But we are not yet as harmless as this makes us appear

January 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Modern man likes eating in restaurants, at separate tables, with his own little group, for which he pays. Since everyone else in the place is doing the same thing, he eats his meal under the pleasing illusion that everyone everywhere has enough to eat. Even sensitive people do not need this illusion afterwards; those who have eaten do not mind stumbling over the hungry.

The eater increases in weight; he is and he feels heavier, and there is a boast in this: he cannot grow any more, but there, on the very spot, under everyone’s eyes, he can increase in weight. This is another reason why people like eating with others; it is a contest in repletion. The satisfaction of repletion, of the moment when nothing more can be absorbed, is part of the goal and pleasure of eating and originally no-one was ashamed of it; there might be a large quantity of game which had to be eaten up before it went bad and so everyone ate as much as he could and carried his store of food within him.

Anyone who eats alone renounces the prestige which the process would bring him in the eyes of others. He bares his teeth simply for the sake of eating, and this impressing no-one, for there is no-one there to be impressed. But when people eat together, they can all see each other’s mouths opening. Everyone can watch everyone else’s teeth while his own are in action at the same time. To be without teeth is contemptible and there is a touch of asceticism in refusing to show those that one has. The natural occasion on which to show off one’s teeth is when eating with others. Contemporary etiquette requires the mouth to be closed while eating and thus reduces to a minimum the slight threat contained in opening it at all. But we are not yet as harmless as this makes us appear; we eat with knife and fork, that is, with two instruments which could easily be used for attack; everyone has these ready in front of him, or he may even carry them around with him. And the bit of food which we cut off and, as elegantly as possible shove in our mouths is still called a “bite.”

Laughter has been objected to as vulgar because, in laughing, the mouth is  opened wide and the teeth are shown. Originally laughter contained a feeling of pleasure in prey or food which seemed certain. A human being who falls down reminds us of an animal we might have hunted and brought down ourselves. Every sudden fall which arouses laughter does so because it suggest helplessness and reminds us that the fallen can, if we want, be treated as prey. If we went further and actually ate it, we would not laugh. We laugh instead of eating it. Laughter is our physical reaction to the escape of potential food. As Hobbes said, laughter expresses a sudden feeling of superiority, but he did not add that it only occurs when the normal consequences of this superiority do not ensue. His conception contains only half the truth. Perhaps because animals do not laugh, he did not see that our laughter is originally an animal reaction. But neither do animals deny themselves obtainable food if they really want it. Only man has learnt to replace the final stage of incorporation by a symbolic act. It is as though the whole interior process of gulping down food could be summed up and replaced by those movements of the diaphragm which are characteristic of laughter.

The only animal to make a sound really resembling human laughter is the hyena. This sound can be induced by placing food before a captive hyena and then withdrawing it quickly before the animal has time to snatch it. Here it is worth remembering that, in freedom, the hyena’s food consists of carrion. It is easy to imagine how often food must have been snatched from under its eyes by other animals after its own appetite had been aroused.

Elias Canetti, Crowds & Power

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