Found in Translation: 
On the Social History of the Moral Imagination


Clifford Geertz



Anthropologists have a number of advantages when addressing the general public, one of them being that hardly anyone in their audience has much in the way of independent knowledge of the supposed facts being retailed. This allows one to get away with a good deal. But it is, as most such things, also something of a disadvantage. If a literary critic discourses on King Lear, a philosopher on Kant, or an historian on Gibbon, he can begin more or less directly with the presentation of his views, quoting only here and there to drive matters home. The context can be assumed to be shared between himself and those he is addressing. He need not inform them who Gloucester is, what epistemology is about, or where and when the Roman Empire was. This is usually not the case for the anthropologist, who is faced with the unattractive choice of boring his audience with a great deal of exotic information or attempting to make his argument in an empirical vacuum.


I want to avoid this choice, to the degree that I can, by beginning with a rather long, but I think most vivid quotation from a nineteenth-century Western writer on what is probably Bali's most famous, or notorious, custom. It will serve as my text--my jumping-off point into a variety of assertions which, with it as base and background, I hope to have accepted as relating in some responsible way to a certain peculiar social reality I have had some access to but most of my readers will have not.

While I was at Bali one of these shocking sacrifices took place. The Rajah of the neighbouring State died on the 20th of December 1847; his body was burned with great pomp, three of his concubines sacrificing themselves in the flames. It was a great day for the Balinese. It was some years since they had had the chance of witnessing one of these awful spectacles, a spectacle that meant for them a holiday with an odour of sanctity about it; and all the reigning Rajahs of Bali made a point of being present . . . and brought large followings.

It was a lovely day, and along the soft and slippery paths by the embankments which divide the lawn-like terraces of an endless succession of paddy-fields, groups of Balinese in festive attire, could be seen wending their way to the place of burning. Their gay dresses stood out in bright relief against the tender green of the ground over which they passed. They looked little enough like savages, but rather like a kindly festive crowd bent upon some pleasant excursion. The whole surroundings bore an impress of plenty, peace, and happiness, and, in a measure, of civilization. It was hard to believe that within a few miles of such a scene, three women, guiltless of any crime, were, for their affection's sake, and in the name of religion, to suffer the most horrible of deaths, while thousands of their countrymen looked on.

But already the walls which surround the palace of the King of Gianjar are in sight. Straight avenues, up the sides of a terraced hill, lead to the . . . palace; and, higher still, on the center of an open space, surrounded by a wooden rail, a gaudy structure with gilded roof, rising on crimson pillers, arrests the attention. It is the spot where the burning of the dead man's body is to take place. Upon closer inspection the structure is seen to rest upon a platform of brick-work four feet high, upon which is a second floor, covered with sand. In the centre stands the wooden image of a lion, gorgeous with purple and gold trappings. The back is made to open, and is destined to receive the body of the king for burning. The entire building is gaudily decorated with mirrors, china plates, and gilding.

Immediately adjoining this structure is a square surrounded by a wall four feet high, the whole of which space was filled with a fierce, bright fire, the fatal fire which was to consume the victims. At an elevation of twenty feet a light bamboo platform is connected with this place, a covering of green plantain stems protecting it against fire. The center of this bridge supports a small pavilion, intended to receive the victims while preparing for the fatal leap.

The spectators, who, possibly, did not number less than 40,000 or 50,000, [which, incidentally, would be about 5 percent of the total population of the island at the time] occupied the space between these structures and the outer wall, inside which a number of small pavilions had been erected for the use of women. This space was now rapidly filling, and all eyes were directed toward the [palace] whence the funeral procession was to come. Strange to say, the dead king did not leave his palace for the last time by the ordinary means. A corpse is considered impure, and nothing impure may pass the gateway. Hence, a contrivance resembling a bridge had been constructed across the walls, and over it the body was lifted. This bridge led to the uppermost storey of an immense tower of a pagoda shape, upon which the body was placed.

This tower . . . was carried by five hundred men. It consisted of eleven storeys, besides three lower platforms, the whole being gorgeously ornamented. Upon the upper storey rested the body, covered with white linen, and guarded by men carrying fans.

The procession marching before the [tower] consisted first of strong bodies of lancebearers, with [gamelan orchestra] music at intervals; then a great number of men and women carrying the offerings, which consisted of weapons, clothing, ornaments, gold and silver vessels containing holy water, [betelnut] boxes, fruit, meat-dishes, boiled rice of many colours, and, finally, the horse of the deceased, gaily caparisoned; then more lancebearers and some musicians. These were followed by the young [newly installed] king, the Dewa Pahang, with a large suite of princes and nobles. After them came the . . . high priest, carried upon an open chair, round which was wrapped one end of a coil of cloth, made to represent a huge serpent, painted in white, black, and gilt stripes, the huge head of the monster resting under the [priest's] seat, while the tail was fastened to the [tower], which came immediately after it, implying that the deceased was dragged to the place of burning by the serpent.

