by PRAMOEDYA ANANTA TOER
1995 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication
Translated by MARIANNE KATOPPO
First Indonesian ASEAN SEAWrite awardee
A good example of this tendency to transform evil and defeat into myths of glorification is that of Nyai Rara Kidul, the Queen of the South. In fact, it came into being at the time of the defeat of Sultan Agung against the "Batavia" of the Dutch invaders in the second half of the seventeenth century. After Mataram lost its hegemony over the Java Sea -- an important international sea route, the Javanese court poets created the myth of the sea goddess, Nyai Rara Kidul, as absolute ruler of the (South) Sea, being the Indian Ocean. This myth in turn brought forth other myths, e.g. that each king of Mataran was the consort of the Queen of the South. Another related myth prohibited the wearing of green on the shores of the South Sea. This was in order to erase any possible association with the green uniform of the colonial Dutch East Indian Company, the "Kompeni". Very subtly, the court poets thus made the Queen of the South a manifestation of the power of the kings of Mataram. The goddess, originally an authochtone benevolent nature deity, became a kind of "spiritual police officer" of the Mataram people.
Here we are confronted with literature in connection with the State, literature used by the State with the purpose of glorifying its own class. Handed down from generation to generation, the ultimate result was to deny the progress of the people and to burden people unnessecarily with an imaginary past, leading people to think that a glorious past is always better than the present. When I realized this, I immediately abandoned this type of literature completely.
When I thus left the literature that was conceived in the lap of power, the literature that was brought forth to uphold this power, I came across the "entertainment literature": pipe dreams of primordial glories. Macchiaveli states that such literature is also an indirect tool of the powers-that-be to ensure that people are not interested in the power of the State. In other words, to guarantee that people are not politicized, that they are not interested in politics.
Literature of this second category turns people into stagnant pools -- fossils. Coming from a family of freedom fighters; I will indulge myself in openly expressing my dislike of this second group. Although I was not immediately conscious of this, my preference goes to the kind of literature that inspires courage, imbibes new values, presents a new way of perceiving the world, enhances the dignity of the human person, and takes as its main focus of interest the role of the individual as a principal actor in the history of humankind. If in the second group aesthetics focused on language and its uses, we see that in the third group there is a definite shift in orientation.
Each work of literature is necessarily the autobiography of its author, at a certain level and in a specific situation. Hence it is also an individual project -- an individual contribution to the collective. It reflects the individual stance of the writer with regard to the reigning power, the prevalent cultural values, etc. The task of the writer is to evaluate and continue to reevaluate all aspects of life. Very often, the writer feels discontented, even cornered, and oppressed by the powers-that-be and the prevailing norm. The writer cries out, puts up a resistance, and might even rebel.
It is not a coincidence that writers -- of course, those of the third kind -- are called opponents, rebels and even instigators of revolutions, crying out in the silent wilderness.
In countries that have enjoyed centuries of democratic life, to lose or to win in the encounter of ideas is only natural. This is not to say that democracy is without any flaws. Consider Europe, which behaves so democratically within its own borders and yet does not behave democratically at all outside, as the history of colonialism and present economic policy will show us. As a result, those former colonies who never practiced the democratic virtue of fair play on the encounter of ideas may manifest long- standing resentment as a result of the traditional concept about private esteem and patriarchal submissiveness.
In Indonesia, the practice of censoring literary works became known only in the second decade of this century. And in accordance with the traditional rule of law, any sanctions against say alleged indiscretions of the press were duly prosecuted in a court of law. The prohibition of the distribution of some of Mas Marco Kartodikromo's literary works deviated from tradition insofar as it was done out of court and by local indigenous officers. Some of my own father's works were also banned and confiscated, but these were not literary works. They were the textbooks for primary school that did not conform to the colonial system's curriculum.
The censorship on literary works was indeed an exception. For centuries the maritime kingdoms were invaded by Western powers, forcing them to withdraw inland. They turned into interior kingdoms of agricultural villages where the feudal system was nourished mainly by farmers; thus, a new mentality was born, far inferior to that of the maritime kingdoms. The Javanese poets affirmed the tepo seliro (knowing one's place) culture, where one knew one's position in the social hierarchy, from the local level up to the highest echelons of power. The usage of euphemisms (kromo, in Javanese) developed into an intricate system of language, having seven different levels. This reflects how stunted the traditional culture had become. We wil see that in Javanese literature there has never been any authentic evaluation or reevaluation. Such an evaluation can only be done in the Indonesian language, which, when necessary, can deny all euphemisms. Hence, it is only with regard to literature in the Indonesian language that censorship is practiced. The ideas that stream in from over the whole wide world into modern Indonesian society at the end of this twentieth century can in no way be stopped by those powers that refuse to grow up. To enable the powers-that-be to continue their peaceful slumber, the institution of censorship is indeed necessary. Yet the time of progress keeps in coming. The island of Java has been destined to have an excellent geographic location. Of all the islands in the Indonesian archipelago. Java was the one that developed most on account of supportive climatological factors.
It is not a coincidence that the Dutch made Java the center of their Empire. After the Dutch left Indonesia, Java remained the center of Indonesia with the majority of the Indonesian dwelling there. It was impossible to prevent certain elements of the traditional feudal system from being introduced into the way the country was governed. In the traditional Javanese culture, the strongest element is that of the tepo seliro, which in the present may be translated as "self-censorship". It appears that the power elite is reluctant to use the original terminology. By naming it "self-censorship", it assumes the aspect of modernity, thus concealing the inherent atavism. My personal preference is to classify the literature of the third kind into the category of the avant-garde. I consider the writers in this group to be persons of moral courage who continue to evaluate and to reevaluate literature and power. And as an individual, a private person, the writer has to be able to withstand the kickback from those who feel that their creativity is threatened.
