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Archive for the ‘Words’ Category

I think about movies and their influence in our lives. Gaslight, for example, is a good movie and it added a useful word to the languge; “gaslighting” is a verb that names behavior previously we could only describe. Now we say “he gaslighted me” and people know what we mean. Decades ago Rashomon, a truly great movie, gave us a phrase, the “Rashomon effect.” It did not become part of our common, every-day vocabulary but is used by psychologists, psychotherapists, journalists, and people like me because it names, and therefore helps us understand, a particular sort of complex social interaction.

But first, the movie – I saw Rashomon in 1952, soon after it arrived in the U.S.  Roger Ebert wrote that “Rashomom (1950) struck the world of film like a thunderbolt.” It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, introducing Japanese cinema to the world, and won the Academy Award as best foreign film, setting box office records in the U.S. for a subtitled film. At the time I was a university student and holding down a job to pay for it, so had little time for movies, which I then thought were, anyhow, mostly a waste of time. Student friends more sophisticated than I were foreign film enthusiasts but a movie from Japan did not interest them. It was outside their experience, so I, the anthropology student, asked my sociology student friend, who happened to be Japanese-American, to see Rashomon with me. (During World War II, his family was relocated and interned in a camp for Japanese-Americans, a totally unjust action taken by the U.S. government.) Less than half an hour into the movie he stood up, abruptly, and walked away, out of the theater. I was so involved in the movie, in the story and the marvelous images, that only after it had ended, after sitting there for some time, still caught in its spell, did I wonder why my friend had left. He never spoke of it and I felt somehow it better not to ask.  Here for a full description of the movie.

No one discussed Rashomon with me; in college social circles cinema was not yet considered an art form and I was not yet reading movie reviews. Bosley Crowther’s in the New York Times seems to be the only Rashomon review from 1951. Robert Ebert wrote his in 2002, in concert with the Criterion Collection release on DVD. For many years I believed I was the only person who knew of Rashomon, but the question it asks and scenes from the movie stayed with me. I have seen it again on DVD and on-line.

Not all the critiques of Rashomon have been unstinting in their praise. Phillip Lopate, who reviews the book by Paul Anderer, “Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Vanished City, a Lost Brother, and the Voice Inside His Iconic Films,” believes that Anderer overrates Rashomon. In Lopate’s opinion – “… …The fact that it is “iconic” does not necessarily make it a masterpiece — certainly not one of comparable depth to, say, Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu” or Ozu’s “Late Spring.” Visually dazzling, yes, but the hammy and naïve aspects remain irksome. Toshiro Mifune’s monkey-scratching bandit, charming at first, becomes one-note; the drifter’s cynical laughter is excessive; and the woodcutter’s rescue of the baby at the end, a crudely sentimental device. Kurosawa’s Big Thoughts, like What is truth? and Is man inherently evil?, seem trite. The problem is not that these questions are undeserving of consideration, but that Kurosawa poses them in a didactic, simplistic, self-congratulatory manner.”

I prefer Roger Ebert’s view. He accepted the elevated emotional level of the actors, as did I. Kurosawa was not looking for realism. He had the actors, in the mode of silent film, use their faces, eyes and gestures to express emotion, and the story takes on a universal, mythical meaning beyond what language can ordinarily communicate.

In another review from 2015 2015 Kim Newman places Rashomon as less than a masterpiece but important in film history. She considers it is essential viewing.

James Berardinelli’s thoughtful commentary is well worth reading to comprehend the significance of the movie and the questions it raises.

Whether one considers Rashomon a great movie or merely consequential, the idea of the “Rashomon effect” remains. For the anthropologist it is central; a main problem is how do deal with different understandings in different cultures.

Michael Lakahn defines it: “Stated simply, the “Rashomon effect” is the effect that our subjective perceptions have on our memories of events. The result is that two or more observers of the same event will describe substantially different but equally plausible accounts of the event. As neurological science has demonstrated, we are all subject to the Rashomon effect. We are all unreliable narrators.”

In the first scene of Rashomon, in a heavy wind-driven rain, two men sit in the ruins of a once massive city gate. The woodcutter says and repeats, “I don’t understand. I just don’t understand.” The priest, in a sad voice, lists many of the wrongs perpetuated by man and by nature — wars, plagues, floods, fires — but finds the court trial testimonies he and the woodcutter heard, sitting there in the background, the most distressing and disastrous of them all. A commoner who joins the woodcutter and priest states the obvious. He points out that murder and violence are everyday occurrences and wonders why they agonize over this particular murder, over how it was committed and by whom.

For the priest, the succession of personal tales may have reinforced his fear that human beings are inherently flawed, self-serving, locked into the individual’s own perspective, while the very essence of being religious is putting the good of others above self. For the woodcutter, perhaps the stories told were reminders that people in other places and other social statuses are different from himself, not really understandable, but since he had played a part, if only a small part, in the drama of the thief, the noblewoman and the nobleman, he cannot separate himself from them. The commoner shrugged it off, mindlessly, and looked to his own interest.

I have lived my life as a friend, wife, citizen, anthropologist and public health worker trying to understand why people from different backgrounds think and act differently from the ways I acquired growing up in America. I recognized the Rashomon effect but until recently did not find it, as in the movie, a reason to lament the nature of human nature; I thought differences in perception were simply a fact of life to analyze and work with. Now, however, everything around me has changed. I observe new technologies and the global economy changing American society and culture. Americans are divided as never before into factions with sharply opposing self and national interests. We have at present a toxic political climate and a government dominated by a President and his appointees who represent one part only of the society, and a minority part, at that. I wonder how our traditional democratic institutions, the economy, ordinary people will weather this ideological storm.

I cannot help but reconsider the grave view held by the priest in Rashomon. We are all subject to the Rashomon effect. We are not only unreliable narrators, we are unreliable observers who interpret circumstance and relevant information to favor our own self-interest and to act in that regard, justifying our actions as beneficial for the larger society. Thus, we have no hope for a universal court where everyone can agree on what is true and just. However, unlike some of the commentators, I do believe that a knowable psychological and social reality does exist and can be discovered through scientific study.

But enough of this for now.

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I find it difficult these days to concentrate on my past, on my memories, and writing about them seems particularly irrelevant. Instead, endlessly I read and listen to news reports and political analyses, obsessed with the crises Donald Trump is creating in and for the American government. I believe Trump and the people he brings into office are a danger to America’s democracy and economy, maybe also to other countries’ well being.

And I worry about what is happening to young people. They face a job market where wages are abominable.

Since 2000, the hourly wage of the median worker rose just 0.5%, while productivity increased by nearly 23%. From 1979 to 2011, wages for the median worker grew by 6%, wages for the highest-earning 5% rose by nearly 38%, and for the top 1% they rose by 131%. For the lowest paid workers, wages actually fell during those years. Nearly one-third of women, compared to nearly a quarter of men, earned poverty-level wages in 2011. For more statistics, check here. But know that this sort of inequality has happened before in capitalist democracies and has been reversed through collective action by the workers. In the 1930s my grandfather and father worked as unskilled, low-paid laborers in a steel mill, in a dangerous setting, for long hours six days a week. They joined with other workers and formed a union. Unions transformed the society and the economy.