Following the large [tower] of the dead king, came three minor and less gorgeous ones, each containing a young woman about to become a sacrifice. . . . The victims of this cruel superstition showed no sign of fear at the terrible doom now so near. Dressed in white, their long black hair partly concealing them, with a mirror in one hand and a comb in the other, they appeared intent only upon adorning themselves as though for some gay festival. The courage which sustained them in a position so awful was indeed extraordinary, but it was born of the hope of happiness in a future world. From being bondswomen here, they believed they were to become the favourite wives and queens of their late master in another world. They were assured that readiness to follow him to a future world, with cheerfulness and amid pomp and splendour, would please the unseen powers, and induce the great god Siva to admit them without delay to Swerga Surya, the heaven of Indra.

Round the deluded women stood their relatives and friends. Even these did not view the ghastly preparations with dismay, or try to save their unhappy daughters and sisters from the terrible death awaiting them. Their duty was not to save but to act as executioners; for they were entrusted with the last horrible preparations, and finally sent the victims to their doom.

Meanwhile the procession moved slowly on, but before reaching its destination a strange act in the great drama had to be performed. The serpent had to be killed, and burned with the corpse. The high priest descended from his chair, seized a bow, and from the four corners of the compass discharged four wooden arrows at the serpent's head. It was not the arrow, however, but a flower, the champaka, that struck the serpent. The flower had been inserted at the feathered end of the arrow, from which, in its flight it detached itself, and by some strange dexterity the priest so managed that the flower, on each occasion hit its mark, viz. the serpent's head. The beast was then supposed to have been killed, and its body having been carried hitherto by men, was now wound round the priest's chair and eventually round the wooden image of the lion in which the corpse was burned.

The procession having arrived near the place of cremation, the [tower] was thrice turned, always having the priest at its head. Finally it was placed against the bridge which, meeting the eleventh story, connected it with the place of cremation. The body was now placed in the wooden image of the lion; five small plates of gold, silver, copper, iron and lead, inscribed with mystic words, were placed in the mouth of the corpse; the high priest read the Vedas, and emptied the jars containing holy water over the body. This done, the faggots, sticks striped in gold, black, and white, were placed under the lion, which was soon enveloped in flames. This part of the strange scene over, the more terrible one began.

The women were carried in procession three times round the place, and then lifted on to the fatal bridge. There, in the pavilion which has been already mentioned, they waited until the flames had consumed the image and its contents. Still they showed no fear, still their chief care seemed to be the adornment of the body, as though making ready for life rather than for death. Meanwhile, the attendant friends prepared for the horrible climax. The rail at the further end of the bridge was opened, and a plank was pushed over the flames, and attendants below poured quantities of oil on the fire, causing bright, lurid flames to shoot up to a great height. The supreme moment had arrived. With firm and measured steps the victims trod the fatal plank; three times they brought their hands together over their heads, on each of which a small dove was placed, and then, with body erect, they leaped into the flaming sea below, while the doves flew up, symbolizing the escaping spirits.

The women were carried in procession three times round the place, and then lifted on to the fatal bridge. There, in the pavilion which has been already mentioned, they waited until the flames had consumed the image and its contents. Still they showed no fear, still their chief care seemed to be the adornment of the body, as though making ready for life rather than for death. Meanwhile, the attendant friends prepared for the horrible climax. The rail at the further end of the bridge was opened, and a plank was pushed over the flames, and attendants below poured quantities of oil on the fire, causing bright, lurid flames to shoot up to a great height. The supreme moment had arrived. With firm and measured steps the victims trod the fatal plank; three times they brought their hands together over their heads, on each of which a small dove was placed, and then, with body erect, they leaped into the flaming sea below, while the doves flew up, symbolizing the escaping spirits.

Two of the women showed, even at the very last, no sign of fear; they looked at each other, to see whether both were prepared, and then, without stopping, took the plunge. The third appeared to hesitate, and to take the leap with less resolution; she faltered for a moment, and then followed, all three disappearing without uttering a sound.

This terrible spectacle did not appear to produce any emotion upon the vast crowd, and the scene closed with barbaric music and firing of guns. It was a sight never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it, and brought to one's heart a strange feeling of thankfulness that one belonged to a civilization which, with all its faults, is merciful, and tends more and more to emancipate women from deception and cruelty. To the British rule it is due that this foul plague of suttee is extirpated in India, and doubtless the Dutch have, ere now, done as much for Bali. Works like these are the credentials by which the Western civilization makes good its right to conquer and humanize barbarous races and to replace ancient civilizations. 

I have little more that is interesting to tell of Bali. . . .




