Literature, Censorship and the State: To What Extent is a Novel Dangerous?

Posted: July 24, 2007 in Indonesian Author, Polemic of Literature, Pramoedya Ananta Toer

by Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Translated by Alex G Bardsley

I am an Indonesian citizen of Javanese ethnicity. This “fate” [kodrat] makes it clear that I was brought up with Javanese literature. It is a literary tradition dominated by wayang drama, oral as well as written, that tells of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana–the Javanese versions and their chewed-over wads, that continue to depend on the authority of Hindu culture. This dominant literature, without anyone being aware of it,2 glorifies the satria class or caste, while the classes or castes under it have no role whatsoever. The satria caste’s main job is to kill its opponents. In addition to the somewhat more dominant wayang literary tradition, there is the babad or chronicle literature. This also glorifies the satria caste, and in the hands of the court poets conjures away the crimes and defeats of kings, leaving fantastic myths instead.

One example is how the court poets of Java mythified the defeat of Sultan Agung, a king of the Javanese interior, who in military operations against Dutch Batavia in the second decade of the 17th century experienced total defeat. As a result Mataram suffered the loss of its power3 over the Java Sea as an international [sic] sea route. To cover up the loss the court poets dreamt up the Sea Goddess Nyai Roro Kidul as camouflage, so that Mataram still ruled the sea, that is the Southern Sea (i.e., the Indian Ocean). This myth produced further mythical offspring: it was made taboo to wear green clothing on the shore of the Southern Sea. This was to sever any association with the green clothes of the Dutch [East India] Company. And without the court poets themselves intending it, the Goddess consolidated the power of the kings of Mataram over their people. She even became the thought police [polisi batin] of the Mataram people.

Here we are faced with literature in its relation to the state, and its utilization by the state, functioning for the glorification of [the state’s] own works. Passed down from generation to generation the result is to deny the progression of ages, to bestow an unnecessary historical burden, to make people think that the past was better than the present. This conviction made me leave literature of that sort behind altogether. Leaving behind a literature that was born in the lap of power and functions (in my experience) to cradle power, right away I came across escapist literature, that feeds the ancient instinctual dreams of its readers. As Machiavelli put it, this kind of literature becomes an indirect instrument of Power, so that society will pay no attention to the power of the state. In short, so that society will not be political, will not care about politics. Literature of this second category brings its readers to a complete halt.

Because of my experience as the child of a family of freedom fighters, I pardon my own self if I do not like this escapist literature, the second type of literature. Consequent to my personal experience, though at first I was not aware of it, I was drawn directly to a literature that could provide courage, new values, a new world-view, human dignity, and agency [peran] for the individual within society. The aesthetic that emphasizes language and its employment is put to the service of a new orientation of the role [peranan] of the individual in an aspired-to society.4 It was this third type of literature that later became my field of creative activity.

Each work of literature is the autobiography of its author at a certain stage and in a certain context. Hence it is also the product of an individual and is individual in character. Presenting it to society is no different from contributing to the collectivity. Also in regard to the relations of power, and to the prevailing standard of culture, the writer’s attitude as an individual is disseminated, aware of it or not.5 To this point the duty of a writer is to make an evaluation and reevaluation of the establishment in every walk of life. This action is taken because the writer concerned is dissatisfied, and feels cornered, even oppressed by the establishment “in effect.”6 He cries out, resists, even rebels. It is no accident if this writer–naturally type three–has been called an oppositionist, a rebel, even a revolutionary, alone in his muteness.

In states living with democracy for centuries, winning and losing in a clash of ideas is something normal. That does not mean that democracy is without flaws. Europe, while democratic in Europe itself, was on the contrary undemocratic in the countries it colonized. As a result, in the colonized countries that never tasted democracy, winning and losing in the clash of ideas can give birth to long-lasting resentment, arising from traditional concepts of personal prestige and patrimonial authority.

In Indonesia, the censoring of literary works was first known in the second decade of this century. Before that, censorship had been more directed at the mass media. And in accordance with the tradition of law, actions regarding press offenses were decided in court. The prohibition against the circulation of several works by Mas Marco Kartodikromo, untraditionally, was put into effect without legal procedures, and was carried out by native colonial officials locally. Prohibition and confiscation, also by colonial native officials, were once carried out against my father’s work, though that was not a literary work but a text of lessons for elementary schools that did not follow the colonial curriculum.

