Otto Steinmayer: Classic Ground

Time and the rhythms of life and literature

[New Straits Times, 19 February 1992]


There has lately been much debate in the Malaysian literary scene regarding, among other things, what makes writing characteristic of the place where it is written. Since what people do and feel is the common matter of all literature, argument without further specifics is likely to turn to smoke. Well, what does the distinguish the literature of one place from that of another? I thought that I would wander starting from my Ancients and try to discover something that marks poetry as a product of a particular place.

Not all of the conditions of life (and literature) are the products of human will or under our control. We live in the physical world. We are made of matter. We walk on earth, drink water, breathe air. These facts of existence remain indifferent to us no matter how we feel about them.
Time is an element of the world that fascinates poets. It's mysterious; we still live in it. Time is the medium of our actions and binds our histories.

Many of us are content to let time carry us along without too much reflection. Society has contrived duties at each stage to
keep us busy, from primary school to becoming a householder and parent, and finally (one hopes) a respected elder.

We look forward with hope that time will bring us new and happy things. Then time takes us by surprise, and we look on its passing, if not always with dismay or regret, at least with a sense of awe at the irreversability of time-fashioned change, the fact---always so strange---that we too are but temporary creatures.

The early Greek philosopher Heraclitus felt it:

You cannot step twice in the same rivers. Everything flows and nothing stays. We are and are not.

So did his contemporary Confucius, on the other side of the world:

Standing on a river-bank he said: it is what passes like that, indeed, not stopping day, night.

Rhythms of the world mark time's flow. The eternal return of day after night, and of one new year after another consoles us,
making us feel that we are not swept away in the torrent of hours, or, in the opposite way, can terrify us.

Tropic dwellers do not feel time as people in temperate climates do. If Earth's poles were perpendicular to its orbit, the circle of the year would hardly be noticed. Yet we ride this celestial toy at an angle of 23.5, and Earth's rotation brings first one hemisphere, then the other closer to the sun. In higher latitudes to the south and the north, hot and cold take their turns and as winter, spring, summer, autumn follow in succession the days grow long and short again.

Nature in temperate climates shows a new face week by week. Northern flowers bloom each at its own special time. They do not last very long. If you want to enjoy them, say the poets, don't dawdle:

The rose grows at its peak but a little time. If you miss it, You'll seek and find not a rose but a stick. [Greek

The double cherry flowers
By my hut have faded.
I wish some one would come
Before the wind will scatter them. [Shinkokinshu]

Japanese poets were exceptionally sensitive to time. Even a seventeen syllable haiku must show, in a subtle way, at what time of year it was composed. Prose writers were equally concerned. Someone remarked of Lady Murasaki's great novel The Tale of Genji, that however the narrative may go, she never lets the reader remain unaware of the time of year and the time of day.

The above rose and cherry blossom are near-fetched metaphors for youth and beauty. To watch them grow and wither is to know the meaning of carpe diem, "seize the day." Poets see the rhythm of the seasons parallel to the rhythm of human life from birth to childhood, maturity, and death. John Donne set his obscurest, saddest elegy on the shortest day of the year, ironically named for the Saint of light:

'T is the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks,
The Sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The whole world's sap is sunk...

The seasons touch poignant feelings because although nature rises up from the dead with each new spring, we as individuals pass through the circle only once. "Nor shall my sun renew," says Donne at the end of his Nocturnal.

Moving down from the north pole takes some of the sting out of the cycle. The Indian poet Kalidasa (if Kalidasa really wrote The Seasons) describes six times of year, the four of European and North Asian poets, with winter divided into two, plus a rainy season. They bring a round of delights. In the warm Indian winter rice grows green and sugarcane sprouts. The rainy season is traditionally the most erotic time of year, since it is then that travelling is impossible and husbands and wives enjoy sex at home.

We in Malaysia sit just about on the equator. The temperature remains the same all the year and the days hardly stray from a constant twelve hour length. A Southeast Asia year is not the extremes that northerners experience, nor even the lesser contrasts of India, but an ebb and flow between wet and dry. The days are are otherwise much the same. The Japanese cherry blossom appears for perhaps a week in the year. Our Malaysian bunga raya blooms all the year round.

With apologies for my grave ignorance of Malay poetry I offer the only pantun I know which uses the rainy season as a metaphor in the same way a Chinese poet uses autumn or a European winter:

Air dalam bertambah dalam
Hujan di hulu belum teduh;
Hati dendam bertambah dendam,
Dendam dahulu belum sembuh.

("Deep water becomes deeper; the rainstorms in the headwaters are not yet quiet; the troubled heart is further troubled---troubled before, not yet recovered." The echo of the root word hulu in the dahulu of the last line strengthens the link between the anxiety in the springs of the heart and the downpour in the forest.)

Time in this archipelago runs according to the life-cycle of rice, as in the Dayak year punctuated by the tasks of felling trees, burning, planting and harvesting, all accompanied by their appropriate rites and festivals.

In some places, as in Java and Bali, even this sense of a year becomes blurred, since they raise terrace rice, and at any time one field may be ripe, another still green and unheaded, and another just planted with shoots. As the pleasures of the Indian year, the fertility of the Javanese year never ceases.

Old Javanese poets, as well as modern Iban poets, find most inspiration in the circle of the day. They describe the stages from night to full morning with loving attention to detail, the sounds of gibbons, the growing light, the dawn mist as it thins, the waking of birds and human beings.

The Balinese make sense of time through the complicated mathematics of a ritual calendar of 210 days (derived from the ancient Malayo-Polynesian market week) interlocking with the solar calendar. This aboriginal concept of time married happily with the Hindu religion, and time itself came to be felt more abstractly. A human life in Bali is not the irrecoverable effort of a single year, as it is to northerners, but another round on an endless wheel. What it has hidden Time will bring again to light, no action goes uncompensated, and no story can every be said to have come to an end.