Norma Rae captures the meaning of the union, which is why I remember so many of the scenes. Besides, it’s a wonderful movie about friendship, family, love, relationships, individuals growing and changing, all of which made it a box office success. Watching a real textile factory floor in action, both the technology and how the workers and managers related to one another, fascinated me. The cinematography is exceptional and the acting remarkable. Sally Field won a large number of Best Actress awards for portraying Norma Rae, including at Cannes in 1979 and the Oscar in 1980, along with “It Goes as it Goes” sung by Jennifer Warnes, as Best Song. It’s a classic film, selected in 2011 for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

Nevertheless, very few reviews of Norma Rae are available on-line and the reason why is explained in this excellent summary of the story Matt Langdon wrote in 2011.   “This is a classic 1970’s film that successfully blends a feminist component with the typical management labor struggle that have existed in factories and mills since the 19th century. It’s an important subject but more than 20 years after it was made it continues to have a bad rap with mainstream audiences. Mainly because it is a feminist film, a pro-labor film as well as one that is very class conscious and takes place in a small southern town. All these things, though, make “Norma Rae” a unique Hollywood film since its kind wouldn’t be made today. … …”

 

An early meeting

I like this detailed summary of the plot, but certain expressions need to be explained. For example, “balled out” should be “bawled” out, meaning to shout at and scold someone. In the last paragraph, regarding the expression: “And boy that Sally Field really did an excellent job.” I no longer hear “boy” used to emphasize an idea. When I was young the expression was “boy oh boy.” Perhaps the original meaning was from buoy (same pronunciation), a devise that bloats on the water and serves to warn people of a hazard, such as a reef. The buoy often had a bell attached. As a verb, buoy or buoy up can mean to boost or increase. For another slang expression:  “And the Flying Nun was looking pretty sharp in the film.”  “Looking pretty sharp” means looking bright and very pleasing. Flying Nun refers to a television series Sally Fields starred in.

I love this video clip from the movie. It expresses why the union was important to ordinary people.

The man speaking is a union organizer from New York. He is Jewish, the first Jew Norma Rae has met. The meeting is being held in a humble Black church. This photo is from its interior, with people sitting on the church’s benches. Norma Rae later asked the White preacher for permission to hold a union meeting in the much better equipped White church, the sort of church in the other photograph, and he turned her down.

The events in the movie took place in 1974, at a time when the textile industry was already unionized, nationally, except for this one company, J.P. Stevens.

The turning point

The U.S. Congress had passed laws to protect the right of workers to unionize, but by keeping its workers from knowing about the law and worker rights, the J.P. Stevens company was able to keep worker wages low and their work conditions dangerous to health. In one dramatic scene we see Norma Rae’s bosses harassing her as she copies a paper posted on the factory’s bulletin board. Management had written it to frighten the White workers. The paper states that if the workers formed a union, the Blacks would run it, which is untrue, and under national civil rights law such a prejudiced assertion is illegal. The company is gaslighting the workers.

 

The woman, Crystal Lee Sutton, on whom Norma Rae is based is described here.  She was pleased with the movie’s interpretation of her union activities and of her life.

The movie’s presentation of a town such as Crystal Lee’s town is authentic. Compared with those in the North where I grew up, it is a life of relative poverty. Norma Rae’s household needs three adults, her mother and father and her, a mother of small children, working full-time to support the family. (After all, the textile industry owners moved their factories from the North to the South because the wages there were significantly lower.) I compare this scene of Norma Rae and her parents in their yard with the yard of my low-income working-class grandparents. In the 1940s, Grandmother had a washing machine and wringer in the house and her clothes line in a neat back yard. Norma Rae’s mother, in 1974, is doing laundry in a tub, wringing it out by hand. It seems like a hardscrabble life.

This article is by a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who was sent in 1974 to North Carolina to report on efforts to unionize the workers in large textile mills. It is a lengthy discussion of struggles between the textile companies and the unions, including the movie’s unionization, and of the government’s involvement in settling disputes.

Finally, my memory of union country — In the 1940s, I lived for three years with my White Anglo-Saxon Protestant working class grandparents (described here) in Ohio. Like many small town White Christian working-class girls, I never heard the word “Jew” outside of Bible studies at church and was quite unaware of anyone in my high school being Jewish. The Negro community in the South (“Negro” being the polite word at that time) was a large minority, unequal and living segregated from the Whites, except as servants. (described here in The Help) In my Ohio town the Negro community was small and socially invisible to most Whites. The high school was integrated and I chatted with a few Black kids in the classroom but social segregation reigned. (a note here on sports and Black/White school integration.) My circle of friends included children of Catholic families who had come in the early 20th century as immigrants to the northern U.S., rarely to the South, from southern and eastern Europe, and although Grandmother and Granddad disapproved of the Catholic Church they reluctantly accepted my visiting with families they found so different from themselves. I was always curious about different people and asked Granddad to tell me where the Negro children lived and why nasty words like Dago and Wop were used for people from Italy and other strange places. He said, “We don’t talk about that.” End of discussion.

His non-answer, so unlike him, puzzled me, but I now think his silence had to do with the union. Granddad and Grandmother personally held the standard racial and ethnic prejudices but did not like to say negative things against other people. To avoid unpleasantness they, in their own words, stayed with their own kind. However, Black men and men of the new ethnic communities were in the union with Granddad. They had been on the picket line together, together they fought the company and its well organized, well financed supporters. They had won and together elected leaders, fought for decent wages and safe working conditions, followed union principles and acted as one. The union saw to it that Grandmother had a nice, affordable place to live when she was widowed. My grandparents had no vocabulary for a rationale discussion of the inconsistencies between their union identity and social differences in the larger society, so they choose not to talk about it. They believed in the union and were faithful to its ethic of collective identity and action. I think it taught them tolerance. In later years, although not always comfortable with it, they accepted my stepping out into a diverse world. They even accepted my marrying a foreign student from India, without going so far as to include his photograph among the family photos on the top of the piano in the living room.

Apparently, the unions that built middle-class America are dead, gone. I read that Americans have reached the (incorrect) conclusion that organizing workers is counterproductive. If so, this has to be changed.

As an addendum — In a fascinating, well written article, “Confronting the Parasite Economy,” in the American Prospect magazine, Nick Hanauer, an extraordinarily successful businessman, presents his view of the economy and of wage scales, of what is wrong with both and why and how they should be changed. His ideas are controversial among economists but I find them convincing.

Hanauer’s argument is that in the U.S. we have two types of businesses – (1) businesses in the real economy that pay their workers decent middle-class wages and (2) parasite businesses that pay unjustly, economically unnecessarily low wages. The cost is high for taxpayers working in the real economy because the majority of the money we collectively pay for anti-poverty programs goes not to poor people without jobs; it goes to low-wage workers who must rely on government welfare programs to survive. Our tax money supports the working poor employed by parasite businesses — businesses that keep wages low because they can, not because it is necessary for running a profitable business but because they have total power over their employees. Parasite businesses are bad for the economy; they reduce their workers’ ability to buy goods and services from businesses in the real economy and prevent those workers from contributing to the nation’s economic growth. And the wrongs the parasite businesses create for the society … … too numerous to list.

The solution is collective action. Governments should raise the minimum wage, which entails raising citizen awareness of the negative effects of poverty-level wages. Mostly, we need a rebirth of unions to increase wages, improve working conditions and bring individuals from diverse communities together in collective action. With our nation’s growing ethnic diversity, bringing people together for collective action is especially important for our democracy.

Addendum 2 — An important study indicates that the growing income inequality in the U.S. is caused in large part by a politically induced decline in the strength of worker unions. Unions reduce pay differences within companies and unions lobby in the federal and state governments on behalf of the working and middle classes for better education, better health services and generally for a strong public social infrastructure. Union decline, and the decline in public infrastructure, has come from business-financed political conservatives who spread misinformation and successfully lobby Congress to pass laws that make it difficult for workers to unionize. When in my mid-forties, in the 1970s, I did an M.B.A, in the Kellogg School. The hostility many of the student expressed toward unions, and toward workers, surprised me. How different from the small business people I had known for whom employees were people, not factors of production requiring cost control.

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Recently a young woman was telling me about how she had once worked in a certain business establishment but left because the men were gaslighting the women employees and even though it was my first time hearing of gaslighting I knew what she meant; I had seen the movie. However, my friend had not; Gaslight is from my generation, not hers. Indeed, she had barely heard of the movie. Gaslighting was simply the word everyone she knew used to describe such circumstances. The following day, watching a news program on television, a woman reporting on sexual harassment in the work place spoke of gaslighting; it has become an ordinary word.

