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On Clifford Geertz: Field Notes from the Classroom

As an anthropologist, philosopher, political scientist, literary critic, and all-around, all-star intellectual, Clifford Geertz helped a vast public make sense of the human condition. But for nearly everyone in that public, his ideas operated like gravity—invisibly, as attraction at a distance. They worked differently up close, especially in the classroom, where they bounced off the walls in all directions, lighting up subjects in unpredictable patterns. I would like to testify to Cliff’s prowess as a teacher.

We taught together, on and off, for twenty-five years. Our course, an undergraduate seminar at Princeton University, sported a name that once sounded sexy: “History 406: The History of Mentalities.” I began to teach it solo in 1974, when the French variety of histoire des mentalités—the study of collective attitudes and worldviews as developed by Robert Mandrou, Georges Duby, Philippe Ariès, Michel Vovelle, and other historians—looked like the hottest thing off the Left Bank. At the same time, I encountered Cliff, who had arrived in Princeton in 1970 as a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and taught in its new School of Social Science, founded in 1973. He asked me what historians meant by mentalities. After I stammered out some kind of reply, he said, “Sounds like anthropology.” A year later, we were teaching the course together, and it turned into a seminar on history and anthropology.

The love affair between history and anthropology heated up wonderfully in the 1970s. The two disciplines seemed to be made for each other: what historians studied at a far remove in time, anthropologists examined far away in space. The “what” in question was the je ne sais quoi called culture. Cliff knew what he meant by the term, but he did not go in for definitions. Conceptual clarity was what he urged on the students, not a party line.

He made his own position clear, however, so clear that many of the students found themselves adopting a semiotic view of culture even if they had not heard of semiotics. That is, they sharpened their awareness of how people construe the world through signs, not merely by means of verbal clues but also by reference to objects from everyday life—the adjustment of veiling to signal degrees of deference in the western desert of Egypt, the designing of houses to align symmetry between man and beast in northeast Thailand, the hunting of cassowaries (an ostrich-like bird) as a journey into the afterlife in the Central Highlands of New Guinea, the eating of pangolins (scaly anteaters) to produce fertility in the Congo….

Once, long before Cliff became famous even beyond the range of The New York Review of Books, I overheard one undergraduate say solemnly to another in the men’s room of Firestone Library, “I’m not a Freudian. I’m a Geertzian.” When I mentioned this to Cliff, he just laughed. He never tried to found a school. He wanted to help students crack open distant mental worlds and wander around inside alien ways of thinking.

We adopted a straightforward strategy in designing the course. The students would compare a historical and an anthropological monograph on the same subject—for example, Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic and E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande. The topics could be tied together in endless combinations. They took us all over the globe and through all periods of time, because we did not worry about covering anything systematically.

Thomas’s Elizabethans obviously inhabited a different world from that of Evans-Pritchard’s Africans, yet Cliff found ways of making meaningful comparisons between their views of witchcraft. In his fieldwork in southern Sudan during the 1920s, Evans-Pritchard learned that the Azande attributed all disasters to witchcraft and that they had a rigorously empirical understanding of the way it operated. When a granary raised on top of wooden stakes collapsed on a man who had been sleeping beneath it, they acknowledged that the pillars had been eaten away by termites. Weren’t the termites therefore the cause of the death?

Certainly not, said Cliff, summoning up Evans-Pritchard’s famous dialogues with his native informants. Why did that granary collapse on that particular man at that specific moment? they asked. “Bad luck,” the Western answer, was no answer at all, according to them. They dismissed “luck” as a much feebler concept than witchcraft, which they understood as having material manifestations that could be detected by autopsies. By the time Cliff had explained the self-confirming character of the entire Azande system of thought, they seemed to be more reasonable, in their way, than the fanatics of seventeenth-century England with their dunking stools and human bonfires.

