What the cockfighter and the artist have in common is what they put on the line.
“Jeff, you can either be a poet or not. There is no in between.”
—The Girl Who Could Not Touch the Ground
Those were the last words she ever said to me, in my car outside her parent’s house almost thirty years ago. They were the words of a girl I was trying to save. From who or what I did not know, perhaps mainly from herself. She was one of those rare people who while they’re with us are not really part of us. They’re like shadows, or spirits still trapped in this world, thirsty but unable to drink, hungry yet unable to eat. For a brief time I was her caretaker. I would drive her to work. Take her home. We would sit in my car outside her house for hours and just talk about things—things that I knew were real important at the time, even though I couldn’t quite understand them. I don’t often think of her but every once in a while her memory turns up is the oddest of places. This last time she crept into my memory happened when I was reading about cockfights of all things. Let me explain.
For my dissertation I’ve been reading, and re-reading, various parts of Clifford Geertz’s seminal anthropological book on culture, aptly titled, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973, Basic Books). One of the chapters toward the end of the book is a fascinating collection of Geertz’s notes on the cockfights he witnessed in Bali back in the 1970s when he was doing fieldwork there. Now, I’ve never been to a cockfight anywhere nor have I been to Bali but there was something about Geertz’s descriptions of them that struck something way down deep inside of me, something that made me think of that night, and her, and those words. In particular, it got me to thinking about my relationship with Life and what that said about me.
You see Life and I have always had this uneasy truce. I think it’s because we understand each other. I know that Life is a cold and indifferent bitch that doesn’t give a damn one way or the other about my particular fate. Its sole purpose is to perpetuate itself. I’m not an optimist or a pessimist. Nor do I believe or disbelieve. I want to believe but I cannot put myself in the hands of something I can never in this life know is there. Instead I try to do my best in the hope that things will sort themselves out in the end. In my own way, I try to see through all the stage trappings, you know those things that build up around us and come in between us and what Life really is. I do this through running. And running. And running. Which brings me to forty-year old tales of cockfights on the other side of the world.
I believe art is simultaneously an act of destruction and creation—with the destruction of something a necessary requirement for the creation of something else. I believe artists, if they are truly artists, use their work to make this apparent. For me, art does not add on but rather strips away the stuff that gets in the way of seeing things as they really are. The artist strips away and what is left is a creation of life captured in a symbolic moment. And that’s what Geertz said the cockfights did for the Balinese men. Geertz called them an art form in his notes and he goes on to say:
“ … The cockfight renders ordinary, everyday experience comprehensible by presenting it in terms of acts and objects which have had their practical consequences removed and been reduced (or, if you prefer, raised) to the level of sheer appearances, where their meaning can be more powerfully articulated and more exactly perceived.” (Geertz, p.443)
That is precisely why I run marathons. The marathon simultaneously breaks you down and lays you bare but in doing so it allows you to see things so clearly. The marathon is my cockfight. Therefore, the marathon is my art. The Balinese men use a cock as a stand in for themselves. In the ring with a metal blade strapped to its leg the cock represents the man in every way—his hopes, his fears, his desires and his dreads—each fight tells a story, about the cocks and about the men. Pardon the pun but the cock becomes an extension of the man. And cockfighting is not a sport reserved for kings but for all men. Cocks are not bred but bought at market. The men groom them. They feed them a special diet. Those who can afford it will hire trainers or caretakers for them. The men bet on them come fight time. And these wagers can become disproportionately large compared to their income. It is, as Geertz says, their way of very publically laying themselves on the line. When I run I am both the Balinese man and his cock. The cockfight for the Balinese men is as Geertz says, “A story they tell themselves about themselves.” (p.447) It is a story—it is The Story—the story of life and death. They are our way of facing our very real mortality. The cockfight and the marathon serve as tests of character for the participants. We participate in them to gain a sense of our standing with Life when we look her in the eye. Will we flinch from or will we embrace our destiny?
That’s what she meant with her words. She wasn’t a girl. She was a phantasm, a herald come to warn me. I was eighteen. No longer a boy and not yet a man, that in between stage where decisions made by an incomplete being set the stage for the rest of your life. Come to think of her, she never seemed to by physically there at all. She didn’t really walk but seemed to glide over the ground. I bet that if you went to touch her you hand would go straight through. She was there and yet she was not.
This willingness to test ourself against Life is what makes marathons and cockfights tragic plays in the very Greek definition because, like the plays in ancient Greece, they are put on to tell us a greater truth about ourselves. Compare the words of Herbert Miller in his book The Spirit of Tragedy when he writes, “The basic rhythms of the tragic action is Purpose, Passion, Perception. The hero’s purpose is defeated, his passion is harrowing but through his final perception he comes to terms with his fate—or if he doesn’t, the spectator does.” (Knopf, 1956) Now compare that to this description of a marathon as “a life and death game in which, like the classical duel and yet worlds apart, people joyfully take on a date with destiny with regard to both body and character.” (Berking and Neckel, The Urban Marathon, P.67). And Geertz’s description of a cockfight as “ … man and beast, good and evil, ego and id, the creative power of masculinity and the destructive power of loosened animality fuse in a bloody drama of hatred, cruelty, violence, and death.” (p.421) As Aristotle would say, they are describing the same “universal truth.” Each is about man’s search for meaning in life and his place in the cosmos. They are ways for a man to deal of with the issue of his fate.
Joseph Campbell said that the root of all mythology is the realization that we must die. Tragic plays-and I am using the term at its broadest—are the natural extension of this knowledge. They are a way for us to psychologically explore our mortality in a way that allows us to carry on living without feeling human life to be completely pointless. The hero as Herbert Muller captures “goes through the worst and by going all the way through it earns an honorable peace, which is more secure because it is peace without victory.” (p.23) Tragedies are cathartic experiences for both the actor and the audience because as Aristotle said they are “an imitation of complete action, designed to purge the emotions of pity and fear.” (Muller, P.32) We can face the unknown without crossing over. They serve as a way for us to die in this life in order that we may be reborn.
So when I think of her, the girl who could not touch the ground, and I remember her words, I think I kind of get them. And her. And why I couldn’t save her. In our way, we’re all poets, even the most common of us. Our individual life is the canvas laid against the easel of Life itself. What will we do with it? Will we face up to it? Will we place our cock in the ring? Or will we turn away? Will we cross the threshold and become a man and face all Life has to throw in our path or will we hide under the covers of our bedroom in our parent’s house?
I never saw her again after that night. She didn’t die because she wasn’t mortal. She just went away, packed a bag and left her house the following morning never to return. I mentioned earlier that I was her caretaker and we just talked. It’s the honest truth. I never held her hand or put my arm around her. She said those words to me when I leaned over and kissed her. The next time I showed up at her house she was gone.
Image credit: .the guarded eye. (slowly…)/Flickr