Blood Sports In A Starched Collar: Surrealist Etiquette
We know from the entry on behavior in Julien Levy’s Surrealism (1936)—a grab-bag of Surrealist poems, proverbs, dreams, and encyclopedia entries that includes everything but the fur-lined kitchen sink—that there is such a thing as Surrealist etiquette.
“When invited to a party, unless the contrary is stated, the guest must assume that he is expected to make love eventually to the Hostess, for a party without love is as a snare without delusions, wrack without ruin,” writes Levy, quoting from Peter Lloyd’s Notebook of Etiquette (a book that may or may not exist but was unquestionably written by Levy under a pseudonym). “If, for any reason, this should be distasteful to the Guest, he must make his attitude clear at the outset. On entering the drawing room, pay your respects immediately to the Hostess, then say,—‘I have no intention of sleeping with you tonight.’”
Lloyd instructs us in the Art of Conversation: “Our conversation should be such as to irritate others, for the faculty of irritability is a coefficient of life…and we should bend our most astute efforts to discovering as rapidly as possible the vulnerable emotions of those who listen to us,—in this way we both act as a cathartic, and distill a lively and salutary dialectic. … Never respect a subject which your neighbor fears. What innumerable mortifications, what heroic quarrels, what splendid revelations would be achieved, if this simple rule were universally observed!”
Tactically contrarian, Lloyd’s agent provocateur rips off the starched shirtfront of polite banter to make way for a china-rattling clash of intellects that may prove cathartic and just might yield “splendid revelations.” At the very least, a Surrealist among your dinner guests is sure to set the table aroar in both senses of the word, cutting through the stupefying chitchat that is the death of lively minds like a straight razor through an eyeball.
Lloyd directs our attention to Arthur Rimbaud, the wild-haired feral child of Symbolist poetry who “made himself immortally insupportable”—summa cum laude, in Surrealist charm schools. Invited to sup with his mentor and sometime lover Paul Verlaine at the home of Verlaine’s biographer Edmond Lepelletier, the poet earned his reputation as an enfant terrible—and then some. Sitting tight-lipped, he broke his sullen silence only to snap orders for bread or wine, as if he were in a restaurant. When the burgundy took effect, he grew combative, baiting his companions with “challenging paradoxes and apothegms purposed to provoke contradiction,” in Lepelletier’s account of events. A funeral passed, and Lepelletier doffed his hat in respect, which elicited a punk-rock razzberry from the vociferously anti-bourgeois Rimbaud, who mocked his host as a “saluter of the dead.” An incensed Lepelletier, whose mother had died recently, told Rimbaud to “keep silent on the subject” (translation: shut up), a reprimand his obstreperous guest “apparently took in bad part, for he arose from the table and advanced towards me in a menacing fashion, nervously and senselessly holding a dessert knife, no doubt as a weapon…” For the Surrealist, table manners are a blood sport, it turns out; knowing which knife to use may be a matter of life and death.
The table is a proving ground for Surrealist etiquette for the obvious reason that, while some of the prescriptions and prohibitions that govern the behavior of humans at the trough are commonsensical enough (who wants to see grandad’s false teeth effervescing quietly in his water glass?), many of them represent social control at its most insidious and bourgeois insecurities about status at their most neurotic.
In Debt: The First 5,000 Years, the anthropologist David Graeber looks at etiquette as a fossil record of power relations: “Consider the custom, in American society, of constantly saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ To do so is often treated as basic morality: we are constantly chiding children for forgetting to do it… We often assume that the habit is universal, but…it is not. Like so many of our everyday courtesies, it is a kind of democratization of what was once a habit of feudal deference: the insistence on treating absolutely everyone the way that one used only to have to treat a lord or similar hierarchical superior.”
Amid the class tensions of Victorian times, an unsparing attention to the Done Thing was a means of drawing the battle lines between upstairs and downstairs. In the hyperconformist America of the Cold War years, where the red menace lurked under every bed and an increasingly defiant youth culture conjured the specter of juvenile delinquency, manners emerged as a bulwark against social chaos.