This powerful, beautiful, and (not to neglect my own mÈtier, which is supposed to be some sort of science) superbly observed passage was written in the 1880s by a Dane, L. V. Helms.1 As a very young man Helms had apprenticed himself to a white rajah type merchant-adventurer straight out of The Heart of Darkness named Mads Lange--he played the violin, dashed about on half-broken horses cutting down enemies, had various complexions of native wives, and died suddenly, quite likely poisoned, in his late forties--who ran a port-of-trade enclave in South Bali between 1839 and 1856, a time when he and his staff were the only Europeans on the island. I quote Helms at such length not because I intend to go into Balinese ethnography here, or even, very much, into cremation rites. I quote this passage because I want to unpack it, or, better (because it is a bit hermetic and my interests a bit diffuse) to circle around it as a way into what I take to be some of the central concerns of Lionel Trilling as a literary critic, if one can confine so various a man in so cramped a category. These are concerns which, from a somewhat different perspective, but no less cramped a category, I share with him.


If Trilling was obsessed with anything it was with the relation of culture to the moral imagination; and so am I. He came at it from the side of literature; I come at it from the side of custom. But in Helms's text, portraying a custom which possesses that mysterious conjunction of beauty when it is taken as a work of art, horror when it is taken as actually lived life, and power when it is taken as a moral vision--a conjunction which we associate with such a great part of modern literature, and over which Trilling, in his cadenced way, so conscientiously agonized--I think we can meet. It does not really matter much in the end whether one trains one's attention on Joseph Conrad or on suttee: the social history of the moral imagination is a single subject.


Single, but of course vast. As any particular work of literature brings out certain aspects of the general problem--How does collective fantasy color collective life?--so any particular ritual dramatizes certain issues and mutes others. This is, indeed, the particular virtue of attending to such exotic matters as the splendid incineration of illustrious corpses and dutiful widows on a remote island some years ago. What is thereby brought to immediate notice is so different from what is brought to immediate notice by attending to what Trilling once called the shockingly personal literature of the talkative and attitudinizing present, that whatever deeper perceptions emerge to connect the two experiences have a peculiar force.


My task in sufficiently focusing matters so that something circumstantial can be said is powerfully assisted by the fact that Professor Trilling's last published piece--on the problems of teaching Jane Austen to Columbia students in the seventies, a heroic enterprise apparent--addressed itself to what is surely the central issue here.2 It has always been, he says there, "the basic assumption of humanistic literary pedagogy" that the similarities between ourselves and others removed in place or period are so much more profound than are the surface differences separating us from them that, given the necessary scholarship and historical care, their imaginative products can be put at the service of our moral life. Referring to some recent discussions of my own (having to do, among other things, with the Balinese sense of self, which has--as I think you can gather from my text--a certain high peculiarity about it), he wondered how far this basic assumption was in fact valid. On the one hand, he seemed shaken in his confidence that the culturally distant was so readily available and doubted even whether he had, after all, really been able simply to understand, much less put to use, an Icelandic saga about a countryman's gift of a bear to one king which another king coveted, through the customary device of putting himself in the countryman's shoes. But, on the other, he seemed resolute, stubborn even, in his faith that however alien another people's modes of thought and feeling might be, they were somehow connectible to the way we live now. He remained convinced that he could bring those Columbia students at least somewhat closer to Jane Austen, or perhaps more exactly, could expose to them how close, in some things anyway, they already were.


Though this is not precisely the most comfortable position, nor even a wholly coherent one, it is, I think, the only one that can be effectively defended. The differences do go far deeper than an easy men-are-men humanism permits itself to see, and the similarities are far too substantial for an easy other-beasts, other-mores relativism to dissolve. Both literary critics and anthropologists--at least literary critics such as Trilling, still possessed, as he says, of the primitive belief that there is such a thing as life itself; and anthropologists such as myself, who think that society comes to more than behavior--pursue their vocations haunted by a riddle quite as irresolvable as it is fundamental: namely, that the significant works of the human imagination (Icelandic saga, Austen novel, or Balinese cremation) speak with equal power to the consoling piety that we are all like to one another and to the worrying suspicion that we are not.


If we turn back to the Helms text, as well as to the sorts of "life itself" it in some way refracts--the indigenous one toward which it reaches, the intrusive one out of which it arises, and the separated one from which we apprehend it--this deep equivocality emerges in virtually every line. As we read it, a series of instabilities--instabilities of perspective, of meaning, of judgment--is set up, the one pressing hard upon the next, leaving us, in the end, not quite sure where we stand, what position we wish to take up toward what is being said to us, and indeed uncertain about just what has been said.


Some of these instabilities are, so to speak, intra-Balinese; they inhere in the structure of the ritual as such, form its theme and comprise its meaning. The conjunction (to which I have already alluded, and Helms, in struck wonder, keeps dazedly remarking) of an extravagant intensification of sensuous drama, an explosion of florid symbols and cabalic images, and a no less extravagant celebration of the quieter beauties of personal obliteration, a chaste hymn to annihilation, is, of course, only the most prominent of these. On the one hand, eleven-storey spangled towers, flowered arrows shot into fabric snakes, purple and gold coffins shaped as lions, incense, metallaphones, spices, flames; on the other, charred bones, entranced priests, somnambulant widows, affectless attendants, dissociate crowds, eerie in their picnic calm. Cocteau's aesthetic coupled with Beckett's.


