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A Strange Romance: Anthropology and Literature Author(s): Clifford Geertz Reviewed work(s): Source: Profession, (2003), pp.

28-36 Published by: Modern Language Association Stable URL: . Accessed: 02/03/2012 10:25
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Anthropology and Literature


A Strange


as I'm sure my fellow panelists were as well, when Stephen Puzzled, Greenblatt conscripted them to this peculiar, somewhat whimsical enter was prise, about justwhat the topic of discussion supposed to be, I thought

a reflection on the to begin, in good Empsonian style,with ambiguities of Was this to be my own engagement with literature and the lan his title.

insurrections of recent theory, having lived through all of them? Or was it to be how my engagement with anthropology was itself literary?what role my involvement with my literary tradition, rather intense for a social scien tist, played inmy half-century effort to understand how Javanese, Balinese, went about earning a living, governing themselves, and sense of their existence? Should I be professional ethnographer as making amateur critic or amateur critic as professional ethnographer? The two are connected, of course, and both involve a certain presump tion and some fairly serious trespassing, as well as what the psychoanalysts and Moroccans would themore call exaggerated self-reference. But it is the second that seems tome I have to say about the ups and downs relevant inmy case.What

a cultural guage arts as subjects of study?what anthropologist had to say about modernism, structuralism, poststructuralism, cul postmodernism, tural studies, the new historicism, hermeneutics, and the other veerings and

of recent literary scholarship or criticism is not, even tome, very interest


author is Professor Study in Princeton, New vention inNew York.

Emeritus Jersey. A

in the School version of

Science at the Institute for Advanced of Social con this paper was presented at the 2002 MLA




CLIFFORD GEERTZ |||29 but where the hell is it all feelings?fascinating, to add, except surtoutpas de zele. The nothing very helpful going??and role thatmy formation (I really don't know what else to call it,Bildung per .. the haps; English is rather skittish about claims to cultural refinement). role thatmy formation, which has been rather more on the humanities side than on the sciences side (an undergraduate major in literature and philos a novelist), has ophy, I originally intended to become played inmy size-up ing. I have the usual mixed


into various peoples' various ways of being-in-the not only that you have a reasonably distinct sensibility some also that have of idea what that sensibility is.This you yourself but not a job for the disembodied observer, and the overpre methodologically demands pared need not apply. It is the encounter?sometimes
sionally an embrace, often a confusion, a nonplus,

and-solve anthropologizing is, I think,worthy of some reflection. is a Flaubert manque or, as someone has less kindly suggested, a What fauxHenry James doing in such a cold-fact discipline? Except that it is not a cold-fact discipline, and it should not aspire to become one. Gaining some sort of entree

the collision, occa



a near

they and other technical aids (polls, experi ments, formal models) may be?but in-wrought perceptions. It is on their to those perceptions somehow with the equally cultural, ability entangle equally in-wrought perceptions of the people they are studying that their analytic reach, their power of witness depends. This is, as all sorts of people with rather larger ambitions for the social sciences will be quick to tell you, dangerous doctrine. It raises the threat of subjectivism, of relativism, of particularism, of a general failure to produce robust and reliable real-world knowledge. It turns us away from that shib boleth of shibboleths, the scientific method, toward an intu unregulated a itionism; away from the promise of true, systematic, view-from-nowhere, Science ofMan. It substitutes va prediction-making, program-producing grant insights and sheer assertions, produces a cacophony Rather like literature, actually. It is no part of my argument to deny that these are real of opinions.

your sense of how matters stand, how, as we say, things should go, and sense of those whom you are struggling to understand that provides basis forwhatever account of their lives you are able to give. The most portant instruments of cultural anthropologists are not tape recorders video cameras?as valuable as

the the im or

perils, though both their immediacy and their prevalence are commonly exaggerated by the attack battalions of aggressive scientism. Instead of attempting to over come the perils or hold them at bay by appealing to inappropriate ideals, ideals drawn from differently directed enterprises, operating under differ ently formed conditions, and with different sorts of resources, we should