Gaslighting is similar to but stronger than the phrase I heard from the 1960s-70s generation, something like “he’s messing with her mind.” In the past, people certainly thought about such situations but had no vocabulary for reifying and contesting them. It was assumed that men would dominant women and pushing a woman around psychologically was considered normal, if not nice. Gaslight is from that past, from the 1940s. It was a time when, quoting from this excellent film site, a large number of noir, gothic, melodramatic movies had the theme of a sheltered woman who is menaced, threatened, or at least frightened by a deranged man. The 1940s was early for me but I saw a number of the movies later, in the 1950s, when I was in my twenties, including Jane Eyre (1943)Rebecca (1940)Suspicion (1941)Laura (1944), The Spiral Staircase (1945),  And, of course, Gaslight.

Not many films have their title enter the language in such a socially significant manner.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 2017, Ben Yagoda wrote that the American Dialect Society, while choosing the Word of the Year, selected to gaslight as winner in the category of “Most Useful/Likely to Succeed.” They defined to gaslight as “to psychologically manipulate a person into questioning their own sanity.” Yagoda continues in the article to give a history of how, beginning in the 1950s, gaslighting has been used by various public personalities in print and on television.

In the December 10, 2016 issue of Teen Vogue magazine, in an article, “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America,” Lauren Duca wrote that since the rise of social media, of smart phones, Facebook and its imitators, of instant communication, gaslighting has been the word of choice for teenage girls and young women when describing how ex-boyfriends have tried to mess with their heads, and she continues with a discussion showing that from the time when Donald Trump began his campaign for President, and was elected, the use in the media of the verb to gaslight has increased enormously. She states that Trump won the Presidency by gaslighting the public and supports her point with examples and an analysis of the consequences.

An article in a technology and science magazine accuses the food industry of gaslighting the public on the harm of heavy use of sugar.

Returning to The Chronicle of Higher Education —  In 1951, Solomon Asch, social psychologist, conducted a series of experiments in which a person, the Subject, sat in a room with other people. The Experimenter showed them four lines – Line A and a set of three other lines, one of which was the same length as Line A – and asked them all to identify the line among the three that matched line A. The Subject chose the correct line but the other persons, having been primed by the Experimenter and part of the experiment, all agreed on one of the incorrect lines as being the same as Line A. Of the 50 Subjects who did the experiment, 37 decided that the others in the room were correct. Most admitted afterwards that they had not agreed with the majority but had gone along to avoid being ostracized. To understand the Subject’s motivation:  “Suppose you go to a fancy dinner party and notice to your dismay that there are four forks beside your plate. When the first course arrives, you are not sure which fork to use. If you are like most people, you look around and use the fork everyone else is using. You do this because you want to be accepted by the group and because you assume the others know more about table etiquette than you do.” The Subject was being gaslighted, and most of the Subjects conformed to the group but did not lose their grip on reality.

In other such experiments, if just one person agreed with the Subject, the Subject person could resist conforming to the majority. This, I think, is encouraging. It shows the importance of having an ally and of getting information to people in a way that is relevant to them. Of course, an emotionally disturbed individual with no friends is vulnerable to a single negative influence, but that is another matter.

A small number of the Subjects in the experiments were truly convinced by the majority that they were seeing incorrectly. These are the individuals at great risk for serious gaslighting and psychological damage. In the real world “ … (The) victim must be somehow emotionally cathected (deeply attached) to (the bully). Thus a beloved husband can gaslight his wife; thus a charismatic dictator can gaslight many of his subjects. By fostering insecurity, by loudly asserting as truth various “facts” and narratives that make no sense, the gaslighter gains a kind of emotional access that will eventually trump his victims’ reasoning. … ” (no pun intended)

A Hotline is available in the U.S. to victims of domestic violence. A national organization of highly trained experts on the sort of violence that can happen in the home, mostly against women and children, keep a telephone service that anyone may call at any hour to receive useful, helpful information and advice.

Returning to the movie –  A British Gaslight, based on a stage play, was released in 1940 but the 1944 Hollywood version, directed by George Cukor, starring Ingrid Bergman  and Charles Boyer became the box office success and it won Oscars.

Touches like this add to the 1944 Gaslight: The set decoration is by Paul Huldchinsky, a German refugee who borrowed elements from the German expressionist style to make the house cluttered and stifling and give it a claustrophobic jail-like atmosphere. The movie received an Oscar for interior decoration. For depicting the broader Victorian period environment, the 1940 version is considered more effective.

I saw Gaslight many years ago, so I watched it again on-line. Obviously, the atmospherics are much better on the big screen, but Gaslight is a good movie, and even without the current interest in its title and theme, the story and the acting still would have engaged me.

How could Paula, played by Bergman, be so easily and seriously gaslighted? The answer lies in her vulnerability as an inexperienced and isolated young woman. Moreover, she had fallen in love with a charming, clever, authoritative father-figure of a man considerably older than she, and he, by hiring particular household servants, constructed an environment that he alone controlled. Her vulnerability began when she was still a child, about twelve years old, and her aunt, her guardian and only family, was murdered in their London home. Paula heard but did not see it happen. She never recovered from the trauma she suffered from the event. Her isolation began when she was sent, immediately after the death, to live in Italy under the protection of a kindly, elderly maestro whose responsibility it was to train her as an opera star. Unfortunately, she doubted her talent and she lacked motivation. The story is set in a time when and in a place where girls did not venture out into public without family. (I wonder about the social status of a woman opera singer in that era but that matter is totally ignored.) Paula had wealth but no family and, apparently, no friends or companions. Not until the end did she have that one essential ally.

I like this bright, witty review and it’s many photographs from the movie.

In this review, also with photographs, the two film versions of Gaslight are discussed and compared. It is excellent and a good read.

It did not occur to me, seeing Gaslight in the 1950s, that this man’s bullying of his wife was a theatrical expression of a fairly common pattern of behavior, one we could more easily recognize and act on after it had a name. It took psychotherapists to first name it and today’s young women to bring the word into our vocabulary. I wrote here, toward the end of the essay, about the teenage stage of life as a fairly recent social phenomenom, of the rise of women in public life and of the social revolution we are experiencing. The invention and widespread use of a word like gaslighting is yet another instance of how our world is changing – both in private life and in the way we perceive, think and talk about our societies’ leaders.

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After watching Quartet, this movie title caught my eye, and with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the cast, I decided to watch it. I am musically illiterate but do enjoy listening to a string quartet. Besides, most critics fell in love with the movie. Roger Ebert’s review for the plot and appreciative remarks on the acting are here.

The story is of four musicians, members of the Fugue String Quartet, a world-famous ensemble based in Manhattan. They are an affluent group, living stylish lives.

 Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Robert, second violinist; Catherine Keener is Juliette, who plays the viola; Christopher Walker, Peter, is the cellist; and Mark Ivanir is Daniel, the first violinist. Alexandra, in her early twenties, is the daughter of Robert and Juliette and she is played by Imogen Poots.  (Here for fans of Philip Seymour Hoffman who are saddened by his untimely death.)

The music we hear is performed by the Bretano String Quartet, and Nina Lee, the cellist who takes Peter’s place in the Fugue quartet, is a real member of the real quartet. In a flashback we see Peter’s wife as he remembers her in their home, standing at the piano, singing. The image we see and the voice we hear is of a well-known mezzo-soprano, Anne Sofie von Otter. The wonderful Indian actor, Madhur Jaffrey, plays the doctor who diagnoses Peter’s Parkinson’s disease. Among her many accomplishments are her cookbooks, two of which I’ve used for decades. Wallace Shawn, who is unforgettable in My Dinner with Andre, does a cameo role.    

The movie’s Fugue String Quartet has been together and performing in major venues for twenty-five years. Robert, Catherine and Daniel are in their mid-forties. Peter is a generation older and teaches in a music school as well as performing.

Here for knowledgeable comments on both music and musicians in the urban, urbane elite social circles depicted in the film.

In another review, Yuron Zilberman, the Director, is reported as saying he made the film about his own neighborhood, his studio having been near Central Park and the adjoining musical zone on Manhattan’s West Side. A large number of working musicians lived in the area and resembled the characters in his film.

