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Symbols through an Anthropological Lens

You may recall the phrase “The Year of Living Dangerously,” perhaps from the film of that name. The culminating event of that year, 1965, entailed the massacre of as many as a million people in Indonesia, who were regarded as communists and hence killed by the military.

On the eve of that year, my wife Florence and I were living in Indonesia, in Surabaya. Surabaya was a heartland of the third-largest Communist party in the world, next to China and the Soviet Union in size. This was in 1962–63. Sukarno, who coined the phrase “the year of living dangerously,” was president of Indonesia then. He was charismatic and he led in uniting the many islands and groups of Indonesia, formerly a colony, the Dutch East Indies, into a nation. Symbols were crucial to the creation of that nation, and he was prolific and brilliant as a leader and symbolist. He drew on the wayang, the shadow and puppet plays of Java, and proclaimed a synthesis: NASAKOM (nationalism, agama [religion, primarily Islam], and Communism). He was inspired by Hindu mythology and was a counterpart to his compatriot Hatta who was an economist, a devout Muslim, and a member of the matrilineal society, Minangkabau. Symbolically rich, and economically desperate, Indonesians at the time reportedly ate only 800 calories daily compared to the 2,500 calories consumed daily in the United States, and inflation was in triple figures while annual salaries averaged a hundred dollars. Symbols were rich; activities for life were impoverished. A physician remarked that postage stamps were the size of prescription paper and paper the size of normal stamps. Communism flourished, capitalism starved, and people, except those adept at the black market, lacked for material necessities. Some might see similarities to our own society during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic in the sense of ideological elaboration versus practical governance. The eventual outcome in Indonesia was Gestapu, the massacre of a million people by the military. A lesson to be drawn: symbols matter immensely but need coordination with life.

The Oxford English dictionary gives several definitions of symbol, including items used in communion ritual, but the most germane is “representation.” Symbols are forms, sensory forms, physical forms seen, heard, and touched that express less tangible ideas, feelings, and values or opinions. Reactions to them are often strongly emotional, for example, “Black Lives Matter” or “God Bless America.” Actions include tearing down monuments, such as Silent Sam locally; Robert E. Lee or even George Washington nationally; and colonial leaders internationally. For example, here is an action I took at age four: My father was at Fort Dix in New Jersey about to embark to England to participate in D-Day. My mother, sister, and I joined him at a restaurant, the only time I remember us eating out. They served English peas. I refused to eat them and, in fact, got under the table. For that I got a switching. What did I have against English peas? Was it that my father was going away to England? Did the peas symbolize that destiny and danger? Maybe. Indeed, my father was shot during the invasion but happily survived. Symbols are personal.

On that last point, I will recount briefly some experiences that led me toward the study of symbols. In the summer of 1957, I worked as an intern in a workshop at Delaware State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital; my job was to oversee sports with the patients. In 1959, I was a senior at Duke, majoring in psychology. At the time, most of that discipline consisted of experimental psychology, that is, laboratory work rather than clinical work. I was a research assistant to Dr. Charles Speilberger and run a tachistoscope in a basement. I was also reading widely on my own as well as in a reading course with Dr. Edward Jones. One assignment was Childhood and Society by Erik H. Erikson, which contained an essay called “The Legend of Hitler’s Youth.” On my own I also read Carl Jung’s Psyche and Symbol and Erich Fromm’s The Forgotten Language, and other works. Erikson’s works on Hitler, Martin Luther, and Mahatma Ghandi were inspiring. I was also studying the German language and reading the works of Goethe, as well as Thomas Mann, especially his Der Zauberberg, The Magic Mountain, about Hans Castorp, a patient in a tuberculosis hospital. Although I read a lot, I had little opportunity to speak German until the summer of 1959 when I joined an “Experiment in International Living” and went to Ulm, Germany, to live with a family for a month, then hike in the German Alps for a bit. Along the way, I reunited with a friend from the Delaware workshop who recommended Jung and his idea of seeking wholeness; I retorted, “I don’t want any wholeness,” implying instead hardheaded striving or adventure. In Ulm, Edith, a member of the group, invited me to go with her to visit Zurich, Switzerland, for a weekend. We crossed the Bodensee on a boat. In Zurich, we visited the Jung Institute. I did not meet Jung but did meet a secretary to whom I stubbornly spoke German, such as it was, and she told me she was a patient of Jung and showed me the library, which contained many books on anthropology.

