The wiles of the beholder
22 January 2021—22 January 2022
Commissioned essay, The wiles of the beholder, 2021, Published by XING.
As a lecturer and moonlighting translator, Nazry Bahrawi mediates the world of words between the Indian Ocean—specialising in Malay and Arabic texts. Translational violence and its cannibalistic nature is unveiled in an earlier piece, Incest Performed: The Neocolonial Perversion of Translation in Malaysia. For Bite the tongue, Nazry returns with The wiles of the beholder, where he surfaces the dilemma of translating and articulating non western aesthetics, as seen through Indonesia’s socialist movement Lekra and Mohamed Latif Mohamed’s Cinta Gadis di Korea.
Fluff is the word that comes to mind when it comes to talk of beauty. This was true of my stint as a journalist. Reporting about art, taken to mean an appraisal of beauty writ large, has often been disparagingly described as writing ‘fluff pieces’ in the newsroom. The subtext here is that the subject matter at hand has less gravitas than, say, the economy or politics. This is unfortunate because discourses on beauty is more than skin-deep.
But first, what is beauty? In the English language, the vocabulary for it is expansive—grace, charm and elegance, to name a few. Beauty is also traditionally a gendered word meant to describe the paragon of femininity. Women are more prone to being described as ‘beautiful’ as opposed to men whose attractiveness is primarily predicated on the word ‘handsome’. Etymologically, this latter word has connotations of physical work according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. If we accept normative definitions of beauty, then we are inadvertently also accepting a view of the world that is neater and dichotomous. Some words are reserved for females; some others for males. There is a natural order to things.
Today, it is harder to speak of a natural order because generations have lived through the trauma brought about by a stubborn insistence on keeping things in their place. Examples abound across time and space but let us briefly consider an example from home. I present herewith the organisational takeover of Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), Singapore’s women’s rights organisation, by a slew of recently joined members back in 2009.
The takeover was premised on concerns harboured by the ‘new guards’ that AWARE was allegedly promoting same sex relations in its programmes as well as redefining marriage and family. Desiring this to stop, they orchestrated an institutional coup. However, this group was later ousted in a vote of no confidence at an ensuing extraordinary general meeting. Yet, the fact remains that the group had caused considerable public consternation on the pretext of maintaining the status quo. The saga points to the authoritarianism of one social group imposing their version of a master order unto society. In intercultural Singapore, we are better off speaking of multiplicity through the lingo of structures, modes and most certainly, beauties.
This dilemma is, perhaps, most pronounced in the realm of the arts under the guise of aesthetics. This is a rich concept that many philosophers have traced back to the ‘Big Three’ of ancient Greek philosophy—Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Here, the trio represents two different positions. On the one hand, Socrates and Plato chastise poetry and art as deceptive and unethical. Theirs is premised on the view that the terrestrial world models itself after a universal structure that they have termed the ‘Forms’. For instance, the idea of justice in this world is based on the concept of the perfect Justice that can be only be found in the otherworldly sphere of the Forms. According to this view, poetry and art can only imitate these pure Forms, and may in fact mislead humans to buy into what appears to be a poor copy of the truth.
On the other hand, Aristotle argues for a more constructive view of art. To him, art is not about the pursuit of truth. Rather, the craft seeks to provoke deep emotive responses of fear, pity and such from its audience. When moved by art, a spectator experiences catharsis. In this state, they will be encouraged to reflect on their lives and their relationships to others. Thus, art for Aristotle assumes an ethical function. An important aspect of Aristotle’s argument that is relevant to our contemporary notion of beauty is the delinking of the structure of art from the structure of the Forms. To him, art possesses its own internal set of rules, systems and mechanics. They may engage with social reality but not necessarily because they can also be inspired by incorporeal things such as shapes, colours and rhythms. This is a nuanced point that is often lost in the clash between two modernist movements—art for art’s sake and art for society’s sake—that had transpired in several parts of the world over the last century.
Image 1: An example of Lekra’s social realism art in the form of a woodcut.
Image credit: Kusmuljo, PKI 45 Tahun (PKIs forty-fifth anniversary), published in Harian Rakjat, 16 May 1965.
Image credit: Kusmuljo, PKI 45 Tahun (PKIs forty-fifth anniversary), published in Harian Rakjat, 16 May 1965.
In the case of Indonesia, this dispute on aesthetic beauty turned ugly in the 1960s when Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat (Lekra), the communist cultural organisation whose most illustrious member was Pramoedya Ananta Toer, named and shamed literary writers whose works they deemed to be socially irrelevant or ‘anti-rakyat’. To them, the best art conforms to the genre of social realism. Countering Lekra, a group of intellectuals and writers collectively released an artistic creed called Manifesto Kebudayaan (Manikebu) in 1963 to defend artistic plurality, which includes the practice of abstract art. The manifesto was lambasted by Lekra and then banned by Indonesia’s left-leaning president Sukarno, who had also blacklisted its signatories. Once again, history has shown us that the imposition of a master order begets social disorder.
Beyond party politics, the Lekra-Manikebu fallout is also premised on a strong rationalist imperative that is Eurocentric in origin. Whose interpretation matters more? This is informed by the Cartesian dictum ‘cogito, ergo sum’ or ‘I think, I am’ which affirms the Self as a thinking thing with the power to interpret objects in the world. With art, a painting or a poem certainly qualifies as such an object to be processed by this thinking thing. However, the dictum’s focus on the intellectual sovereignty of the Self guarantees a certain dissociation between the appraiser and the appraisee, the subject and the object, the Self and the Other. The perils of this dissociation have been most eloquently expressed as Orientalism by the Palestinian-American scholar of comparative literature, Edward Said.