This opens onto a map of Central Park to give an idea of where Manhattan’s West Side neighborhood is located. Robert jogs in the park and often encounters a casual friend there and talks with her about music.

Bridge by Calvert Vaux

Daniel and Juliette meet on a park bridge, having known this place since they were students together. Peter and Juliette may have walked across Central Park to the Frick Collection, an art museum in an old mansion on 5th Ave., where Peter comments at length on Rembrandt’s self-portrait. The massive, wonderful Metropolitan Museum of Art, where their concert takes place, is north of the Frick. The Julliard School of Music is on Broadway, near where the quartet people live, west of the Park. Sotheby’s auction house is east of Central Park, near the East River.

Zilberman originally intended to write about family, in both a literal and a metaphorical sense, within a fictional chamber group. But his story, he quickly realized, could only be told around Beethoven’s 14th string quartet. “The music influenced the storytelling; it was part of the initial concept,” he said. “Opus 131, one of five late Beethoven quartets, is a long piece, played in seven movements without a break. It brings a turning point for the oldest member of his group, the cellist. The other musicians have issues of their own. But the intricacies of Beethoven’s work, one of his last, come to stand for what joins them, what separates them and what they have achieved in a professional lifetime together.”

A Late Quartet received more than the usual number of reviews and most were highly positive, as in this one — “A Late Quartet cleverly dramatizes its central message, which is that some combinations of people are much greater than they could ever be on their own or in another group. This is an anti-individualistic film, a picture that prizes co-operation and self-sacrifice over personal ambition. That’s a rarity in cinema — and virtually unknown in a Hollywood product.”

American culture is individualistic but it also places a heavy emphasis on teamwork. I was most aware of this when, on the first day in my M.B.A. program, even before we began classes, the professors had us organizing ourselves into teams. It amazed me that these young men and women, mostly men, could immediately assemble teams, each team composed of one person with a finance background, another from marketing, a computer guy, a recent graduate who majorized in economics, etc, etc. They were drawing on their experience with team sports and continually used metaphors from football and baseball, a vocabulary I often had to request be translated for me.

I see the four musicians as a team creating something they could never create as lone individuals, something widely appreciated, and they derive deep satisfaction from working together and from the success of their efforts. However, teamwork takes a toll on the players’ individuality, on some of them more than on others, and unless attention is paid, the temptation is always there for the lesser rewarded to change roles within the team or to leave.

In an orchestra the first violinist is the leader. He (rarely she) usually carries the tune or the melody of a particular piece of music, while the second violinist provides the harmony. The first violinist usually does the musical solos. It is the more prestigious role but a violinist can enjoy playing the harmony, without which the music lacks richness and is incomplete. In the Fugue Quartet the first violinist, Daniel, is intense, technically brilliant and totally invested in his music. He collects books on composers and knows their musical philosophy; he makes the team’s bows, strings them with horse hair from (I think) Siberia, is a highly demanding teacher, and one of his pupils is Alexandra. He is the quartet’s musical leader but Peter is its center. Juliette regards Peter as a father figure and they all defer to his word. Practices take place in his apartment, in a brownstone we see in a few scenes, including when he stands for a moment looking down from his balcony, perhaps tempted to end his troubles by falling to his death below. Parkinson’s disease is overtaking his body and he will soon be unable play the cello.

It is Robert who upsets the group’s balance. He enjoys playing second violin but resents Daniel not hearing him when he suggests even the slightest change in their mode of playing. He wants more spontaneity, perhaps a warmer style, an openness. When he joined the quartet, while still a student, he had intended to write music, not to become a performer. He may have joined the quartet to be with Juliette, whom he loves and adores. He accepted the group’s modus operandi, but with Peter’s leaving and his Central Park friend, his admirer, suggesting he needs to challenge himself, he decides it is time for him to play first violin. Daniel cannot imagine any change whatsoever in the quartet. He persuades Juliette to agree with him. She then tells Robert that, in essence, he is not a first violinist, which hurts him deeply and damages their marriage but does not change his mind. Daniel, in the meantime, has come to love someone other than himself for the first time in his life, a transforming experience for him, and that someone happens to be Alexandra, an individual with perspective on the four musicians. She has fallen in love with Daniel but wants, above all, for the quartet to survive.

I could not quite grasp the Juliette personality. Perhaps Zilberman and the writer, Seth Grossman, being men, were not comfortable writing a woman into the quartet. In most cultures, music is an exceedingly male dominated world, but in America this is changing. As violist, Juliette is the least noticed of the four musicians and her significance for the story resides in her different relationship with each of the three men. The conflict she deals with, and may not have resolved, has to do with being a wife and mother, not a musician.

The film’s denouement is quite satisfactory and very touching.

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Two years and some months ago I began a conversation with myself about an idea Ravi, my brilliant, charming husband, had presented to me when we were first married and he was still a graduate student newly arrived from Bombay. It had to do with a difference he had discovered on how Indians and Americans imagine the course of one’s life. He said Americans picture life as being on a trajectory beginning in childhood, rising to a peak in middle age, then declining into old age, and he contrasted this with the Indian view of a life lived in four stages. I set down here what he told me, with photos of him. (A photo of me in my fifties is here.) A traditional statement on the four stages of Vedic life, of Student, Householder, Post family and Sannyasa, is here.

Over time and with some thought, I developed a version of the stages of life model that made sense to me: The first stage is for learning; one is a student. The second is for family and work, the third dedicated to the community, and in the fourth stage one turns inward for reflection and peace of mind. I discussed the four stages here, elaborated it further here, and explored the psychological aspects of being in the fourth stage of life here.

When Ravi and I entered what he would have considered our third stage of life, at age sixty-five, we returned to the U.S. and moved into a house down the road from his brother. I explain, here, in considering where an expatriate goes to retire, why we went to this place and not elsewhere, but once having decided, I again launched into the time consuming process of setting up house and home for us. We were coming from twenty years lived in Paris where Ravi had been an haute fonctionnaire in an international organization and from where I had worked on a consulting basis with UNICEF, WHO and other international organizations in the planning and evaluation of rural primary health care projects in Turkey, India, Indonesia and once in the States. Not only had we returned to live in a medium size American city, it is a Southern city and I am a Midwesterner. Regional differences in America are not as pronounced as in other countries, but they are nevertheless real and I felt them. Ravi and I began our third stage of life, what Americans call retirees or senior citizens, while settling into a non-home place. After more than twenty years here it is still not quite home, but in the fourth stage of life maybe that no longer matters.

For more than a decade, until Ravi slide into his prolonged dementia, described here, I was active with various citizen groups concerned with community affairs, but while caring for him became disconnected from them. Currently, nice people invite me to join one or another senior citizens group and I decline. Invariably, I am at least a decade older than even the oldest of their members. I tell them my age and explain that although I am healthy, I am not a senior citizen, which I consider the third stage of life. I am elderly, in my fourth stage of life, and have already lived five years beyond my life expectancy. Generally, an explanation fails to interest them, so I let it be. Besides, I now think I should modify my version of the fourth stage of life.

I’ve been thinking, too, that I might anglicize “stages of life,” return to my anthropology days and use the idea of age grades, a universal in societies at all times and everywhere, one of the two basic principles for classifying individuals, the other being gender. In every society, one is either male or female and of a particular age grade, either a child or an adult or an elder, and this held until recently when, in the 1940s, Americans acquired a new, additional age grade. Adolescence, the transitional phase from child to adult, was transformed into “teenage” and a person of that age became a “teenager.” I was in my teens at time, totally unaware of being anything other than a high school student. My girlfriends and I were not  “Bobby Soxers” mad for Frank Sinatra, the forerunners of girls going crazy over the Beatles and other pop singers, but by the time I became an adult the teenage phenomenon was universally recognized. In their film on the history of youth, Matt Wolf and Jon Savage begin with “teenager” being an American invention, a way of viewing adolescence as a definable period of life with its own characteristics and not simply an early phase of adulthood.