But beyond the instabilities the rite in itself contains (narrowly contains, as a matter of fact--something, along with its gravedigger humor, our text rather fails to convey), there are also those set up in the collision between all this and the bundle of presumptions and predilections brought to it by an unusually broad-minded but hardly culture-free nineteenth-century Danish sea-clerk. He is, as countless intruders into the masque-world of Bali have been since, hopelessly bewitched by the soft loveliness of what he sees. Those virescent terraces, those slippery paths, those gay dresses, those cataracts of long black hair--all still seduce the coldest eye, and they addle the romantic one altogether. Yet his outrage at what this gorgeous ceremoniousness is actually producing in the real world, or, anyway, the real world as a Jutland apothecary's son conceives it--"three women, guiltless of any crime" suffering "the most horrible of deaths" for "affection's sake, and in the name of religion"--is not only unsuppressible, it disarranges his whole reaction.


The confusion of high artistry and high cruelty he thus confronts, a confusion Baudelaire would have relished and Artaud later on in fact did, is to him so shaking that it leaves him uncertain as to what sort of beings these gorgeously decorated pyrophiles marching about clanging gongs and waving pennants really are: "they looked little enough like savages"; "the surroundings bore an impress of plenty, peace and happiness, and, in a measure, of civilization." His aesthetic sensibility, an extremely powerful one, going one way, and his moral, more than its match, the other, he has great difficulty deciding what properly to feel: the women are deluded, their courage magnificent; the preparations are ghastly, the silent plunges breathtaking; the rite a cruel superstition, the spectacle one never to be forgotten; the crowd is kindly, gay, graceful, polite, and unmoved by the sight of three young women burned living to a crisp. All the familiar predicates seem to be getting in one another's way. Whatever relations beauty, truth, and goodness might have to one another in this cloud of smoke and sacrifice, they are, surely, not those of post-Napoleonic Scandinavia.


They are not those of post- World War IIAmerica either, or not at least those of the right-thinking part of it. In a twist any true connoisseur of the modern earnestness led in beyond its depth must surely savor, Helms (having both drawn us toward the ritual by dwelling on its grace and propelled us away from it by dwelling on its terror) turns it, via an outcry against the oppression of women, into an argument for imperialism. It is in extirpating such foul plagues--foul and splendid--as this that the West earns its credentials to conquer and transform the East. The English in India, the Dutch in Indonesia, and presumably the Belgians, the French, and the rest where they are, are right and justified in replacing ancient civilizations with their own, for they are on the side of mercy and emancipation, against deception and cruelty. In the space of a few paragraphs, we get some of the most thoroughly entrenched tropes of the liberal imagination (an imagination, I'd best confess, I more or less share)--the cultural integrity of "simpler" peoples, the sacredness of human life, the equality of the sexes, and the coercive character of imperial rule--struck off against one another in a way that can only leave us at least unsettled. To have moved from the magic garden of the dreaming Orient to the white man's burden, Gauguin's world to Kipling's, so rapidly and with such fine logic is but the last imbalancing blow the text delivers. It is not only the Balinese and Helms who seem morally elusive when we finish this remarkable account. So, unless we are willing to settle for a few embroidery mottoes of the eating-people-is-wrong variety, do we.


The case is general. For all the peculiarities here involved, the decentering of perception the Balinese cremation generates as it is worked through first, second, third, and nth order interpretations, coming from all sorts of directions and going all which ways, is characteristic of any imaginative construction powerful enough to interest anyone beyond its immediate audience. (And, indeed, if it is not powerful enough to do that it probably will not have an immediate audience.) Such a construction has a career, and one itself imaginative, for it consists of a set of encounters with other such constructions, or rather with consciousnesses informed by them. Whatever role it comes to play in the lives of individuals and groups removed in either space or time from the social matrix that brought it forth is an outcome of that career. The truth of the doctrine of cultural (or historical--it is the same thing) relativism is that we can never apprehend another people's or another period's imagination neatly, as though it were our own. The falsity of it is that we can therefore never genuinely apprehend it at all. We can apprehend it well enough, at least as well as we apprehend anything else not properly ours; but we do so not by looking behind the interfering glosses that connect us to it but through them. Professor Trilling's nervousness about the epistemological complacency of traditional humanism is not misplaced. The exactest reply to it is James Merrill's wrenching observation that life is translation, and we are all lost in it.





Whatever use the imaginative productions of other peoples--predecessors, ancestors, or distant cousins--can have for our moral lives, then, it cannot be to simplify them. The image of the past (or the primitive, or the classic, or the exotic) as a source of remedial wisdom, a prosthetic corrective for a damaged spiritual life--an image that has governed a good deal of humanist thought and education--is mischievous because it leads us to expect that our uncertainties will be reduced by access to thought-worlds constructed along lines alternative to our own, when in fact they will be multiplied. What Helms learned from Bali, and we learn from Helms, is that the growth in range a powerful sensibility gains from an encounter with another one, as powerful or more, comes only at the expense of its inward ease.


