7. Tradition and Modernity: the unsatisfactory present

Although the Tanimbarese live in the jaman moderen, that is not to say that they see themselves as living entirely within a condition of modernity, as expressed by the idea of the jaman moderen set out in the previous section. Life within Tanimbar is not seen as a march towards ever greater perfection materially and spiritually: the Tanimbarese are pragmatists to some extent in this matter. The jaman moderen should be a time of unhindered progress and development, a glorious progression from darkness to light; but this is patently not the case, and the Tanimbarese themselves are aware of the fact that life in Tanimbar in the present time is far from satisfactory: there is still disease, suffering, immorality, hardship and drought. Why is it that this ideal of modernity has not been attained? How is the contradiction between the nature of the present, and the idea of the jaman moderen resolved? If the modern age is by its very nature satisfactory, spiritually and materially, why is life within that age unsatisfactory?

The problem of the present lies in the nature of these three ages of history set out above. They are not successive and clean-cut. Their lumpiness is problematic. There was overlap between the jaman purba and the jaman pertengahan, so that strange anomalous beings existed at the same time as sophisticated nobles, and even now on occasion events more befitting the jaman purba (such as women giving birth to octopi) are reported by the Tanimbarese. Similarly the middle age of Tanimbarese history, although its greatest flowering has clearly passed, is not yet to be consigned to the past. There are still within the confines of the present aspects of life which reflect the jaman pertengahan. The present is in fact a place where the tension between the condition exemplified by the jaman pertengahan and that exemplified by the jaman moderen are played out. It is clear to the Tanimbarese that the latter will eventually prevail, perhaps in the glory of the coming Apocalypse, which is the ultimate apotheosis of the condition of modernity, but until that time the tension remains.

In anthropological literature the terms tradition and modernity are somewhat contentious, yet they are terms that are used frequently on an everyday basis in the Tanimbar islands, and are of great importance in how the Tanimbarese talk about life in the present. It is not the intention of this study to define the terms ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ in a general sense, nor to say how they may be related or to comment upon their usefulness to anthropological thinking as a whole, but rather to elucidate the rather subtle and precise nuances that they have taken on within Tanimbar, to better understand the tension that exists between fixity and change, between the jaman pertengahan and the jaman moderen. The Indonesian words tradisional and moderen are of course derived from the English: however, their usage within the Tanimbar islands is such that they should not be understood in quite the same way as they are in the English language.

The interior or Yamdena, the largest island in the Tanimbarese group, is heavily populated with wild buffalo. As there are no interior villages, the buffalo live a fairly undisturbed life. They are occasionally hunted, but the pig is a less dangerous animal and more favoured by the Tanimbarese, so is more frequently the preferred quarry on hunting expeditions. The story of the origins of these buffalo is a strange one for there have by no means always been buffalo in Tanimbar, and the entire population is, I was told, descended from a single pair. The tale of how this pair came into being is a strange one. A pair of lovers once fled to the interior to escape the watchful eyes of their parents, and there in a clearing by a magical pool, then disrobed. As they were about to plunge into the water, a fish leapt out, and suspended in mid air told them on no account were they to bathe in the sacred pond. The lovers were, it seems, not at all perturbed by the talking fish or its warnings, and so they plunged into the water, and were instantly transformed into buffalo. After this tale had been related (in Alusi Krawain), I was told that it was tradisional which I, at the time, took to mean that it was an amusing, but almost certainly untrue tale, in the way that we might find the tales of the brothers Grimm amusing, but almost certainly untrue. However my amusement was not considered appropriate: this, I was told, was a true and rather tragic story from the history of Tanimbar. I asked whether these buffalo where, therefore, the Adam and Eve of the buffalo world, the ancestors of all the buffalo in the world, and I was told that this was not the cast. Buffalo elsewhere, it seems, came into being by other mechanisms, although it was not suggested what these might be; yet in Tanimbar, things were different.

This assertion of a purely local logic – time in Tanimbar begins with Atuf’s spearing of the sun; the buffalo come into being in this way in Tanimbar; there are sicknesses through witchcraft in Tanimbar, but not necessarily in the West – was one that I would encounter again and again during mystay in the islands.

In 1992 the Summer Institute of Linguistics produced a book of Tanimbarese folk tales, both in Indonesian and in Yamdenan. This book was avaliable for sale in Saumlaki, and I cam across a copy in Meyano Das, where it was presented to me as a “history” book. The tales (explaining how childless mothers produced children from their own faeces, or young girl transformed into crocodiles) were all, I was assured, absolutely true. On asking how this could be the case, I was told that they were tradisional, that is: they obeyed a logic and an order that was specific to Tanimbar.

