What people around the world consider good manners varies a lot. If you go and visit a Masai chief east of the Ngorongoro Crater, his good manners will be to slaughter a goat in your honour. Your good manners will be to eat its eyeballs. Failure to do so will spoil the party.
In Togo, remember to break the bones of the beast and eat the marrow. In Brasil, never cut the lettuce in a salad.. and burp after your meal. If you do the same in England, look embarrassed and beg everybody’s pardon.
Whatever the custom, its about how to be together, how to belong. But etiquette, like consciousness, has a shadow. It can take some curious turns and serve some dubious masters.
Louis XIV, the Sun King, matched the material extravagance of Versailles with the gestural minutiae of Court Etiquette, a system that seems quite absurd until you get to the bottom of the magical purpose it served….
bearing in mind that the problem with building castles is that they tend to attract armies..
and people who want to put your head on a spike.
Actually, the battles might have been welcome relief from the cloak and dagger of court intrigue. At least you knew who and where the enemy were. With the intense centralisation of power at Versailles there was no such certainty and so extra measures had to be taken.
Etiquette got political.
Louis, as a living embodiment of absolute monarchy had to contend with the intense contradiction of being entirely isolated in his Majesty whilst being surrounded by suffocating, wayward courtiers who wanted a piece and perhaps pieces of him.
Etiquette, as a conjurer’s parody of how to belong, became necessary to tyrannise effectively.
‘These extremely strict rules governed priority, determining not only who was allowed to approach the important people in the Court, but also where and when… thereby strengthening the royal authority.’ M Visser.
No-one in Versailles was allowed to use the doors. There were ushers for that. If no usher was available you had to wait even if you were the duc d’Orleons. Ten thousand people, all with their movements between rooms entirely restricted.
Restriction of movement was backed up by restriction of gesture…
”each time anyone was polite, he or she was simultaneously acknowledging rank and demonstrating who stood where. M. Visser
a shared pretense, a delusion in fact, of polite correctness that was in fact rooted in paranoia, fear and inequality.
”Their vanity was flattered by the customs which converted the right to give a glass of water, to put on a dress, and to remove a basin, into honorable prerogatives. Madame de Campan.
rather than the control necessitated by living in constant mortal apprehension.
The policing of emotions became internal, and finally invisible even to themselves: they were able to think that they acted, not in obedience to power and self-interest but for purely moral reasons.” M. Visser.
And to this end Louis could control people down to the most astonishing degree and do it in the name of polite manners.
Here is ‘How to walk’, from a court guide,
You begin to walk by stamping the left foot and leaning forward so that the right foot rises. In a smooth movement the right leg will extend and move in front of the left. Be sure that the distance between both feet is not bigger than the length of one’s foot However the hells of the right foot should be placed in front of the toes of the left. Once your right foot has touched the floor the other one will push back your upper body. You now proceed as mentionned above. Always be sure to spread your legs outwards and bend your knees which keeps you from buckling your legs and crossing your steps which would be an immense mistake. “Maitre à danser” written by Pierre Rameau.
How to wear your hat…
”When putting it on place the hat on the forehead above the eyebrows. Now push it backwards a bit with your hand touching the tip, but not too far. The hat should be slightly turned to the left which displays one’s face much better. The button of the hat should also be stuck to the left side.” ibid
The genius of Louis, whose earliest childhood memory was of half crazed mobs breaking into the royal appartments where he slept, was that he invented a system of exacting social control that people actually wanted to sign up to. It wasn’t experienced as domination. Learning when it was your turn to unfold a napkin, how far to unfold it and where to put it when you are done was experienced as crucial information people would give their right arm for, really believing that there sole desire lay in not wishing to offend.
Louis was under no such illusion. He knew perfectly well what he had orchestrated. When his brother, Phillipe, called for a chair with arms on it, which he wasn’t allowed even though he was a prince, Louis forbad him, explaining..
”It is in your interest, brother, that the majesty of the throne should not be weakened or altered; and if, from Duc d’Orleans, you one day become King of France, I know you well enough to believe that you would never be lax in this matter. Before God, you and I are exactly the same as other creatures that live and breathe; before men we are seemingly extraordinary beings, greater, more refined, more perfect. The day that people, abandoning this respect and veneration which is the support and mainstay of monarchies,–the day that they regard us as their equals,–all the prestige of our position will be destroyed.”
And so from the royal rising ceremony with its inaugural peck on the cheek from his childhood nurse, to the retiring ceremony at night, Louis followed a strict schedule governed by rules that read like a check list for OCD, as did all the members of the Court, all regulated like clockwork orange to assure the continued robust health of his Majesty.
The official version of Louis’ cause of death was senile gangrene. His leg rotted off. Apparently, not a sufficient cause for suspicion of foul play…
which rather suggests someone got tired of decades worth of complicated compulsory dancing..
and realised Louis’ worst fears.
Either way what Louis left us was the reminder that intelligent, educated people can be herded like sheep if only they can get to be part of a special club. Not unlike the fetishist’s prostrations that serve both to approach and maintain distance, whose compulsions are rooted in the shared unconscious terror of life threatening intrusion brought to reality for Louis’ line in 1789 when those whose legs had not rotted off, lost their heads instead.
Our own anxiety is that even though we know how badly this story ended we still aspire to be like them. Every lotto sign, Oscar red carpet, every scratchcard, every X factor, could be you, could bring the dream, the dream of unimaginable wealth and power. Lie awake at night fantasising of what to do with it all forgetting that its like wishing for a narcissistic personality disorder garnished with assassination paranoia.
” The devil comes to you not with red cape and horns but as everything you ever wanted.” T. Max.
Oligarchs are bound to have power over those who nurse a secret desire to be like them.
Still, never mind. You can always just feign shock when it all comes out in the wash and say you kept silent so as not to offend.