What I have called "the social history of the moral imagination," and announced to be the common enterprise of a critic of Trilling's ilk and an anthropologist of mine, turns out to be rather less straightforward than some current views in either of our disciplines take it to be. Neither the recovery of literary intentions ("what Austen wished to convey") nor the isolation of literary responses ("what Columbia students contrive to see in her"), neither the reconstruction of intra-cultural meaning ("Balinese cremation rites as caste drama") nor the establishment of cross-cultural uniformities ("the theophanous symbolism of mortuary fire") can by itself bring it to proper focus. Austen's precisian view of feminine honor, or the modernist delight in her reflexive fictionality; the Balinese conception of the indestructibility of hierarchy in the face of the most powerful leveling forces the world can muster, or the primordial seriousness of the death of kings: these things are but the raw materials of such a history. Its subject is what the sort of mentalities enthralled by some of them make of the sorts enthralled by others.


To write on it or to teach it--whether for Bali or Euro-America, and whether as a critic or an ethnographer--is to try to penetrate somewhat this tangle of hermeneutical involvements, to locate with some precision the instabilities of thought and sentiment it generates and set them in a social frame. Such an effort hardly dissolves the tangle or removes the instabilities. Indeed, as I have suggested, it rather brings them more disturbingly to notice. But it does at least (or can) place them in an intelligible context, and until some cliometrician, sociobiologist, or deep linguisticist really does contrive to solve the Riddle of the Sphinx, that will have to do.


For a literary example to parallel and interact with my developing anthropological one of what this sort of analysis comes to in the flesh, and to drive home the similarity of intellectual movement it requires (whether you are dealing with your own culture or somebody else's, with texts or events, poems or rituals, personal memories or collective dreams) one could do worse than to look for a moment at Paul Fussell recent The Great Warand Modern Memory and Modern Memory.3 There are other possibilities, equally germane--Steven Marcus's investigations of the precarious intricacies of the Victorian sexual imagination, or Quentin Anderson's of the development of a plenary view of the self in American writing from Emerson forward, for instance. But Fussell's work, justly acclaimed (by Trilling among others, who must have felt a kinship between its intentions and his own), is especially useful, not only because it, too, centers on the clouds of imagery that collect about impressive death, but because, set beside the Balinese case as a sort of structural twin, it brings us further toward the question we are struggling to find some researchable way to ask: how do the organs of distant sensibilities work in our own?


Fussell's book is concerned with the literary frames within which the British experience on the Western Front was first perceived, later recollected in intranquility, and finally expanded, by men whose encounters with systematic social violence took place in other locales, into a total vision of modern existence. His sacrifice scene is the trenches of Flanders and Picardy; his off-balance chroniclers are the memoirists and poets--Sassoon, Graves, Blunden, Owen--who turned it into a labyrinth of ironies; and his latecomer heritors are the nightmare rhapsodists of endless war--Heller, Mailer, Hughes, Vonnegut, Pynchon. There seems to be, he says, "One dominating form of modern understanding; . . . it is essentially ironic; and . . . it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of The Great War" (p. 35).


Whether or not one wants to accept this argument in so unvarnished a form (just as there is more that is interesting to tell of Bali than immolation, rather more has gone into the making of the contemporary imagination, even the absurdist strain of it, than mustard gas and doomed athletes), its logic is of the sort which, once sensed, seems blankly obvious.


Fussell begins by placing the factual iconography of trench warfare--mud, rats, barbed-wire, shell-holes, no-man's-land, three-ona-match, morning stand-to's, moving up, and over-the-top--against the background of the largely literary one of Asquith's England--playing fields, sunsets, nightingales, Country Life, dulce et decorum est, and Shropshire Lad eroticism. The war thus becomes as much of a symbolic structure--or, more exactly, comes to possess one--as Balinese cremation, though of a rather different kind, with a rather different tone, engendering rather different reflections. It, too, arrives to us across a sequence of clashing imaginations and discomfited sensibilities, an interpretative career that makes it what it is--what, to us at least, it means. And setting the phases of that career in their social frames, bordering them with the tenor of the life around them, is not an exercise in sociological explaining away or historical explaining about: it is a way into the thing itself. What Fussell calls "the Curious Literariness of Real Life" is, if "literariness" be widened to accommodate all the forms of collective fantasy, a general phenomenon, embracing even Passchendaele or The Battle of the Somme.