A STRANGE ROMANCE:ANTHROPOLOGY AND LITERATURE 30 III as an as such. If it is an entan ingredient in thework of various sensibilities against one an glement of forms of life?the rub other?that we're dealing with, then something rather closer to grasping a a law would seem to be involved. I once put this, in point than abstracting terms I in of the anthropologist's reading other people's something wrote, confront them head-on texts over their shoulders {Interpretation 452). Itmakes thewhole enterprise sound a lotmore surreptitious than it is, and less intrusive, but that is about

the size of it.And to read over shoulders effectively, conceptual, procedural, seem essential. The even substantive borrowing from literary studies would on called "speculative dependence images and figurations, what Coleridge instruments," from the natural sciences that has marked, and continues to mark, the social sciences needs to be supplemented by the introduction of ones from humanistic research and analysis?symbol, meaning, metaphor, we are to motif, engage our subject story, interpretation?if actually plot, rather thanmerely attack it. So I have for some time now been arguing. But

this perceiving of other people's perceivings, this reading of other people's turns out, as one might expect, to readings, this texting of other people's texts I say aporia??of its own. Replac have complexities and uncertainties?dare Natur- with Geistes- before wissenschaft doesn't in itselfget you all that far. ing To be less gnomic, I turn to some concrete examples of the troubles I've seen. Some years ago I wrote a small piece on the Balinese cockfight, which I made bold to compare in a suggestive, allusory, en passant sort of way to some classics of Western literature, most notably Macbeth and Lear ("Deep

Play"). were


the cockfight. I won't rehearse the argument here or try to defend its cogency. That, it turns out, is altogether unnecessary, be cause what set off a fair volley of criticism was not whether what I said about Bali or Shakespeare had any merit (the Shakespeare stuff concerning Mac beth and Lear came from Northrop Frye, so how could it be wrong?) but the inflections?in sheer effrontery I displayed in daring to speak about them in the same on earth, as one recent enrage?the author of a work deli breath. What Are Murdering Our Theorists Social and Critics How called Literary cately

Itwas my notion that some themes of these tragedies by Shakespeare own way and with their own inflections?that is, caught up, in their

it, could possibly justify comparing "a cheap low-life blood sport foolish young men wager farmore money than they could sensi to such monumental afford" expressions of the immense and universal bly a settled nihilistic intent to undermine he Western thought, spirit? Only, "use the bizarre and exotic to destabilize morality, spread relativism, and Past?put on which Western This cultural assumptions" (Windschuttle, "Ethnocentrism" 7, 8). sort of moral panic, authority at bay, can be left to take care of it self. But a similar reaction?that what I am trying to do by bringing West

CLIFFORD GEERTZ |||31 or imaginative creations into proximity with those of the South Seas North Africa is to blur the line between barbarism and civilization to the stimulated by a rather more developed piece advantage of barbarism?was I did, also awhile back, on Balinese cremation ceremonies ("Found"). Here thematter ismore complicated, and more telling, about exactly where it is the procedure pinches, about justwhat it is that brings on all the wrath and accusation. So it isworth perhaps a bit more discussion. admired, wrote a ern


typically winding, ruminating piece for the Times Supplement concerning the difficulties he had experienced in teach Literary to Austen ing Jane today's college students. The differences between their sensibilities and hers, their times and hers, their language and hers were so Re great as tomake the whole enterprise perilous at best?"problematic."

whom I knew slightly before he died in 1973, LionelTrilling, and Shortly

how far large cultural gaps could be bridged by reading, by writing, by the a free play of themoral imagination no matter how liberal.When couple of on a to was I further at Co invited memorial lecture in honor his years give lumbia University, I sought to address this issue by an example ofmy own, of a gap even wider than thatwhich yawns between sophomores and Austen? the gap between the treatment ofwidows in our society and their immola tion on their husbands' funeral pyres in nineteenth-century Bali ("Found"). a inverted Borrowing rhetorically phrase, "found in translation," from the title of a James Merrill poem, a phrase expressing the remoteness to

some work I had done on the Balinese sense of self as well as to a ferring to Icelandic saga he had been reading concerning amurderous jealousy strange on a chiefs among by misdirected gift of bears, he wondered brought just

him of his familial past, I quoted a long passage from a Danish sea trader an immolation (which as a further such I describing irony, might remark a fewmonths took went where terrorist that bomb off now, place just ago). The description was written around 1850. This man, alternately charmed

looked little enough like sav ing crowd, friendly and laughing?"They The great ages." mile-long procession, complete with music, dancing, and elaborate filigreed offerings to the gods. The entranced and immobile The three women?mirror in one hand, comb in the priest. Veda-chanting

and appalled, drawn in and disarranged by what he saw, recounted the event at great length and in very fine detail, as though to convince himself was all that it really happening. The enormous, gaudy funeral tower "rising on crimson pillars to a finely carved coffin shaped like a lion." The swarm

"for affections' sake and in the name of other?plunging religion"?into the flames. "It was a sight never to be forgotten," he concludes, with a sud den turn from fascination to horror, from the bewitchment of the drama to the reality of what itwas enacting.

