates, prizes and decorations from European governments. Far from basking in this acclaim, Elias stepped up his output, writing more books in his eighties than in all his previous decades put together. He also acquired disciples, especially in the Netherlands and Germany, who tended the flame after 1990 by issuing unfinished fragments and materials, such as Reflections on a Life. This contains a biographical interview first published in Dutch, and Elias’s ‘Notes on a Lifetime’, which originally appeared in German.
Elias was born in 1897. The only child of a Jewish clothing manufacturer in Breslau, he experienced occasional anti-semitism in his youth. When he spoke of his hopes of becoming a professor, a class-mate responded: ‘That career was cut off for you at birth.’ But Elias belonged to a group confident in its German culture: anti-semites, like ‘Polacks’, were looked down on. The affectionate family and reassuring world of cook, nanny and governess that Elias describes remind one of Walter Benjamin’s near-contemporary ‘Berlin Childhood’, except that where Benjamin provides a rich description of bourgeois consumption in the Belle Epoque, Elias offers surprisingly little material detail, given the central role that manners and habitus play in his best-known work. Then, too, Benjamin was broken by the events of the Thirties and eventually took his own life, whereas Elias repeatedly emphasises the inner confidence he gained from his early years, enabling him to cope with the war, emigration and long scholarly neglect.
He joined the Signals Corps in 1915 straight from school and served on the Western Front. As with so many others, his later memory of the experience consisted only of vivid fragments – the sight of dead horses, for example. He studied medicine and philosophy in Breslau, then moved in 1925 to Heidelberg, where Marianne Weber’s circle preserved the memory of Max (Elias gave a paper at her ‘salon’). Karl Jaspers and Karl Löwith were beginning to work through the Weberian legacy, and Heidelberg was home also to a young American called Talcott Parsons, who later presented his own straitjacketed, functionalist version of Weber to an American public, with whom it proved immensely influential – a version that was re-exported back to post-war West Germany as the intellectual make-weight in the Marshall Aid package. Elias tells us much about contemporary debates (over the sociology of knowledge, for example), less about the growing politicisation of university life. While sympathetic to the Left, he remained strikingly aloof from politics – compare his account with that of Golo Mann, another Heidelberg contemporary, who was more of an aesthete but also much more engaged politically.
In 1930, Elias moved to the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, the ‘Marxburg’ His account of his three years there is austere. There is no mention of Erich Fromm, Leo Löwenthal, Paul Tillich, even of Adorno, a close friend, although there are two excellent anecdotes, one of Elias attending a Hitler rally disguised as a monocled Aryan, another of him removing files on left-wing students just before the Nazis arrived. In the spring of 1933 he decided to leave Germany. Failing to find a post in Switzerland he went to Paris, where he eked out a living selling toys, recognised that he had no academic future, and in 1935 moved rather reluctantly to England. A Jewish refugee fund provided modest support that allowed him to work in the British Museum Reading Room and write his masterpiece.
The Civilising Process is really two books; the first of them (‘The History of Manners’) is probably the better known (the 1994 re-issue happily brings both books together in one volume). In this, Elias concerns himself with the mores of the élite – behaviour at table, bodily functions, sexual etiquette, aggression. He traces a long-term pattern of change in late medieval and Early Modern Europe. As the threshold of shame rose, things that had once been acceptable (like blowing one’s nose on the table-cloth) became unacceptable; other activities (such as defecation) were increasingly performed in specialised locations out of public view. The bedroom is the classic example of the changing boundary between public and private spheres. In medieval society visitors were commonly received in the bedroom, the beds themselves signalling the prestige and opulence of their owners. There was nothing unusual about strangers sharing a bed; contemporary writers on correct conduct took this for granted. An English author of the late 15th century gave this advice: if you share a bed with a social superior, ask him which side of the bed he prefers, do not go to bed before invited (‘for that is no curtasy’), lie straight, and say goodnight after talking. Pierre Broe’s Des bonnes moeurs et honnestes contenances offered similar precepts in 1555. By then, however, there were signs of change. Erasmus’s ‘On the Bedchamber’ was still concerned mainly with consideration for others, but a new note was starting to be heard, sounding the themes of modesty and morality. Attitudes changed slowly, just as the royal levee persisted. But the bedroom became an increasingly private place over the following two centuries, at least for the social élite, and the moral injunctions of the advice-givers became sterner. Parallel to these shifts came another: sleeping naked gave way to the wearing of nightclothes, which came into use in Europe around the same time as the fork and the handkerchief. Elias suggests that the growing propensity to cover the body, in the bedroom as in the bathhouse, gave new significance to depictions of the naked body in art, as a form of wish-fulfilment.
This was no superficial refinement, argues Elias, but a shift in the structure of feelings resulting from changing social relations, as a new élite recruited from diverse sources was domesticated by an absolutist court. Hence the progression from courtliness to civility to civilisation; hence, too, the second part of the book (‘State Formation and Civilisation’), which offers a synopsis of state-building from the early Middle Ages to the 18th century, as larger, more powerful political units were formed, claiming a monopoly in taxation and the use of violence. This long-term process, the argument runs, created the circumstances in which private violence was tamed and affect remoulded. Over time, personal and external constraints in behaviour became impersonal and internalised, until self-control, in the form of a new ‘economy of instincts’, became automatic – a process akin to the one Weber describes in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, when a religiously rooted attitude to work gradually became detached from its original purpose and acquired momentum as an internalised drive.
The Civilising Process is a wonderful book – bold, comparative, curious about everything. Elias is exceptionally sensitive to places, indoors and outdoors (see the ‘Scenes from the Life of a Knight’ at the end of the first part). And his medical training, the importance of which he emphasises in the Reflections, may explain why he writes so well about the body, gestures and facial expressions. It is a pity he never wrote about Lavater and physiognomy.
