Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

The Volcano Always Wins

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day the main character is James Stevens, a butler proud to serve his master, Lord Darlington – a rather dim aristocrat with political ambitions who becomes close to Mosley’s philo-Nazi Blackshirts. Stevens sacrifices all vestiges of self-expression, including the possibility of love, to become the perfect servant. His dignity and sense of office forbid him to question social and political rules and he remains loyal to the master-servant ideal even when its time is long past.

A week ago, Mas Penewu Surakso Hargo, known as Mbah (Grandfather) Maridjan, died on Mount Merapi in the Yogyakarta region of Java (founded as a sultanate in 1755). Maridjan, like his father before him, had been appointed guardian of Merapi by the sultan of Yogyakarta. He was in charge of ceremonies to appease the spirit of the mountain and he described his job as being “to stop the lava from flowing down”.

In 2006 and again in 2010, Maridjan refused to evacuate when Merapi erupted, calling himself and his fellow villagers the fortress whose function was to protect the sultan’s palace. Both times, others followed his example on the strength of his moral authority. He was found in a praying position, overwhelmed by pyroclastic flow from the mountain. Also killed were thirteen people who were in his home trying to persuade him to leave. The local populace is clamoring for a new guardian, and the sultan plans to appoint one soon.

Most people consider Stevens a deluded pathetic figure, despite his massive dignity and loyalty. Ditto for Harry Randall Truman, who elected to stay on Mt. St. Helens in 1980. In contrast, many consider Maridjan admirable, a laudable example of spirituality and adherence to principle, even though his actions led to preventable deaths.

Inevitably, there are more threads to this braid. Truman and Maridjan were in their mid-eighties; both voiced the sentiment that their time had come, and that such a death was preferable to dwindling away in increasing helplessness. The people of Yogyakarta are trying to preserve the pre-Islamic heritage of Indonesia against mounting pressure from the increasingly hardline official policies and the imams who enforce them. Additionally, many Merapi evacuees were left with nothing but the little they could carry, in a nation that has a rich legacy and tremendous recources – but one that also has had more than its share of natural and man-made disasters and whose political, ecological and economic status is wobbly.

Maridjan is admired as the keeper and transmitter of endangered cultural knowledge. I have already discussed this issue from the angles of deracination and art. The time has come to also point out the problems and dangers of tradition.

There’s no doubt that unique cultural customs keep the world multicolored and kaleidoscopic. Even though I’m an atheist and consider all organized religions unmitigated disasters for women, I’m still moved by the Easter ceremonies of the orthodox church. However, I’m not interested in their Christian-specific narrative. What moves me are the layers embedded in them: the laments of Mariam for her son are nearly identical to those of Aphrodite for Adonis, and they’re echoed in folk and literary poetry in which mothers lament dead sons (the most famous is Epitáfios by Yiánnis Rítsos, set to unforgettable music by Mikis Theodorákis). When I hear them, I hear all the echoes as well, see all the images superimposed like ghostly layers on a palimpsest. For me, that’s what lends them resonance and richness.

But there are times when I must part most decisively with tradition. There are plenty of traditions whose disappearance has made (or will make – many are still extant) the world a better place: from spreading bloody wedding sheets to foot binding to female genital mutilation; from forbidding women to sing lest they distract their husbands to knocking out teeth of new wives to show they will rely on their husbands’ prowess henceforth; from slavery and serfdom to polygyny and concubinage; from having unprotected sex with virgins to “cure” sexually transmitted diseases to “laying hands” on a child sinking into a diabetic coma.

Then there are the power-mongering charlatans who prey on fear and despair, particularly when hard times fall upon people: sickness, natural catastrophe, occupation, war. It’s true that Western medicine follows the heroic model – and as such it’s outstanding at treating acute illnesses but tends to over-specialize, sometimes at the expense of a holistic approach that treats the root cause rather than the symptoms. It’s equally true that modern technology has allowed ecological depradations at an enormous scale that threaten to become irreversible. Finally, it’s painfully true that deracination and colonialism often go hand in hand with modernization. Oppressed people revive or revert to traditions, often the last vestiges of suppressed cultural identity, as an act of resistance.

However, prayers don’t shrink a tumor nor frighten invaders away and the sun rises and sets whether beating hearts are offered to it or not. Too, if someone jumps from an airplane or a high ledge without a parachute, no amount of belief in divine favor will waft them away on a magic carpet or give them wings. Nor were traditional states pre-lapsarian paradises, as an objective reading of Tibetan, Aztec and Maori history will attest.

When we didn’t know the reasons behind phenomena, such customs were understandable if not necessarily palatable. Not any more, not with today’s knowledge and its global reach. The mindset that clings to the concept that incantations will stop a volcano is kin to the mindset the refuses to accept evolution as established fact. Standing in the path of a meteor is not the same as standing at Thermopylae, romantic notions of doomed last stands notwithstanding. The 300 Spartans who stood at Thermopylae had a concrete goal as well as a symbolic one: they stopped the Persian army long enough to give the rest of the Greek city-states time to strategize and organize. And the rarely-mentioned 1,000 Thespians who stood with them did so against their particular customs – for the sake of the new-fangled, larger concept of living in freedom.

In the end, the traditions that deserve to survive are those that are neutral or positive in terms of improving human life across the hierarchy of needs (and that includes taking care of our planet). Mbah Maridjan was the guardian of the mountain, which put him in the position of caretaker of his fellow villagers as well as of the putative Merapi spirit. If he saw his function as loyalty to an abstract principle of servitude rather than protecting his very real people, he was misguided at best – and his stance had far worse repercussions than those of Ishiguro’s Stevens, who only harmed himself and the woman who hoped to love him.

I once read an almost certainly apocryphal tale of a young woman who asked her rabbi, “Rebbe, is it ever acceptable to eat pork?” “Never!” said the rabbi. “Pig meat is always treff. Why do you ask?” “During last winter’s famine, I fed my young brothers sausages,” replied the girl. “It was either that or watch them starve.” “In that case, it was kosher,” decided the rabbi.

That’s the type of humane traditionalism I can live with. Tribalism was adaptive once, but has become a mixed blessing at best. Tradition encourages blind faith, satisfaction with rote answers and authority – and history demonstrates that humans don’t do well when they follow orders unquestioningly. As for the questing mindset ushered and encouraged by science, I will close with words I used elsewhere:

Science doesn’t strip away the grandeur of the universe; the intricate patterns only become lovelier as more keep appearing and coming into focus. Science leads to connections across scales, from universes to quarks. And we, with our ardent desire and ability to know ever more, are lucky enough to be at the nexus of all this richness.

Images: top, pyroclastic cloud from the Rinjani volcano, part of the Ring of Fire to which Merapi also belongs (photo by Oliver Spalt); middle, a Han Chinese woman’s “golden lotus”; bottom, wayang kulit — the Javanese shadow puppets, part of the Yogyakarta people’s heritage.

12 Responses to “The Volcano Always Wins”

  1. Asakiyume says:

    This is an eloquent and effective expression of your response to the Maridjan story. As you say, there are many elements to the story that we can think about, and many ways of thinking of the meta-discussion, too, about how we react to stories like this, and about the lens(es?) through which we view things.

    [long navel-gazing paragraph used to be here–I’ll send by e-mail when work lets up]

    (cutting to the chase) While feeling regret over the lives lost in this instance–especially the lives of those who had no desire to perish but only wished to save others from perishing–my gut reaction to this story was joy at the man’s relationship to the volcano, a zap of intense empathy.

  2. Caliban says:

    As always, a powerful and thoughtful essay.

  3. Susan says:

    Very thoughtful and interesting post, Athena. Thank you for this.

  4. Athena says:

    Francesca, Calvin, Susan, I’m glad you found the essay thought-provoking. I had more thoughts, but didn’t want the article to become too long and unwieldy. My subsequent discussions with Francesca made me recollect a justly famous story by Isak Dinesen from her Winter’s Tales which deals with the issue of service: Sorrow Acre. If you haven’t read it, I really recommend it (the entire story collection, in fact — there are stories in it that are even remotely weak).

  5. Layogenic says:

    Hope you don’t mind me trailing after your stories like a hungry mongrel–the taste of somebody else finding the divine in science is too heady to ignore.

    The discussion of tradition is always a narrow, twisty road, but I think you navigate it with some panache. The issue, the danger, of course comes with the false concept of Tradition as all being one massive category, built all of the same materials with the same tools and the same function, and the pitfalls of all generalizations are as likely.

    And nobody has to take all of them to enjoy the benefits of some–there are traditions that are, um, traditional because they make us think, make us better, inspire us towards greatness, and there are traditions that are built with the sole purpose of oppression. (And many others, of course.) To harken a “return to traditional values,” for example, is such a disingenuous phrase that it borders on nonsensical. Whose traditions? Traditions to what end? To whose benefit?

    And, of course, your closing words. The closer I get to the edge of scientific knowledge, the MORE enthralled I am by the miracles of the natural universe. The fractal web of connections between all things is nothing short of divine, however you define that, and the microscale is no less amazing and awesome for having been discovered by something regarded as secular. Which is another major fallacy, of course; western science at least was pioneered and is still strongly pursued by holy men, particularly the Jesuits.

