“Intellectual life is a kind of combat,” wrote Fernand Braudel. I see no reason why historians, who happen to study early-modern civility, should behave like courtiers toward each other. But in point of fact, I do not describe Professor Chartier as a member of a terrible “sect.” The term “sect” appears only in a quotation from Zygmunt Bauman. And readers will observe that what Bauman and I are both getting at is the need to be critical of the process of canonization that has been at work in Elias’s case.
A Critical Perspective
If social science were a sport, Norbert Elias (1897-1990) would receive the award for comeback of the century. He was undistinguished during much of his career: an interminable graduate student in Weimar Germany; a disregarded refugee in Paris in 1933-1935; a prisoner in a British camp for aliens in 1940; an adjunct in adult-education centers during the immediate postwar years in London; a prey to writer’s block with no publications in the 1940s and only a few articles in the 1950s and 1960s. Elias finally got a full-time teaching job at Leicester University in 1954. The extent of his obscurity is evident from an incident at the meeting of the International Sociological Association in 1956. When a Dutch sociologist, Johan Goudsblom, asked to be introduced to him, Elias was astonished: It was the first time anyone had made such a request. In fact, it was the first time Elias had met anyone outside of his personal circle who had read The Civilizing Process.