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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

Handling More Than Mere Manners : MISS MANNERS RESCUES CIVILIZATION: From Sexual Harassment, Frivolous Lawsuits, Dissing : and Other Lapses in Civility by Judith Martin; Crown $30, 528 pages

August 21, 1996|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Miss Manners insists on the E-word," writes Judith Martin in "Miss Manners Rescues Civilization," the latest in her long-running series of lighthearted lessons in behaving well in our benighted world.

The "E-word," of course, is etiquette, and etiquette has long been a highly lucrative enterprise for Martin. Why, she has even registered "Miss Manners" as a trademark, and a federal trademark symbol is neatly affixed to the famous name on the cover of her book.

Still, Martin's seriocomic approach to good manners conceals an earnest interest in what defines and preserves a civilization against decadence and decline. Much of what Martin writes is actually a kind of study in cultural anthropology, even if she dresses up her field notes with artful parody and self-deprecating humor.

"The tiniest custom may offer a glimpse into how a mannerly concept, such as fairness, has been translated into behavior," she writes. "Tradition is what gives a society meaning and the rules by which it lives are what make it work."

As she sets up and knocks down straw men, debating with carping letter-writers and always getting in the last word, we realize that Martin is passionately interested in the weightiest and most urgent issues in our troubled world--class hatred, senseless acts of violence, the struggle for social justice, the search for enlightenment and fulfillment. In that sense, the title of her book (like the book itself) only appears to be satirical.

So Martin ponders when it is appropriate to wear hats or white shoes or black tie; she pontificates on the correct way to address a former president; she protests against putting on make-up in public. But she also makes a convincing case for the proposition that good manners can be a matter of life and death.

"Miss Manners may be used to a certain loneliness in her devotion to etiquette as the basic force of civilization, but when a disaster occurs, she has plenty of company," writes Martin. "After the bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City, large and small acts of consideration, thoughtfulness and kindness abounded."

Indeed, there is literally no arena of moral controversy into which she hesitates to wander, no form of human encounter too bizarre to baffle her sense of right and wrong. Miss Manners instructs a ninth-grader on how to conduct a decorous argument on the subject of abortion; she counsels a woman whose waist-length hair attracts fondling by strangers to call the cops; she opines on the proper degree of decorum in dealing with a former neighbor who once molested a reader's daughter.

Here and there, Martin bulks up her book with questions so dunderheaded and answers so predictable that one suspects she is simply running out of material for yet another book. "Is it ever appropriate to give one the finger?" one reader asks in apparent innocence. "Certainly not," says the unflappable Miss Manners, surprising no one at all.

More often, though, Miss Manners finds herself drawn into the role of defining, rather than reporting on, the fast-changing standards of etiquette, a role she clearly savors and performs especially well. After all, what does the traditional rule of etiquette tell us about how to deal with a neighbor who watches pornographic movies with the window blinds wide open, or the mourner who brings his video cam to a funeral?

"It seems to Miss Manners that you are showing far too much interest in the nature of your neighbor's habits," Miss Manners scolds one reader, and the other reader she comforts: "To film weeping mourners is an appalling intrusion on their privacy."

Behind the mask of Miss Manners lurks a subtle parodist named Judith Martin, and deep inside Judith Martin beats the heart of a an authentic visionary who is enraptured by the prospect of a world characterized by social equality and social justice. The fact that she uses the "E-word" to characterize her faintly utopian vision--and the fact that she uses such sly good humor in describing it--makes the whole enterprise no less stirring.

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