The Jakarta Post
‘Myth, Magic and Mystery in Bali’ by Jean Couteau (PT Phoenix Communications/File)
When one thinks Bali has no more secrets to reveal, one should read one of Jean Couteau’s books. Whether because of its meddling with foreign values through tourism or the fact that Bali in modern times may have lost parts of its mystery, it would still be silly to believe that we could know everything about the so-called Island of the Gods.
In fact, there are very few people in the world who know about Bali. Even fewer know of the stature of Couteau, a doctor of art history in Bali, an ethno-sociological researcher from l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales de Paris and definitely a Bali expert in his own right.
I have happened to know this elegant fellow countryman for more than 20 years. Back then, he had successfully filed for years a weekly column to the Bali Post: “An English Corner”, in which he had narrated and compiled an abundance of short stories about Bali, later to be published in book form with the title Bali 2day: Modernity.
Couteau’s obsession for rendering the intimate veracity of the soul of Bali was already to be found in these early writings. Although a man of great knowledge, an academic and a doctor, he has always had this ability to translate the endless richness of what he knows about Bali through simple folks’ stories, appealing to anyone.
Myth, Magic and Mystery in Bali, his new reiteration of this great idea of sharing the complicated matters of Bali’s sophisticated culture, customs and behaviors, is no exception to this trend he pioneered almost 30 years ago.
Indeed, this new opus covers all the themes that typify his unique style of storytelling, linked as always to the earthly matters that make humans more human and twisted together with the highly hermetical Balinese psyche: hermetical to foreigners obviously, but not to Couteau, our own private guide to this land of myth, magic and mystery.
One has to know that Couteau set foot on the island of Bali for the first time in 1972. Question yourself first: How old were you? Where were you? What was your center of interest back then? Since then, Pak Kadek (Jean Couteau under his Balinese name) has never stopped to wander around the island, looking for stories, but not researching, like he prides himself to differ from the usual academic way.
According to him, if you research, you might already know what you are going to find, but if you listen and learn, you might come up with interesting accounts. Indeed, this is what he did, talking to simple folks in the village, picking up languages and stories at the nearby warung, accumulating knowledge. In the end, he was looking for the sameness in other’s differences. This is what makes reading his books something easy to grasp for any reader, from Balinese and other Indonesians to foreigners.
After all, nothing will stop Couteau from meeting new human beings. He never fails to recall a simple statement: “We are all the same.” As he says all the time: “I tried to have friends belonging to all walks of life, from the poor to the king, to even the president.”
To get a good understanding of Bali, you have to go into the languages, Indonesian, Balinese and even Javanese. To discover and understand the past stories of Bali, Couteau documents a fair quantity of myths and legends of Bali, this island that venerated ancestors long before constructing a Hindu identity, by analysing traditional Balinese paintings.
The identity issue is what seems to worry Couteau lately. He explains: “When I arrived in Bali, I understood the notion of truth didn’t matter. Religion did but not truth — different from our Western culture. What mattered was one’s deeds or karma. People did have beliefs but didn’t have a credo until recently. Now, they have acquired one through education, politics and social media. Sadly, the young generations don’t learn any more who they are from the myths and symbols displayed in the wayang theater.” This will have political consequences, he warns.
In this book, we discover the intimate psyche, unfortunately withering away, of a great culture, through its myths, magic and mysteries.
Couteau wants us to get an insight into what Balinese culture is at its most intimate levels. He takes us along his wanderings through the island, giving us an idea of the religion of water, the Balinese cosmology, the story of Markandaya, Kebo Iwa and Garuda and the elixir of life.
He initiates us into the Balinese taksu and the balian as healer. We also learn about Naur Sot, the wandering of the Balinese soul and even about the seven Muslim saints of Bali — not to forget the Balinese obsession with sex, love and laughter in the last chapter.
Throughout his new book, Couteau also draws readers’ attention to the fact that the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005 unified Bali as a single entity through identity and Hinduism. “Before, the consciousness of belonging didn’t go further than the village. I would like the reader to get an understanding of what was Balinese culture, now that it is changing rapidly through education, social media and a political rhetoric constructing an identity unknown before,” he says in conclusion.
Myth, Magic and Mystery in Bali
by Jean Couteau,
PT Phoenix Communications, 2017