In an email to a young friend, a woman in her early thirties, I mentioned that “teenager” had been invented when I was in my teens and she responded that for her generation it is the “twenty-something” and the notion of quarter-life crises. She had read and was fascinated by the book by Dr. Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist, “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — And How to Make the Most of Them Now.”

My friend wrote that it would be interesting to delve into the sociological and psychological/physiological underpinnings allowing the advent of both age grades, and I agree. I was mother to three teenagers and remember vividly what that meant, as well as watching Ravi cope with being father to teenage boys when he himself had never experienced adolescence as an age grade. In those years, in the late 1970s into the ’80s, the neurological sciences had not yet revealed to us that during the teen and early twenty years the brain is changing, developing and not yet mature. I should have guessed it, though, simply from anthropological studies. In many societies, adolescent boys (but not girls) are given free rein to behave in ways not acceptable for either child or adult.

I also have memories from a study I did in the 1950s of a Mexican-American community and from living and working in the 1960s and onward in Mogadiscio, Ankara and across India. I observed changing perceptions of adolescence, of adolescents being considered as young adults, then because of social and economic change, and growing knowledge of the adolescent brain, the gradual introduction of a new age grade into society. But this is too complex to discuss here. I’ll return to it later.

Traditionally, all societies had three age grades: child, adult, elder, but I once read, long ago, in a study of traditional Eskimo life, of a family and their dog sled on the move, father controlling the dogs, mother and grandmother walking alongside, two small children riding. Finally, grandmother could not keep the pace and they stopped, built a small igloo for her to lie in until her final days while the family, in mourning, continued on in their search for food. In extreme circumstances, survival is not for the elderly.

In more settled communities, however, and throughout history, a number of individuals lived on into old age, preserving and transmitting knowledge through the generations. I wrote in the previous essays about ancestor worship and the leverage that gives elders in the family and the community. Here and here for life expectancy rates when estimating how many old people were around in different eras.

This article on life expectancy in the Middle Ages is equally fascinating.  It gives the age and the cause of death of adult members of the royal family of Wales in the 1100s and 1200s CE. Considering only those individuals who lived into adulthood, who survived the high death rates for infants and children, the median life expectancy for women was 42/43 years, and for men, 48/49 years. Six of the twenty lived to 50 years and beyond, two of them into their 60s and one woman into her 70s. By contrast, for ordinary people living in the villages, archeological evidence from their cemeteries shows no one living past 45.

What can I say about childhood as an age grade?  In my urban lifestyle, childhood is the time for learning, for enculturation, for play, and school attendance ideally beginning early, at age four or five years, and continuing into adulthood, for girls equally for boys. In other cultures, at least in the past, children begin by age six actually working for the family and the community. By puberty they are being initiated into their adult roles. An excellent description of childhood in preindustrial Europe is here. At that time, and until the era of modern medicine, about one third of the population would ordinarily have been under the age of 14.

Religious ceremonies mark the individual’s transition from child to adult. I am familiar with the Christian First Communion.

In literature the phase, Coming of Age, is used to designate the social rituals and often the personally significant experiences that mark a young person’s transition from childhood to becoming an adult. We have the coming-of-age story, the bildungsroman novel, and the coming of age movies.

Adulthood is the central and longest age grade. For men, adult activities vary enormously. They are what we know and read about as history. For women, until very recently, adulthood meant children and maintaining the family. In societies before or outside of modern economies, from menarche to menopause the typical adult woman was either pregnant or lactating, which are states during which she did not menstruate. If menstruating, she was confined for days each month in a woman’s hut. When cloth became available a woman could make a pad to catch the blood rather than go into hiding with a few other women. I came of age in a time and a place where commercially made napkins were available to use during menstruation and available toilet facilities allowed a woman to participate in public social life. I was free and tried to ignore the snide remarks boys made about a woman who annoyed them “being on the rag.” Here for a video of bright and active girls discussing how they manage menstruation in their modernizing lifestyle.

Despite all sorts of change in technology, the economy, the social system in countries around the world, urban and rural, until very recently, the lives of women remained essentially unchanged, limited to family roles – marriage, giving birth, rearing children, preparing food, keeping the home, engaged in outside work only when compatible with those fundamental responsibilities. In the private realm of life, in the home, in the women’s world, traditional life continued. Outside the home, in the public realm of men, life evolved and changed while women raised the children, instilling in them the traditional attitudes and values they would carry into adulthood. Thus, fundamental aspects of the culture persists through the centuries, even millennia, despite larger societal changes, and this has to intrigue anyone who reads history. One of my favorite examples of the persistence of culture is of Roman soldiers reporting on the women of Gaul spending so much time and trouble on their appearance. It’s the same impression I had of French women, and of the importance of their femininity, two thousand year after the soldiers had left Gaul. Or of Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s writing about democracy in the young country, America, and how his descriptions of American culture are recognizably American, even today. ….

However, a technology invented and distributed in the 1960s is changing much of that, making possible one of the most profound changes in human history. The reliable contraceptive has made possible the opening of non-family roles to women, of women participating more fully in public life. I was in my early thirties when the Pill came on the market. I felt it was a revolution in the making, and it is happening. It seems, for example, that Twenty-something is mostly about women in their twenties. What I read on-line is about a lifestyle concerned with work, clothing and appearance, dating, thinking about when to marry and have a child. All this is another matter, one to be explored in a separate essay.

Is Senior an American age grade? Perhaps. It generally means age 65 plus. If so, I’ve gone through it. I’m an elder in my fourth stage of life, creaky, slower, less sure-footed, more easily tired, but still relatively healthy. I count my blessings from having come of age when America was entering its most prosperous period ever and when medical science had advanced sufficiently to give me advantages over women barely a generation older than I. When, for example, my son was six years old and had strep throat the doctor prescribed an antibiotic and the illness was cured. For a friend some twenty years older than I, antibiotics were unavailable when her son at that age was similarly sick and she had to keep her active, lively boy quiet, out of school and in bed for months to ensure he would not develop rheumatic fever and a consequent damaged heart.  Wherever we lived, in the different countries, I could immediately identify the medical facilities and personnel we just might need. Dentistry improved enormously during my lifetime, especially through periodontal care, and I still have my teeth. When I was in my early twenties, older women told me that each baby costs the mother one tooth, or more.

So I continue on with life and expect I will eventually move into its last stage – fragility — when what I want, what we all want, is an ideal and totally unachievable ending to life on this earth, to fall apart all at once, as in an old poem, “The One-Hoss Shay” that I discuss here.

Years ago, being practical and to protect my children from the expense and trouble of caring for me, I took out insurance for palliative care at the end of life.  I read articles, as here, about how I will think and feel at that time, in that situation. I wrote here of Ravi’s ending, of the romantic love that took us into marriage, of how that love continued. I am in tears as I recall his last moments but he was at peace and that comforts me.

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Last night I watched The Intern on television and decided to write about it because the story seems relevant to our time, the characters are attractive and the humor gentle, it has several nice subplots, and with one exception, never annoyed me. Robert De Niro plays Ben Wittaker, a 70 year old retired business manager working as an intern in a website business. Anne Hathaway plays Jules Ostin, his boss. Quoting a reviewer, here, “In Intern, She’s the Boss, but He’s the Star.” De Niro is masterful in the role, Hathaway is convincing and the young actors surrounding them are charming. Here and here for reviews.

The current meaning of “intern” is new to me. I’ve always pictured an intern as a recently qualified doctor in a hospital, fresh out of medical school, doing a year’s training in a medical specialty. Interns worked long, grueling, punishing hours for low pay, and hospitals depended upon them for cheap labor. For many years, movies and television dramas about doctors in hospital internships were popular with the public. I discussed one such movie here.