A STRANGE 32 II ROMANCE: ANTHROPOLOGY AND LITERATURE It brought to one's heart a strange feelingof thankfulnessthatone belonged more andmore to a civilizationwhich, for all itsfaults, is merciful and tends to emancipate women from deception and cruelty. To British rule is due the fact that this foul plague is extirpated in India, and doubdess theDutch Western civilizationmakes good itsright to conquer and hu bywhich the manize barbarous races and to replace ancient civilizations. (Helms 66) It was for this, as I put it, moral instability, thatwild and nervous swing romanticism ing between "morning-of-the-world," "island-of-the-gods"
have, ere now, done as much for Bali. Works like these are the credentials



I called a moment ago "the power of witness." I enforced this point with other examples: Merrill's uneasy, counternostalgic poem, the play of discordant memory in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, Paul Fussell's study of theGreat War poets enclosing trenches and shell holes in pastoral tropes. I to demonstrate dimension

and self-congratulatory colonial paternalism (what Gayatri Spivak once de from scribed, in another context, as white men's saving brown women as as I I for its force brown men), that quoted this passage, well as, admit,

the complexity, the loss of certitude, and the gain of that connecting disparate sensibilities, striking them off against one another, brings into being. The difficult awareness that is found in translation, the ethnographer's craft. would not be fair to say that this argument failed to register. But Now, it there has again been resistance in some quarters, most especially from the imaginatively challenged, to seeing anything but savagery and primitivism in the cremation

and anything but perversity and subversive purpose in a cry, as Stevens once so ex taking it seriously as disclosive expression?a own To occasion. of of its said quote again that moral scold poetry, actly whom the cockfight so upended, simply because he can be counted on to say what I want him to say: "It is hard to understand what they thought were doing." (He means "he," that is,me; but he widens his charge to they generally.)

anthropologists How,

for instance, could they have imagined theywere assisting those most destructive myths and they study by encouraging some of their coun have could it for instance, helped underdeveloped practices? How, tries accumulate capital for social and industrial development by portray as the symbolic equivalent ing the reckless gambling of cockfighting Western culture? How could it have of some of the great classics of
advanced that essential have part of modernization, the emancipation of

What women, by glamorizing barbaric misogynist practices like suttee?

value could there been in

pare itself to the interpretation of poetry than tomake criticism of in to escape the conclusion digenous illiteracy and superstition? It is hard [he concludes] that cultural anthropology, relativism,multiculturalism,




to com


far from instead Western being vehicles demonstrations authors. of intercultural of the moral communication vanity and are and harmony, of their self-indulgence "Ethnocentrism" 12)


in presenting untoward, out-of you can see the problem. Merely not to proprietous shape, one risks material bent category material, easily an enemy of progress, or worse. But being branded despite all the holler Well, or ing, the fear here is not really of "indigenous illiteracy and superstition" the glamorization of barbarism. The most vain and self-indulgent ofmulti culturalized Western authors (and I am not the worst), smitten by exotic customs and dubious of some of our own, is not going to try to sell widow

sic representations" with ones more than a little at angles to it and to them, we will so weaken our convictions as tomake us unable to sustain them and impress them with sufficient force on the world at large. It is the very the confusion of impulses thatmy honest sea captain felt destabilization, that in quoting him I wanted my readers to feel too.Why do we teach Jane or Icelandic

to anyone. And the Balinese are neither illiterate nor, as these or things go in the world, particularly profligate, misogynous, supersti tious. The fear here is that in entangling our own sense of life and its "clas burning

