Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Natural and Ritual

My earliest encounter with culture was learning manners, how to behave at the table, what implement to use and how, what I could reach for, what I must ask for, what word to use, the tone, its volume, its timing. You did not interrupt others’ speech. I had to look at people when I spoke to them. I did not shout at the ceiling. It was complex, all of this. I learned to modulate my voice, learned to append such sounds as “please,” “may I,” and “thank you” to various actions. Manners involved keeping my spine oriented in certain ways. Thus I could not just disappear under the table cloth and crawl among the legs down there—however attractive that often seemed. I had to clear my plate, avoid throwing bits of bread at my sister, keep both hands visible but my knees hidden—volumes of manners, but not a single line to be read. All this took place long before school began.

To learn this behavior and all that ultimately flowed from it—because the rituals of eating expanded to the whole domain of human interactions in my childhood and, in process of being mastered, taught us all about relationships to old, young, ladies, gentlemen, teachers, siblings, other children, etc.—other structures had to be in place as well. We ate meals at certain times. We ate communally—after washing hands. And after washing hands, the towel had to be hung in certain ritual and proper ways. The table was set. It had a table cloth (the white purity of which must be protected). We had our places. So in turn all else was also regulated. To do all this required a certain attentiveness, concentration. Life acquired an invisible and also hierarchically layered structure of dos and don’ts and be-alerts. Amazingly that great facility, habituation, enabled whole cultures to acquire and practice these strange arts of unnatural, ritual behaviors that, in the aggregate, held value systems. The values, when you wished to concentrate enough to dig them out, revealed themselves quite clearly.

Watching a film about Taiwan the other day—it was not about manners—reminded me of cultural rituals—and that they remain active elsewhere. Reminded me of my one and only trip to Japan where, moments after my arrival, I felt glad that I too had been brought up in a culture quite like that one. It thus took me but moments to adapt my own behavior to theirs. Reminded me that effort is required to manifest value at this ritualized level of ordinary behavior—and because it’s present there, also manifesting at higher levels. Effort and time. So many changes. Women in the workforce. The erosion of domestic habits as the house is robbed of labor. Grab a pizza on the way home. And find the kids at home on the couch with bags of chips and cans of pop staring at the TV screen. Pop goes the weasel.

1 comment:

  1. You are right that life is a structured narrative of etiquette, manners, behavior, and mores and customs, and it is necessary for a civilization to be civilized in any sense of the word.

    However, I still find it difficult and distressing to sit at a table in a restaurant and wait for the ritual to play out until the bill is paid and your credit card comes limping back.
    At home I have gotten into the habit of eating while standing up for about 75% of my meals... I am less apt to spatter food around, so my wife thinks it fine.

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