Of Cats and Men

As disturbing and horrific as the 1730’s tale of the Paris cat massacre was it highlights a complex mission of the historian – to look at events through the lens of the people who lived them. This task is complicated when dealing with ceremonies like cat massacres and cock fights. Things which “strike the modern reader as unfunny, if not down right repulsive” (Darnton, 9) were, quite possibly, completely normal to people that lived through the events. Not much would be gained from a historic perspective to view the cat killings as most would today, but Darnton shows what is possible to learn from such an event if we can separate ourselves from our current perspective. He presents an account of the massacre that shows the complex bourgeois/working class relations which existed in early 18th century Paris. Darnton notes that the massacre was a way for the printers to violently strike back against their employers without the fear of any real repercussions, aside from angering their master. In telling the tale he also shows us the superstitious beliefs many Parisians held about cats, sorcery, and witchcraft. He also reveals the working conditions printers and others workers faced in the time period.

While Darnton’s is a fact based narrative it is difficult to tell if the original story, by Nicolas Contat, is true. Darnton believes “he derived his notions of meaning from his culture just as naturally as he drew in air from the atmosphere around him,” and that his “writing does not vitiate [his] collective frame of reference.” (14) I believe his assumptions are correct but I wonder if everyone feels the same. I am sure some would point out that the story may not be factual, and that if it is a work of fiction then perhaps some of the findings would be less valid. How much can you draw from a fictional tale, even if the writer represent his “culture” in the work?

Geertz’s Balinese cockfighting narratives have the added value of an eyewitness, Geertz himself. This adds to the strength of his argument that we can learn details about Balinese culture by simply carefully studying their behaviors in and around cockfighting rings. The complex behaviors Geertz viewed from the way men treat their roosters, bet on fights, and even relate to one another during the events mirror Balinese society. These are his interpretations of the events he witnessed. For his findings to be true we have to believe he correctly interpreted the events and that the village he witnessed the events in is representative of the culture as a whole. His argument is compelling, logical, and believable. My only concern with Geertz is that as an outsider did the Balinese villagers react differently because he was there? He even admits that the villagers were hesitant to acknowledge his and his wife’s present in their community, so it seems likely they may have continued different behavior after they accepted their presence.

Both the story of the cat massacre and the cockfighting demonstrate how important it is to separate oneself from a modern perspective when interpreting history. These narratives highlight how difficult it can be to view events from the lens of those who lived them. If we are successful in such endeavors we can acquire knowledge about past cultures which can enable us to understand both the people and the era better.