funerals? Just that: to wound our sagas, or Hindu us a little less confident in and satisfied with the im to make complacency, mediate deliverances of our here-and-now imperious world. Such teaching a is indeed subversive business. But what it subverts is not morality. What it subverts is bluster, obduracy, and a closure to experience. Pride, one could say, and prejudice. But enough of the long ago and far away.We are right now, in this country and at this time in the process of trying to get, as we say, some sort Austen, of handle on a cultural formation heretofore removed, distant, strange, and are con Islam (on which I have also worked).1 We ominous?namely,

as we had better hurriedly, though think, be image of what Muslims lieve, do, and desire. Until recently, we barely possessed such an image be yond vague and vacant notions about stallions, harems, deserts, and dervishes and some schoolbook legends about the Crusades?an ignorance immortally summed up by the Peter Arno New Yorker cartoon of a half century or so ago showing a Stetson-hatted tourist leaning out of his road ster to ask a turbaned man prostrate in prayer by the side of the road: to which Mecca?" Jack, way "Hey, The

structing, live and in real time?rather get on with it after years of neglect?our

reason for all the rush and for the dimensions it is taking is, of 9/11. When it course, suddenly became apparent that the familiar threat ening other that we had lost with the unlooked-for collapse of the Soviet

ROMANCE:ANTHROPOLOGY AND LITERATURE 34 I A STRANGE was about to be replaced by something even less well defined in our minds; by something even further removed from the political history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century America?Communism had, after all, a Union roots in the Enlightenment and the French pedigree at least, with a in fact creed of Arabs, Turks, Persians, Africans, South Revolution; by off our spiritual map, a suffusing anxi rather and Asians, Mongols, Malays, ety settled in. What are we Americans which most


novels, has become a prime subject of popular discourse. There are works on something called, designed for that elusive figure, the general reader, even or modernism or fundamentalism?now reformism confusingly, on the of the Wahhabism?in Koran; on contemporary Islam; teachings on on the Sunni-Shi'i Islamic law, Islamic education; Sufi brotherhoods; on the deep meaning of the veil. And so forth and so on, into some split; corners indeed. extraordinary called orientalism, of There course, a long tradition?sometimes is, sometimes Middle on Islam, most studies?of Western scholarship now we are start at the of something most of it arcane. But Eastern

to think about an ideological competitor of of us know barely more than the name and some plots and result has been an atrocities alleged to flow from its teachings? The avalanche of books and articles by historians, journalists, political scientists, amateurs designed to sociologists, anthropologists, and variously inspired us a crash course in, as the phrase goes, understanding Islam. Jihad, a give term Americans if they encountered it at all, only in dime encountered,

of itEuropean, new: the formation of public-square, society-wide discussions? entirely half apology, half debate, and riddled with grand assertions?of how we are to think and feel about this sudden apparition on our cultural and political towatch up close and while ithappens the horizon. We're going to be able

our minds of an enduring image or set of images of what building up in are all about, just as we were able to watch, at a certain Islam andMuslims an image or set of images of Bali and the Bali the remove, holding of such our nese in the mind of rapt and troubled sea captain. The difference is that this time the exotic is coming to us, and we are less well placed to dis us: in heated discussions cipline its expressions. The evidence is all around went "what of of "the clash of civilizations," wrong" with Islamic culture an Enlightenment?); (after the Renaissance, why no Reformation, let alone and in news magazine ofMuhammed; in cliche-ridden TV biographies on the pilgrimage, the fast, fatwas, or houris in paradise. pieces one of themost striking indications that this image building is Perhaps not only an extensive process but also an intensely con going on, that it is to tested and, again, thoroughly destabilizing one?that is, destabilizing

CLIFFORD GEERTZ |||35 us?is provided by a recent seriocomic affaire litteraire that involved just the sort of entanglement of disparate sensibilities, cross-cutting ways of ap a text and proaching reaching into itsworld, that I have been talking about. Imean the storm?or perhaps itwas only a cloudburst, and a seeded one at that?over Well, the teaching of the Koran at the University ofNorth Carolina,

Chapel Hill.
posing minds?that

intense and unbridled, appeared almost immediately: from Franklin Gra the resident ham, the son of the Christian evangelist; from Bill O'Reilly, of the Fox network (he said itwas like teaching Mein Kampf); Mencken

is to say, to college freshmen. In the summer of 2002, driven a apparently by rising concern to understand Islam, the university assigned a translation of the verses of the Koran?those early, so-called Meccan, that supposedly initiated the prophecy?to its incoming class. Criticism,

was once more, ex it wasn't exactly teaching theKoran; it merely, itwithout warning labels and weather advisories to vulnerable

