7-1 pedagogy

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.

P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

7.1 (Winter 2007)

 

Teaching & Travel

snakelady

And Deliver Us from English

Mark Notzon

 Mark Notzon received his Ph.D. from Indiana University in 1981, and is the author of Noise of Reason: A Study of the Art of John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester (1981).  The preceding essay belongs to work in progress.  Dr. Notzon has been teaching abroad since 1986, and currently teaches at the Chelsea International Academy in Kathmandu, Nepal : he may be reached at mnotz@yahoo.com.

“… a torn Remnant of Sub-History, unwitness’d”

Thomas Pynchon—“Mason and Dixon”

       The circumstances of travel more than the destination itself,  often beclouded by the voyager’s desires, determine the quality of a sojourn in the developing world.  This is true for the occasional tourist, and even more so for those whose time abroad has allowed them to learn the local language and cultivate a common sense for  navigating through the unfamiliar waters of an uncommon culture.  This sense is as fallible as it is invaluable.  The territory does not do the bidding of the map, however well the latter is drawn according to skill and memory, or however much one depends upon the power of money.

     An ancient Javanese proverb has it that “life is a pause on a journey towards a cup of tea,” a bit of local wisdom that may have been distilled from generations suffering a  myriad of  minor or major catastrophes in a part of the world where daily endeavors are subject to the caprices of inclement seas, subterranean trembles, unreliable tools and transportation, and the vagrancies and derelictions of local officials.  For most Javanese, this proverb is only a  genial way of inculcating  equanimity in such circumstances.  For some few others, the proverb conceals a seed of spiritual truth in the guise of simple words.

     Grahame Greene mentions in a later novel that the Western mind, nurtured in both doubt and faith, and exercised in the labyrinthine twists of protracted thought, finds the poetry and thought of the East, of which this proverb is a small example, complacent and childlike, if not childish.[1]. Yet there is also that in Greene’s art which eludes the glance of seemingly omniscient disillusionment, and without which his art would be incomplete: divine grace, manifesting itself unanticipated and unforeseen, like a “thief in the night”.  The pause may be as unexpected as the intruder, and may signal a life to be reconceived in a way hitherto unknown.

     Such an interval occurred in 1994, during my second year in Indonesia, where I was a consultant on an educational development project in at Airlangga University in Surabaya, Java, Indonesia.  Ostensibly the project was part of a long term plan to improve the public university system of Indonesia, funded by a private loan from the Asian Development Bank to the Indonesian Ministry of Education.  This was during the halcyon days of the Southeast Asian Economic Boom, and the project was only one instance in the efflorescence of easy borrowing that would eventually lead to collapse some few years later; for the traditional dynamics of politics and finance in that part of the world dictated that funds only be sufficient to sustain the illusion of development, much like a Potemkin Village, while officials behind the scenes pocket their disproportionate share.  Wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) being an indigenous and hallowed craft among the Indonesians, the project embodied the unwritten injunction that Indonesian life imitate Indonesian art.

      I was nonetheless fortunate in being assigned to a department of English whose faculty were committed to teaching and had a lively interest in literature, or as much an interest as could be sustained on the pittance of a salary and other meager resources—this in a country whose only author of international repute was still under house arrest for running afoul of the Suharto regime in 1979.[2]  Encouraged by faculty support, I not only fulfilled my explicit duties of teaching advanced English to those ear-marked for scholarships abroad, but went beyond contractual boundaries by starting a drama club for students and organizing several symposia on literary topics, which were well-attended and attracted many from other universities in the area.

     Fortune played no small role the marshalling of scarce resources.  I had once been strapped for contemporary lyrical poetry—something for a presentation in the coming week—when a packet of long-delayed mail arrived containing a copy of the American Review of Poetry, wherein I found in a matter of minutes two fitting pieces by a Linda Gregg, whom I had not read before. On the Monday morning before the presentation, an Indonesian colleague was relating a weekend excursion that he and his wife had undertaken to a small mountain-resort town, where, he emphatically insisted that they had met an American woman by the same name.  The next weekend, I went myself and found the poet and her ready Olivetti in lodgings above a restaurant owned by a Chinese family.  Ms. Gregg had come to Indonesia on an advance from her publisher to begin work on a new volume of verse.  She graciously emerged from her seclusion to give a poetry reading in Surabaya, the last event I was to organize, thus snatching a  final grace beyond the reach of “applied linguistics”, that wing of the “educationist-administrative complex” which exports “edu-tainment”.