Back at home, in South Georgia, where we had lived since my father returned from D-Day and World War II, in a town that was deemed “culturally deprived” by a federal agency, unexpected treasures loomed. One was our dentist, Dr. John Peterson. Dr. Peterson was a passionate, self-taught scholar who learned Greek and Hebrew and read deeply and widely to create his own theories of symbols. These he taught not only in a class at the local church but also to captive patients, such as my father and mother, in the dental chair. His vast archives and writings seem to have disappeared, unfortunately. I heard his analyses and can best compare them to the analyses of Levi-Strauss and Carl Jung, that is, distilling archetypes and models from symbols. He wrote them out as diagrams, showing connections that built toward syntheses. A group of men, including my father, sat outside under the trees on Sunday mornings at the Methodist church and listened for decades to Dr. Peterson’s views that Jesus was a caricature of the good Jew constructed by rabbis to teach proper and improper doctrine. Such seeming heresy troubled nobody. At the time, working at jobs such as construction and selling pots and pans while studying, I was fascinated by him. Dr. Peterson was so interested in his research that he would run beside my car espousing it as I drove away from his house. But neither I nor his son, who later became an anthropologist, conveyed these insights.

Anthropology is wide-ranging. It covers the world, from prehistory to today, and aspects ranging from the living to the dead, from biology to culture. I knew little about it until a friend invited me to go with him to the annual American Anthropological Association meetings in Washington, D.C., in 1958. The keynote speaker was Alfred Kroeber. Kroeber, by the way, was the father of Ursula Le Guin, the writer of science fiction among other things. She married Charles Le Guin, who is from McDonough, Georgia (a Southern connection, of course). Kroeber was then the age I am now; he described anthropology as sensory: we collect, photograph, and record activities that are distinct from the social sciences, such as economics and sociology. We do fieldwork, everywhere, the more uncomfortable the better. I changed my plans completely and went to graduate school in anthropology.

At Harvard, in the spring semester of my first year, I enrolled in a seminar taught not by an anthropologist but by two theorists, Talcott Parsons and Robert Bellah, on the topic of religion. Bellah passed out a mimeographed article, “The Systematic Study of Religion,” which stated that the key focus of religion is symbols. I was besotted with the Parsonsian theory. I drove several of my fellow students to meetings of the Association for Asian Studies in Chicago that spring, stopping once at a truck stop and haranguing them nonstop with Parson’s “action theory.” We all survived. For the seminar I prepared and presented an analysis of the symbolism and psychology of the Gottesfreunde (Friends of God) of Germany in 1200–1300, a precursor to Martin Luther and much else, including reformist Islam, based at the oldest university in the world, Al Azhar in Cairo.

Two friends were also in the seminar, Terry Turner, who joined the faculty at the University of Chicago, and William Peck, who went to the University of North Carolina. Terry and Bill both presented powerful syntheses of a Parsonsian paradigm of religion, including the place of symbols. If all of this seems academic and abstract, hang on, here comes adventure.

After I passed my doctoral orals, the largest hurdle of graduate study, the next step was to do fieldwork. I decided to go to Indonesia, about which I knew little, and got an NIH grant from the federal government, then went to Yale to study the Indonesian language. Indonesia, now the fourth-largest nation and largest Muslim nation, was created, one might say, by “a wing and a prayer.” Former UNC president, Frank Porter Graham, was appointed by FDR as ambassador to the UN and was a midwife to the agreement between the Netherlands and Indonesia to create a new nation, which had declared independence in 1945 and fought a war with the Netherlands for five years to become independent. Sukarno, a great symbolist, praised Indonesia’s plans and vision for its “symbolic richness” and the riches of that new nation were indeed symbols rather than funds. I proposed to focus on a particular symbolic form, ludruk, which was a proletarian theater connected to the Indonesian Communist party, then the third largest in the world, next to China and the Soviet Union.