Let us revisit this weathered concept. Today, the term ‘Orientalism’ has been bandied about perhaps too loosely to the point that it may have lost its critical edge. In today’s parlance, Orientalism conjures up European colonisation of the non-West particularly in the political and historical spheres. It represents a critique of unequal power relations between polities. This is a valid reading of Orientalism but it would also be reductive to make it all about a civilisational clash between the East and the West. A deeper point can be made about Orientalism as a critique of the acquired taste of the Cartesian Self, none other than the beholder of beauty. In his book Orientalism, Said drives home the point that sensuality has been ascribed an essence of the Orient to suggest “not only fecundity but sexual promise (and
threat), unlimited desire, deep generative energies”. This aspect of Orientalism channels the gendered element of beauty invoked at the start of this essay.
Image 2: The Bath (1880-85) by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
This is best demonstrated through The Bath, a painting by the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme produced between 1880 and 1885. The painting depicts two women—one white, the other of African descent—in what appears to be a beautifully decorated bath that seems to be located somewhere in the Middle East or North Africa if we consider its turquoise tiles and the Arabic script painted over a part of the wall. The African woman is washing the white woman who is naked. The former’s breasts are revealed by her slipping dress, and this could possibly be the reason why the white woman is looking away from her, perhaps perturbed by this vulgar exposure. Who is the painting for? The work invites its appraiser to witness the unfolding of an erotic scene. As an Orientalist painting, it is not farfetched to assume that its target audiences were primarily Europeans, with male Europeans deriving the most pleasure in line with the period’s heterogenous bearings. This male gazer is the very embodiment of the Cartesian Self who observes, interprets and consumes the painting and its content (the women) as objects on his own terms, and for his own pleasure.
Beauty is curated. The way we judge it by way of aesthetics cannot therefore be an exact science. Standards are man-made or male-made to be precise. If we accept the narrow understanding of Orientalism as a clash of civilisation, then we would have a clear target on whom to pin the blame – the West. We will also be missing the forest for the trees. The non-West too can be guilty of exoticisation.
Image 3: A lecture-performance titled Rasa Sarang at The Arts House based on the author’s experience of translating Mohamed Latiff Mohamed’s short story, Cinta Gadis Di Korea. Image credit: docket.sg
I had encountered this when translating the short stories of Singapore’s Cultural Medallion winner Mohamed Latif Mohamed, for whom I have deep respect. While the oeuvre of his works is deserving of greater acclaim, his story Cinta Gadis di Korea saw a Malay male protagonist falling for a Korean woman for her ‘gentleness’, ‘lithe body’ and penchant for dressing in traditional clothes. He desires to see her in kebaya, songket and blue selendang—what can be said to be the embodiment of Malay femininity at the time the story was composed. Was this a conscious deliberate attempt at control? Not likely if we consider the revolutionary bent of his writing. It is more likely that he was the product of his time, and was only sublimating an unspoken archetype of beauty among his peers then. Today, that archetype would be different. My dilemma as a translator centres on the question of complicity. Unwitting or not, do I want to reproduce the depiction? My strategy was to inject a sense of irony into the story while trying my utmost to stay true to the spirit of the text. For instance, I opted to title the story ‘K-Love’ instead of the more literal phrase ‘Loving a Woman in Korea’. My hope would be that the reader, especially one who is bilingual in English and Malay, would delve deeper into the text and mull over its implications. This exercise of self-reflexivity resists the certitude of the Cartesian Self as an appraiser of beauty. It introduces doubt into his or her otherwise passive process of aesthetics judgment.
One final point needs to meted out. I have touched upon Eurocentric discourses on beauty from the Greek philosophers to Edward Said. I have not touched on discussions of aesthetics elsewhere. A large part of it has to do with the way academia is structured. Higher education institutions privilege knowledge produced from one part of the world over the rest. The task that lies before us—academics or otherwise—is to diversify our understanding of how to appraise beauty. To reiterate, the point of this is not to be anti-West but rather to not be susceptible to dogma, which can hail from anywhere. One could perhaps consider the thoughts of the 11th century literary theorist Abd al-Qadir Al-Jurjani, a Persian grammarian of the Arabic language. Writing on metaphorical language, Al-Jurjani argues that an image, like a word, becomes poetic not in isolation but when it is placed in context with other images different from it. Positioned within a kind of syntax, beauty shines through when a similarity is revealed between dissimilar objects in sensuous terms. How might this be dissimilar from the European idea of ‘simile’? How would this change our practice of aesthetics? These crucial questions cannot be answered at this very moment. Now is the time for us to traverse far-off places. Our beauty solution must not be a quick fix.
2. For a recap, tune in to the podcast Saga produced by AWARE.
4. Edward W. Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient, (London: Penguin Classics), 2003, p. 188.
Nazry Bahrawi is a senior lecturer at Singapore University of Technology and Design. Trained in comparative literature, he specialises in the study of Indian Ocean cultures and texts between the Malay Archipelago and the Arab world. His essays in these areas have been published in the Journal of World Literature, CounterText, Literature and Theology, Journal of Intercultural Studies, Moving Worlds and Green Letters. He had also translated literary works by Singapore’s Cultural Medallion winners from Bahasa to English.