Prohibition of a literary work is truly something extraordinary. [So it was] for centuries after the maritime kingdoms of Nusantara were shoved aside by the power of the West and became back-country principalities or agrarian villages; the Power of feudalism that was sustained solely by the peasant brought about the birth of a new mentality that deteriorated too. The court poets of Java consolidated the culture of “tepo seliro” (= knowing one’s place), the awareness of one’s social station vis a vis Power according to its hierarchy, from life within the family to the pinnacle of power. The use of euphemism (= High Javanese) up to the 7 levels “in effect” to match the hierarchy of Power, interpreted traditional culture more and more stuntedly. Therefore in Javanese culture the evaluation and reevaluation of culture has never taken place. It can happen only by using the Indonesian language, that if need be denies all euphemism: hence it is also in Indonesian literature that Power’s censoring occurs.

As ideas from all corners of the world are absorbed by modern Indonesian society toward the end of the 20th century, their reflection can no longer possibly be blocked by a Power that is reluctant to grow up.7 In order to allow [those] people with the power of the state to sleep soundly without the need to improve themselves, the institution of censorship does indeed need to be established.

Java was “fated” to possess profitable geographic factors. Of all the islands of Indonesia, it was on Java that the inhabitants multiplied thanks to climatological factors that favored farming. It is no accident that the Dutch colonialists made Java an imperial center of their world outside Europe. On their departure, as Java remained the center of Indonesia, with its inhabitants [comprising] a majority out of all Indonesia, the introduction of a certain amount of Javanese traditional culture into the power of the state was quite unavoidable. One thing from Javanese traditional culture that was felt to oppress was “tepo seliro,” in Power’s present existence called, in English, “self-censorship.” Seemingly Power is ashamed to use its original name. In this way, how people conceal their atavism becomes one of the facets of existence in modern Indonesia.

I am inclined to include the third type of literature with the literature of the avant garde. I deem writers of the third group to have the authenticity [kemurnian] to evaluate and reevaluate culture and the established Power. And as an individual alone [the writer] in return must endure alone the backlash from any other individual who feels his stability [kemapanan threatened.

So to what extent can a work of literature be a danger to the state? According to my personal opinion, no literary work, here [meaning] a story, has ever actually been a danger to the state. [A story] is written with a clear name, where it comes from is known, and also it clearly originates from only one individual who does not possess a troop of police, military, or even a troop of hired killers. He only tells of the possibility of a better life through models for the renovation of an establishment that is rotten, old, and out of luck.

In the meantime, any state can at any moment change its basis and its system, with or without works of avant- garde literature. Such changes have already been experienced by the Indonesian state itself, from liberal democracy to guided democracy and later Pancasila democracy, that is [during] the era of national independence after the collapse of the colonial state called the Netherlands Indies and the changeover to occupation by the Japanese militarists. During the period of liberal democracy in which the state was based on the Pancasila, the Pancasila did not get much attention; during the period of Guided Democracy when, with all the consequences [it implied], President Soekarno wished to be autonomous and to shake off the influence of and involvement with the superpowers’ Cold War, the Pancasila was given more emphasis. Soekarno as the discoverer of the Pancasila never tired of explaining the Pancasila was mined from, among others, Sun Yat Sen’s San Min Zhuyi,8 the Declaration of Independence of the United States, and the Communist Manifesto, in issues of social justice. In the time of Pancasila Democracy, which was signaled by the de- Soekarnoization movement, not only were the Pancasila’s references no longer mentioned, there was even an effort by a New Order historian to fabricate a theory that the Pancasila did not originate with Soekarno.

Through all these changeovers the existence of a work of literature that conferred any influence was never proved. And indeed an avant-garde literature has practically not yet come into being. Indonesian works of literature have practically only just become descriptive in character. If nonetheless an avant garde came into being, it occurred under the oppression of Japanese militarism, in a rebellion as harsh as its suppression. The individual concerned, Chairil Anwar, in his poem “Aku [I],” declared: “I am an untamed beast /From its herd outcast.” He refused to be treated by the Japanese as a farm animal, that must carry out Japanese orders only, and cut itself off from the rest. It was he himself who had to take responsibility for his work. The Kempeitai9 arrested and tortured him, though he was in fact later released. Ironically the society of readers, many of whom read and like that poem, generally do not connect it to the period of Japanese militarist occupation during which he created it.

My apologies if I only discuss Indonesian literature. Still, I believe that to speak about any particular literature is also to speak–although indirectly- -of regional and international literature at the same time, because each work of literature is the autobiography of an individual, one person out of the rest of humankind, who contributes his inner experience to the collectivity of humanity’s experience.

Based on its history, Indonesia needs a large troop of writers from the avant garde. For centuries the common people paid on behalf10 of feudalism. With the victory of colonialism, the people then had to fund the running of colonialism as well. Although feudalism as a system was eliminated by the proclamation of independence, the character of its culture still lives on, and the power elite even tries to preserve it. It is avant-garde literature that offers evaluation, reevaluation, renovation, and naturally the courage to bear the risk alone.

Here it becomes clear that a story, a work of literature, is in no way dangerous to a state that at any time can change its basis and system. The literary works of avant-garde writers merely disturb the slumber of persons in power-elite circles, who fear that some time their hold over the common people may loosen. I myself, though coming from a family of freedom fighters and being myself a struggler for freedom as well, have over the 50 years of national independence actually suffered the loss of my personal freedom for as long as 33 1/2. 2 1/2 were stolen by the Dutch, nearly a year was stolen during the Old Order by the Power of the military, [which took another] 30 years during the New Order, among them 10 years of forced labor on Buru Island and 16 as livestock, being a citizen with the code “ET,”11 meaning a detainee outside of prison. As a writer, certainly I rebel against these circumstances. So in my works, I try to tell about particular stages in this nation’s journey, and try to answer: why did this nation get to be this way?

That the works are forbidden to circulate in my own homeland at the request of several persons among the power elite, for me is no problem. The prohibitions in fact give surplus value to my works without Power being aware of it.

Perhaps there are some who are surprised, [wondering] why for me literature is so closely tied to politics. I will not reject that fact. In my view each person living in society, let alone in a nation, is always tied to politics. That a person accepts, rejects or affirms a particular citizenship is a political stance. That a person waves the flag of her nationality, is a political act. That a person pays taxes, is an acknowledgment of power, so it also means political obedience. Literature too can not be free of politics, since literature itself is brought into being by humanity. As long as there are human societies and Power that regulates or ruins them, each individual in them is tied to politics.

There once arose the belief that politics is dirty, hence literature must be kept separate from politics. Really, it is easy for politics to become dirty in the hands of and from the business of politicians who are dirty. If there are some that are dirty, surely there are also some that are not dirty. And that literature properly must be kept separate from politics actually emerges from the thoughts of the directors, whose politics is to be apolitical. Politics itself can not be limited in its meaning to a party system. It is every aspect of that which involves Power, and as long as society exists Power also exists, no matter the manner of its existence, dirty or clean. And it can be said that literature that “rejects” politics in reality is brought into being by those writers who are already established in the lap of the Power “in effect.”

Jakarta, August 24, 1995.


1. “An essay written to be delivered on September 4, 1995, in Manila, as part of a series in the program for the presentation of the 1995 Magsaysay Awards…. The title of the essay was at the request of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation to the writer” (Hasta Mitra, ed.); later published in Suara Independen, no.04/I, September 1995. [back]

2. In this essay, Pramoedya plays with statements about awareness in which the subject (society, the writer, “Power”) is indeterminate. [back]

3. Kekuasaan stretches to cover power, authority, domination and so forth. Pramoedya is playing with this broad meaning, and with Benedict Anderson’s “Idea of Power in Javanese Culture,” (in Language and Power, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990). Following Anderson’s usage, I have capitalized “power” where it seemed appropriate. [back]

4. Masyarakat yang dicitakan. Compare to “imagined community.” [back]

5. See note 2 above. [back]

6. Yang berlaku is a bit of officialese also meaning “prevailing,” “applicable,” “that applies” and so forth. On the one hand it is as unarguable as a parent answering “because” to a child’s “why,” yet the words presuppose an ending to the situation they describe. [back]

7. This nicely echoes the 1950 literary manifesto “Surat Kepertjajaan Gelanggang”:

…Kebudajaan Indonesia ditetapkan oleh kesatuan ber-bagai2 rangsang suara jang disebabkan suara2 jang dilontarkan dari segala sudut dunia dan jang kemudian dilontarkan kembali dalam bentuk suara sendiri. Kami akan menentang segala usaha2 jang mempersempit dan menghalangi tidak betulnja pemeriksaan ukuran-nilai….” (Cited in Teeuw, Pokok dan Tokoh dalam Kesusastraan Indonesia Baru, Djakarta: P.T. Pembangunan, 1955, v.2, pp.15-6).

[Indonesian culture is determined by the unity of various vocal stimuli, that is evoked by voices thrown from all corners of the world and that later are thrown back in the form of a voice of its own. We will defy all efforts that constrain or obstruct falsely [?] the testing of standards.] [back]

8. The Three People’s Principles: nationalism, democracy, and the people’s livelihood. [back]

9. The Japanese military police. [back]

10. Membiayakan, in contrast to membiayai in the next sentence. [back]

11. Ex-tahanan politik: former political prisoner. [back]


*This article is taken from http://www.radix.net/%7Ebardsley/censor.html

Comments
  1. My Pramoedya page has moved from radix.net to
    http://sites.google.com/site/pramoedyasite/

    cheers, Alex

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