F. Buckley, Jr.; from, just about as inevitably, the William from, inevitably, Wall Street Journal and the Philadelphia Daily News and various other news papers, columnists, and soi-disant guardians of the public conscience. The ACLU separationist noises. The university was sued by a fundamentalist Christian group, normally concerned with anti-abortion for a public univer activities, on the grounds that itwas unconstitutional a to to students And the state legislature require sity study specific religion. made nervous

voted, ex post facto, to bar funding for the project. The suit was eventually thrown out by the courts; the university made the assignment optional; and the enterprise proceeded, and apparently is proceeding, still ringed by de bate and protest (see Falwell; Park; Robinson). Our interest in all this is not that the controversy provides yet another

ones jihad-breathing "Medinan" composed when, regrouping in exile, he was an armed return, the translator was organizing presenting an overly at even of seductive Islam. Lindh was men tractive, John Walker image so was the British shoe bomber. The problem was not so much tioned; with Islam in itself as with how itwas represented, how it is to be brought into contact, like cockfights, immolations, or Jane Austen, with our own in translation." understandings?"found I could continue this discussion with a consideration among narration, narrative poetry, and revelation of the relations

example of hard-shell provincialism and its exploitation by sophisticated reactionaries but that it is, again, a complex and contentious en literary was The main in that the gagement. complaint selecting early, lyrical "Meccan" verses, composed when the Prophet was just starting out, when he was powerless and isolated, rather than the later, fire-and-brimstone,

in the Koran;

of the

A STRANGE ROMANCE:ANTHROPOLOGY AND LITERATURE 36 III nature of the Koran as a text among texts and as spoken word; of the lin resources of the Arabic guistic language and their literary employment. But that's for the future, as our encounter, not so much with "Islam" as with Muslims, develops, however it develops. It is clear thatmerely listening to in other rooms saying other things in other accents can be a our emotions, derail our perilous business, liable to confuse judgments, and us leave both rattled and engrossed. But that iswhat listening to the voices other voices

of our own literary tradition,Macbeth orMerrill, Lear or Faulkner, brings on as well: the sense that there ismore to things than first appears and that
our reactions are where we start, not where we end.



indeed end almost anywhere.


of sentences to Mecca?" in the following paragraphs are more or less identical to ones

lA number "Which Way

found in Books, my general review of recentworks on Islam inTheNew YorkReview of

That review was written after this talk was

would be published. I apologize forthe self-plagiarism. I did not expect that it,the talk,


at a time when

Arno, Falwell, Peter. Cartoon.

New of North 2002. Yorker 9 Apr. 1938: 18. Carolina Requires 13 Aug. on 2003 Islam Studies." and Todays

Jerry. "University Issues: Church and State.


< Cockfight." York: 1973. Basic, Geertz, 1983. Interpretation 36-54.

Geertz, -. -.

publish/article_259.html>. Clifford. "Deep Play: Notes 412-53. "Found The L. V inTranslation." ofCultures.

the Balinese New Basic,


"Which Way

Interpretation Pioneering

Local Knowledge. New York:

to Books 13June 2003: 27-29. Mecca?" New YorkReview of

in the Far East. London, 1882.

Park,Michael Y. "University'sQuran Reading Stirs Controversy." 6 July 2002. Au 13 Aug. 2003 <http://www darya Fellowship. IndiaDivine Communications.
.audarya-fellowship.eom/showflat/cat/WorldNews/25607/9/collapsed/5/o/l>. re Islamic Book. Ontario B. A. University Dispute Consultants 12Aug. 2002. on Tol Religious 13Aug. 2003 <>. on Widow Sacri "Can the Subaltern Speak? Speculations Chakravorty.

Robinson, erance.

fice." Wedge 7-8 (1985): 120-30. Mar. We Read JaneAusten." Times LiterarySupplement Trilling, Lionel. "Why
250-52. Windschuttle, Keith. "The Ethnocentrism of Clifford Geertz." New

Spivak, Gayatri




Past. New

(2002): 5-12. AreMurdering Our Criticsand Social Theorists How Literary The Killing of History:
York: Free, 1997.