Spokesmen (or, more often, women) for the societal superego such as Emily Post, handbooks like The Vogue Book on Etiquette, and, on the frontlines of the generation gap, classroom movies elaborated that mythology. “After decades of chaos—the reckless 1920s, the barren 1930s, the bloodstained 1940s,” writes Ken Smith in Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945-1970, “most Americans demanded order and ‘normalcy’ in their world,” even at the cost of what the historian David Nye has called the “cancellation of personality.”
Films, a uniform delivery system, were ideal for promoting a uniform code of behavior—and for fostering acceptance of that principle. For young audiences, the message was direct. Noninvolvement was cast as a social virtue in Manners at School (1956), in which the narrator explains, ‘If we mind our own business, people will like us better.’ Those who try to fit in and fail…weep in torment, damned by their own individuality. … Even worse fates lie in store for those who deliberately challenge the system. In Are Manners Important? (1954), young Mickey dreams of issuing a proclamation ‘abolishing manners forever.’ This anarchic dictum is immediately shouted down by Mickey’s own kid constituents, who then attack him in a howling mob. Mickey, cowering, disappears beneath the onslaught.
Table Manners(1947) is a classic of the genre.
“Produced in collaboration with the Emily Post Institute,” it’s introduced by the Grand Dame herself, a dreadnought of a woman still sporting an Edwardian monobosom in the postwar ‘40s. Post narrates the film in one of those mid-Atlantic accents that comes with governesses and private schools and summers spent in Tuxedo Park. Exacting yet encouraging, she schools us in the fine art of buttering bread and the perils of ethnic fare, alien to Middle America, such as spaghetti: “You can manage it best by using the side of your plate as a barricade and twisting it into a bite-sized roll…if a strand comes loose from your fork, put your fork back into your plate and twist it until all strands are again secure.”
Excavated from YouTube, such movies are snark magnets; the theological gravity with which they treat such monumental matters as how to sip soup directly from the bowl (“avoid making your little finger conspicuous,” says Post) make them easy targets for postmodern irony. But isn’t etiquette inherently self-parodic, a caricature of the bourgeoisie’s pathological fear of committing a breach of decorum that reveals the offender as déclassé? (A friend’s mother, born in 1927, insisted on the importance of knowing one fork from another in anticipation of that day, surely inevitable, when “the queen comes to dinner.” She used the phrase with tongue in cheek, but it’s revealing, even so.) Bathetic by definition, etiquette is the ethics of the inconsequential—ethics reduced to questions of whether to wear your trousers rolled or do you dare to eat a peach? (For those who dare, Post is helpful. “Peaches or other very juicy fruits are peeled and then eaten with knife and fork,” she instructs, in her 1922 classic, Etiquette. “Never wipe hands that have fruit juice on them on a napkin without first using a finger bowl, because fruit juices make indelible stains.”)
If Breton was right in his assertion that Surrealism, when translated from the page into everyday life, demands a new morality, then surely it implies a new etiquette, too. Like Buñuel’s send-up of upper-class pretensions in The Exterminating Angel (set, tellingly, at a dinner party) or Groucho’s brain-twisting routines at the expense of high-society matrons with trilling r’s (the Surrealists embraced the Marx Brothers as close kin), a Surrealist philosophy of social behavior would, as Lloyd/Levy suggests, be dedicated to the proposition that etiquette, in polite society, is too often a reflexive genuflection to one’s betters, a fear of offending so paralyzing it freezes any hint of “lively and salutary dialectic” dead in its tracks, insuring that any “splendid revelations” die stillborn. Politics, religion, sex (as a discussion topic and as a digestif, if you and your host are feeling frolicsome), death (and saluters of the dead): such subjects, strenuously avoided by the living dead at most dinner parties, are red meat on the Surrealist’s plate. “Challenging paradoxes and apothegms” dropped like stink bombs into a lull in the nice-making repartee? A duel to the death with dessert knives? Anything is possible when a Surrealist comes to dinner.