     I had no prospects beyond the end of the project, and had expected to return to the States buoyant in spirit, but unemployed.  The day before I was to take my last vacation in Indonesia—a week’s stay on the  southern coast, with a stop in the city of Solo, the center of Javanese culture—a letter arrived from the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, West Africa, where I had served as Fulbright Lecturer in 1988-1990.  The university asked me if I would accept a third Fulbright in their country, as they had difficulty in finding candidates who had demonstrated ability, not in teaching American culture or literature, but in surviving rigors of climate and  culture with their demands on body and psyche, earning no few expatriates their tribal cicatrice.  My fancy made much of the careerist potential: a route from Indonesia to a third Fulbright could just provide an academic position in the States, and I planned to send them an acceptance letter while on vacation.[3]

     I had previously traveled little in Indonesia, and my cultural learning did not extend beyond becoming functional in bahasa Indonesian, and in adapting myself to the ways of Surabaya and the university community.  I knew almost nothing of the spiritual traditions of the Javanese, although the signs, colorful and bizarre, were part of daily surroundings and ambience.  By spirituality,  I do not mean orthodox  Islam, the dominant faith of the  archipelago, but the indigenous beliefs and practices, present and sometimes hidden, which originated  in Java’s Hindu and Buddhist cultures antedating Islam, or going even further back to some remote period of the island’s animistic past.  It was common to see locals splashing with salt water the walls of a new restaurant or other business enterprises to attract influences attuned to commercial success;  or to find in the countryside the branches of a tree festooned with notes of supplication and petition soliciting the favorable attention of the genii loci.  Newspapers and magazines routinely carried stories of spiritual obsession or possession, of hauntings by a pocong (the ghost of a corpse in shrouds wandering because of some fault in the burial ceremony), or of  a tuyul (the ghost of a deceased child) tricked into thievery through the manipulations and greed of a disreputable dukun (shaman).

     I regarded all of this with the  more or less the received wisdom of my Western education, adopting the attitude of an ethnologist who had come only to observe or describe an alien human community whose members were unaware that their practices were, if not crippling superstition, then merely epiphenomenal in some way to other dynamics amenable to rational and scientific explanation (the ethnologist keeping the explanation, surely, to himself).  At the same time, I understood many of these beliefs were companion to higher aesthetic manifestations which marked considerable cultural accomplishment, such as the Buddhist temple of Boroburdur or the Hindu temples of Prambanan, where the stone peaks of the candi would seem in the rays of evening sunlight to flicker and dissolve, as if their material substance were ultimately only an illusion.

     In a small tourist restaurant in Solo, where I had arrived just that morning, an Englishman some years my senior, slight and gentle in demeanor, told me over coffee what had happened to him some twenty years before, on the Southern coast  which I left  the  previous evening.  He claimed he was walking on the shore well before sunrise when a radiant female figure with an equally ethereal retinue arose from the surf.  Transfixed, he had agreed to do her bidding upon his death, while she would grant him access to material success in the remainder of his earthly life.[4]  Time now running short, he was quite anxious about the approaching deadline, and was in Solo, this time, to find a shaman with sway over local spirits who might persuade the goddess to release him from his vow, or at least reduce the penalty of servitude.  He spoke in an even and convincing tone; for some reason, I had won his trust and he could thus disburden himself without fear of humiliating disclosure, as if the subject were excessive credit card debt  or sexual indiscretion.  I thanked him for his story and offered,  at least, to pay for his cup of java, a spring from which he had certainly drunk deeply.  I did not encounter him again.

     I could only think, if all stories have some share of truth, that he was suffering from a delusion in which he was completely convinced, but which allowed him to live a normal life.  He could have come under the domination of a seductive female archetype as found in the psychology of the Jungian school, an archetype which had become fixed to the mind’s eye, thus distorting all that he perceived.  Or his narrative, through the agency of an internal, “Freudian” censor, might conceal the history of a cross-cultural marriage or romance which had gone seriously awry—not an uncommon experience for expatriates, male and female, in Indonesia.

