[Cross-posted over yonder.]
The origins of the cockfight in literary studies are shrouded in mystery. No mention of the cockfight appears in Stephen Greenblatt’s formulaic introduction to “The Forms of Power and the Power of Forms in the Renaissance” (Genre 15: 1-2). (Of that other New Historical tic, the one not involving dead chickens, i.e. the chiasmus, the same cannot be said.) The first appearance of the cockfight as “meta-social commentary” occurs in Houston Baker’s “To Move without Moving: An Analaysis of Creativity and Commerce in Ralph Ellison’s Trueblood Episode.” Baker quotes the following passage from Clifford Geertz’s seminal “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”:
Like any art form--for that, finally, is what we are dealing with--the cockfight renders ordinary, everyday experience comprehensible by presenting it in terms of acts and objects which have been...raised...to the level of sheer appearances, where their meaning can be more powerfully articulated and more exactly perceived.
Why Geertz felt the need to travel to Bali to discover the inherent meta-social commentary of a cockfight is curious. A famous American orator and former cockfight referee once said that “as long as the Almighty permits intelligent men, created in His image and likeness, to fight in public and kill each other while the world looks on approvingly, it is not for me to deprive the chicken of the same privilege.” Ol’ Honest Abe nailed this whole metaphorical meta-social meta-commentary meta-long before Geertz wrote one word about cockfights. Since Mr. Lincoln lacks the scholarly credentials of a Clifford Geertz, Baker quotes Geertz instead. He doesn’t attempt to out-cockfight-cite the locus primus of the cockfight-cite. We’re looking for someone who opens an essay with the cockfight-cite and unsurpisingly, that someone is Stephen Greenblatt. In 1994. From “The Eating of the Soul":
I have seen Balinese cockfights, and I can assure you that a resemblance to Shakespeare’s work of art is not immediately apparent. No doubt the losing cock, bleeding in the dirt, feels the tragedy of the occasion...but the structure and duration of the cockfight, not to mention the expressive limitations of the cocks themselves, preclude the dignity and weight of tragedy.
Opening an essay with two colliding anecdotes draws attention to the structural similarities between, in this case, cockfighting and Shakespearean tragedy. The effect of Geertz’s original juxtaposition of cockfighting and Macbeth, according to Greenblatt, is such that
Balinese cockfighting and the Shakespearean spectacle of treachery and damnation--apparently so distant from one another in their symbolic stakes and their cultural position--are made to touch and resonate. The immediate result for the anthropologist is an air of dignity conferred upon Balinese cockfighting; that, and a kind of hermeneutical license linked to this dignity: cockfighting is a complex, symbolically charged text that can be profitably read by a gifted interpreter.
Greenblatt’s emphasis on the word “text” reveals the rhetoric for what it is: rhetoric. Reduce the world to “text” and any “mundane narrative” can be juxtaposed, for effect, with a “literary narrative” counterpart. Sonja Laden rightly argues in “Recuperating the Archive: Anecdotal Evidence and Questions of ‘Historical Realism’" that Greenblatt & Co. are “‘poetic’ New Historicists,” that is, they’ve more in common--minus the radical Marxist and feminist politics--with the literary journalism of John McPhee than conventional academic criticism. Opening an essay with an irrelevent but structurally homologous anecdote thus transforms the lowly academic critic into an artist.