'We have not learnt to control nature and ourselves enough': an interview with Norbert Elias*
by Aafke Steenhuis

At the end of the interview I ask Norbert Elias whether he has written his autobiography. 'No, just some notes'. There is little known about your life, I say, I don't even know, for example, whether you have ever been married. 'No'. Never? 'No, never'. Why not? 'Well, women were always jealous of my work. It wasn't possible'. So you felt more for your work than for women? 'Yes. I don't know....I didn't want to be disturbed. The work was my task'. Who gave you this task? 'Myself'. Why did you give yourself such a burdensome task? 'Perhaps it sounds puritan and conceited, but I have an unusual talent and I felt I had a duty to do something with it. A duty towards other people. And I still hold to that attitude. My assistant will be coming soon, I work even harder than ever, if I don't all is lost. Alas, alas, the women didn't want that...' And couldn't you find an intellectual women, who had her own work? 'Yes, as a friend. But not to live together'.

Norbert Elias's house in Amsterdam is a suprise. When I go up the stairs, and Elias indicates a door where I can hang my coat, I recoil: the room is full of dark figures. No, they are ebony figures, nearly life-size statues from Africa.
Elias, born in 1897, studied medicine, philosophy and psychology in Breslau, Freiburg and Heidelberg. In the 1930s he taught sociology in Frankfurt, but fled from the nazis in 1935, to England. In 1939 he published his important work The Civilizing Process, but because of the war the book received little attention, that only came in the 1970s. He held a chair between 1962 and 1964 in Ghana, and now lives and work, well into his eighties, tirelessly, in Bielefeld and Amsterdam. He also wrote The Court Society and What is Sociology?
Norbert Elias's ideas have had great resonance in a number of countries. His fluid, original cultural analyses resonated among those who did not see very much in dry empirical sociology or rigid marxist analyses. One of Elias's central ideas is that the process of state formation since the Middle Ages - through taxation, police and armed forces, the law - was closely related to the formation of individual conscience and self-control. As the state became more regulated, people developed more inner rules. This is because people are abssorbed into increasingly large networks of dependency, and have to take account of each other.
A lot has been said recently about the crisis in European culture.What is wrong with it? Is it impoverished and fossilized, as some people claim? Or is is not controlled enough, asNorbert Elias argues?

AS: We here in Western Europe have old democratic states, with many rules and social services. That includes a specific culture, a sort of social-democratic culture with a lot of self-control, taking account of each other, planning, not stealing, murdering or ill-treating each other. But doesn't such a controlled, restrained culture also have dangerous aspects?

NE (hesitant): It is a question of balance, you have situations which require some spontaneity, the release of emotion, and you have situations which demand distance and a surplus of self-control. Love is an area where spontaneity and letting go with emotions are appropriate. But politics is no place for strong emotions.

AS: But in reality you see that we have got a type of person who has a regulated spontaneity in daily life, is controlled. And perhaps people are emotional precisely in the political arena....You see very emotional, primitive sentiments in political culture. Like Reagan referring to the Soviet Union as the Devil's kingdom, he then appeals to very emotional, infantile feelings.

NE: Yes, he stirs up the Americans' national pride. I want to say something which is perhaps important. I get the feeling that the current polarisation into left and right, in which everyone thinks they have to take up a position in the political spectrum between conservative and communist, is one of the reasons why we are in such a bind. We have to get away from the compulsion of this political spectrum. (Emphatically) The current polarity might lead us to a nuclear war.
What it boils down to is what I call 'ideological disarmament'. It is nonsense to think we'll get there just by piling up more arms. Let the Russians build up their communist state, let the Americans build up their capitalist state, if it can be done peacefully. Ideological disarmament is essential, an easing of the fire of mutual hate and dissension.

AS: How can we manage this ideological disarmament?


NE: Even the slogan 'ideological disarmament' doesn't exist yet. It is important to give it wide exposure. If you only call Peace, peace, peace' you don't bring peace any nearer. But precisely we Europeans have to say: We no longer want to hear these mutual outbursts of hate and propaganda, the Russians are not devils, and the Americans are also not devils. We shouldn't shout at each other like that, you're just as dirty as the rest.
I've got a new division of history. In my division into periods we are now in the late Middle Ages....and then you ask: 'so when does the modern period begin?' I have no clear answer to that. The modern period will begin when it becomes self-evident that disputes between states are fought out with means other than war. There will always be conflicts between states. They now assume that such conflicts can be fought out by killing each other, but of course that idea belongs in the Middle Ages.
So the modern period will begin when all states have agreed that when there are difficulties, they will turn to the judge. It used to be so domestically, too, that when there was conflict the strongest killed the weakest, wasn't it, but gradually we have reached the point where this isn't permitted and we go to court. You should say to the Americans and the Russians: Calm down, take a seat, and tell us what the problem really is, then we'll look for a divorce court or something and tryto resolve it'. That's how reasonable people would do it.