The literariness of the real life of the men who went to France in the iron autumn after the gold summer of 1914 was largely late Romantic, a pastiche of pastoralism, elegy, earnestness, adventure, and high diction. "There was no Waste Land, with its rat's alleys, dull canals, and dead men who have lost their bones." Fussell writes, travestying (I presume intentionally) James's famous passage on Hawthorne's America, ". . . no Ulysses, no Mauberly, no Cantos, no Kafka, no Proust, no Waugh, no Huxley, no Cummings, no Women in Love or Lady Chatterley's Lover. There was no 'Valley of Ashes' in The Great Gatsby. One read Hardy and Kipling and Conrad and frequented the world of traditional moral action delineated in traditional moral language" (p. 23 ).


The inadequacy of such an imagination (though Hardy's wormwood and Housman's rue helped a little) to funk-holes and firing trenches was so vast as to be comic, and it shattered into a thousand pieces of sour irony; fragments of polished sentiment turned into hell-vignettes and horse-laughs. And it was these fragments--a world view in droplets--that the memoirists of the war tried, through the inversion of one received genre or another, to bring together into a once more graspable whole: Blunden in black pastoral, Sassoon in black romance, and Graves in black farce. And it was, in turn, that whole (half made and still trapped in traditional forms, traditional speech, and traditional imagery) upon which the later, more insurrectionary celebrants of dead men who have lost their bones afterward drew for what, by the time of The Naked and the Dead, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Gravity's Rainbow, Fussell can properly call, because it is settled, formal, and obsessively recurrent: the ritual of military memory.


This is how anything imaginational grows in our minds, is transformed, socially transformed, from something we merely know to exist or have existed, somewhere or other, to something which is properly ours, a working force in our common consciousness. In the Balinese case, it is not a matter (not for us at least) of the past recaptured, but of the strange construed. Yet this is only a genre detail--a fiction framed as ethnography rather than history; a complicating matter but not a decisive one. When major cultural lines are traversed in the process of interpretive reworking, a different sense of discovery is produced: one more of having come across something than of having remembered it, of an acquisition than of an inheritance. But the movement from some scene of singular experience ( Flanders, 1915; Gianjar, 1847), through groping representations of what went on there raised to figurations of collective life is the same. Nor is the matter seriously otherwise when the originating scene is artefactual rather than, as we say, "real"--Emma or Mansfield Park; or, for that matter, suttee. That but alters vocabulary. The passage is still from the immediacies of one form of life to the metaphors of another.


In charting that passage, purist dogmas designed to keep supposed universes of learning properly distinct are more than obstructive, they are actively misleading. The notions of the self-interpreting text on the literary side or of the material determination of consciousness on the social science side may have their uses, or they may not; but so far as understanding how the constructions of other peoples' imaginations connect to those of our own, they head us off precisely in the wrong direction--toward an isolation of the meaning-form aspects of the matter from the practical contexts that give them life. The application of critical categories to social events and sociological categories to symbolic structures is not some primitive form of philosophic mistake, nor is it another mere confusion of art and life. It is the proper method for a study dedicated to getting straight how the massive fact of cultural and historical particularity comports with the equally massive fact of cross-cultural and cross-historical accessibility--how the deeply different can be deeply known without becoming any less different; the enormously distant enormously close without becoming any less far away.


Even unburdened by the cleverness that surpasseth all understanding of the more hermetic varieties of literary criticism or by the willed myopia, called realism, of the more hard-nosed varieties of social science, the thing is difficult enough. Faulkner, whose whole work was in some sense centered about it--about how particular imaginations are shadowed by others standing off in the cultural and temporal distance; how what happens, recountings of what happens, and metaphoric transfigurations of recountings of what happens into general visions, pile, one on top of the next, to produce


a state of mind at once more knowing, more uncertain, and more disequilibrated--had as exact a sense for just how difficult it is as anyone who has written. In Absalom, Absalom!--that extraordinary interweaving of the manic narratives of various sorts of Sutpens, Coldfields, and Compsons over a century or so--he puts the matter with the sort of despair no one who engages in this sort of meaning chasing can ever entirely shake. Quentin Compson's father is telling Quentin (who has just come from hearing Rosa Coldfield's story about the Sutpen saga of miscegenation, near incest, fratricide, and murder) what his father, Quentin's grandfather, told him, Quentin's father, that old Sutpen a half-century earlier on told him, Quentin's grandfather, about it all, when he breaks off in frustration:

Yes, granted that, even to the unworldly Henry, let alone the more travelled father, the existence of the eighth part negro mistress and the sixteenth part negro son, granted even the morganatic ceremony--a situation which was as much a part of a wealthy young New Orleansian's social and fashionable equipment as his dancing slippers--was reason enough, which is drawing honor a little fine even for the shadowy paragons which are our ancestors born in the South and come to man- and womanhood about eighteen sixty or sixty one. It's just incredible. It just does not explain. Or perhaps that's it: they don't explain and we are not supposed to know. We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales; we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers letters without salutation or signature, in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of some now incomprehensible affection which sound to us like Sanskrit or Chocktaw; we see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable--Yes, Judith, Bon, Henry, Sutpen: all of them. They are there, yet something is missing, they are like a chemical formula exhumed along with the letters from that forgotten chest, carefully, the paper old and faded and falling to pieces, the writing faded, almost indecipherable, yet meaningful, familiar in shape and sense, the name and presence of volatile and sentient forces; you bring them together in the proportions called for, but nothing happens; you re-read, tedious and intent, poring, making sure that you have forgotten nothing, made no miscalculation; you bring them together again and again nothing happens: just the words, the shapes themselves, shadowy inscrutable and serene, against that turgid background of a horrible and bloody mischancing of human affairs.4

