Dropping leaves

The first fruits of [Benedict Anderson’s] scholarship on return were mind-blowing not so much, perhaps, for their political arguments as for the cultural depth that underlay them. Mythology and the Tolerance of the Javanese (1965) was the prototype. It argued firstly that Java still had in the wayang tradition what the West had lost, “an almost universally accepted religious mythology which commands deep emotional and intellectual adherence.”10 So he put all those interminable performances in Sukarno’s palace to good use by carefully documenting each of the major figures of the Javanese Mahabharata and explaining what their ambivalent virtues meant for Javanese. His argument then became that the great diversity of role-models the wayang repertoire offered “afford a real legitimation for widely contrasting social and psychological types. In other words, tolerance is taught, and later maintained, by a mythology which informs and suffuses the whole Javanese tradition.”11

This conclusion would seem to have been cruelly disproved by events, since only weeks after its publication the September 30 coup attempt occurred that began Java’s paroxysm of violence, when around half a million Indonesians, overwhelmingly Javanese, perished in fratricidal conflict, the victims demonized by the killers. But of course things were not that simple. The final section of Anderson’s essay had pointed out that “on the tree of Javanese culture the leaves are dropping one by one,” notably through the reduction of the wayang’s subtleties and moral ambiguities to a good-versus-evil dichotomy.12



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