AS: That divorce court already exists, the International Court in The Hague, and the United Nations Security Council. But they don't listen to them.


NE: Yes, that's dreadful, very dreadful. But it will go further. World opinion is not yet prepared to pursue it with any vigour, but we have to work further in this direction. If you get the feeling that progress isn't possible, you also block that path in your thought. We have to establish a world state. We shouldn't go back to fragmentation, but towards a world republican state.


AS: We in the West have shaped the world in our own image, we've established industry, trade, health care and education. We think that we've tamed nature, but isn't it now turning back on us? The air, the earth, the forests have been attacked, and now we are in turn attacking us.


NE: No, what you call nature is a cold, wild, deserted chaos. The impression one gets from what you say is that nature is good it's untamed.


AS: You've lived in Africa, I've travelled a lot in Latin America. Western culture tries to dominate and control everything . We think that we can live with our heads....


NE: Have you ever really lived in the wild? Were things that much better? I really think quite differently about this: I believe that we haven't learnt to control nature and ourselves enough, we have to learn to do it better. The future certainly doesn't lead back to the wild, to primitive societies.
You know, something which saddens me is that I observe everywhere how your generation complains, how it criticizes the European world. It's as if the Europeans are the worst thing on the earth! Your generation is like, forgive the comparison, the whore who turns pious in her old age! Our fathers have sinned, they have exploited and dominated others, w are something dreadful, Pater peccavi, Father I have sinned, and now I have converted.


AS: But what you come across in Latin America and find in Latin American culture: the imagination, the feel for history, for connection, the tie with nature, with other people, magic. We've lost that to a large extent.


NE: That isn't so, we haven't lost our imagination, art blossomed in the first half of the 20th century. The younger generation, which now cries Oh me, Oh my, and believes that it lives in the worst times ever, drowns in creativity.
Look, I have lived in Africa, and I grew attached to the people there, I stand on their side. But what they do to themselves is dreadful. Ghana was a beautiful, fairly rich country, but economically it's fallen apart. Self-government is of course necessary and right, but they are going through a period of deprivation and misery, because they are barbarous and uncompromising with each other. We Europeans are a lote more careful.


AS: But what about the outbreak of barbarity in Nazi Germany? We here in civilized Europe have had two barbarous world wars, why the arrogance to think that we've got such an exemplary culture?


NE: We are not at all arrogant, we've really achieved a great deal, we should be proud of what we've done. You can't always point to the two world wars, there have been many more wars in other countries.


AS: But not with such weapons, techniques and concentration camps.


NE: No, not with such weapons, but just as destructive - no, not as destructive. But you know, I've gone into African history before the arrival of the Europeans, It was full of wars, conflict, violence. The colonies were the first step towards pacification. That doesn't mean that colonisation should be continued. But the Africans were just as brutal as the Europeans, and the Arabs were even more brutal. You seem to think that only the Europeans were ruthless. That isn't right! They are no better or worse than anyone else. My theory is, that over the last few centuries, through a blind, unintentional process, Europe had the opportunity to progress, as did Mesopotamia, Egypt and China earlier. China stagnated, as Europe is now, and the mentality of tearing your hair out and being anxious contributes to that. The younger generation here, it believes that things here in Europe are the worst in the world, dreadful! You get nowhere if you spit on yourself, pardon the expression.


AS: Through welfare, many young people can travel and see what the situation is in Latin America, Asia, Africa. They see that we live on a small planet, thet you can fly to the other end in 10 hours, and they see the economic relationship between the misery there and the wealth here.


NE: But that doesn't mean that the people in Africa are so good and we are so bad. I am completely in favour of bringing humanity to the same level. I read an article on the shortage of telephones in China. You can't get around the fact that telephones, computers, technology have to be introduced everywhere, machanisation has to continues, of course we have to ensure that it happens without pollution, but only in this way can a higher standard of living be achieved and poverty vanish. We can't go back to nature, that's a dreadful idea, nature is wild, blind, angry, sometimes beautiful....


AS: Nature is the most important thing we have, it provides our food.