But it is not all that desperate. Faulkner goes on bringing his volatile and sentient forces together again and again, adding the pieces, filling out the narratives, not only through the couple hundred more pages of this novel, but through his whole work, rendering the history of this particular moral imagination (his, Oxford's, the inter-war South's) if not clear at least clearer, if not wholly decipherable at least not wholly inscrutable. One cannot expect more in this sort of effort, but one can expect that. Or to quote directly the lines from James Merrill (his piece, too, is about time, memory, puzzles, and cultural disconnections) I deliberately truncated earlier on:

Lost, is it, buried? One more missing piece?
But nothing's lost. Or else: all is translation
And every bit of us is lost in it
(Or found--I wander through the ruin of S
Now and then, wondering at the peacefulness).5




Found in translation. Like the Great War, the Old South, that controversial Icelandic bear, and the equivocal picnic at Donwell Abbey, Balinese liturgical splendor continues to set off diverging commotions in our minds. Helms was only one of the earliest of its Western unriddlers, as I am only one of the latest. Between us come the soldiers, administrators, and technicians of Dutch colonialism; a multinational assortment of expatriate painters, musicians, dancers, novelists, poets, and photographers; an extraordinarily distinguished group of philologists and ethnographers, from V. E. Korn and Roel of Goris to Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead; various sorts of missionaries, many of whom were also excellent scholars and all of whom had decided opinions; and, of course, one of the great tourist invasions of modern times, a swarm of eager experiencers the New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno caught as well as anyone in his drawing of the man leaning breathlessly across the travel agency counter asking: "Is Bali . . . er . . . still Bali?"


Of course, it still is: what else could it be? And through all the changes that have occurred since 1847 (the population has tripled for one thing; the motor car has come for another; the breasts the gentleman coveted have been veiled for a third), the unnerving confusion of sensory beauty, dramatic cruelty, and moral impassivity Helms caught then has remained the marking character of its life. The Dutch suppressed widow-burning as he expected (though there seem to have been clandestine examples of it as late as the 1930s), but they could hardly suppress the sensibility of which it was an expression, at least not without transforming the society altogether, something its high gorgeousness inhibited them from even considering. The tension between the edenic image of Bali--"The Island of the Gods," "The Land of a Thousand Temples," "The Last Paradise," "The Morning of the World," and so on--and the ground bass of passionless horror that all but the most sentimental sojourners to the island sooner or later hear moving amid the loveliness persists. And I don't know that we are, we latecomers with our kincharts and cameras, much more comfortable with it than Helms was stumbling across it curious and unarmed one otherwise ordinary morning in Gianjar--just more conscious of the fascination it has come to have for us, how terribly intriguing, obsessing even, it has, in the meantime, somehow grown.


Since Bali's imaginative life has become seriously interconnected with that of the West, a phenomenon mainly of this century, it has been through our odd concern (odd in the sense that I know of no other people who share it) with the moral status of artistic genius--Where does it come from? How shall we deal with it? What will it do to us?--that, on our side, the connection has been made. (On their side it is otherwise: their daimon is rank, not creativity, and we disarrange them well enough on that score.) As a trope for our times, the island has functioned as a real-life image of a society in which the aesthetic impulse is allowed its true freedom, the unfettered expression of its inner nature. The trouble is that that image seems to serve equally well the perfection-of-humanity sort of view of art we associate with the German idealists and the flower-of-evil sort we associate with the French symbolists. And it is that Asian coincidence of European opposites, one advancing scholarship seems only to make less easy to ignore, that both unsteadies and absorbs us.


The idealist side is clear enough: the most prominent role the island has played in our imagination has been to serve as an aesthetic Arcady: a natural society of untutored artists and spontaneous artistry, actually existing in appropriate garb on a suitable landscape. The dancing, the music, the masks, the shadow plays, the carving, the breathtaking grace of posture, speech, and movement, the even more breathtaking intricacy of rite, myth, architecture, and politesse, and in the twenties and thirties, an astonishing burst of wildly original easel painting, have induced in us a vision of a profoundly creative popular culture in which art and life, at least, some place, genuinely are one. "Every Balinese," the most recent of a long line of French livres des belles images assures us, ". . . is an artist, but an anonymous artist whose creative talent is absorbed in that of the community and who has but a faint sense of his own creative power."6 "The Balinese may be described as a nation of artists," the English anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer writes in a more school-mastery tone, in 1936, ". . . Balinese art is living, in a constant development."7 And yet earlier, in 1922, the German art historian, Karl With, is moved to jugendstil by the miracle of it all:

The Balinese language has no word for art and no word for artist. And yet the life of this people overflows with a blossoming richness of festivals, temples, images, jewels, and decorations, gifts that are witness to an extravagant enjoyment in form-making and play. A flood of fantasy, a fullness of form, and a strength of expression wells up out of the hands, hearts, and bodies of this people and inundates everything. Full of immediacy, suffused with a blessed sensuousness, saturated with fecundity, a veritable life-frenzy grows out of the natural artistry of these peasants and continuously renews itself out of itself. . . .