    Off-topic post-script; your mention of James Stevens and his servile position made me think, not entirely laterally, of Stephen Black, the butler in Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. A big, lovely, linguistic piece of literature I can absolutely recommend.

  6. Athena says:

    Of course I don’t mind, Layo! What writer is ever unhappy to have readers?? And thank you for the Clarke recommendation!

    I agree that discussing tradition is tricky. As I said in the text, this is one of several articles in which I’ve tackled the knotty issue, each from a different angle. Traditions are a thorny dilemma for women: they (we) are perpetual outsiders to them, they’re overall hostile to the gender because most are meant to enforce conformity in societies that treat/ed women as not fully human (while, paradoxically, women are often the enforcers of tradition).

    The scientific mindset is one of the few attributes makes us unique and the only way to real understanding (both analysis and synthesis). I wrote a bit about it in The Double Helix, a bit more in SF Goes McDonald’s.

  7. Layogenic says:

    Traditions are difficult to approach for men, too. Not nearly as dangerous, of course, and I don’t mean to make a binary relationship of the experiences, but as a man it’s easier to talk about it from that perspective. The traditions that put men on a pedestal or, as commonly, define exclusively males as thinking humans, are so much harder to see when you’ve been brought up with them in place. As you said, the women are often the enforcers, or at least educators, of tradition, and that is knowledge handed down to women, while men simply plant the seeds and enjoy the harvest some time later. Just as many people do not consider where the food in their supermarkets come from, most men to not consider where their privilege comes from, and that privilege, like processed food, has become so mundane that the threat of it being taken away seems outrageous. It’s not privilege any more than fresh fruit in January in Minnesota is amazing–it’s just the way it is, and those who are trying to change that are villains out to wreck a perfectly reasonable way of life.

    And as many traditional male myths about our physical prowess, our ability to reason, and our emotional stability as there are, too many also exist that *simultaneously* contradict those traits AND remove responsibility for them, placing further onus on the supposed weaker sex. Phrases like “boys will be boys,” “we can’t help ourselves,” and, my personal rage-inducer, “men have NEEDS” all serve to paint men as slaves to those passions and atrocities while labeling them at best peccadilloes and at worst some sort of higher plane of existence. These are all myths that are tackled in rape education, for obvious reasons, but most men are never made to confront this contradiction. Being told we cannot help ourselves from childhood means we grow up with that deeply internalized, and when we grow up under patriarchal laws and traditions we have no cause (other than personal responsibility, below) to consider that inequity.

    Which is not to say that this is an excuse. Just a soupçon of critical thinking can draw the big bold underline under “capable of rational thought” and “slave to passions” and go, hmm. Just a smidgen of personal responsibility can explore the idea that “no” might actually always mean “no” regardless of what somebody’s wearing or how much they’ve had to drink. And we all of us have much more than that of either and both, so no, boys do not have free reign to simply be boys and you holding open doors doesn’t make you a feminist. Most threads are more tangled than this, but the first step is to realize that we are blind followers of tradition, and the equally important second step is to stop equating “tradition” with “always works” or, worse, “good.”

  8. Athena says:

    Very well said. Men definitely also have dilemmas with traditions — though usually they’re not as stark as those facing women, who often have to make unpalatable, wrenching choices: deracination or oppression.

  9. Layogenic says:

    No, absolutely. Like I said, women have to deal with traditions that are actively damaging, often dangerous to them, and no matter how “difficult” it may be for a man, there’s no direct comparison. Even as a queer male, patriarchal traditions and prejudices can be physically dangerous for me, but the enforced helplessness and generational undermining just doesn’t compare.

    As has been stated before, men are afraid women will humiliate them. Women are afraid men will kill them. Only a fool or the seriously delusional would say those are on the same level. But the conscious and critical thinking about traditions and what they mean, and the difficulty of doing so, is in a safe space something that men and women can share thoughts about.

  10. Athena says:

    Definitely. In the end, as I’ve said before, we must solve this together — or go down as a species.

  11. Eloise says:

    Layogenic said:

    “[…] boys do not have free reign to simply be boys and you holding open doors doesn’t make you a feminist.”

    I would go even further than that and add that being a feminist does not mean we cannot appreciate simple courtesies like someone holding the door for us or letting us pass first in a line. Generally, I do not like to be treated as a helpless female, but sometimes a small consideration can go a long way to put a bit of sunshine in my day.

    As always, the devil’s in the details, and moderation is often the key.


    Eloise 🙂

  12. Athena says:

    I suspect that Layo meant that holding doors open and nothing else doesn’t make you a feminist. But you’re also right, Eloise, that courtesy can co-exist with questioning assumptions and treating everyone as a full human.