These virtues are combined with high theoretical ambition. Like many writers of the Frankfurt School, Elias played Marx off against Freud to good effect; he also took major themes from the founding generation of sociologists (Weber on state-formation, Sombart on luxury, Veblen on conspicuous consumption) and turned them to his own purposes. The resulting synthesis is wholly original. There are digressions, and occasionally the material spills over the lines that Elias has laid down, as when he pursues bedroom manners into the 19th and 20th centuries and fails to resist an excursus on the modern night-shirt (with a footnote on American pyjamas). Despite the slightly untidy structure, however, the central argument is coherent. Some have found it too coherent: Geoffrey Barraclough called it ‘clockwork history’. The charge is unfair: Elias presents a process that is uneven, he is alive to the effect of unintended consequences and national variations, and he does not force his data into his framework of interpretation.
On the other hand, one cannot accept all the arguments at face value. Elias writes almost exclusively about the secular élite, neglecting religion and the churches. He places the emergence of the modern state too early and exaggerates its centralised powers. The court, like the bourgeoisie, is always rising, in a way calculated to cause modern eyebrows to rise with it. Elias’s underlying assumptions can also be questioned. He recognised that the term ‘civilised’ needs inverted commas, but that has not spared him from charges that his project was Eurocentric, even ‘racist’. The last label is absurd – Elias had a rooted dislike of both colonialist arrogance and noble-savage romanticism. Yet The Civilising Process has an insistent logic running through it, a strong whiff of evolutionary humanism. The distinction on which the book rests, between a rational, refined, mechanical French ‘civilisation’ and an inward, vital, organic German ‘culture’, also seems much less compelling now. It would have been familiar to Elias from Thomas Mann’s ‘Observations of an Unpolitical Man’(1918) and Alfred Weber’s writings, and it enjoyed a long shelf-life after 1945 among writers trying to explain German ‘deviation’ from the West. But it remains a forced, over-worked division. Both terms are ambiguous – ‘supple and devious friends’, Braudel once called them – and numerous cross-overs call the neat dualism into question. The German reception of ‘civilisation’ was vigorously positive; what the French celebrated was their ‘culture’. (As Lawrence Durrell satirised it: ‘All culture tends to corrupt; French culture tends to corrupt absolutely.’) In fairness, Elias was more original and more careful in what he wrote than many who followed.
The Civilising Process is a classic that will be read in new ways as preoccupations change. An example is the way it has figured in arguments about the ‘permissive society’ and modern ‘barbarism’. The book intimated, where it did not stimulate, many directions in subsequent historical research. Elias wrote about the invention of childhood before Philippe Ariès, about cat-massacres before Robert Darnton. Countless virgin territories that he mapped out have since been thickly settled. His analysis of court life and the ‘royal mechanism’, further elaborated in a later book on The Court Society(1969), remains fruitful not only to those working in Early Modern absolutism, but to historians interested in broader social themes or later periods.
Elias is now a familiar figure in our intellectual landscape, but the initial reception of his key work was halting. The original German edition came out in Switzerland in 1939 – an unpropitious moment for a book on civilisation. The admirers who recognised its importance included Thomas Mann and the émigré historian Francis Carsten. Gradually its arguments were taken up more widely – by Erving Goffman in his work on self-presentation, and by Pierre Bourdieu, who is mainly responsible for establishing the use of Elias’s term ‘habitus’. Nothing came of several early efforts to publish an English translation, one reason being the author’s perfectionism.
For fully twenty-five years after finishing The Civilising Process, Elias’s professional life was fitful. He held a research fellowship at the LSE, moved to Cambridge with the rest of its staff during the war, and was later briefly interned as an alien on the Isle of Man (C.P. Snow helped to get him released). After the war he taught extra-mural classes in London, then in 1954 joined the sociology department at Leicester. There, Elias remained something of an outsider – the cranky Continental – at odds with the dominant sociological paradigms in the age of Parsons and Popper. He was also diffident. When a graduate student asked him about his previous publications, he apparently muttered vaguely that he had written ‘something about manners’. In the years 1940-65 he wrote little.
The change came in the Seventies, when Elias was taken up by younger European sociologists and accepted invitations to various Continental universities and institutes. This began a steady disengagement from England. By the Eighties he was dividing his time between Bielefeld’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research and a flat in Amsterdam. In his later work he developed arguments arising from The Civilising Process, first in The Court Society, then in a series of essays posthumously published as Mozart: Portrait of a Genius, which examines the relationship of Leopold and Wolfgang Amadeus within the constraints of the Salzburg court. He also extended sociological analysis into new areas: in Frankfurt he had already encouraged Gisèle Freund to write on the sociology of photography; in Leicester he worked with Eric Dunning to develop the sociology of sport. Alongside these micro-interests, Elias wrote on a wide variety of general themes, including dying, time and the use of symbols in society: extended essays marked by a concern with the whole of human social development and the need to transcend disciplinary boundaries in trying to understand it.
The late books are strikingly free both of jargon and of references to work done by others. Elias’s writing can be repetitive, and contains its blind-spots. He did not suffer fools gladly, and his definition of folly was expansive. He was caustic about academic blinkers, politicised scholarship (‘involvement’), and lack of intellectual courage. For Elias, religion obfuscates, illusions are harmful, the sociologist should be a ‘destroyer of myths’. In the Reflections he scorns the modish, rails against ‘intellectual corruption’ and parades a long list of dislikes, from mind/body dualism to functionalism of any stripe. His austere rectitude suggests a serene confidence not unmixed with vanity. When Elias writes, ‘I always knew the ruling things were phony,’ we hear the authentic voice of this unrepentant, octogenarian Holden Caulfield.