Goenawan Mohamad, “venerated journalist and influential sage of Indonesia’s literary world” as this year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival program dubs him, was invited to give the keynote address for the opening of the 10th UWRF on Saturday, 12 October 2013. With his permission, we have published his speech straight from his notes:
Dear fellow writers, ladies and gentlemen.
The organizers of this enchanting festival gave me the honour to be its keynote speaker — an honour I cannot refuse, since the festival is in Ubud. You see, Ubud has become the centre of the world; just look at the traffic jam.
Honestly, though, I have my own hesitations about speaking at an event where other writers are visibly present. At the end of my talk I’d like to suggest another kind of gathering, a different kind of festival — something that makes me less nervous. But please allow me to hold you in suspense for a while.
Let me begin with some forgotten advice from D.H. Lawrence. He said, one should trust the tale but not the story teller. The job of a literary critic is, according to Lawrence, “to save the tale from the artist who created it.”
In other words, the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover wanted us to subscribe to the idea that writers are not worthy of our attention; their works are.
The problem is that the world seems to think otherwise; practically every single year countries and cities hold literary festivals — which are essentially organized gatherings of writers, people whom Lawrence wanted us to ignore.
(By the way, I am not sure if Lawrence ever attended any of them, but if he did, he might have come in disguise; he might have impersonated an Australian tourist.)
As I see it, a writer is like a sedentary god in the Javanese puppet theater. In most of the performances, the puppet master never tells you that it is the god on stage who created earthly beings — including horses, housewives, and warriors. Of course, the god has a certain plot, called “destiny”. But ultimately most characters escape his design; in fact, some of them even manage to frighten his Javanese Heaven. And at the happy end of the performance, no god is generally present.
In short, at the end of the day the god is not available — a parable for the death of the author, to use Roland Barthes’ famous maxim.
So what is left? What follows after the death of the author? A variety of ghosts, I presume. Or shadows. I believe that literature is a world of shadows.
To explain the metaphor, I will tell you, in a much simplified form, a story told by Hans Christian Andersen.
It is a story about a learned man from a very cold country who travelled into a warm climate and found himself confined the whole day in his room because of the heat outside. Increasingly he became quite exhausted and weak; he grew so thin that his shadow shrivelled. But in the evening, after sunset, things changed. As soon as the lights were brought into the room, the learned man could see his shadow stretch itself against the wall, even to the ceiling, so tall was it. And sure enough, gradually the shadow noticed its dexterity.
As time went by, so the story goes, the shadow became independent of the man. One day, it disappeared. The learned man was left in his room without his shadow.
But it was not for good. Many years after, when the learned man had returned to his cold country, one evening a gentle tap was heard at the door. “Come in,” said the learned man. But no one came. So he opened the door, and there stood before him his old shadow. It was a very well-dressed figure, like a gentleman. And the learned man was happy to allow the shadow — we can no longer say “his shadow” — to tell its life story after their separation. They became friends.
One day, the learned man fell ill and his body became so thin and his face so pale that people said that he really looked like a shadow.
That was the beginning of his demise. At one point, his old shadow came to visit him. It pitied him and decided to take him travelling. But their positions changed. The shadow was master now, and the learned man became the shadow until the day the new master left him dead.
I hope the story gives you the right analogy of how the relation between the writer and his or her work develops. The writer becomes a shrinking author, and the novel, the poetry, or the play — in other words, his or her old shadow — takes over and gains a self-sustaining authority.
Of course, no self-respecting writer wants to be buried in the sand while his or her shadow walks around in a proud stride, getting applauses from all corners. I think this is why some of them decide to transform themselves into celebrities; they join TV talk-shows, for example, and speak about God, capitalism, sexuality, and other things persuasively.
Or they try to create their own hagiography.
The famous one was that of Andre Malraux. In an excellent biography of his there is the story of him meeting Ernest Hemingway. It was in 1944, right after the battle to liberate Paris. It is a common knowledge that both gentlemen had always wanted to impress the world that they were actually “men of action” who happened to be writers (meaning ghosts). Naturally, in this historic meeting Malraux asked Hemingway right away how many people were under his command during the war. The American, who was supposed to be a war correspondent, answered, “More than two hundred”. Not to be outdone, Malraux said, “Moi, deux mille.”
Malraux is phony, according to Simon Ley in his latest book, The Hall of Uselessness. It is completely plausible. And yet we remember Malraux’s novels more than his fabricated heroism — even when we find both boring.
In short, I’d prefer to admit that D.H. Lawrence was right: let’s trust the tale and not the artist.
That’s why I dream of having a different kind of literary festival. It should be an event where readers will happily recognize that literature is made of writers in absentia, that literature consists of moving shadows of the dead. It will be a liberating experience. Hence only literary works should be invited to join such a festival, (they are free to come either in book-forms or digitized appearances), and no writer is invited to speak, particularly about his or her own work. In fact, I’d rather see no writer walking around. If some of them insist to attend, the festival organizer should require them to wear masks, preferably Balinese masks. I am sure the readers would enjoy the spectacle.
Friends, ladies and gentlemen.
Of course, I expect no one would buy my idea. I don’t seriously think that a decision will be made to change the format of this festival — or the Salihara Literary Biennale for that matter. So I’d better stop here.
Meanwhile, there should be some words of thanks….
I would like to thank the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival for having me today — also for making foreign visitors aware that there is something called Indonesian modern literature.
I have to stress this since the rest of the world, including Australia, knows nothing about its existence — despite the fact that Indonesian literature is written in the language spoken by more than 200 million people.
To be sure, I know that many of you are here not to have a quick course on our literary works; today samples of Canadian writings would be more appealing. Still, I’d like to recommend you to come to the readings of Indonesian novels and poetry. For your information, today four Indonesian outstanding women writers are here at this Festival; they are Ayu Utami, Dewi Lestari (‘Dee’), Laksmi Pamuntjak and Leila S. Chudori. To have them together in this center of the world is a unique occasion.
So please come to enjoy their works, while celebrating this festival.