O, the artists of our time, martyrs and isolates who find neither response nor community. Life cripples who turn their solitude and poverty into their wealth; who consume themselves in the coldness of their environment; who all but mutilate themselves in the destructiveness of the life around them; who can find satisfaction and solace not through themselves but only through the object of their creation; who are forced to work, violated into self-expression, exclusively oriented toward a wrenching artistry; who wallow in themselves and lose thereby their strength, their selves, and reality.

Compare to them, now, the fortunate and nameless artists of Bali, where the peasant carves his leisure evening into a figure; where children paint motley ornaments onto palm leaves; where a village family builds up an uncannily intricate multi-colored corpse tower; where women in honor of the gods and out of pure joy in their own persons decorate themselves like goddesses and make offerings into huge and flamboyant still lifes; where the peasant walking in his field is come upon by a god, and is thereupon inspired to chisel the god's image on the temple or to carve the god's spirit mask, while the neighbors take full care of his field and his family until he has finished his work and returns as peasant to his field; where out of the nothingness of the festal impulse a transported community arises through ceremony, dance, pageant, and temple building.8

And so on: the figure-- Schiller's dream of a totally aestheticised existence--could be reproduced, in one form or another, from literally dozens of European and American works of all sorts of genres and all levels of seriousness. Bali, as Korn mordantly remarked, has had its reputation against it.


It is not so much that this reputation is a wholly false one (it has rather more truth in it than I, at least, professionally immunized against noble savageism, would have thought at all possible); it is that it is not the only one that it has. Drier looks at some of the products of all that creativity--not just cremation, but the witch and dragon dance, with its ravaging hag and tranced youths attacking their chests with daggers; sorcery, which is endemic in Bali and filled with images of perversion and wild brutality; the purified animal hatred of that popular enthusiasm, craze even, cockfighting--have conduced to a less genial view of things. So have similar looks at the social life out of which the creativity grows--pervasive factionalism, caste arrogance, collective ostracism, maternal inconstancy. And at some of the transforming events of recent history--the mass suicide with which the ruling classes greeted Dutch takeover in 1906 (they marched, blank and unseeing, dressed like cremation sacrifices, out of their palaces, directly into cannons, rifles, and swords); the mass murder, peasants killing peasants in a cry of "communism," after Sukarno's fall in 1965 (some estimates run to fifty thousand, which would be comparable to a half-million here; and in one of the villages I lived in a few years earlier, thirty households of a total seventy were incinerated all in a single night). Helms's flames still exist alongside his towers, his failing wives alongside his rising doves, his barbarous spectacles alongside his gay picnics. And they seem as inseparable from one another as ever.


Clearly, I cannot pursue this conjunction of Shangri-La and Pandaemonium any further here; what it does to conceptions, etherial or satanic, of the nature of artistic genius; what of ourselves we find in it in translation. Nor can I trace, beyond the glancing examples given, the role it has played in the history of our imagination. I merely want to insist that it has played one: minor surely in comparison to the ironies of World War I or the deliverances of such more consequential Asian cultures as China's or India's, but real nonetheless, not yet over, and in its own way telling. And that, therefore, the ethnographer of Bali, like the critic of Austen, is among other things absorbed in probing what Professor Trilling, in that last, winding, interrupted essay of his, called one of the significant mysteries of man's life in culture: how it is that other people's creations can be so utterly their own and so deeply part of us.





Pioneering in the Far East and Journeys to California in 1849 and to the White Sea in 1848 ( London, 1882), pp. 59-66.


Lionel Trilling, "Why We Read Jane Austen," Times Literary Supplement, 5 March 1976, pp. 250-52.


( New York, 1975).


Absalom, Absalom! ( New York, 1936), pp. 100 - 101.


"Lost in Translation," Divine Comedies ( New York, 1976), p. 10.


M. Boneff, Bali ( Paris, 1974), pp. 69, 72; my translation.


Bali and Angkor ( Boston, 1936), pp. 54-55.


G. Kraus and K. With, Bali ( Hagen i W, 1922), p. 41; my translation.



Found in translation: on the social history of the moral imagination, in: The Georgia Review, vol. 31 no. 4 (1977), pp. 788-810.

cf. Local knowledge: further essays in interpretive anthropology. New-York/N.Y./USA etc. 1983: Basic Books, pp. 36-54


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