At Yale, the luckiest break of my life came when I met Florence Fowler. A singer, she was in the Yale Music School doing classical work; her master’s thesis was on The Italian Liederbuch by Hugo Wolf. She also was the singer in an off-Broadway play “John Brown’s Body,” which led to an opportunity to sing opposite Carol Burnette in a new musical, “Once Upon a Mattress.” However, she gave up that opportunity to go with me, live in a slum, and study the ludruk and its social and symbolic context. It was a risky decision and indeed her life was at risk at one point when she was bitten by a rabid dog. In the “year of living dangerously” period of Indonesia, it seemed that no serum was available, but a wonderful Javanese woman, Ibu Soejoenoes, came to the rescue and managed to obtain serum, which Florence began to take, through injections into the stomach. All seemed well until several days later. The largest volcano in Indonesia, Gunug Agung, erupted. Florence tried to get out of bed but her legs were paralyzed—a reaction to the horse serum. With the help of our friend and neighbor, Machfoed, a homeless pedicab driver, we got her to a doctor, who cut the dosage, and she eventually recovered with the help of our dear friend, Ariawan Soejoenoes, who is now an eminent physician in Java.

The Peacocks and the Soejoenoes, 2010.

After the year ended, we returned home, and I wrote my dissertation, then applied for a job. At that time, unlike today, academic teaching jobs were plentiful as colleges and universities were expanding. I took a job at Princeton University, then the only Ivy League university without an anthropology department. Together with a colleague in linguistics, David Crabb, we founded the anthropology department and created a “Series in Symbolic Anthropology” with the University of Chicago Press. The first item in the series was Rites of Modernization, my first book about the ludruk and the situation in Indonesia. This book was well received, both in Indonesia and in the United States and beyond.

At Princeton, I taught a course on anthropology and launched a seminar that focused on symbols. This seminar course led to versions taught elsewhere—at Yale, University of California, and UNC, with aspects in England—but more on that shortly.

In Indonesia, as noted, the year of living dangerously exploded in Gestapu. The military killed as many as a million alleged communists in 1965. General Suharto became president, replacing Sukarno, who died in 1970.

On New Year’s Eve 1970 I returned to Indonesia. I contacted Muhammadiyah, an organization that today boasts of 30 million members. This led to a second stint of fieldwork. Living and working with Muhammadiyah I befriended several outstanding leaders. One was Amien Rais, who as a national leader supported Megawati, Sukarno’s daughter, who was elected president of the nation. A second was Sudibjo Markus, who has just published an excellent book, now being translated into English, which offers a history, analysis, and argument for mutual enrichment of Muslims and Christians.

This immersion into Muhammadiyah then led to a parallel study of a certain aspect of Christianity, focusing somewhat on Puritanism, which can be viewed as “anti-symbolic.” In 1970, after returning to America, several colleagues and I embarked on a study of Christian independent as opposed to mainline (e.g., Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian) churches. We focused on two traditions, Wesleyan and Calvinist, the latter professing predestination and the former professing choice and choosing to be “saved.” That choice could be expressed as Wesley did at Aldergate, in vibrant ritual, including music. Calvinist primitive Baptists, by contrast, deleted instrumental music from services, continuing, however, to sing powerful hymns, such as “Guide Me O Thy Great Jehovah.” Pentecostals, in the Wesleyan tradition, joined instrumental music, including guitars and drums, with faith healing. A simple equation appeared contrasting services observed between Pentecostals who heal and primitive Baptists who did not. Pentecostal preachers sang as well as preached and choirs joined the congregation in singing as well as singing in the choir loft; in a word, music joined theology where faith healing occurred and did not where it did not. One can extend the observation to shamanism; shamans sing. Muhammadiyans, like Puritans, chant the Quran scripture but tend not to join the rich Javanese traditions of music and dance, as in the gamelan (note the photograph contrasting court dancers and Muhammadiyan women).

Photo by James Peacock.

Cracks in the armor of music and dance can be noted, however. At the hundred-year celebration of Muhammadiyah in 2010 at Yogyakarta, songs were performed by a chorus, reportedly directed by a Chinese musician, and at one wedding I attended among mountain primitive Baptists, the mother managed to play the wedding march on an ancient phonograph positioned outside the main congregation in a vestibule. Perhaps exceptions prove the rule or at least hint at changes afoot. Sudibjo’s new book may signal such a change.

