From the other side of the fence: Two new books about Bali

From the other side of the fence1Fences are a common metaphor in antipodean cultures such as Australia, where both authors and the reviewer originate, but are perhaps less familiar to European readers. They refer to borders and boundaries between places and spaces, in this case the well-guarded ones between academic and popular knowledges. A Balinese cognate would be the pervasive tembok (masonry walls) that mark divisions between domestic and public, sacred and profane places/spaces.: Two new books about Bali

Made Wijaya. 2014. Majapahit Style (Volume 1) Sanur: Wijaya Words, ISBN 9786027136700

David Stuart-Fox with Ketut Liyer, edited by Charles Levine. 2015. Pray, Magic, Heal: The Story of Bali’s Famous Eat, Pray, Love Folk Healer. New York and Leiderdorp: New Saraswati Press, ISBN 9780986335105

One of the recurrent problems faced by producers of academic knowledge is its institutional separation from not only the people it is about, but from many of the people who would like to read it the most (try getting anything non-sensational published in the mainstream media). A converse problem is the system of institutional gatekeeping that prevents those without proper institutional credentials (implicit as well as explicit) from joining the disciplinary conversation (try getting something into an academic journal without institutional affiliation, let alone proper referencing style). Bali, because it is as popular among uncertified scholars as certified ones, and among popular readers as academic ones, is a fruitful case study for exploring these contradictions.

The most interesting early scholarship on Bali was in fact done by gifted amateurs – expatriate artists (Miguel Covarrubias, Colin McPhee, Walter Spies), colonial administrators (e.g., F.A. Liefrinck) and eccentric escapees from the stifling normalities of European society (e.g., R. Goris). A few certified academics (Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Jane Belo) did also produce books but ironically almost nobody reads them, then or now. Today there is a constant discourse about the multiple issues that Bali is facing, some (but not all) well-informed and thoughtful. There is also a substantial readership of expatriates and thinking tourists hungry for books which translate academic knowledge about Bali into accessible form, but relatively few books really serve this market.

Two recent books speak into this in-between market, but from outside the academic arena: Majapahit Style by Made Wijaya and Pray, Magic Heal, by David Stuart-Fox. Stuart-Fox has credentials as an academic specialist on Bali – author of a PhD thesis and definitive monograph on one of Bali’s major temples Pura Besakih and as highly respected within the academy as outside it. But he prefers to downplay these credentials and his career has in fact been largely in the ill-defined borderlands of the academic world – as compiler of the definitive (pre-digital) bibliography of literature on Bali, long-serving (now retired) librarian of the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden and freelance scholar writing since the 1970s on Balinese arts, religion, and culture. Pray, Magic Heal is written deliberately for a popular audience and its subject is a pop-culture phenomenon but it is based on decades of in-depth research.

The second author, Made Wijaya, died, suddenly, unexpectedly and tragically, between the writing and publication of this review, which now takes on an element of obituary. He was a veteran of the expatriate community in Bali, tropical landscape designer extraordinaire, one-man multimedia production machine and much more. His book masquerades as a picture book about ‘style’, and wields its erudition lightly, but it is actually a contribution to the study of Javo-Balinese history that deserves to be taken seriously, not least for its innovative methodological approach to interpretation of cultural transmission.

Both authors are gifted and well-qualified amateurs (in the original sense of the term) speaking over the fence. But who is listening? To date I can find no reviews of either in scholarly journals and only one of each in other media. This is a loss for us all, on both sides of the fence. In my discipline (anthropology) we frequently bemoan our failure to communicate our (usually inherently interesting) knowledge to non-specialist audiences and I understand it is so in other disciplines. Likewise, scholars outside the academic system have real difficulty getting their (sometimes very well-informed) views heard within the circuits of academic discourse. Some of this fence is structural – a system of academic recognition that increasingly privileges sophisticated (i.e., theoretically framed) and accountable ‘academic’ values over more everyday ones of readability and accessibility, and in effect becomes a system of gatekeeping. Likewise the mainstream media are, in my experience, surprisingly resistant to contributions of academic knowledge unless they happen to address the sensational issue de jour. But some of it is also habitual and often it becomes easier not to try. 