Nangin Tanemprar

Illness, too, is characterised as either tradisional or moderen. If sickness occurs, there are number of courses of action open to the patient. In most villages there are puskesmas (pusat kesehatan masyarakat) or public health centres. These dispense Western style medicine although they are often lacking in resources and in medical expertise. However if thc puskesmas proves unsuccessful as inevitably it often will, and the patient is still suffering, ther the illness is characterised as tradisional. A tradisional illness is not susceptible to treatment by Western (moderen) medicine, as it is an illness that is specific to Tanimbar. An illness so define may have one of three causes: the wrath of the ancestors (tetek-nenek-moyang), the malicious agency of witches (swangi) or be a natural illness exclusive to Tanimbar that is unknown by and unresponsive to Western-style medicine. Either way a tradisional illness is one specific tc Tanimbar, and is to be treated most efficiently according to indigenous methods.

In both the case of the buffalo, and of the patient, it can be seen that the tradisional is conceived of as being that which relates to an indigenous order that is unique and specific to Tanimbar. This order is that of the jaman pertengahan. Furthermore the tradisional extends beyond the cultural order, to embrace the natural order. It is not only danc or certain artforms that are characterised as tradisional, but also illness and certain phenomena in what I myself might have characterised as the ‘natural’ world.

The tradisional and the moderen are seen as being mutually exclusive. An illness that is tradisional cannot be effectively treated by Western medicine, and nor can non-tradisional illnesses be treated by Tanimbarese medicine. The two systems are in opposition to each other. But the tradisional and the moderen are not only conditions of existence, but also dynamic currents in the life of the Tanimbarese: I was told on a number of occasions, “We want to advance (maju), but adat is too strong.” This adat ritual law is not seen as a collection of cultural forms to which the individual Tanimbarese must adhere to engender social approval but subject to change by the interaction of human agencies. Rather it is conceived of as a set of laws and practices which straddle and reshape the cultural and natural orders and that must be followed – for not to do so invites sickness, insanity and death.

The tradisional is a dynamic current in the life of the Tanimbarese, as is the moderen. The tradisional is an order of experience that relates to indigenous concepts and ideologies. In contrast the moderen is a living current that relates to non-Tanimbarese concepts and ideological systems, of aspirations toward Western style development as depicted in the mass media, which has penetrated to the most isolated corner of Tanimbar, and those of the Church, which dominates Tanimbarese conceptions of morality and cosmology.

It should be noted that the moderen is concerned with the dynamic of change and of growth, with aspirations directed toward the future, whereas the tradisional is directed toward the past, being seen as representing a fixed body of beliefs, and a fixed set of cultural forms. The tradisional is seen as being dependent upon and legitimised by an idea of fixity in the past. It is no doubt true that such ‘tradition’ is, in fact, a great deal more fluid than it appears, in the same way that a ‘traditional’ Christmas in Britain simply would not have occurred in the eighteenth century, for example; but what is important about tradition is that it should appear to be fixed and unchanging.

Thus the Tanimbarese in their daily lives negotiate two different ways of being in the world. The tradisional is a way of justifying present action by reference to the past, and the moderen is a way of justifying present action by reference to potential future gain – either spiritual, economic, political or material. Although the co-existence of two frames of reference through which the Tanimbarese play out their lives offers much room for negotiation and for manipulation, it is, at root, a painful and difficult tension. The fundamental opposition of the two systems is the cause of the unsatisfactoriness of the present, and development is always hindered by the special and constricting nature of the condition of the tradisional which had its home in the jaman pertengahan.

For any kind of development to occur, the Tanimbarese are aware that the tradisional must be defused, must be stripped of some of its constricting and binding power. Yet they are also aware of the role that the tradisional can play in their development. It not only provides them with a sense of identity, but also it offers the chance for material and economic growth through tourism, which is concerned with the experience of tradition. These problems – the desire to be moderen, the constraining power of adat, the conflicting pulls of God and the ancestors, the problem – similar to the problem that we all have – of how to bring about the future, or to influence the way the future comes about, whilst maintaining a sense of continuity with the past, were matters that frequently generated lively and impassioned discussion during my stay in Tanimbar. And no wonder. They are also problems with which many Tanimbarese sculptors were actively struggling. The nature of this struggle, and the ways in which at least temporary resolutions may sometimes be found within the art of sculpture, are the subjects of most of the remainder of this study.

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