NE: The most important thing we have is what we make out of nature, not nature itself. Many people who say the word naturem connect it with the feeling of a generous mother.
You say it with that emphasis, as if it's something good! Completely wrong! Nature is something neither good nor bad, it's blind. In any case, I no longer make the distinction between nature and culture, that's a false distinction from the past. I don't glorify nature. We have grown out of nature through a natural evolution, that is, we are a piece of nature, naturei is in us, we now have to assume the responsibility.


AS: Your essay on time is about the relation between physical and social time, clock time and time as it's experienced.


NE: In English you have the verb 'to time': the progression of time. Indian tribes in the Amazon area have few social needs which make it necessary to observe time. How is it, that we constantly think about time, that time has become part of our conscience? We live constantly in the awareness that is now 12 o'clock, that it will soon be 1 o'clock.

We live in an upside down world. We believe that time is a concept from natural science, and was brough from there into society. But in reality it happened the other way around. Because of social needs in earlier times priests observed the progression of the moon and the sun in order to indicate planting times, and as people live in closer relationships, co-ordinated activities were only possible if there was a uniformity of time, if everyone had a watch.


AS: And the result is that everyone has an in-built mechanical cloack, which tells you when you have to get out of bed and go to work. Time has become a problem, a repressive instance.


NE: Yes, a problem. We will have to change the formation of conscience. We have not yet learnt to make unemployment meaningful, people still have the ethic: actually I have to get up at seven o'clock, and they feel inferor because they don't have to, not having any work. I, for example, if I feel like it, can sleep until 11 o'clock on a Sunday....


AS (ironically): And Wednesdays? Can you sleep in until 11 o'clock on Wednesdays?


NE (ironicall): Um, if I feel it's good for my work I can! (Laughing) Yes, I've got a very strong work ethic. And I'm very contented with it, because something comes out of it. But I also think that now that more and more machines and computers are taking over people's work, we have to try and make an unemployed life more satisfying and meaningful.


AS: Many people in Europe live in fear of a nuclear war. Earlier in the Middle Ages people were threatened by epidemics, the plague, cholera. Now we are threatened by something we have made ourselves. It seems as if we control the world, but in fact we don't have a grip on it.


NE: Precisely, precisely! We are driven by blind social processes, in which we are trapped in our own actions. Sociology has the task of finding the causes and explanations of those processes, so that we can learn to better control those blind social processes. We have to understand how those processes work, how something comes out of the web of actions which no one intended, so that we can better guide those processes. It's a matter of controlling the uncontrolled.


AS: Sometimes I think, everything we control controls us.


NE (cries out): That's that attitude again, which basically goes the wrong way. In Europe people have given up thinking that things can get better. If I say the word progress' people nearly strike me dead. It's not right. You have just so rightly connected the electricity for the typewriter, you control the apparatus, not the other way around. We have a water system, we don't have to walk to the well. Life is now a lot better, with the increased control of nature.


AS: In Germany, 3,000 babies have died as a result of acid rain.


NE: Yes, that's a poorly researched problem, we have to study it to control it. You contradict yourself. That attitude constantly rears up, of hating the present.


AS: Hate? Not at all, I like the world.


NE: One wouldn't think so. Outside your own territory perhaps, you like Latin America....


AS: I like Holland! Really! My question is, have you read much on other cultures, Buddhism for example?


NE: No, that doesn't suit me.


AS: I thought so!


NE: Although, I do have an Eastern meditation technique, but then only for purely worldly ends. Meditation often has a very good and useful effect. Without hashich! Have you studied Eastern cultures?


AS: No, but I have noticed that the writers I like to read are related. Doris Lessing, Marguerite Yourcenar.


NE: Yourcenar, no, I can't read her. How can you like that? In Hadrianus people don't come to life, if I compare it to Robert Graves' I, Claudius, now that's alive, I like that. Yourcenar, that's too much reflection, too much with the head.


AS: And Borges? Elias Canetti?


NE: Borges, I can't read him. Nor Canetti, much too cerebral. I was invited to write something for Canetti's 80th birthday, but I didn't do it. He's a nice man, but I can't read his work. (Laughing) It's a remarkable paradox that you do like it; we are all full of contradictions.


AS: I'd like to continue with imagination and religion. You once wrote: previously people could not explain many phenomena. Everything they did not understand they called God.


NE: They were placed before uncontrollable events. Lightning, for example. They couldn't control them, so they projected their fantasies onto them. So you should not interpret magic simply as negative. It protected people against their powerlessness, their helplessness. Now, too, you see many people who need magic for the threat of war. They cry 'Peace, peace, peace' and think that they thus bring peace nearer.


AS: But now that people understand and can explain an increasing number of events, what significance do you see for fantasy and religion?