     On what was to be my last day in Solo, I had only planned to return to a fair on the grounds surrounding the Sultan’s palace and to take photographs of a chthonic spectacle which I had witnessed the day before: a young Indonesian woman traditionally clad, in a glass cage with several hundred pythons of various sizes, which she would pick up and hold, allowing them to wind around her arms and legs, her gestures done in rhythm to traditional music blaring from huge and faulty speakers which surrounded the enclosure.  Having seen, in the antique market, this display rendered in the form of brass figurines, I wanted to document a live performance of a ritual signifying that Java, with its volcanoes and earthquakes, was indeed the land with a serpent underneath.  But in the course of conversation with an Italian tourist while we were washing laundry by hand in the courtyard of the wisma (guest house), I changed my venue.  At a concert of traditional music, she had met a group of Westerners who were not tourists, but on cultural visas, and were studying meditation under Ananda Suyono, a local luminary, whom she had heard lecture, having been invited by the students’ invitation.  After hearing her description of the setting and what seemed the intellectual virtues and character of Suyono, I asked her for the address.  As it was only a short walk from the guesthouse, and less fatiguing than would be wending a way through throngs in the heat of the dry season—and knowing, in any case, that the mistress of the serpents might not be there, such events Indonesia occurring on an unreliable and evanescent schedule—I decided that a visit to Shanti Loka (for that was the center’s name) would be a less demanding diversion for my last evening in Solo.

     The entry to Shantih Loka was unassuming: a green door with a worn sign, sandwiched between a motorcycle repair shop and a small clothing boutique; but when I returned to my lodgings several hours later and found the response I was going to send accepting the Fulbright in West Africa, I quickly revisited it and drafted a gracious decline.  And for the next seven years, in all the free time that I could find, I was a student at Shantih Loka.

     What I came across in Solo was an esoteric school in which literature, philosophy, and art were studied in light of a student’s cognizance of being—a school of alchemy which did not promise “the philosopher’s stone”, a decoy to divert the selfish from attraction to the real work, but an askesis to develop knowledge and awareness of the human soul’s various energies (on the average,  “a chaos of thought and passion all confused”) and to cultivate its relation to other souls and to worlds both visible and invisible.  The school could be described an expression of Aldous Huxley’s philosophia perennialis, a consciousness “found among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed form… [having] a place in every one of the higher religions.”[5]  Shakespeare, whom Suyono was fond of quoting, may have alluded to it: “For I have heard it said / There is an art which in their piedness shares / With great creating Nature” (The Winter’s Tale IV. iv.  86-88).

     “Piedness”: we were a brindled crew of about twenty men and women—Indonesian, British, Australian, and European, some academics, others not—who formed a “floating quorum” to reside at the center intermittently and variously over the years, and who had some intimation that, while all moments are fugitive, all moments are not equal, and that the soul in its higher propensities desires to follow those that slip upwards and outside of time.

     Various too, was the library, a polyglot collection sheltered in a small room furnished with well worn chairs, a couch, and an antique, incandescent ceiling lamp.  On three walls of shelves that almost reached the ceiling were volumes on all the world’s major faiths and philosophies, sometimes arranged in a delightfully heterogeneous manner: Euclid’s Elements next to a volume of hymns in Welsh, those both leaning against a worn and well-worn copy of what might have been a first edition of Y. Evans-Wentz’s The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries.  The teaching’s of Plotinus were there, too; but, in the spoken transmission of Suyono, they would take on something of their Javanese or East Asian surroundings, as if fragments of the Roman’s philosophy had been winnowed and sifted, the fine gold powder gilding the Sanskrit characters of Patanjali—the lyre of Apollo having been restrung and retuned for local ears accustomed to a five-tone scale.

     Ananda Suyono would sometimes enter the precinct, dressed in a traditional sarong and baju batik, ring a bell, and summon cups of tea for us while he would turn to peruse in silence the holdings himself,  picking up a pile of loose manuscripts, fingering them carefully as if assaying, perhaps, residual moisture in the leaves from the remains of Prospero’s book, recently washed up on Javanese shores, and now under an archivist’s care.  The library had one squeaking fan which kept the mosquitoes at bay after sunset but did not subdue the scent of burning beeswax which drifted in from the neighborhood’s batik artisans.  When the climbing vines over the doorway blossomed, the sanctuary became a “bee-loud glade”.  

     I had started in 1997 the process to obtain a special visa that would allow me to study in residence at Shantih Loka for a continuous duration, to go into effect when Suyono and his wife had returned from a trip to India; but the Asian Economic Crisis disrupted these plans.  Solo had suffered much from the riots and mayhem which followed, and Suyono wisely shifted his attention to helping those countrymen he could in Solo who had been traumatized by hardship, and he let go of his Western students, one by one, over the next couple of years.  I last spoke to him in 2001 (before September 11)—a telephone conversation severed by a thunderstorm.

     Although I had managed to find a position as a social studies teacher in a private high school in Jakarta, and was suitably employed for an expatriate in Indonesia, I had taken the job largely because it would support me and allow me to continue my studies in Solo.  When the doors of Shanti Loka closed, the loss weighed heavily upon me; at the darkest, I thought I had come under the spell of an artful Spenserian black magician, as found in the The Faerie Queene, who so deftly blurred the boundary between truth and falsehood that I had been traduced or betrayed, and that I had given up the Fulbright in 1994 for what had turned out in Indonesia to have been “mere baubles”.

     While I was in this  troubled state, a British friend of mine, a free-lance journalist in Jakarta, passed on to me several American periodicals, including the New York Review of Books which contained Andrew Delbanco’s article, The Decline and Fall of Literature, on the state of Departments of English at colleges and universities in the United States: the woes  and turmoils of this crisis were chronicled in books by a number of literary scholars who detailed what had happened to the study of literature from forces both within departments and without (such as socioeconomic, managerial, and digital influences).[6]  The printed utterances were timely, and they did give my thought some relief. 

     “How swift is the thief of mind!”—an apocryphal Buddhist sutra I recalled, at the close of reading; and how much swifter are those thieves, I thought, in the developed world, where privilege, material and technological advantage, and an overweening corporate model of “knowledge” education have so altered liberal and literate education with a momentum equal in its own way to a tsunami’s.  A natural tidal wave, horrific when it affects humanity, at least originates from cycles of processes beyond our control.  The gasping fish upon the strand?  Literary-theorist adults stuttering “aporia” and younger generations suffering the fits and starts of Attention Deficit Disorder….   I had found myself in a tide-pool, a small one at that, and far from home, in committing myself to several years of study at Shantih Loka.  But this sea-urchin (a creature remarkable for its hardiness and longevity) would gladly search out similar niches, and encourage others to do so; for what remains of the life of the mind, a kind of life increasingly notable for its absence, may depend on them, as universities provide evidence of less and less sanctuary.

     In times of cultural decline, there is perhaps no limit upon the right effort that can be taken, individually or socially, to create an hiatus of well-being—an interruption of the approaching cultural eclipse which philosopher E. M. Cioran calls the “Unparalled”.[7]  But as Pythagoras might have said (with a wink and a smile), for transmigrating Souls who truly do so, there is no such thing as retirement.

NOTES

[1] Dr. Fischer of Geneva, or The  Bomb Party (1981).

[2] Ananta  Pramoedya  Tore (1925-2006).   The house arrest followed torture and imprisonment.   I had once  bought in Singapore an English translation of his novel Bumi Amnesia (tr. The People of This Earth) and  was gently advised by those at a café in Surabaya that I should not be reading the banned book in public.

[3] I confess that at that time I had  thought  more of the benefits of the Fulbright than I did of Africa itself; however, my earlier  experience there, in retrospect, was initiatory to what unfolded in Indonesia ..

[4]  A page from the Faustus which cuts, apparently, through all cultural differences.  The goddess was the infamous Nyo Ro Ro Kidul, whose demesne stretches along the Javanese southern coast to Bali .  She is the subject of much lore, and of many phenomena of both a benign and malevolent character, according to what aspect she would deign to manifest.

[5] The Perennial Philosophy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1945), p. vii.

[6] New York Review of Books,  volume  46¸ Nov. 4, 1999 .  I assume by now this article and the books reviewed are well known.

[7] Some Blind Alleys: A Letter.  The original French essay appeared in La Tentation d’Exister (Paris: Gallimard, 1956).   I quote  the word as appears in the translation by John Howard, as I do not have access to a copy of the original.