(No) Rules Concerning Eccentricities

“Given the existence of specialized pieces of silverware, the question of what form is for what function may not be an easy one to answer in all cases. Rather than try to do so, many a writer of books on etiquette (as opposed to those on collecting) has suggested that there are indeed more eating and serving utensils than one should care to know about”

– Henry Petroski, The Evolution of Useful Things

“One of the fears expressed time and again in letters from readers is that of making a mistake in selecting the right table implements, or in knowing how to use one that is unfamiliar in shape…[I]f you can use one of these implements for a purpose not intended, it cannot be a breach of etiquette, since etiquette is founded on tradition, and has no rules concerning eccentricities”.

-Emily Post, Etiquette: “The Blue Book of Social Usage”

What struck me about the Petroski passage was what was in the parentheses: “(as opposed to those on collecting)”. How silverware collecting and etiquette writers approach the use of these utensils speaks volumes.

On one hand, the collectors have a need to categorize and label what they are curating. Think of collections: labels play a crucial role. If we do not know what we are looking at, what the context is, then something feels missing. Form and function have to be presented clearly. No wonder there is a need to solve or at least try to answer the “what form is for what function” question.

Then there are the etiquette writers.  Etiquette is about practicality. Labeling is inconsequential to etiquette for it concerns itself with matters outside of the present necessity. Using a salad fork for a piece of fruit is not the end of the world. As long as you know not to use a fork for soup, throw the “what form is for what function” question out the door. This is not a museum, it is a dinner table.

When we peer back into musical history, we have an inclination to be like the writers of silverware collections. “[W]hat form is for what function” plays in our head as we ponder over works, genres, composers, and the like. If the answers do not arrive, it can seem as if the truth is remaining hidden from us. There is a built in assumption that everyone at that time knew what we are presently searching for: “They knew the rules for their own eccentricities!” If we do more digging we will find these rules eventually.

Let’s go back to the etiquette writers. They are actually using what will later be collected. And guess what? They can be as clueless as the collectors are as to what those utensils were used for. Did they sweat those details though? Not exactly. They winged it.

One can imagine that same level of practicality in the people of a time whose musical content we pore over. Maybe they did not know the meaning of an emergent work or practice at the time. But perhaps, like the etiquette writers, practicality took precedence. Better to go along with it and not dread over creating the rules concerning such eccentricities.

In a way, we are all like the etiquette writers. Today we avoid musical labels and classification like the plague. There are, as Post wrote, “no rules concerning eccentricities”.They exist as is and we work with them as is.

The kicker, though, is that maybe what we think of as a modern mode of thinking was actually common throughout time.


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