Term Paper: Clifford Geertz

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¶ … Balinese Cockfighting" and F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel the Great Gatsby: Deep Play in Long Island

According to the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, all societies contain cultural systems that can be read as texts. For example, the rituals surrounding cockfighting in Balinese culture, Geertz argues can be interpreted and re-interpreted much like we interpret "Macbeth" in an English class. Cultural systems contain heavily symbolic elements can reveal aspects of the culture. Such systems are dynamic and work to affect and change the culture. In Balinese cockfighting, the social order is both reflected in the wagering and the spatial organization of the game in a way that is symbolic, and transcends the ability to make money from betting. The process of playing the game affects the culture and expresses the culture.

This is not simply true in Bali, but of all cultures and locations. For example, something as similar as location can symbolize one's social status, as well as impact the course of one's life in almost any society. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's the Great Gatsby, the narrator Nick Carraway observers that he: "lived at West Egg, the -- well, the less fashionable of the two" Eggs of Long Island, New York (Fitzgerald, Chapter 1). To a visitor not inculcated in the symbolic system of the social structure of the world in which Carraway dwells, both areas might appear similarly affluent. But because Nick is an insider, he is all too well aware of the minute social nuances attached to choosing where to live, whom to associate with, how to behave, and also what to buy in West and East Egg. Displays of money and social status are critical to success in his society, and one must have both to truly comprehend this fact. Selecting a home, like making a wager in Bali, is never simply about finding shelter. It is a symbolic act.

In the Great Gatsby, the material goods that money can buy, although they are important, signify something beyond their usefulness, or even their cost. Money, social invitations, and material goods all signify deeper meanings than are apparent on their surface within a particular cultural context. Of course, the Great Gatsby is a fictional text, but within the text, people are always reading and interpreting one another's behavior and decisions. "In the cockfight, then, the Balinese forms and discovers his temperament and his society's temper at the same time. or, more exactly, he forms and discovers a particular facet" of himself and his society in the process of participating in the wagering and watching the fight (Geertz 451). In the novel, the different characters 'read' Gatsby, as either an interloper possessing new money and therefore false, as honest and truly loving, or as strange and somehow noble, if foolish, as Nick seems to view Gatsby at the end of the novel.

Jay Gatsby, born to a lower-class family, wants to mimic the mores of the upper-crust Long Island society to woo his childhood love Daisy Buchannan. Even though Gatsby wins wealth, he has not been fully socialized into Daisy's cultural system. He cannot truly understand all of its nuances, the fact that pretending to be an Oxford man is different than actually graduating from the institution. He lines his study with 'real' books, but forgets to cut the pages to show that he has actually read the books. He says that his family in the Midwest -- from San Francisco, California -- all died, and he thus came into wealth. Gatsby, although he is trying to read what is needed to fit into Daisy's society, is shown to be a poor reader, despite his attempts to speak the language -- "old sport" -- of her world, and mimic its social graces.

Gatsby accumulates real wealth, and the symbols of wealth, and the need to accumulate these symbols impacts his life. But he gets these symbols slightly 'wrong,' indicating that he is new money and not one of the 'real' members of the set he is trying to enter -- his orchestras at his parties are a little too large, his champagne glasses are as big as finger bowls, everything he chooses to own is a bit too lavish or large, like his car. This makes him a figure of fun, at times, and people who are more socialized into the system delight in his misreadings.

In Long Island, the symbols of wealth are supposed to signify the possessor's lack of a need to work for a living. Because this is not the case with Jay Gatsby, the members of the elite social set he courts will happy drink his illegal booze, but reject him because he made money from bootlegging. Gatsby mistakenly believes that he can buy status, or pretend to be of a different status because of his money, misunderstanding that money is not the object of the social game. The idea that the 'thing' can be mistaken for something real is perhaps best seen when Daisy, still in love with Gatsby, even though she refused to marry him because he was not her social 'equal' starts to cry when she sees his new, expensive wardrobe: "They're such beautiful shirts,' she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. 'It makes me sad because I've never seen such -- such beautiful shirts before'" (Fitzgerald, Chapter 5).

Daisy is not weeping about Gatsby's shirts, but what he is dared for her sake. Gatsby did not want wealth for money's sake alone; he wanted love and social appropriation. Similarly, most of the betting during the cockfighting is not about money, rather it is about affirming one's social status and masculine daring in fairly evenly matched fights between birds. Gatsby did not get his shirts to just to wear in a functional manner, rather the fact that they are bought for him, by a man in England, shows, he hopes, that he is worthy of Daisy, but Daisy knows that 'winning' at bootlegging, or playing the social game for money, even to win her as an object of desire, transgresses the rules of the game they are both playing. Money alone is not enough to succeed; one also needs a name and a Princeton degree, like her husband Tom, to truly fit in.

Even the character of Daisy herself relates to Geertz's concept of cockfighting's manifestation of 'Deep Play' or the idea that the most important fights and highest-wagered fights are the closest-matched fights, where the stakes are absurdly escalated, given the benefits that can be gained of either party. Playing the game is more important than the payoff, and Daisy's lack of moral character seems hardly worth all that Gatsby has risked to win and woo her. "It is in large part because the marginal disutility of loss is so great at the higher levels of betting that to engage in such betting is to lay one's public self, allusively and metaphorically, through the medium of one's cock, on the line" (Geertz 434). Daisy represents everything that Gatsby desires, but cannot have, no matter how much money he makes, and he is really attempting to play a game where the ultimate prize is fairly worthless. Daisy cast her 'bet' in marriage with Tom, because Tom had all of the correct, symbolically social attributes, even though he is a brutish man and she does not love him. She does not shift her allegiance because what matters more, according to the terms of her culture, is the fact that Tom played football for an Ivy League school and can afford polo ponies, not that he loves her or she enjoys his company.

These examples illustrate Geertz's contention that to an outsider, the types of symbolic significance with which we invest certain material objects or rituals within our culture can seem strange… [END OF PREVIEW]

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