Right about now, you’re thinking: isn’t etiquette in the Emily Post sense of the word dead and buried in a world where Taco Bell’s Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos mean never having to wonder which fork to use? Where our thoughts are clogged by the imbecile yawp of Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen and Guy Fieri blaring from our TVs? Where grabbing your crotch and idly fondling your junk, in public, or wearing your pants around your knees, underwear rampant, is the height of chic, in some quarters? Where walking down a supermarket aisle, bawling into your hands-free phone for all to hear, is perfectly unremarkable? Where there’s nothing out of the ordinary about pecking away at your phone while your companion gazes vacantly at his, you sipping your Chocolate Cookie Crumble Frappuccino while he nibbles his cake pop, both of you dressed, appropriately enough, like overgrown infants, in sweatpants, baseball caps, and those Day-Glo rubber clown shoes called Crocs?
The Surrealist calls not for the abolition of manners—a crusade that hardly wants for recruits, here where the booboisie roam—but for an etiquette that does away with snobbery and class-anxious conformity and substitutes, in its place, a social philosophy that celebrates the insurgent intellect and the idiosyncratic self. Surrealist etiquette encourages intellectual fencing, savoring it as an amuse bouche, and applauds the prankishness that pokes fun at our libidinous impulses (“I have no intention of sleeping with you tonight”) or lets the air out of puffed-up machismo (defending one’s honor with a dessert knife).
“Chappism” or “anarcho-dandyism” as it’s sometimes called, comes close to a Surrealist etiquette for our times. In the pages of their house organ, The Chap magazine, and in the theater of everyday life, the movement’s sharp-creased, pipe-smoking founders, Vic Darkwood and Gustav Temple, wield “revolutionary etiquette” like a sword cane against “a world of increasing vulgarity.” “Something is amiss in society,” they write, in The Chap Manifesto: Revolutionary Etiquette for the Modern Gentleman, whose tongue-in-cheek resemblance to a more famous manifesto by a certain bearded German rabble-rouser is entirely intentional. “At every level, the populace worships an unholy trinity of aspiration, vulgarity and self-regard, while qualities such as courtesy and savoir-faire are pushed aside in the name of progress.”
For too long we have been the playthings of massive corporations, whose sole aim is to convert our world into a gargantuan shopping mall. Pleasantry and civility are being discarded as the worthless ephemera of a bygone age…
… But now, a spectre is beginning to haunt the reigning vulgarioisie: the spectre of Chappism. A new breed of insurgent has begun to appear on the streets, in the taverns and in the offices of Britain: The Anarcho-Dandyist. Recognisable by his immaculate clothes, the rakish angle of his hat and his subtle rallying cry of “Good day to you sir/ madam!”
At once radical and reactionary, Chappism’s “Tweed Revolution” looks at first glance like a concoction of Savile Row and steampunk, with a jigger of English eccentricity and a twist of Pythonian wit; closer inspection reveals a Situationist critique of consumer culture, a bohemian contempt for the hamster-wheel pointlessness of timecard-punching, and a Surrealist delight in dream logic applied to the waking world.
Like the Surrealists, the Chaps envision “revolutionary” dinner parties, where the air is thick with sallies, provocations, and pranks, as a test bed for their theories—society in a vitrine. “Whether you are attending someone else’s or holding your own dinner party, your main objective should be to lead guests away from the usual road of predictable behaviour and tedious conversation, and towards a shared voyage of epicurean delight,” write Temple and Darkwood, sounding very like Lloyd in his Notebook of Etiquette. “[D]inner guests will find their repast far more satisfying if it is presented as a challenge and an opportunity for self-expression. For example, instead of the dry old formula of a plate flanked by serried ranks of knives, forks and spoons, today’s modern host should show a little more ingenuity when selecting eating utensils. The novelty of using a Black & Decker two-speed drill to sheer flakes off the roast beef or a 15-inch spanner to negotiate the foie gras will firmly place your party in the minds of your guests as a night to remember.”
Why not? Whenever I take my seat at the banqueting table, candles flickering as they have at dinners for centuries, I’m tingling with excitement, anticipating the moment when they un-dish-cover the fish, as they say in Alice. Always, I have the sensation of being onstage, of the curtain about to rise, of teetering on the brink of a moment when anything might happen. The ceremonial unfurling of the napkin, its ritual placement on the lap like a mason’s apron; the juniper fumes wafting up out of my martini glass, hinting at splendid revelations in its depths. The night is young; who knows what mortifications wait in the wings? With luck, we may end up under the host.
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