Gordon D. Jensen and Luh Ketut Suryani: The Balinese People: a reinvestigation of character. Oxford University Press, Singapore, 1992. 185 pages. $??
review by Otto Steinmayer
Back in the 30s---a world away now---the legendary Margaret Mead and her then husband Gregory Bateson, also an anthropologist, went to live in and study the remote village of Bayung Gede near Kintamani in Bali. Bateson had the novel idea of exploring the Balinese psyche through photography. He went everywhere with two Leicas and a movie camera and exposed literally miles of film, catching Balinese (as he thought) at their typical behaviour.
The fruit was several films and a book, Balinese
Photographic Analysis, a large and handsome volume of nearly 800
pictures, with analysis by Mead. It was one of my favourites in the
days before I went to Bali itself, and I had it out from the Yale
library for months at a time.
However, in the text and captions that accompanied the photographs, Mead and Bateson made some weird and disturbing judgements about the Balinese. After deciding that Balinese childrearing was based on a program of deliberate frustration, they concluded that Balinese developed characters that were withdrawn, emotionally cold, untrustful. These traits Mead and Bateson labelled "schizoid."
Gordon Jensen and Luh Ketut Suryani, fifty years after, have undertaken in The Balinese People to reinvestigate Mead's and Bateson's work and conclusions. Jensen and Suryani are excellently qualified to do this re-evalution. They are both practising psychiatrists; Suryani herself is Balinese, Jensen an American with a good knowledge of Bali. The combination of a Balinese and a western scholar is ideal for research like this. Because such work involves a difficult translation of local concepts into western scientific terms, each person's privileged insight into the culture or the academic philosophy provides a check on the other's interpretations.
To put it plainly, Jensen and Suryani quite demolish Mead's and Bateson's assumptions and conclusions. Their critique is respectful and without malice, but after their analysis it is painfully clear that Balinese Character is a lot of piffle---bad thinking and near slander.
Whether Mead and Bateson realized it or not, they
did the worst thing
scientists can do: they came to Bali prepared with a preconceived
thesis, which they intended to prove whatever inconvenient facts
opposed it. (Some ten years ago, Derek Freeman made a strong case that
Mead similarly cooked the evidence in her famous Coming of Age in
As Jensen and Suryani expose them, Mead's and Bateson's flaws of intent and method, their misunderstandings of Bali and the Balinese were so gross that it is difficult to understand how Mead and Bateson could have themselves failed to notice them. Arrogance may have misled them. Though Mead and Bateson set out to write a psychological profile of Bali neither of them had any formal training in that difficult field. They invented concepts and theories ad hoc. They were both "amateurs."
Mead and Bateson did not understand how hard it was for their "subjects"---poor and isolated mountain people who had seen few outsiders and no white folks---to deal with them. They often interpreted the awkwardnesses of individual Balinese in their presence as characteristics of the whole race, and shamefully mistook the irritating and demoralizing effects of parasites and disease in children for hostility and apathy of character.
Most damning, I think, is that Mead and Bateson never bothered to ask the Balinese themselves for explanations of Balinese motives and the significance of actions. Mead and Bateson simply interpreted as they pleased. In retrospect this appears high-handedly colonialist.
Much of Balinese Character came to be enshrined
as standard wisdom on
Bali. Not only other anthropologists, but even touristguide writers
accepted and repeated Mead and Bateson's unfortunate ideas. For
example, based on a few photographs, and the Balinese custom of
avoiding company while eating, Mead and Bateson stated that Balinese
equated food with feces, and thus felt shame while eating. A tourist
repeated this to me on temple steps in Desa Tonya.
The truth is pathetically simple. Balinese feel it is impolite to talk with one's mouth full when eating rice at a main meal. Socializing at dinner they consider inappropriate, not shameful.
This particular misunderstanding illustrates the dangers of being too clever by half, and the damage that can be done by an attitude of intellectual snobbery. Mead and Bateson hurt the Balinese terribly by unjustly making them known as a nation of maladjusted "schizoids." They ought to have been more sensitive, if only out of consideration for the affection they received from Balinese friends.
Though Bali has the reputation of a paradise,
human life, even there,
is as Dr Johnson wrote, "a state in which there is much to be endured,
and little to be enjoyed." Yet, how well and how cheerfully we endure
life is important, and to this end I think that some cultures do offer
more help than others.
In a long conclusion, Jensen and Suryani present their own ideas on Balinese character, and contend that Balinese culture and the type of character it nurtures help the Balinese in getting smoothly through life and in their search for content.
For instance, Jensen and Suryani show that the
religion of Bali
respects the permanent place of evil in the world. In Balinese thought,
evil has as much right to exist as good, indeed, at the highest level,
good and evil are not differentiated. Far from being shunned, even the
evil spirits have a role in the harmony of Balinese life, for through
them psychic imbalance manifests itself, without shame to the sufferer,
and can be approached and corrected.
The Balinese prize interpersonal harmony, and their culture provides techniques for achieving it and maintaining it. What Mead and Bateson interpreted as lack of emotionality Jenson and Suryani demonstrate to be a technique for dealing with difficult emotions. Jensen and Suryani find a basis for Balinese philosophical acceptance of things both in the doctrine of karma and in the trusting attitude instilled by Balinese parents.
Balinese culture also provides outlets for
emotion in the form of art,
and in esthetic and cathartic religious ceremony.
Though I am no psychologist and thus cannot judge them from a technical standpoint, Jensen's and Suryani's conclusions agree well with what I have myself felt in my relations, more and less intimate, with the Balinese. More than any other people I know, the Balinese value harmony and courtesy, and put into practice the doctrine of the "golden mean," which the west too once knew but lost. Suryani and Jensen suggest reasons for the unique balance of Balinese culture. I hope it will continue to flourish, for the sake of the Balinese, and for the rest of us as an alternative model to the materialism that threatens our peace.
Jensen and Suryani have written to appeal to the
layman interested in
Bali as well as to the professional psychiatrist and the
anthropologist. Their style is clear, their arguments no more technical
than the subject demands. Jensen and Suryani's humane study is an
exciting and important contribution to the current reconsideration of
traditional Southeast Asian life.