Cliff tried to make the distant seem familiar and the familiar look foreign—as in Gulliver’s Travels, one of his favorite books. But he did not simply rely on ethnographic storytelling to drive the message home. We usually began the course by discussing a medley of theoretical essays. Cliff’s own sympathies were easy to detect: Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Paul Ricoeur, linguistic philosophers like J.L. Austin, and Weberian sociologists like Robert Bellah. But he took pains to extract the most original elements from the thought of anthropologists whose work was least compatible with his—Claude Levi-Strauss, for example (Cliff disliked the abstract and formalistic character of his ethnography), and Bronislaw Malinowski (Cliff had little patience with functionalist explanations of culture). Instead of reducing theories to a lowest common denominator (his own), he reveled in their differences.

As I learned from redrafting the syllabus with him each year, Cliff seemed to have read everything. Moreover, he read at a prodigious speed, extracting the essence of a book along with a vast amount of detail, which he blended with information derived from other books, so that trails of evidence criss-crossed in unexpected patterns from one subject to another.

Was this sharp intelligence, inexhaustible curiosity, and encyclopedic knowledge intimidating? Certainly. Cliff was a shy person who had difficulty in making contact with others, despite his skill as a field worker. He had learned to read the status conflicts acted out in Balinese cockfights and to spot the telling details that distinguished the Islam experienced by the Javanese from the Islam of the Moroccans.* Yet he did not smooth the way for give-and-take among academics. After conversing with him, other professors often walked away with an uncomfortable feeling of their own inferiority. Did this difficulty impede Cliff’s effectiveness as a teacher? Certainly not. He got on well with students, because they expected him to know more than they did, and they rarely knew enough to be awed by his omniscience.

Cliff preferred teaching undergraduates. Unlike graduate students, they took risks and did not suffer from the anxieties attached to the process of professionalization. I recently ran into a former student who took History 406 many years ago and remembered vividly how Cliff had encouraged him after he blurted out a remark that the rest of us thought absurd: Evans-Pritchard had made witchcraft seem so believable that perhaps it really did exist. Cliff was delighted. The student had broken through the barrier of culture-bound thinking.

Yet Cliff was not a born teacher. He talked too fast and mumbled into his beard so badly that the students found it difficult to understand him. His huge mane of hair hung over his skull in such disorder as if to say: “Beware! Genius Inside.” He sat awkwardly in a chair, his jacket buttoned too tight over his potbelly, his legs crossed at an odd angle which exposed six to twelve inches of shiny white shin. None of his clothes fit. The rumpled, disheveled figure at the far end of the table frequently said nothing, apparently lost in its own thoughts. Then suddenly it would explode in talk. The words would tumble out in a torrent, and we would sit back amazed.

My job was to set the stage for the explosions. Not that we ever planned them or discussed pedagogical strategy. But it became clear that I would have to start the discussion rolling, soften up the students, and prepare points, so to speak, like a sparring partner. Then Cliff would come in with the KO punch. Occasionally he hit home with such force that he broke open a whole new way of thinking.

When we were discussing Alfonso Ortiz’s superb but difficult monograph about the Tewa people in the Rio Grande valley of New Mexico, The Tewa World: Space, Time, Being, and Becoming in a Pueblo Society, I tried to warm things up by going over Tewa cosmology as it was explained in the text. I enumerated esoteric details about the connections between cardinal directions, color symbolism, and mythological motifs. By the time I got to initiation rites, I realized that everything was falling flat. I was making a worldview sound as mechanical as the directions in a tool kit.

At that point, Cliff intervened. He described what happened. Adolescent boys sleeping in the familiar comfort of their beds are awakened unexpectedly in the middle of the night. They are dressed in a ritual breechclout (a kind of loincloth), covered with a blanket, and made to climb down a ladder into a windowless antechamber of a kiva, the deepest, most secret room in the pueblo. Then they are told to shed their blankets. A terrible thump occurs over their heads. Elders cover the ladder with a blanket; and when they remove it, there stands the chief deity in a terrifying mask. He announces that he has come from his dwelling place beneath the lake and asks the boys if they are prepared to be “finished” as men. After they agree, he flails their bare torsos with a yucca whip, striking with all his might and raising huge, red welts on their rib cages. Finally, when they are reduced to terror, he pulls off his mask, and they see the face of a relative or neighbor laughing at them.

What was the nature of the revelation? Cliff asked. Like all the students, I thought the boys had been initiated into something like a confidence game. By removing his mask, the elder had exposed the human hiding behind the false deity. It made me think of the child who pulls the beard off the department-store Santa Claus. No, Virginia, there is no Santa: that seemed to be the message.

Not at all, Cliff explained. The boys had learned that Uncle X was a god, not that a supposed god was only Uncle X. Suddenly we were staring into strange territory.

The pueblo chiefs and ritual clowns often perform a rain dance when they see black clouds approaching, Cliff remarked. Is that because they want to maximize their power by leading the credulous to believe that they can make it rain? No, he said. The dancing “brings down” the rain. It is a way of helping the people enter into harmony with the cosmological forces—not priestcraft but the acting out of a worldview. Culture as performance, ritual as the enactment of myth—Cliff was always seizing on points that ran counter to our intuition. That was his genius as a teacher: to help us think against the grain of our own culture and to enter imaginatively into mental territory that lies beyond it.

After the seminar sessions, Cliff and I always continued the conversation over beer at the Annex, a nearby restaurant now defunct. He had ideas about everything—jazz, foreign affairs, horse racing, automobiles, mathematics, the New York Yankees, James Joyce, colleagues. Instead of pulling subjects into the gravitational field of his own expertise, he pursued them into corners where they were most unfamiliar, where he could capture their otherness.

Othering” has become a cuss word among anthropologists, something nearly as wicked as “essentialism.” In recent years, Cliff was accused of making other cultures look too coherent and of polishing his prose so effectively as to misrepresent alien societies by eliminating their rough spots and fault lines. Did he take an overly aesthetic and holistic view of culture in our class discussions? No, but he worked hard to get across the notion that symbolic systems such as the representation of political authority in the Balinese “theater state” hold together with a power of their own, that they do not derive from social organization, and that the interpretation of them requires rigorous empirical study as well as conceptual clarity.

For example, in expounding the esoteric notion of the hermeneutic circle—the conception of interpretive understanding favored by the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer—Cliff did not begin with an exposition of Gadamer’s general principles and a theoretical account of descriptive as opposed to causal explanations in the human sciences. Instead, he asked the students to imagine themselves explaining baseball to a visitor from Outer Mongolia whom they had taken to a game. You would point out the three bases, he said, and the need to hit the ball in such a way as to run around the bases and reach home plate before being tagged out by the defense. But in doing so, you might note the different shape of the first baseman’s glove or the tendency of the infield to realign itself in the hope of making a double play. You would tack back and forth between general rules—three strikes, you’re out—and fine details—the nature of a hanging curve. The mutual reinforcement of generalizations and details would build up an increasingly rich account of the game being played under the observers’ eyes. Your description could circle around the subject indefinitely, getting thicker with each telling. Thick descriptions would vary; some would be more effective than others; and some might be wrong: to have a runner advance from third base to second would be a clear mistake. But the descriptions, if sufficiently artful and accurate, would cumulatively convey an interpretation of the thing itself, baseball.

Cliff had the students dashing around the hermeneutic circle like runners stealing bases. He did not invoke great names—Weber, Dilthey, Gadamer—in order to get across his argument. But he cited authorities as needed, without the name dropping that can create a climate of oppressive intellectuality in a classroom. Cliff had no use for intellectual snobbery. He was an intellectual himself, the real thing. And as a teacher, he was exhilarating. When his eyes lit up and the words poured out, he infected students with the excitement of the chase. They, too, could penetrate another world. The game was difficult, but anyone could play. And in Cliff they had an example of a hunter-gatherer who blazed his own trail through the jungle of cultures. He opened a way for the rest of us, for readers everywhere, for the citizenry in general, but above all for the undergraduates fortunate enough to pick up the scent in History 406.

  1. *

    See “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” in The Interpretation of Cultures (Basic Books, 1973), and Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia (Yale University Press, 1968).

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