The result is that we are all the poorer – on both sides of the fence. These two books remind us of a greater mission for which we all have some responsibility and that we lose sight of at our peril, especially in a time when universities are, ironically calling for our research to be more relevant and publically accessible as exemplified by the growing media genre of (sometimes well-informed) ‘science journalism’.

Majapahit Style

Wijaya was perhaps the best known of the talented expatriates who arrived in Bali in the 1960s and 70s, many of whom have lived there ever since. In addition to his day job as a designer of spectacular and romantic gardens for hotels across Asia, he was a one-man multimedia factory – producing an endless stream of photographs, videos, cultural commentaries, and public satires, much of it cleverly disguised as social gossip. Among all of this he has consistently studied and analysed Balinese architecture and developed a series of arguments about its structural, spatial and aesthetic principles and practices. Majapahit Style (Volume 1) is the latest chapter in this opus magnum, expanding his thinking about Balinese architecture to, but also from, its historical origins in neighbouring Java and beyond.

Majapahit Style presents itself, I suspect somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as yet another offering in the glossy coffee-table book genre of (this or that) style. But what it represents is the fruit of decades of research, exploring, documenting and reflecting on architectural, aesthetic and ritual practices, first in Bali, then across Indonesia and further across Southeast-, South- and East Asia. The resulting text moves across time and space and between anecdote and analysis, expert opinions and personal ones, assertions and speculations, but between them is a thread of argument, not always explicit, but recurring and systematic: that while the direct evidence of Majapahit material culture, especially architecture, has largely disappeared from its historical heartland, it lives on in the material design heritages of other places and times – spread across the archipelago and especially in Bali, where aspects of it survive in living traditions of aesthetic and ritual practice. This argument is implicit in the structure of the book, which moves historically from earliest to latest manifestations of Majapahit architecture, expands geographically across the vast region of Majapahit influence and architecturally across forms, elements and local aesthetic traditions. The argument is supported, and indeed most compellingly made, by a primary visual text of photographs, maps and drawings, juxtaposing similarities of form, colour and decoration, materials, methods, and names. 

Embedded in this empirical argument is a methodological one, perhaps even more important for academic consideration, of the provocative power of comparison of spatial organisation, structural form and especially aesthetic style as a method of analysis across time, space and even cultural transformation. Recognising the evidence of Majapahit culture and interpreting it through the lens of contemporary Balinese architecture and ritual was the starting point of this work, but its systematic expansion into a comparative method is what makes this work compelling.

I will not be surprised if historians and architectural scholars find plenty to disagree with here, but to date there is no evidence of them having read, let alone reviewed it. I’ll leave them to assess the historical veracity of Wijaya’s evidence or its intersections with the established corpus of Majapahit scholarship, but I think any criticisms in terms of deficits of certified academic practice miss the point, both of its vast empirical sweep and its methodological innovation.

Pray, Magic, Heal

This is an unusual book, 45 years in the making and unavoidably entwined with its (in)famous twin Eat, Pray, Love, but it is not what the title might suggest. Stuart-Fox is another of the extraordinary generation of dedicated Bali scholars who lived in Bali through the 1970s and 80s, became fluent in local languages and for whom deep research into Balinese culture was not a job but a way of life. He knew Ketut Liyer long before his dubious fame through the Eat, Pray, Love book/film phenomenon. At this time Liyer was just one of hundreds of balian [priest/healer/seer] in villages across Bali. But he was a good one and also a painter of some repute. Because of this and his proximity to the culturally/spiritually oriented tourist centre of Ubud, foreigners began seeking his services in the 1990s and in 2002 Elizabeth Gilbert was just another foreign client. But her book changed his life forever and from 2005 onward he received and counselled a constant stream of foreigners. He charged for these services, considerably more than for his local clientele, and his family prospered as a result. Opinion is divided as to the genuineness of the advice he provided to foreigners and also as to his motivation in doing this work.

But that is not what the book is about. The first chapter relates some of this story briefly, but the majority of it is based on conversations between Liyer and Stuart-Fox, mainly during the 1970s and 80s, in which Liyer outlines the theory and method of his practice. The result is a very readable account, quite personal in a way, through which we gradually get to know both Liyer the man and the nature of his practices and the beliefs embedded in them.

This book belongs on the same shelf as the Jero Tapakan films by Linda Connor and Tim Asch, Barbara Lovric’s work on magic and healing, Angela Hobart’s on healers and Hildred Geertz’s final books about paintings, temples and artists. They all take us deep into the heart of real grass-roots Balinese spiritual belief and practice, often obscured behind the spectacular beauty of temple ritual and the increasingly banal and sanitised simplifications of official, universalised ‘Hinduism’. This is a domain of powerful and potentially dangerous forces, embodied in a range of (usually) invisible beings who need to be placated and managed or sometimes fought and defeated by magical tools and techniques at the disposal of a skilled practitioner. Liyer, notwithstanding the somewhat bizarre distortions of his later career, was for many years a genuine practitioner of these arts.   The successive chapters of the book take us through Liyer’s repertoire of tools and techniques – meditation and mantras, holy water and incense, magical objects, drawings and sashes. These are described and explained in considerable detail, often including normally secret mantras and instructions and reproductions of magical drawings. The book is generously illustrated with these drawings and photographs and like Majapahit Style, these are more than just illustrations, they are an equal part of the text. 

What makes this book work, is that Stuart-Fox resists the (academic) temptation to over-interpret and tell us how or what to think about Liyer – despite 40 years’ experience and insight into Balinese culture, he steps back and lets Liyer speak for himself, allowing us to make what we will of the imperfect, improvised ordinariness of Balinese healing, but without denying the magic and mystery of it. The Liyer we meet in these pages is neither mystic, magician nor religious scholar, let alone celebrity – he is more like a village craftsman, working with a limited kit of practical tools and a disarming awareness of the limitations of his understanding of the powers behind both sickness and healing. My only disappointment was not learning what he really thought about his later years.

Ways of knowing Bali

Both these books tell us something about Bali: one unpacking a one-man pop-culture phenomenon and informing our (mis)understanding by relocating him, by way of biography, back into the tradition from which he was plucked by international celebrity culture. In the process, the reader is educated, gradually and accessibly, into the workings of Balinese ritual, healing and artistic practice. The other (by a one-man pop-culture phenomenon) works at a different level, addressing one of the biggest themes in Southeast Asian history, but by way of an innovative approach, largely self-taught and pursued and expressed with an infectious exuberance. Both are well-written and easy to read, but in both cases, much of the work is done by visual means.

It is, I think, no coincidence that both authors are veterans of the expatriate scene of the 1970s, which in some respects more resembled the golden age of Baliphilia of the 1930s than the present and before Bali was transformed, as one of them put it, “from a user-friendly magic kingdom into a high-density Paradise theme park” 2Roberts, Scott. 1995. Introduction. In: Wijaya, Made. Stranger in Paradise: The Diary of an Expatriate in Bali 1979-80. Sanur: Wijaya Words. in the 1990s (and something else again since then). This was an extraordinary period in which a loose community of talented and dedicated foreigners immersed themselves into local community and culture. Many of them, like their predecessors in the 1930s, straddled the fence, producing books (Diana Darling), photography (Leonard Lueras) 3Rio Helmi is absent from this list, only because he occupies a special place between the expat and local worlds – another fence. and films (Lawrence and Lorne Blair, John Darling) which have proven classics in contemporary academic understandings of Bali. Some of them moved deeper into local Balinese worlds by way of marriage (e.g. Rucina Ballinger) and engagement with their local communities (Garret Kam). Others (e.g. Michel Picard) crossed the fence into academia from where they continued to provide some of the most insightful studies of Balinese culture. Since then, both expatriate and scholarly engagements with Bali have moved on, the former away from local community and culture into a generic expatriate community that could almost be anywhere in the world; the latter toward more circumscribed and specialised studies based on much shorter (and I fear sometimes shallower) periods of research. 

Stuart-Fox and Wijaya both had the privilege of living and working in Bali at this time, and since then have had successful careers in other fields, but both have chosen to honour and repay these privileges with books that are simultaneously serious contributions to Bali studies and effective translations of expert knowledge about into accessible form. One is a model for bringing academic knowledge to a wider readership, the other offering deeply grounded knowledge to the academy for us to engage with. We have something to learn from them both – about Bali and about the way we share our knowledge and understanding.

Graeme MacRae, Massey University. (g.s.macrae@massey.ac.nz)

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