Now the internship is defined as job training for white collar and professional careers. From a study I did in rural Turkey, 1968 to ’72, I became familiar with traditional apprenticeships for trade and vocational jobs, the original internships. The boy in the photograph here is in an apprenticeship, as were boys in the butcher shop shown, and a boy in the photo of a furniture workshop in another essay on our apartment in Ankara. In the central Anatolian town Hasan and I studied, described here and in other posts, we observed boys working as apprentices, on the way to becoming a master, Usta, in various traditional crafts, such as blacksmith. Usta is a title of respect, like Bey (or Doctor) for a professional or learned man. In the mid-1970s, doing an M.B.A. in the Kellogg School (in my mid-40s), between the two years most of us did a summer management internship that was not directly related to future employment. (Mine was in the American Hospital in Paris, unpaid.) The current internship is a new institution. In my generation, at least in the early years, the tradition still existed of a business/industry doing its own training of the management staff and of its skilled laborers. Then came the vocational schools, the M.B.A., the professional Master’s degree preparing people for the job market. And now we have the intern as cheap, or free, labor while learning on the job, not too different from the apprentice, except the apprenticeship was more personal and the young person’s future was far more secure.

The movie begins with showing why Ben wants the intern job; it is a way out of the boredom that has overtaken him. He’s a widower whose children and grandchildren live too far away for him to be involved in their lives. He is in good health, has a good income, still lives in his proper bourgeois home, has many acquaintances, if not exactly friends, and is part of an upper middle class neighborhood. He knows this area of Brooklyn, even the building in which he will be an intern. Midway through the movie a romantic interest for him, a woman of about sixty, is introduced. It annoyed me that the two women his age are both made to look foolish and unattractive.

In Jules we see a frantically busy entrepreneur running a business she loves, engaged in its every detail and on good, if not close relationships with her employees. We also see her aid-de-camp informing her that the company’s investors want her to step aside, to bring in a qualified CEO to manage the company more efficiently, and they have a number of men prepared to take over for her. Granted that she did create and build a very profitable business in eighteen months from nothing to hundreds of employees, she really is in over her head, isn’t she? So, all she needs to do now is interview the CEO candidates and select the one she prefers. In the meantime, as Jules struggles with this, she and her husband, who is a stay-at-home Dad to their adorable daughter, are having troubles.

Ben is tactful and observant. He becomes everyone’s friend, an advisor to the young men in matters of romance, and a helper with several management problems. His experience is useful, even in this world of changed technology, more casual dress and manners for young men, key positions held by young women, and certainly less hierarchy. He soon finds himself in a position to be Jules’ constant source of support, and they become friends. He respects both her and her business acumen.

This is an agreeably done story of an older person finding meaning in life by being involved with and helping younger people, of a modern woman succeeding in the business world if the man in her life accepts a blurring of traditional roles, and of friendship between generations. To think reasonably about it overall I had to check and set aside my thoughts on social reality and what someone with my background and frame of mind would have done in Ben’s situation.

Park Slope brownstones

The movie is set in Brooklyn’s Park Slope and part of the story is the setting — scenes of building facades and interiors, of the streets and of the parks where children play. The brownstone row houses are handsome.

Brooklyn Conservatory of Musid

I would like to have seen more of the public buildings, the way we saw more of Manhattan and Harlem in Jungle Fever,  the movie I discussed here, and included a useful map of New York City and its boroughs.

Azad, my adopted son, watched the movie with me and was surprised by the gentrification of Park Slope. In the 1980s he had gone into the area to look for a place to live but found it too crime ridden for his comfort. An image that stays with him is of a car on a main street sitting on bricks, its tires and everything detachable long gone. People in the neighborhood were poor, older working class, like the Irish and Italian, and Black and Latino people who had moved in as middle-class families fled to the suburbs. Finally, Azad rented an apartment in Brooklyn Heights, near the IRT subway stop, not far from the great St. George Hotel.

A notable feature of The Intern is everyone in the workplace, except for one woman, and in Ben’s neighborhood being standard of-European-descent White. In most movies and on TV these days, a more realistic ethnic and racial diversity is shown, at least among the extras. Since Ben had worked for forty years in a top managerial position in the remodeled building of his internship, he surely would have known a more mixed demographic as workers, more like the minority group women we see when Jules goes to the factory floor to show workers how to box items for shipping. Think of how Ben might have volunteered to teach in a vocational school, showing less privileged young people learning technical job skills how to development the management skills also needed for moving up the career ladder. That sort of engagement would have broken the boredom, but these people were not part of his community, of his reference group, and probably invisible to a man like Ben.  Oh well. At least the movie doesn’t stereotype minority group people; it just pretends they don’t exist.

Azad often chose to walk across the historic, magnificent Brooklyn Bridge to reach the Manhattan office where he worked. How I would have loved to walk on the bridge, to have had that experience.

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My previous essay on the artful crafts of Bali, here, ended with the statement, “In 1354, Majapahit forces from Java, led by Gajah Mada, landed in Bali and captured Bedulu. It changed the course of history for Bali.” With that invasion an island of chieftainships and small kingdoms began its transformation into a medieval sort of society, one of substantial kingdoms, each with a Hinduized high caste elite ruling over peasant villages and marketplaces. Cities, truly urban communities, did not develop until the Dutch colonial period in the mid-19th century.

And this provides the context to complete my exploration begun four months ago of Bali’s crafts and folk art. I discussed the basketry, pottery, spinning and weaving, the production of bronze tools and musical instruments — crafts inherited from Neolithic and Bronze Age times, the sort I am fond of and collect – and continued on to a brief consideration of stone and wood carving from later times, after the society had evolved from simple autonomous villages into chieftainships and small kingdoms. For this essay I venture further into Bali’s history and how the Balinese culture, unique and so very attractive, came into being, captivating artistically minded foreigners and managing to resist the damaging effects of sun-and-sand tourism.

The 1354 CE invasion was the beginning of Bali’s kingdoms, providing royal patronage under which traditional dance, music, painting and sculpture flourished and was elaborated. Balinese dance and the gamelan are folk dance and folk music, taught by villagers to the young; they were important in daily life. As reported in Margaret Mead’s anthropological studies in the early 1930s, the dance movements were highly stylized; the stories, characters, themes being danced were known to everyone; theatrical performances were given frequently, for each rite de passage (birth, etc.) for religious rites, for celebrations, etc.  In the 1980 I twice watched performances of dance with an Indonesia colleague who commented on the meaning of the dancers’ movements and dismissed as novices the graceful, high-spirited girls I favored. Regarding paintings and sculpture, largely religious in nature, a simple love of decoration may well have contributed to their ubiquity in royal palaces and temples, as well as in village life. Quoting from an excellent discussion of traditional Balinese painting, here, “… (Painting) was a world of Hindu gods, demons, and princesses dressed in the ancient attire of Hindu Javanese times. Quaint but uninspiring, their purpose was to instill moral and ethical values by relating laws of adat. Specialists in the traditional arts of religious drawing and painting were commissioned by the rajas to paste gold leaf on pieces of clothing; paint statues and artifacts in bright splashy colors; and decorate wooden cremation towers, palace altars, and pavilions. Noblemen from the courts loaned each other artists, in this way spreading art all over the island.”

In the 20th century, foreigners introduced the concept of art for art’s sake, of the explicit valuing of creativity and individual expression in painting and sculpture. Fortunately, many of the traditional craftsmen and women were intrinsically artists and their work survives to be appreciated as art.

I will summarize here some of what I learned of Bali’s history. I’m still thinking about my conclusions and final thoughts. That I’ll add later.

majapahit-empire-mapWith the 1354 invasion, Bali was pulled into the Majapahit Empire, a vast thalassocracy based in east Java, an empire stretching from Sumatra to New Guinea — present-day’s Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, southern Thailand, Sulu Archipelago, Philippines and East Timor.

Thalassacracy? It was a new word for me, but after weeks of reading Indonesian history, struggling to remember long, totally unfamiliar names of people and places outside my experience, of feeling overwhelmed, “thalassocracy” was a gift. It gave me a framework for organizing this new information, for making sense of it. I began to see how people acted and to imagine why.

