lurking animus
February 18, 2011, 4:57 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

Come for dinner, bring a bottle.  Sounds innocuous enough:  a host, some guests, an invitation, gifts, drinks all around, dinner, warm conversation — a social life.  Lovely!

Don’t be fooled.  It’s not as innocent as it appears, says Margaret Visser in her book the Gift of Thanks.  Underneath all the niceties, it’s a sinister dance.  The host – who you would think likes the guest and enjoys his company – is watching, assessing whether the newcomer harbours violent intent.

The guest crosses the host’s home’s threshold and there begins a process of ‘ritual domestication.’  Outside is wild and unpredictable; inside the space of congress and negotiation.  Public life is a blank and life in the home everything.  And nothing is ever what it seems.

From the book –

In languages that have developed from Indo-European roots, the words host and guest come from the same stem, which contains both the g of guest and the h of host:  ghostis.  Hosts and guests play different roles, but they are actors in one “play,” a hospitable action.  Ghostis also provided us with the word hostile, so close is the idea of hospitality to the possibility of animus lurking in either host or guest, or both. (A hostage is a person forcibly, and therefore discourteously, detained by a group not his own.  Originally the word meant a person held as guarantee to a treaty of peace between two previously antagonistic sides.)  A guest is an outsider who has been ritually “domesticated,” made temporarily part of the host’s domus, or house.  He is given food, offered gestures of affability, and sometimes presented with gifts on his departure – for he must be free to leave.  There may be genuine interest in him and delight in his company.  But underlying the performance is the formal and primary aim of “disarming” him, of forestalling any likelihood of violence or resentment.

The Gift of Thanks, Margaret Visser


killing and eating
August 30, 2009, 10:33 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , ,

This is from an interview of Margaret Visser on her book The Rituals of Dinner.  In it, she makes the case for the eucharist being one of the most complex human constructs ever devised.  It is a meal full of content and ritual that upends everything we know, every order and truth and thing we hold sacred.

Her truly radical claim, that only two things really unite people:  joining together in killing one who has been isolated from the group, the scapegoat, and sharing a meal.  Her vision is isolating and bleak and more than a little true.

The Eucharist is blinding, it’s so incredible. It’s one of the richest, the most extraordinary rituals ever devised. I’m not talking about the belief in it. Just look at it analytically. It smashes all the categories of our culture: all of them. It smashes all the oppositions by which we categorize the world. It takes everything and makes it into one. The difference between here and everywhere is gone, the difference between one and many is gone, the difference between same and different is gone, the difference between meaning and fact is gone, the difference between host and guest is gone, the difference between God and man is gone–all the huge things which are absolutely divided in the experience of the world as we are brought up are smashed.

The mystic experience is one of perceiving a thing and its opposite at the same time, and realizing that black and white are the same. The Eucharist does this in an incredibly sophisticated way. And one of the many, many, many things it does is completely destroy the categorization of food, because it is a vegetarian meal which is also cannibal. And then you have all the poetry and all the ritual. This is mediated by ritual, it has to be–mediated by incredibly complex ritual although it’s extremely simple as well–and only eating can do this.

You see, there are two ways in which human beings are brought together most completely. One is by killing them, namely the scapegoat, and one is by eating together. And the Eucharist, of course, is about both. So it’s the ultimate uniting thing. But you see how food can say things like that. Only food could do the trick, because it’s an outside thing that comes inside. It’s one thing that we all share. We all eat it; we all become one. Human beings have been going on about food and its meaning since we were squatting around fires in caves. It’s the great metaphor. Much more important than sex. Sex is really a latecomer.

the imminent death of one of the guests
August 30, 2009, 9:04 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , ,

Here is Margaret Visser on table manners.  I like this topic because the dinner table, at different times in my life, has been fraught with a simmering underlying violence, or a place of real communion, or a time of loneliness.

We never never think that the family time around the dinner table could have this alternate meaning:  a summit of words designed in cooperation to kill one who has been singled out.  So, the least conforming in the circle must decide to suppress personal interest in order to not be eaten.

Table manners are social agreements; they are devised precisely because violence could so easily erupt at dinner.  Eating is aggressive by nature and the implements required for it could quickly become weapons; table manners are,  most basically, a system of taboos designed to ensure that violence remains out of the question.  But intimations of greed and rage keep breaking in: many mealtime superstitions, for example, point to the imminent death of one of the guests.  Eating is performed by the individual, in his or her most personal interest; eating in company, however, necessarily places the individual face to face with the group.  It is the group that insists on table manners; ‘they’ will not accept a refusal to conform.  The individual’s ‘personal interest’ lies therefore not only in ensuring his or her bodily survival, but also in pleasing, placating and not frightening or disgusting the other diners.

-Margaret Visser, Rituals of Dinner