- The Elegant Philosophy of the Paper Napkin—An Interpretation of the Napkin or T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land Part IV: Death By Water”
Dearest Eliot, I have been pondering what we discussed concerning the paper napkin placed on our table when I met with you in the saloon last week. As you listened to me speak, you were folding the paper napkin this way and that. I thought that this showed your agitated state of mind, but then suddenly I realized that the paper napkin and your act of folding it concealed a most profound philosophy. It is essentially the same as the cultivation of ferns or the placement of aquariums in drawing rooms, and other such cultural preferences that were popular among the gentlemen of the previous century. Indeed, it signifies the birth and spread, and simultaneously the infertility, of culture. What I mean, my dearest Eliot, is that it is just as when I glimpsed barrenness there already, where the flowering plants put forth fresh green buds as we walked along the Thames last April.
—Excerpt of a letter from Mary Sullivan to T.S. Eliot, 1 May, 1918.
There is a Western saying, “Fingers were made before forks.” Yet, according to a rare book discovered many years ago, we could also say the same about the napkin. In the book, Baron Ludwig von Closen of France, when he visited America in 1780, [End Page 209] wrote the following: “Another peculiarity of this country is that in most houses, even in rich ones, you use no napkins at all, and each person wipes himself on the table-cloth, which must be very soiled as a result.”1
Baron Ludwig von Closen’s observation did not arise from any particular prejudice, for at the time napkins were used widely throughout Europe. Even the Huns of ancient times used hygiene products similar to napkins. This was further developed in English society, which took pride in being civilized.
Take for example the passage which the English writer Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary in 1669, saying that he “was mightily pleased with the fellow that come to lay the cloth, and fold the napkins, which I like so well, as that I am resolved to give him 40 shillings to teach my wife to do it.”2
Indeed, those who could fold napkins handsomely were the objects of respect and envy in England for several centuries, which reveals the pride that England took in its culture. Giles Rose, head chef to Charles II, king of England, showed that napkins could be folded into a total of twenty-five different shapes including “the form of a Pidgeon upon her Nest in a Basket.”3 It is said that these napkins were meant not for actual use, but as a kind of artwork.
It is therefore no exaggeration to say that while the varied manuals on napkin folding that spread throughout England in the 19th century were a kind of cultural fashion, they were simultaneously a display of class consciousness. It is comparable to when during the reign of Queen Victoria solemn and practical menswear became fashionable, completing the somber semi-aristocratic style of the bourgeois consciousness even in dress. Simply put, napkin folding, just like the dress customs of the time, [End Page 210] shows the tendency of aristocratic manners and ceremonies to spread down through the noble class to the ordinary middle class.
Bourdieu, upon careful sociological consideration of the history of this aspect of taste, pointed out that culture and taste are the forces governing society. When such a man thus raises the concept of “habitus,” we must note how it is affected by his upbringing in a rural corner of Southern France. Simply put, it reveals his underlying intention, after moving to the capital of Paris, to overcome his personal hick complex through reinterpretation of symbolic bourgeois values. Yet, despite that, the fact that behind every cultural expression lie class interests actually also proves that Bourdieu’s declaration conceals a self-reflection our generation would do well to heed.
For example, the rapid popularization...