First, a defintion. Thalassocracy is from Greek, thalassa, meaning “sea” and kratein, meaning “to rule”, thalassokratia, “rule of the sea,” to rule by controlling sea lanes, a state ruling over maritime realms, a sea-borne empire.

Phoenician ship

Phoenician ship

An phoenician-trade-thalassocracyexample of a thalassocracy familiar in western history is the ancient Phoenician network of merchant city-state ports, each a politically independent unit separate from its hinterland, a sea-based civilization spread across the Mediterranean from 1500 BCE to 300 BCE. Sidon may have been the oldest of the cities. From there a colonizing party founded the city of Tyre and onward to the founding of other such city-states and a great Mediterranean commercial empire. Each city faced the sea, separate from its tribal hinterland. It depended upon the people outside its walls for food and basic goods but was not an urban community that had grown organically out of the society behind it.

It was from the Phoenicians that we inherited the alphabet, a way to write letters that represent phonemes, the basic significant sound units from which words are formed. It is a way to write a language that can be easily learned and applied to any language. Unlike a scribe or a priest who specialized in being literate (as with hieroglyphics or Chinese), a trader could quickly learn a script to write his language, keep records, read the ancient religious stories some wise man had transcribed from the oral tradition. Through their maritime trade the Phoenicians spread writing by alphabet across their territory. One variant was adopted by the Greeks, who transmitted it to the Romans.

The Aramaic alphabet, which evolved from the Phoenician in the 7th century BCE and became the official script of the Persian Empire, appears to be the ancestor of nearly all the modern alphabets of Asia. Most alphabetic scripts of India are descended from the Brahmi script, which is often believed to be a descendant of the Aramaic script, transmitted via the Persians to the Mauryan Empire (322 BCE – 185 BCE) and the Gupta Empire (320 — 550 CE) of India —  and from there to Sumatra, Java and Bali. For centuries in India, the Ramayana, Mahabharta and Bhagavad Gita epics in the Sanskrit language had been passed on orally, through story-telling, and finally set down in writing during the Gupta Empire. Sanskrit words entered the Javanese Austronesian language with the adoption of Indian religions and Javanese today regard Sanskrit as an ancestral language.

Maritime Silk Road for spices

Maritime Silk Road for spices

Javanese ship, Borobudur, 9th century

Javanese ship, Borobudur, 9th century

Before discovering thalassocracies, I rarely thought of sea lanes or of rivers, the original highways of rising civilizations. Nowhere I lived as a child was near a river or a lake, and as for the sea, in my center-of-the-continent world people believed two enormous oceans, one on either side, protected America from the rest of the world. It was ancient roads, like the Grand Trunk Road and Roman roads, that fascinated me and I wrote about them, with pictures, here.

Not until the 1960s was I anywhere near the sea, but when I did get there the experience was serious. I lived in an ancient city-state, daily visiting the harbor and the buildings that had once been part of an Indian Ocean commercial empire. I was in Mogadiscio, the northern-most of East Africa’s coastal city-states, where men in dhows sailing the monsoon winds from India and Arabian lands came to trade, continued down the coast to other city-states, including Malindi, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Kilwa, and last to Sofala, then sailed north when the monsoons turned back toward India. I do not know if any one of the coastal city-states in the region controlled the others as in an empire, but before the Italians came to Somalia at the beginning of the 20th century, the Sultan of Sohar in Oman, but living in Zanzibar, controlled much of the trade, or at least taxed it. I included the photos of Mogadiscio’s Customs building and Omani residences in previous essays. Notes, pictures and my photographs of the original Mogadiscio are here and others are here and here.

Indonesia is a nation of islands but for me it was land I entered and left by air and traveled across by vehicle. I was on water only when taking the ferryboat between Surabya and Madura. Only now am I coming to understand much of what I saw and experienced. I wrote previously, here, about what being in Indonesia meant for me. The time was from 1977 to 1991 and I did consultancies, evaluating rural health care programs across the islands for the Ministry of Health, viewing Indonesian society from the perspectives of villagers and medical personnel. I flew to Jakarta from Paris, where Ravi and I were living, usually having broken the long flight with a stay-over in Delhi or Bangalore, once in Lucknow, twice in Allahabad, visiting with one or another of Ravi’s aunts, uncles, cousins. Within hours of being in India I was in Indonesia, a culture so different from Indian culture that learning of Hinduism in Indonesia’s past surprised me, as did the Buddhism in Borobudor and in Bali. Islam also came to Indonesia via Indian traders, but I was involved with primary health care, with colleagues, with new friendships and hardly noticed religious practices. After having lived in Somalia, Turkey, India, France, I took a diversity of religions as a normal part of life.

Through writing previous posts, essays on Ravi’s childhood in India, exploring the cities and places where he grew up, I learned something of India’s history. Now I return to India and try to understand why, beginning in the 2nd century BCE, men in those great civilizations I recently discovered would bother to get into ships and sail from the Bay of Bengal, even as early as the Mauryan Empire, to the distant eastern seas. (I wrote of Mauryan culture and Buddhism here.) The motive was not seeking land to settle a growing population; the men in ships were traders. Still, what were they looking for and what did they carry with them to use in an exchange? I assume (reasoning from Bronze Age traders in my part of the world) the Indian traders were well armed and ready to fight, using metal weapons, and to take what they came for. Violence may not work well long term, but the threat of violence would underlay the trade relationship, and perhaps, ensure the payment of a tax. Once trade with a coastal city proved profitable, the Indian traders’ guild would, most likely, establish a trading post there, with a member in charge, ready to welcome and provision fellow Buddhist traders (Ganesh was their deity) when they stopped at the port.

Indian traders sailed to the islands for profit, but they also carried with them new technologies and new concepts. By the 5th century, traders from the South Indian Pallava dynasty had brought writing to Tarumanagara, a Hinduized kingdom based near Jakarta, where their script was used for recording the names and deeds of kings. (By the 8th century other Indian scripts were introduced and an indigenous script evolved from them.) The traders used Sanskrit, the lingua franca of ancient and medieval South Asia, not their own languages, Telagu or Tamil.  (as Latin, inherited from Rome, was the lingua franca of medieval Europe)

Chola Empire c. 1030 CE

Chola Empire c. 1030 CE

I wondered what items were being traded across these vast distances, and with whom. In the Bronze Age tin and copper for tools and weapons were among the first commodities to be traded anywhere, and the lumber for building ships, tall trunks for the masts, were resources to be sought, not available everywhere.  By the time of the Srivijaya thalassocratic Empire based in Sumatra, 650 – 1377 CE, the great empire that preceded the Majapahit Empire (c.1293 — 1500), the goods traded were “… Rice, cotton, indigo and silver from Java; aloes, resin, camphor, ivory and rhino’s tusks, tin and gold from Sumatra; rattan, rare timber, gems and precious stones from Borneo; exotic birds and rare animals, iron, sappan, sandalwood and rare spices from Eastern Indonesian archipelago; various spices of Southeast Asia and India; also Chinese ceramics, lacquerware, brocade, fabrics, silks and Chinese artworks. … ” southeast-asia-trade-route-map-12th-to-early-13th-centuries-by-gunawan-kartapranataIncidentally, the Srivijaya Empire was important in spreading Buddhism across Southeast Asia.

Chola navy and the battle of Kedah

Chola navy and the battle of Kedah

Throughout most of their shared history, ancient India and Indonesia enjoyed friendly and peaceful relations. However, it was also competitive and in 1025 CE, the Chola king from Tamil Nadu in South India, launched naval raids on Srivijayan cities. This particular attack on a city in Malaysia. was short and meant only to plunder.

Bali never came under a thalassocracy’s dominance; it was not geographically situated for that. As noted previously, here, until modern air travel Bali was not an easily accessible island. It is surrounded by coral reefs. The channel west of Bali is not easily navigable; the currents are very strong.