NE: I'm a sociologist. I can't speak about religion as if it is suspended in mid-air, and can can only speak about it in relation to human organisations like Curches or sects. You ask me what significance the Catholic or Protestant church has?


AS: No. Our knowledge of the world has increased, we plan our lives, we become a professor or a journalist, it is no longer God who makes our lives, we make our own lives, we have become little gods ourselves, we create our own friendships and loves. Do you believe that religion, magic and mystery have become superfluous?


NE: I don't know. I don't understand mysteries. If you need emotional fantasies, you're free to use them. I don't need them.


AS: At the moment a lot is being said about the crisis in European culture and its causes.


NE: The European countries were not able to manage the transiton after World War II, when they became second-rung powers. But for me it is still an unsolved problem why Europe's military decline should be coupled with a cultural decline.


AS: Two causes of the crisis which are mentioned are: the communications revolution, which Europe was not prepared for, and the splitting of Europe which cut East and West apart.


NE: I don't see it like that. I don't see it like that. It is of course unfortunate, that the great Prague cultural tradition, that whole potential of human creativiy, no longer blooms. I know myself how hopeless it is when you're talented and you cannot expres yourself, it's a dreadful situation. I have a lot of respect for the Polish, the Czechoslovakian and Russian traditions. But Europe has many branches, and a tree can surely blossom if some branches momentarily don't.


AS: But nothing is blossoming!


NE: The question is what one can do to get Europe blossoming again. I myself am in a remarkable situation....pehaps because I was born in the previous century and experienced everything differently, but today my imagination is still as alive as ever and I'm still fullof ideas in my field...I try to be an example to others. I don't see why things should be suffocating here. The problem is that the Europeans are searching for an identity. They've lost their old identity by making the same mistake as the USA and Russia now make: striving for military power. They've confused military power with imaginative power. What can we now do to again give Europeans the courage to create? I haven't lost the courage!


AS: In The Loneliness of the Dying you described how death has tended to disappear from daily life.


NE: Yes, I've tried to break that taboo open, but it is uncomfortable for many people. Recently a young girl from a newspaper came to see me in Bielefeld, she looked at me with wonder in her eyes and asked, How did you come to the remarkable idea of writing about dying?' For young people death is so far away. On the other hand, there is a lovely remark by Thomas Mann, I believe in Zauberberg: One should not let thoughts of death gain power over one's life', that is also important...


AS: What I find so paradoxical is that in our culture death is not talked about, we see no dead people; graveyards, crematoria and mortuaries are kept out of sight. But on the televisions in every home there is nothing but violence, murder, war, corpses. It's as if we live in a fiction, The ral dead people we don't see; what we do see and what we get used to are the dead people on the screen.


NE: Yes, what you say is right. Perhaps I'll write a story about it: recently I unexpectedly faced death myself, during a lecture tour in Athens I suddenly fell ill. Actually I stayed alive through a series of lucky coincidences, if I'd gone a few steps further, I'd probably be....as a human experience it seemed worth writing about. Ultimately it didn't do me much harm....


AS (laughing): And now you're sitting here attacking the youth of Europe!


AS: At the beginning we talked about projection in politics. Where you also see a lot of projection is between men and women. Men adore women, or love them...


NE (interrupting): They need women!


AS: Yes, that's true at a pragmatic level. But I'm talking about the psychological projection of men and women: girls want a prince, a pretty young man. Men want a whore, a virgin, a mother. Do you see a connection between this sexual projection and political projection?


NE: I don't completely understand. What is your specific problem? What do you mean by projection?


AS: I'm thinking that one of the problems of our Christian culture is that we think in political utopias and also project ideals onto our personal relationships. If you project too much you can't see reality anymore.


NE: You have so rightly accused me of pragmatism. But what you now say means, translated into my language, we dream too much, and these dreams hinder us in dealing with reality. Yes, I agree with that. This brings me back to your question on religion. For me the same applies there. Our task is to get somewhere with reality, not to obscure it with projections. And indeed, perhaps that also applies to the idealised notions men have of women and vice versa.
Seeing reality clearly, constructing our life with each other sensibly, and taking account of each other's weakness, that's what it's about. We are all neurotic, a little mad. And patience, patience plays a large part. And if you just have patience with mutual lunacies, then you can also dream.


Translated by Robert van Krieken
University of Sydney

*Originally: De Groene Amsterdammer 16.5.1984, pp. 10-11.


Comments, suggestions, additions to: Robert van Krieken, robertvk@mail.usyd.edu.au
Last modified: Thursday, 30 May 1996 - 1:43:23 PM