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Tembang in Two Traditions: Performance and Interpretation of Javanese Literature.

By BERNARD ARPS. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1992. Pp. xiii, 485. Illustrations, Figures, Notes, Bibliography, Index.

Until the 1920s or so, "serious" Javanese literature was written in tembang, verse forms to which a reader applied one of a set of known tunes. For over a century, however, as Arps notes in the opening and concluding pages of this long book, Westerners have commented -- at times, it sounds like an accusation - that Javanese don't read that literature. The import of this remark varies from the claim that Javanese can't understand the texts, to the claim that they don't think it matters whether they understand the texts, to the claim that they do not even open the texts to see whether or not they understand them.

Arps wishes both to refute these claims and to shift the ground on which the discussion takes place. First, he states that Javanese do read their own literature, as the reading sessions he attended in the 1980s prove. Further, people attending those sessions were interested in what the texts mean. But more importantly, Westerners should understand that there are many different ways to read a text. Rather than (or in addition to) seeking to cull meanings from words, reading can be a means to obtain aesthetic pleasure in company with others and/or to accomplish magical ends, such as to protect the environs from danger, or to obtain accurate prognostications about the future.

Arps demonstrates these varying understandings of the act of reading with his ethnographic accounts of reading sessions he attended. Arps is forthright about his own presence and the effects it may have had on these occasions, but modest about his own participation. Nevertheless, it is clear that Arps's command of Javanese is nothing less than spectacular, encompassing two regional dialects of spoken Javanese (one of which is deemed "standard") and the literary vocabulary called kawi.

In a brilliant move, Arps investigates the issue of Javanese reading in two different areas of Java: in Jogjakarta, one of the Central Javanese court centres associated with both the most prestigious dialect of the Javanese language and the most prestigious performance traditions, and in Banyuwangi, perched at the eastern end of the island and so about as far away from the court centres as you can get. Pointing out that the reading practices he found in these two areas represent just some among a range of such practices in Java, he avoids the emphasis on the courtly traditions to which both Javanese and Western scholars interested in the Javanese arts (including myself) are prone.

Analytically, Arps combines a thorough immersion in the historical and indigenous writings on Javanese literature with an interest in recent theory in the ethnography of speaking, and more specifically, the ethnography of performance. However, he is strongest in his close examination of the way verses, stanzas, and cantos are constructed, and at the way those constructions are performed and commented upon. He investigates these issues in extraordinary detail, to a degree that sometimes taxes a reader's attention but permits Arps to state his conclusions with great authority. He is weaker in the sociological dimension of his study, despite his professed concern with the ethnography of speaking.

One reason Arps can analyze the reading he observed in Jogja and Banyuwangi so exhaustively is that he restricts his study to a narrow range of phenomena. He is interested in the reading of literature, not in the use of tembang in other contexts, ones in which entertainment, rather than literary ends, are primary. Yet these contexts, which he puts aside altogether, are the ones in which the vast majority of Javanese become familiar with tembang. He does not look at how tembang are sung with gamelan accompaniment in Jogja. In Banyuwangi, Arps notes that reading groups divide into "old people's" and "young people's" styles, the former more conservative and the latter more flamboyant and lively -- and more popular. Arps tells us a bit about the contrast between the two, but concentrates his attention on the conservative style, on the grounds that this is the context in which reading the text matters most.

To gain a sociological sense of who reads Javanese literature and how they read it, we need to have some profile of the people who attend reading sessions. Arps gives us little of this kind of information. An ethnography of speaking approach would suggest that we need to know what might motivate people -- actually, only a rather small number of people -- to take such an interest in these celebrations of Javanese culture. To quote Javanese comments on what is pleasurable about tembang is of course important. But it would be important to consider how this rather arcane kind of cultural knowledge fits into individuals' particular social and cultural self-representations.

Overall, Arps appears unwilling to venture any statement without adducing considerable evidence, based on Javanese comments and his own ethnographic data. This is extremely responsible scholarship, but it discourages Arps from asking the sorts of questions that his distance as an outsider might otherwise lead him to consider. He is quite willing to note the many points at which indigenous commentaries do not conform with actual practice. For example, he points to the only occasional fit between verse forms and the contents of those forms, this despite the fact that a great many Javanese sources associate particular moods with specific verse forms. But he doesn't go on to ask why such discrepancies exist, why, in this instance, Javanese informants should assert an association so consistently despite the fact that their own experience of reading tembang would suggest -- or so we might think -- that the association is tenuous at best. To ask such a question implies moving further away from indigenous commentary, and hazarding ideas that are less amenable to clear demonstration, than Arps appears comfortable doing.

Some questions that arise from Arps's own data would seem to touch on the very issue, whether or not Javanese read their own literature, Arps wishes to address, but they are not addressed explicitly. It appears from Arps's ethnographic account of a reading session in Jogja, for example, that commentators there concentrate either on determining meanings of specific, often archaic words, or on speculating about the "figurative", that is, allegorical or mystical meanings concealed within the surface content of a story. But it is puzzling, and intriguing, that even when at one point the gist of a series of lines was obscure, it elicited no questions or comments. We are left to wonder -- much as earlier observers have -- to what extent Javanese readers are indeed concerned with meaning at what Westerners consider a fundamental level, that not of individual words but strings of them.

By limiting his focus to what is properly literary activity, as opposed to what is popular, and by establishing little analytic distance between himself and the object of his study, Arps diminishes the effectiveness of his rejoinder to other scholars' comments about Javanese reading practices. The fact that reading sessions occur in Jogja, but not in Sala, even though Sala was long considered more fertile ground for Javanese literature than its rival Jogja, the fact that public group readings apparently arose in Jogja as recently as 1968 but are no longer common features of rural rites of passage, the fact that the performances attract popular support but reading, even in groups, seems to appeal only to a very select few -- these are larger, contextual questions that deserve attention, and indeed strike me as crucial to a discussion of the place of reading in Javanese society.

Arps has nevertheless given us an extremely thorough and rich account of reading sessions in Java. It is very much to be hoped that he will go on to apply his enormous knowledge of tembang in these two and other Javanese traditions to such larger questions concerning the place of sung verse in Javanese society. He has in any case made a signal contribution to such a study in this enormously rich and thorough work.
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Author:Keeler, Ward
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1994
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