Chinese ship 13th century

Chinese ship 13th century

Heavy seas lash the southern coast and the few harbors are small, but not so small as to deter Chinese and Sulawesi Bugis traders despite the fact that ships sailing near the shore frequently crashed and sank, providing the Balinese with goods to be salvaged at their leisure. Bali’s agricultural wealth also attracted Javanese adventurers. Carved into a 10th century Belanjong pillar found near the Sunar harbor, Denpasar is an inscription in both Sanskrit and Balinese, indicating that a king of the central Java’s Buddhist Sailendra Dynasty had lead a military expedition from the sea to this site. The Sailendra was both a thalassocracy and a large civilization in Central Java, Buddhist and most notable for Borobudur.

Model of a Majapahit ship

Model of a Majapahit ship

The Majapahit thalassocratic empire, 14th century, was based in an East Java city, recently discovered and being excavated, near today’s Surabaya. Gadja Mada succeeded in landing his ships in sufficient numbers to conquer the Balinese kingdoms. (How I wish I had known this history in the 1980s when I was driving about in Surabya, staying there in a hotel, taking the ferry to Madura.)

A clear outline of the relationship between Java and Bali and the succession of kingdoms and empires is here.

Bali was not overtaken by a thalassocracy but it had always been linked with Java, receiving much of its culture from the more advanced Javanese civilizations. With conquest, Hinduized Javanese, and a certain number of Indians, moved in and set themselves up as an elite. They brought their religion and writing, as well as the technology, iron working, for making tools – the hoe, iron clad plow, knives, axes — critical in producing the abundance of food that supported a growing population and the elites’ lifestyle. The blacksmiths also fashioned the kris, prestigious swords, for the kings’ warriors.

The blacksmiths of Bali are a guild with their gods and religious ritual inherited from Hindu traditions. They have a lineage name, Pande, and are endogamous.  From a newspaper account: Family head Pande Putu Sunarta, his brother, Pande Made Suteja, and their wives and children are richly proud of their heritage and of the knowledge they continue to hold in an unbroken tradition that began as early as the 11th century in Java under the Majapahit Kingdom and that later came to dominate almost all of Indonesia. Sunata said, “At the time our family arrived in Bali there was only the Bali Mula (villagers) here. There were no cities at that time because kingdoms had not yet begun, so in a way our family helped in the establishment of the kingdom working as blacksmiths. … my tools are an extension of my body … we learned this esoteric knowledge from our ancestors …”

ironsmith-keris-relief-at-sukuh-templeTraces of the blacksmith ancestors in Java, with the Hindu Ganesha as their god, are found in a rather strange 15th century JavaneseHindu monument located on the slope of a mountain between Central and East Java provinces. At the time, the area was under the rule of the late, 1293–1500 CE, Majapahit Kingdom. This scene in bas relief depicts on the left Bhima, the mighty blacksmith of the Mahabharata, forging the metal while a dancing Ganesha in the center holds what may be a dog, while Arjuna, of the Bhagavad Gita, on the right operates the tube blower to pump air into the furnace.  An interesting article on metallurgy and its important symbolism in early times is here.

A good article here on Bali’s exceptional metallurgy — in bronze. copper, brass, silver, gold and iron.

portuguese-shipIn 1585, the Portuguese government in Malacca, on the Malay peninsula, sent a ship to establish a fort and a trading post in Bali. The mission failed as their ship foundered on the reef of the Bukit peninsula, at Denpasar. However, five survivors made it ashore and were welcomed by the king of Gelgel, known as the Dalem. He provided them with wives and homes and they became part of his court.

In 1597, a Dutch explorer arrived in Bali with 89 men, a mere third of the number who had begun the journey. After visits to Kuta, on the western shore of Denpasar, and Jembrana, to the northwest, he assembled his fleet in Padang Bai, northeast of Denpasar and now a ferry port. He met with the Dalem of Gelgel and one of the Portuguese sailors from 1585. In 1601 a second Dutch expedition appeared and the Dalem gave them a letter allowing the Dutch to trade in Bali.

Balinese slave 1718

Balinese slave 1718

Besides these attempts, the VOC, the Dutch East India Company, left the Bali trade to private traders, mainly Chinese, Arab, Bugis and occasionally Dutch, who mainly dealt with the  opium and slave trade. According to Willard A. Hanna’s Bali Chronicles, 2004, “Balinese slaves were highly prized both in Bali and overseas. Balinese male slaves were famous for their manual skills and their courage, the females for their beauty and artistic attainments.” The kings of Bali typically sold opponents, debtors, criminals, orphans and widows as slaves to be used in Batavian households, the Dutch Colonial Army, or sent abroad, the biggest market being the French Mauritius. Payment to the Balinese kings was usually made in opium. The main port for this trade was the Buleleng harbor in north Bali.

In the mid 19th century the Dutch built their harbor, Singaraja, on the northern coast and marched their soldiers south to take over the island.

I think of Balinese society, beginning with the Majapahit invasion, as medieval, one of kingdoms where the ruling elite lived in palace enclosures and most everyone else lived in villages as farming folk who were also the craftsmen/women. And there were market towns. I have not learned who ran the markets but read that women did most of the trading and Balinese men did not engage in trade. The Chinese and Bugis traders provided the royal families with opium but must also have sold metals to the bronze and iron smiths, maybe through the king, who would take his cut. By the mid-1800s, as the slave trade diminished, kings/princes depended on selling their subjects’ rice, cattle, palm oil and cotton cloth for revenue. Pierre Dubois reported that tobacco, coconut, coffee and indigo were cash crops, but I think those were mainly in north Bali.

My picture of the court society comes from “Bali in the Early 19th Century: the Ethnographic Accounts of Pierre Dubois” by Helen M. Creese. He was a bureaucrat in the Dutch colonial government, the Civil Administrator in Badung, in the 1830s.  He wrote poetic accounts of rice terraces, rivers, hundreds of villages and small domains stretching down from the mountains to the sea, but mostly he spent his time with the ruling class and was caught up in its status system, its complications and constantly changing configurations. (I will comment later on the relationship between Bali’s caste elite and the villagers.)

Most salient are Dubois’ observations on how geography determined the governmental structure of Balinese society. It was an island of relatively small principalities, using his term, with sharp borders between them. Each principality was separated from its neighbors by deep ravines and high mountains, and a high mountain range separates the north from the south. There are no navigable rivers to sail. Roads, where they existed, were extremely difficult to use and dangerous because of tigers and “malefactors,” by which Dubois must have meant bandits and thieves.

Balinese soldiers

Balinese soldiers

Poor mobility mitigated against warmongering and against hostile forces of one prince launching an offensive against another, especially in the wet season. The principalities remained small; no one prince could conquer the others to build a national kingdom and outsiders, even the Dutch, did not see Bali as a profitable place for extracting raw resources or for establishing plantations. From the book by Geertz in the 1950s: wars between the princes were short. Battles were fought on foot using only knives, spears and bludgeons, fighting often stopped at nightfall or sometimes with the first death in battle, and only rarely did a war involve extended campaigns.

Dubois wrote of the taxes the Prince collected on all forms of public ritual and entertainment, on any productive activity such fishing, salt, sales, besides a share of the harvest and the corvée, a labor tax on the peasant.

In the principality justice system the Prince was the highest authority, and Dubois considered his decisions mostly arbitrary rather than just. The Prince did not keep a police force or a standing army. There was, of course, no school system. The Geertzes were less negative about the ruling class. They saw the political system of Prince, lords and subjects as buttressing and making possible a great deal of ritual activity. The peasants provided the food and the work but they were also the main participants in the great feasts and dramatized displays.

The views of Bali from Dubois’ perspective, and from those Margaret Mead, here, and Clifford Geertz, are different from the way 20th century foreign artists viewed the culture and how later tourists see Bali. Until fairly recently, perhaps until Indonesia’s independence, the real Bali was a land where the powerful took far more than their share of what the society produced, but because the Balinese villagers understood how to use their rich soil, water, climate and were left until recently without much interference from the outside world, they lived far better, had more leisure and a richer culture than most villagers elsewhere.

More of my thoughts and observations next … …

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