Sunday, November 04, 2007

Clifford Geertz - The Religion Of Java

Saturday, I started reading Clifford Geertz's classic 1960 ethnography "The Religion Of Java". The book describes the religious life of the three main social classes of an east central Javanese town: farmers, tradesmen and aristocrats. The book starts with the religious life of the farmers and contains a fascinating chapter about the farmers' spirit beliefs: memedis (frightening spirits), lelembuts (possessing spirits), tujuls (familiar spirits), demits (place spirits) and danjangs (guardian spirits). These spirits represent disorder, the uncivilized, the nonhuman.

Some of these spirits "... show signs as having been derived from European sources: the djrangkong, who is a man 'with his flesh off,' i.e. a skeleton; or the wedon, a spiritual being covered with a white sheet like our ghosts. The memedi who kept adding salt to an informant's food for three months, the disembodied pair of hands at which the same man threw a plate of hot peppers, and the ghost whose shadow remained on the wall even after the light had been turned off may also owe something to our cultural tradition". Ever since reading Michael Taussig's "Mimesis And Alterity" such syncretic ghosts have held a special fascination for me. These deterritorialized spirits are after-images not only of the living humans they once were, but they are also after-images of European colonists: they are excessively mimetic.

The chapter contains folk tales about these spirits, one of which I'll reproduce here for your enjoyment. The story concerns tujuls, spirits which reside in the Hindu ruins on Java and require a devil's pact to do one's bidding, an oath that the sorcerer will deliver a magically killed human sacrifice for the spirit each year. Rich misers are often suspected of having tujuls.

"One of the most famous tujul owners in the Modjokuto area is an old hadji [someone who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca, Valter] who lives in a village a few miles to the east of town. The richest man out that way, he is also the most miserly. He acquired his tujuls through the usual pact - promising to deliver four dead people to the spirits each year. He seeks his victims everywhere - he even looked for them in Mecca. The odd thing is that, even though he had been doing this for years, it was only discovered in 1951 by another man - something of a dealer in the occult himself - who developed countermagic against the hadji. He gathered together thirty-three students an taught them special magical techniques for defeating tujuls. One Friday night the students attacked the tujuls of the hadji, but the latter called in reinforcements from among the spirits at the various ruins. The attacking students wore black spectacles in order to see the spirits and used flashlights as weapons, for where there is light there can be no spirits of any kind. The tujuls threw a tjakra (a magical ring-shaped weapon, used by Krishna in the Mahabharata) at the students but did not kill them, and, though the struggle was hard, the four victims were not taken. Now, it is said, every Friday night the struggle continues. People who see the students fighting think that they are mad because they strike the empty air. The first battle took place in the hadji's front yard, but now the war seems to move about from place to place."

A fascinating folk tale - and from a Bataillan point of view it is interesting that misers (i.e. persons who are opposed to expenditure and gift-giving) are the persons who own the tujuls. Are the tujuls (who represent disorder, the uncivilized, the nonhuman) the monstrous externalizations of the expenditure they rule out? Or are tujuls to be seen (á la Taussig) as a critique of capitalism by Javanese farmers in terms of their own cultural idiom?

I see the sacrificial victims as proxies of the sorcerer himself. In Maussian terms, sacrifice is a gift of the self to the Gods which obliges them to reciprocate with supernatural blessings. But instead of giving himself the sorcerer cheats the gift exchange cycle by giving the life of others instead of his own. But in the long run, he cannot escape giving himself: he must reciprocate the gifts of the tujuls with his own life. And the fact that he has deferred giving himself by giving the life of others instead, has a supernatural effect on his own death: Tujul owners die an exceedingly slow and painful death.

I'll finish this post with some clips from two Indonesian horror films which feature spirits such as those described by Geertz.

Leák - 1981

Pengabdi Setan - 1982

Post scriptum

Here is "The Religion of Java" at Google Books (link).

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