Trance in Bali.
JANE BELO. Preface by MARGARET MEAD. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960. xiii, 284 pp., 2 appendices, glossary, 108 illustrations, index. $7.50.

 

Reviewed by CLIFFORD GEERTZ, University of California, Berkeley

 

For those anthropologists who rely heavily on the concept of cultural consistency as an explanatory principle, Balinese trance behavior might well appear a strange and unaccountable paradox. Here are a people valuing dignity, decorum, and deliberateness, a delicately controlled grace of movement, speech, and thought, who nonetheless avidly seek a state of psychological dissociation in which they perform obscene acts, devour excrement or live chicks, wallow in the mud as though they were pigs, attack themselves with daggers, and finally lose control entirely in paroxisms of random violence. A people who, in the cold light of day, regard spatial disorientation, strong emotion, and "animal-like" behavior with an intense aversion approaching panic, achieve in the trance all three, and then, mentally and physically exhausted, pronounce the whole experience "delicious." It is the great merit of Jane Belo's beautifully written book on trance in Bali that she is able to dissolve this seeming paradox, and to demonstrate, with an astounding wealth of precisely observed descriptive detail, the way in which this psychological "night voyage" forms a coherent part of Balinese culture, and is, in fact, rigorously guided in terms of it.

 

Among the Balinese nothing is allowed to be simply uniform, and, aware of this, Belo draws her examples of trance behavior from nearly a dozen villages scattered over various parts of the island: sedate, almost formal temple trances by specially ordained mediums in one village; dramatic witch and dragon combat dances, during which dozens of spectators suddenly begin falling into violent trance "like firecrackers going off one after the other," in a second; a man whose arm goes into trance by itself, writhing and trembling while he, fully conscious, stares at it with the same uncomprehending curiosity as everyone else, in a third; entranced pre-pubescent girls dancing the intricate and formallegong while perched, like sleepwalking equilibrists, on the shoulders of adult men, in a fourth-and so on.

 

But at the same time, the characteristic quality and tone of Balinese life, a kind of dead serious playfulness, emerges over and over again from this superficially variegated picture. A man asked how he feels when possessed by the potato spirit replies, in good Stanislavsky fashion, that he feels like a potato. Fifteen children, aged five to nine, suddenly fall into a violent mass trance, "throwing themselves on the ground, writhing, crying, screaming," and the entire adult population of the village gathers around and spiritedly cheers them on to greater and greater heights of hysteric excitement, until, "like collapsible toys," they subside into limp unconsciousness. Another group of villagers, disturbed by the blunt and un-Balinese candor of a god who, speaking through the mouth of an entranced dancer, has severely criticized the sexual behavior of a village member, shout at him "don't speak like that here!" and unceremoniously order him to "go forth now! go (home) to the upper world!" while one even less enchanted individual, disgruntled and having been kept so long sitting in the noon sun, comments sardonically, "if it goes on like this for so long a time, the (god's) subjects will be dried to a crisp."

 

It is out of this unpromising melange of individual, local, multiform material that Belo draws support for her most general thesis: "All the varieties of trance behavior are culturally stylized: they bear the imprint of cultural patterning." In itself, the thesis that human behavior is culturally patterned is not quite novel. The novelty is that here the behavior involved is not under the control of the higher, "conscious" centers of cortical functioning, but of lower, "unconscious" centers, so that the principles of cultural organization are extended into the realm of the explicitly nonrational. Actually, following the Dutch psychiatrist van Wulften Palthe, who has also studied Balinese trance, Belo distinguishes three main levels of psychic functioning: ordinary consciousness; a "somnambulistic," mildly hypnotic state, in which quite complex behavior can be carried out even though consciouness is absent; and "strong seizure," in which virtually all self-control is lost, and actions represent the simple expression of ungovernable nerve storms, the "uncoordinated discharge of cerebral innervation," and so are devoid of any cultural patterning whatsoever. In these terms, the bulk of Balinese trance behavior-the kris-stabbing, the eating of excrement, the mediation of the messages of the gods-falls into the intermediate, "somnambulistic" category where it bears the clear stamp of Balinese culture; even though it typically culminates in the third, "strong seizure" stage, when, after violent thrashings and quiverings-"bedrock behavior (in which) cultural and individual patternings disappear"-the trancer either becomes totally comatose or awakens, dully and with blinking eyes, to the commonplace world of conscious experience.

 

Balinese trance is based, therefore, on a widespread and deliberately cultivated abilů ity of individuals to cross, almost at will, the vague and gradual boundary between consciousness and somnambulism on the one hand, and a similarly developed ability to maintain oneself in that twilight state for fairly extended periods of time before yielding to a final abandonment of self-control altogether on the other. And it is this betwixtand-between sort of experience which is, evidently, so "delicious," so highly prized. "It is not right for him to come back to consciousness yet," some villagers complained to Belo of a man who near the beginning of a pig trance suddenly went directly into the violent convulsions of the terminal, acultural state, because someone had been impolite enough to spit on him as he wallowed in the mud-"he hasn't yet had enough of playing."

 

And, despite the fact that trance is everywhere on the island an essentially sacred phenomenon, "playing," in the sense both of the theatre and the game, is a far from inexact or merely metaphorical description of what Balinese do while somnambulistic. The little girllegong dancers behave with a willful capriciousness and sassy intractability that both diverts their adult audience and tries its patience. High up in a tree, a man entranced as a male monkey mounts his brother, entranced as a female one, and simulates copulation. A commoner possessed by a god speaks rudely to a noble and is addressed respectfully in return, a radical and titillating reversal of the usual pattern. The extreme Balinese fastidiousness concerning eating is spectacularly mocked by a man who hurls his whole body face down upon a live chick, crunching it with his mouth without touching it with his hands. Again and again, high seriousness and unbuttoned exhibitionism are fused to a degree perhaps only children achieve in our culture. When Balinese go into trance, Belo remarks, they become like gods, and "being like gods, they ... behave like children (because) in some way the gods themselves are children."

 

Belo's book would have made a greater theoretical contribution had she carried her psychological analysis forward beyond the few general and unsystematic suggestions she almost diffidently offers here. It would have been comprehensible to a wider audience if an introductory section depicting the overall outlines of Balinese culture and society had been provided (there is not even a map on which to locate her villages). But as a concrete demonstration of the patterning of nonrational action in culturaJ terms it could scarcely be improved.

 


American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 62, No. 6 (Dec., 1960), 1096-1097.


 

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