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The Volcano Always Wins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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