So the question is: To what extent can literature endanger the safety of the State? In my personal opinion, no literary oeuvre (in this case, stories) can ever be a threat to any state. The stories are written with proper attribution to the author; it is clear where the story originates, and it is also clear that the story is the product of one person, an individual without any private army, secret police, nor hired assasins. The writer is only relating the story of life, how life can be lived to the fullest, by continous growth and by overcoming those patterns that are stultifying, obsolete, and irrelevant. Having said this, I must state the obvious, which is that every state can undergo a fundamental change, completely changing its system of governance, with or without avant-garde literature. We have seen such changes in Indonesian history: the shift from liberal democracy to guided democracy and later on, Panca Sila democracy, after the fall of the Dutch colonial empire and the Japanese occupation. In the era of liberal democracy, the foundation of the State, of course, was the Panca Sila; however, it appeared to be rather neglected. During the era of Guided Democracy, President Soekarno wanted to maintain independence at all costs in order to constrain the superpowers in their Cold War. He made an effort to avoid being involved in this Cold War, and Panca Sila was much more central than in the previous era. Soekarno was the person who helped the Indonesian people to recover their cultural and spiritual identity in the legacy of Panca Sila. He never tried to explaining that Panca Sila was in fact gleamed from the San Min Chui of Sun Yat-sen, the Declaration of Independence of the United States, and other important political declarations with regard to social justice. During the era of Panca Sila democracy, which was marked by a process of de-Soekarnoization, we see that the tenets of Panca Sila are rarely mentioned, and there have even been efforts of historians of the New Order who postulate that Soekarno was not instrumental in giving Panca Sila to the Indonesian people.
In all three eras, we do not find any work of literature that has really proven to be responsible for social change. In fact, we cannot speak of any avant-garde literature so far. If any existed, it happened under the Japanese occupation, a rebellion which was equal to the oppression.
I am referring to the poet Chairil Anwar with his poem "Aku" (I), which states, "Aku ini binatang jalang/dari kumpulannya terbuang" (I am a wild beast/Torn from the herd).
He refused to be treated as a domesticated animal from the Japanese, one who only strove to obey the Japanese orders; he fore himself away from the herd. He had to pay dearly for his proud statement. The Kempeitai, the Japanese secret police, arrested and tortured him. True, he was subsequently released.
The irony of all this is that the very people who often read this poem and profess to like it have never had the benefit of able literary critics who can enlighten them as to how to truly appreciate this poem. The link with the Japanese occupation, i.e., that the was speaking up against a specific type of military oppression when he wrote this poem, is rarely brought to the attention of the public.
Forgive me for confining myself to Indonesian literature. Mindful of its history, it appears that Indonesia is in great need of avant-garde writers. For centuries the grassroots have been nourishing the feudal overlords. When Western colonialism reigned supreme, this meant that they also had support the colonial system. And although feudalism as a system has been obliterated by the Proclamation of Independence on 17 August 1945, its cultural elements are still discernible; in fact, there are thosein power who strive to preserve them. The avant-garde literature offers evaluation, reevaluation, renewal, and, of course to bear responsibility for one's own deeds. Here it becomes clear that a story, a literary oeuvre, can in no way endanger the State, which may change its foundation or system at any given moment. At best, it disturbs the peaceful slumber of those who dream of power without end.
I myself, although the scion of a family of freedom fighters in the fifty years of our independence, have been deprived of my personal freedom for thirty-three and a half years. Two and a half years were seized by the Dutch, nearly one year was taken by the military during the old regime (1961), and thirty years under the present government, of which fourteen years were spent in a penal colony on the island of Buru and sixteen years as a detainee outside of the physical prison walls. The code "E.T." (meaning Ex Tapol, i.e., "former political prisoner") ensured that all doors were closed to me.
As a writer, of course, I rebel against this reality. In my works, I therefore try to tell stories about certain phases in the journey of this nation whilst grappling with the question, "How could this people become like this?"
The fact that most of my works are not allowed to circulate in my own country does not concern me very much. These prohibitions in fact make my works more valuable.
Maybe there are some who wonder why to me literature is closely linked to politics. In my view, the life of each individual in relation to society, and especially in relation to the nation, is always closely related to politics. The fact that one accepts, rejects or affirms one's citizenship indicates a political attitude. The fact that one raises one's national flag indicates a political attitude. The fact that one pays taxes indicates submission to the authorities, hence it shows that one is obedient politically. So, too, literature cannot be divorced from politics since this literature itself is born of humankind. As long as there is a social system and a power that controls it or abuses it, each individual will be a political animal. The ancient Greeks were already aware of it and so are we.
Somehow, at one time, the notion was born that politics is dirty, therefore literature has to be divorced from politics. If some things are dirty, for sure there are other things that are clean.
This notion of separating literature from politics, in fact, originates from those writers whose attitude is that of not involving themselves with politics. Politics cannot be just understood in the framework of certain political parties. Politics are all those aspects that are related to power. As long as there is a human society, there will be the exercise of power by one human person, or a group of human persons, over others regardless of whether it brings about good or evil, whether it is clean or dirty.
The literature that "rejects" politics, that professes to be wholly apolitical, is obviously produced by those writers who have found a comfortable niche in the halls of power. While those who call for progress and justice, even if they have to wonder through a lonely wilderness of rejection and misunderstanding, continue to tell their stories -- a vision of the world as a place where all can stand and keep their hands high and live in full humanity.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Dokumentasi Jaringan Kerja Budaya PO Box 6438 JATGD - Jakarta 13064 e-mail: email@example.com * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *