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the table

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 02-Jan-2004

Edition: Late

Section: Metropolitan


Page: 19

Wordcount: 1834

Table talk

KNOW YOUR PLACE Summer Metropolitan

Elizabeth Farrelly.

Civilisation is inconceivable without this familiar four-legged friend, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.

Say grace, by all means. Cascade the cutlery just-so: soup spoon through to the cake fork.

But as you bend to that festive summer repast, be it formal dinner or basic barbie, imagine, for a moment, this: history without the table. Could Robespierre have warranted the beheadings-beyond-number; could Churchill have held a decent war cabinet, or penned all those epistles to Clemmie; could Christ have conducted a proper last supper, inspiring painters through the ages, without the

support of our humble four-legged friend? Even tomes on the anthropology of dining scarcely mention the table. But is history conceivable without it?

Of course it starts with gravity. The horizontal surface, as a receiver of objects, is an unassailable declaration that gravity stops here. A planar promise that the glazed ham/mobile phone/newborn babe shall fly no further to the geo-centre. Thus far, the table is a piece of planetary crust, raised for convenience to hip height. In this, solidity counts (glass tables almost always needing to be dressed for dinner to avoid vertigo in the guests). But that’s not the end of it.

History – standing, as it were, upon the table – fails to note the object’s first appearance. Perhaps it was the altar. The sacrificial altar. Even here, at this most gore-soaked level, the subtle genius of the plane is perceptible: receiving but also giving; taking from humans, offering to the gods. Today’s altars of blood and wine sustain a similar duality. As Canadian classicist and food writer Margaret Visser says of the Eucharist, “it smashes all the oppositions – a vegetarian meal which is also cannibal”, underlining “the mystic experience of perceiving a thing and its opposite at the same time, and

realising that black and white are the same”. The two central unifying experiences of humankind, she says – killing another human, a scapegoat, and eating – combine in the Eucharist.

Of course, not all tables have sacred import. Even secular tables, though, generate their own significance, centring any space, forming the focus of house, temple or court. “To remove the table is tantamount to ruining the whole house,” wrote Plutarch in the first century AD. “It is to condemn everyone to solitude, to deny offerings to the gods, to close the door on strangers, in short, to jeopardise the most humane and the first acts of communion between man and man.”

In 19th-century America, under the stern gaze of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the home became idealised as the focus of middle-class family life; the well-appointed dining room its central status-symbol. These days it’s more likely the kitchen table, close to what’s cooking, is seen as a house’s emotional centre, as recognised in the Latin word “focus”, meaning hearth or fireplace. But, kitchen or dining, it is a table thing. What, exactly, comprises this charisma?

Food, partly. Not all tables are of the eat-on variety, and eating wasn’t always done at a table: 10,000 years ago, humans squatted round the fire, spooning from a common pot. Since then, though, the table has acquired a pivotal and ubiquitous, if neglected, place in what we fondly call civilisation. And food is definitely implicated.

Visser argues that food is “the great metaphor, much more important than sex. Sex is really a latecomer”. A more familiar view, though, from Babette’s Feast to Nigella Bites, has sex and food profoundly intertwined. When Plato’s Alcibiades attempts to seduce Socrates, hoping “in return for my favours, to find out all that Socrates knew”, he arranges to meet Socrates and even wrestle him unchaperoned, but in vain. Desperate, Alcibiades resolves, “like a lover who has designs upon his favourite”, to invite Socrates to dine. The strategy fails, but the point is clear: dinner, Plato’s readers accept, will do it. Even today, a drink is ambiguous but dinner a deux, unless stated, is basically a “yes”.

In sensuality terms, the medieval feast was notoriously chaotic. Profoundly hierarchical seating arrangements gave the Anglo-Saxon “high table” tradition – seating VIPs across the short end of the room, as maintained in colleges and council chambers to this day – and the reverse in France, with an elaborate outsize salt cellar marking the top spot. Otherwise, though, medieval banqueting was pretty loose. People ate with fingers from common bowls and drank from common goblets. Bawdiness was standard and violence, even killing, commonplace. But the Renaissance changed all that.

Formulated in redress, 16th-century courtesy tells the story: no spitting on or over the table (only underneath); no blowing your nose on the tablecloth (use fingers); no putting half-eaten food back in the common dish; no spitting chewed food back onto the plate (toss it somewhere discreet); no picking your teeth with your knife. Much of this derived from the Dutch scholar Erasmus’s On Good Manners for Boys (1526), a popular and influential manual also used as a Latin primer in schools. Even so, Louis XIV felt impelled in 1669 to reduce mealtime assassinations by outlawing pointed knives at table.

For Renaissance thinkers the meal, thus tamed, became the defining human experience. Animals, it was said, gorge themselves in silence; humans must feed mind and body. Here the food-sex distinction became significant. While sex, as Montaigne noted, rather takes the mind off conversation, food is entirely talk-compatible, allowing us to reconcile, however fleetingly, the angel and the beast within us.

In this way the classical idea of table-talk as an art was reborn. Party animal Plutarch prescribed suitable foods (from dormice rolled in honey to flamingo brains, lamprey milt and fig-fed sow udders) and suitable subjects for conversation – neither too light nor too heavy. These ranged from how to guard against the pleasures of degenerate music to whether wrestling was the oldest sport, why meat spoils quicker in moonlight than sunlight and why Jews do not eat pork.

The idea was to be animated but not loud, learned but not obscure, witty but not uproarious, open but not intimate. Increasingly, table manners were becoming a discipline, a balancing act, an elaborate, ritualised game within which levels of accomplishment could be codified for use as exclusionary principles.

Exclusions worked on a number of levels. Children had to eat silently, leave the table early or stand throughout, eating only what was handed back by adults; women were expected to wait until offered wine by a man, and even then accept only occasionally. But it was the fast-expanding bourgeoisie that Renaissance courts felt compelled to exclude. Table etiquette was teased up into an elaborate system of manners, graces and conversational virtuosity capable of sorting the genuinely well-born from pretenders and aspirationals.

In post-revolutionary America the political overtones of table manners spread well beyond their essential triviality into realms of serious subversion. Jefferson’s Rules of Etiquette (1803) insisted, inter alia, on treating all foreign envoys equally at table, impelling English writers such as Frances Trollope to deplore democracy’s failure to keep vulgarity at bay, arguing that republicanism and rudeness were becoming identical. None of it, however, could prevent casualness-at-table from becoming a trademark of the American empire.

In any culture, the meal is a ritualised social drama. The table conducts, symbolises, mediates. Among the Sherpa, Visser reports, seating order is never fixed, but renegotiated on each occasion, according to changing rank and honour. In Western culture, by contrast, rankings were nailed to the mast. As late as 1975, etiquette mistress Emily Post (as republished) could advise: “the lady of highest rank is on the host’s right. The lady of next highest rank is on his left.”

But food tables are not the only sort. Many other social dramas, taking their cue, perhaps, from formalised dining, are similarly codified and choreographed. Negotiations and interrogations, sackings and seductions, conferences, brainstorms and parliamentary debates; all are just as table-centric, and just as placement-sensitive.

Take, for instance, the standard squabbling over parliamentary benches, front and back, or the deliberate distancing of the cross-benches. Note the limelight conferred by the on-table dispatch box, not to mention the irreversible significance of “tabling” a document which, once tabled, is irreversibly exposed to public scrutiny.

Consider, too, the attenuated argy-bargy in May 1968, before the Vietnam peace talks; by the time Richard Nixon came to power, eight months on, the only thing agreed – and that barely – was the table arrangement. Opinions differ as to detail, but various combinations of semicircles and rectangles were involved, before Danish poet/scientist Piet Hein (1905-1996) proposed the super-ellipse, a curious recto-ovoid, used 10 years earlier in designing Sergels Torg,

a Stockholm city square.

But the table is not just a pecking-order device. There is a sense in which we identify the table as a mental space, not just a physical one: a receiver not just of objects, but of wisdom. Moses takes two blank “tables” (sic) of stone to Mount Sinai and brings them back “written with the finger of God”. Tide tables, times tables, timetables all bear, protect and share important information.

Similarly, Merlin’s round table, as writer Sir Thomas Malory tells us, symbolised “the roundness of the world” (conceived as a flat disc), as well as the knights’ equality in ruling it. The IQ-club Mensa was so-named (mensa being Latin for “table”) to capture the same ideal of equality within an elite.

And it was this, the table’s sharing function, that nearly undid those Paris peace talks. Hein’s super-ellipse, being part-rectangle, part-circle, accommodated both opposition and compromise, without any possibility that the tables might suddenly turn – and so was credited, perhaps over-generously, with ending the war.


ILLUS: Good taste: Sex and food are “profoundly intertwined”.

Pass the salt, thank you.


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