Banal Aesthetics & Critical Spiritualism:
A Dialog of Photography & Literature in 13 Fragments
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth; earth was formless and empty; darkness was over the surface of the seas and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters…
...then mists came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the earth; it was then that the Lord God formed man from the dust and breathed life into his nostrils; and the man became a living being.
(Genesis 1:1 & 2:6-7, NIV)
Every writer will quietly ask: what makes a literary work immortal?
There are two tales that haunts me so, stored within ancient tomes, Genesis and Ramayana. Both tell the tale of a man and a woman: Adam-Eve, Rama-Sita. Like ghosts, they inspire strange feelings. Feelings at odds with one another. Beauty and terror; awe and anger; truth, but also a feeling of injustice. And the most exhilarating of all: something about sex and violence enshrouded in dim divine light. They are tales whose simplest forms I have internalized since a very young age. They manifest themselves into ghosts, because they present something arousing and merciless at the same time. Like ghosts, they are deviant and disturbing.
At the start, a child who reads Ramayana will accept it as an adventure story of a pair of lovers journeying through a dangerous forest. Rama and Sita endure their exile in the forest of Dandaka; Laksmana, Rama’s younger brother, accompanies them. It fulfills all the requirements to make an amazing story: a handsome man and a beautiful woman, a third person, forest, golden deer, an army of monkeys, an adversary, and the giants. Tension rises and heightens: temptation, traps, kidnapping, war, and freedom—a structure that follows the Hollywood playbook… until, that is, the immolation of Sita. There, horror is weaved into the climax. Her own husband demands her to prove her purity by jumping into a roaring fire. Are there crueler demands from one’s own lover than that? It's strange that Ramayana can always inspire ideals about love.
The story of Adam and Eve does not offer something as cruel as Ramayana, but it proffers a difficult dilemma in the forbidden fruit. Genesis 2 also fulfills the requirements for riveting visuals: virgin streams and forests, fauna, a garden, the tree of life, the tree of knowledge, two naked human beings, a man and a woman, and lurking danger. It is never a love story. It will be more appropriate to call it a story that summarizes motifs of power, sex, and betrayal. We know: Eve—created from Adam’s rib—listens to the treacherous snake, plucks the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. She gives it to Adam, and they eat the fruit together. Then, they realize what it means to be naked. And God curses them then throws them out of Eden, into a world full of suffering.
Both stories, Adam-Eve and Rama-Sita, go against morality and the sense of justice after the discovery of human rights and rationalism. However, there is one undeniable thing: both stories are intriguing. They have successfully cast a spell over humankind for at least three thousand years, and they continue to enchant even today. They are memorialized and reread. They are disassembled and reassembled, they never fade away. They never fail to inspire. There are moments when I would feel anger and hatred toward both stories. Especially as a woman. Yet, I continue to read them and continue to feel enamored. And I realize that I have come face to face with two ancient stories that have proved their reputation as immortal literary works. The question is: what is beauty that it compels us to forget injustice?
Best we postpone our question about beauty. I would like to return to a complicated story, that is, about human’s original “sin”: the eating of the forbidden fruit.
We, especially in Indonesia, tend to forget, or perhaps we don’t realize, that the forbidden fruit is that of the Tree of Knowledge. If I have never read the Bible for myself, relying instead on my religious teacher, then I would never realize:
You are free to eat from any tree in this garden; but you must
not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…
(Genesis 2: 16-17, NIV)
Although in the beginning many religious scholars would usually
define ‘knowledge of good and evil’ as something to do with morals, some biblical scholars consider the expression “of good and evil” as an idiom to represent all sorts of things. Not only in the moral sense. I am taking this wider
interpretation. And it is precisely this part of Adam and Eve’s story that haunts me, not just as a woman but as a human being. Why can’t humans eat from the tree of knowledge? Why is knowledge considered to be human’s first “sin”?
How can we account for such a text using rational thought that espouses scientific knowledge?
Yet, like a spectre, this strangeness is also its appeal. The untouchable is its enchantment. Ah, truly the tale of creation appeals to our subconscious because it tells the story of a man and a woman, naked in the middle of a forest (and we will inadvertently imagine them to be comely, and from here, are things that happen as we imagine them to be). It is also an appealing story because it contains the answer to our origins, a mysterious reality even today. After the text succeeds in drawing in our erotic desires and our deepest curiosity, it presents us with a problem. Even non-feminists, as long as they have common sense, will wonder: how strange, why can’t we eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge?
Even then, it is not the only complicated mystery within the Bible. Honest reason will also struggle to understand this next tale: The Tower of Babel, also found in the Book of Genesis. It is said that, the world used to have one language and one accent. One day, this society with one language decided to build a tower that would reach up to the heavens, so that they might find their own name so as not to be scattered across the world. But, God descended and laid waste to such a plan. Yet, what’s so bad about such a plan—especially when we look at it in reference to the Indonesian Youth’s Pledge Sumpah Pemuda and the struggles of the Unitary Republic of Indonesia? And, dear God, this was what God said:
“Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
(Genesis 11: 7, NIV)
The first part of the Book of Genesis perhaps contains the most number of confusing tales. These tales are so strange that, if we read them with a modern mind, we will discover
an absurd, jealous, and insecure God. Well, there are times when He is gracious, but His graciousness does not take away from his insecurity. It seems that God does not want human beings to be like Him, to know things and to be united in one language. How
odd, what kind of a God is that?
And yet, I cannot just throw away these stories. Part of my reasoning is that these stories have become interweaved with other texts, not only within the Bible but also outside of it. What we can call: intertextuality. Even today, they still inspire literature, philosophy, theology, art, photography. Bible scholars point out how these stories are related to myths of that period—only that the myths of Ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia, etc. have been abandoned, whereas the Book of Genesis continues to exist.
This is the most remarkable thing about immortalized literary works, like the Book of Genesis, despite offering morals that seem irrational: 1) Their supporters will maintain these stories even without fully comprehending their meaning; 2) Their supporters will continue to try and understand their meaning by making personal interpretations; 3) these stories address larger and more fundamental questions that agitate us as humans: How was the world created? Why is there suffering? Why are childbirths painful for human females (compared to animals)? What is so deviant about sex and nakedness? Why don’t humans share one language? These questions cannot be conclusively answered by science or philosophy, to this day. 4) These stories can be understood differently, and can be read within an internal or external relationship, synchronously or diachronically. And, 5) there is a power that allows all of these to happen.
I do not mean supernatural powers, but instead “art's enchantment”. It is outside my scope to talk about the god's power that makes this book into the Holy Book. We can try to understand an artwork’s aesthetic powers that allow it to persist for thousands of years.
Here, I would like to underscore two great issues within these two complicated puzzles: knowledge and language. Genesis 2, the story of Adam and Eve, talks about the problem of knowledge. Genesis 11, on the Tower of Babel, talks about the problem of language. Let’s say they're from 1000 BC. In their future, three thousand years later, we will realize that the problem of knowledge is also the problem of language.
Translated by Henny Rolan