What about anthropology and symbols? Let’s trace the history during the late nineteenth, twentieth, and the early twenty-first centuries. As noted, anthropology includes the entire world, evolution since the beginning, including biological, archeological, and linguistic dimensions. The sections of the American Anthropological Association number forty or so specialties, including religion, linguistics, and cultural anthropology, the latter focusing on symbols, among other things. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, famous scholars wrote huge tomes, such as Sir James George Frazer’s thirteen-volume, The Golden Bough. His book, about ritual, was based on research by missionaries, colonial officers, and travelers. Asked if he ever met a “native,” Frazer replied, “God forbid.” However, many insights are buried in those volumes, including an understanding of symbols, despite Sir Edmund Leach’s dismissal of the tome as a “gilded twig” rather than the “golden bough.” When the colonial scholars visited “the natives,” they often went with expeditions, viewing the natives as subjects for study rather than living and conversing with them. Think of Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle.

Bronislaw Malinowski was studying physics and mathematics in Krakow, Poland, when he got pneumonia. His mother read to him from The Golden Bough, which led him, perhaps during his delirium, to become an anthropologist. He went to London and while studying anthropology was enlisted to go to Australia. While there, World War I broke out. Malinowski, as an enemy alien, was offered the choice of prison or fieldwork in New Guinea. He chose the latter and did his monumental fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands. He is credited with introducing true “participant observation” to anthropology. In the 1920s, he came to Chapel Hill to visit his friend Howard Odum. He met Odum’s student, Guy Johnson, at the “meeting of the waters,” below Kenan Stadium. Johnson was converted to social anthropology and introduced that subject at UNC. A half century later, as chair of anthropology, I arranged to celebrate a half century of social anthropology at UNC by inviting Johnson as well as the most prominent social anthropologists, mainly British, to speak. These scholars included Sir Edmund Leach of Cambridge, Rodney Needham of Oxford, Mary Douglas of London University, and Victor Turner, then at the University of Chicago, later at the University of Virginia. All of these people were leading scholars in the study of symbols. I was a young Turk. I admired their work and they were supportive of mine as well as that of some others of my generation. Thus, we worked together, especially British and American, also French, to develop the anthropological study of symbols as one of the foci in social and cultural anthropology. My study of the ludruk, published with the University of Chicago in 1968, and my book on the Muhammadiyah, published by the University of California in 1978, were among these writings. As noted, I had also been teaching about symbols since 1966 and the British anthropologist F.G. Bailey invited me to write a general book on the subject, which I did, and it was published in his Blackwell’s series as Consciousness and Change, in 1975. A review in the Times Literary Supplement was remarkably positive. I think it was by Sir Raymond Firth, who had recently published a book on symbols himself.

Let’s reflect broadly on why symbols matter, what is their importance? A song on the radio is suggestive. “Don’t know no history (historee . . .), don’t know no biology (biologee), but I do know I love you and you love mee.” The singer rejects academia and chooses love. Symbols can do that, cutting across disciplines and focusing on deep emotions, thoughts, or values. Parsons labeled these as expressive, cognitive, or evaluative symbols. Symbols can condense and sum up such aspects in a word, a melody, a stature, of relevance in giant systems such as theologies and mythologies. A person can achieve that stature, for example, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who represented, among other things, respect for women. Scholars and commentators tease out and sum up such meanings, as with symbolic anthropology. Laypeople do the same. For example, Elder Nichols, operator of heavy machinery in the mountain roads of Virginia and a primitive Baptist, was not patient with pretense. When I proudly showed him and his friends the memorabilia room at the huge Dean Dome in Chapel Hill, which displayed trophies and photographs of the champion players and coaches of the Tar Heel basketball teams, he commented, simply: “idolatry.” Postmodernists “deconstruct” such proud displays rather similarly but with more verbosity as expressing class, race, gender, or status. So does symbolic anthropology but perhaps more neutrally, showing context rather than contempt.

Numerous superb studies can be cited. Among the leaders are Victor Turner, Edith Turner, and their students and colleagues. Their earliest studies were of ritual among the Ndembu in Zambia, Africa. Later they broadened focus, for example in historic work in such places as England. They teamed up with the dramatist Schechner to analyze and then feed performances of ritual and theater. Concepts they depicted included “liminality” and “communitas” the latter a title of a book by Edith Turner. Parallels can be seen in the concepts by Jungians and by Jungian-oriented ecological work, such as that of Thomas Berry, noted below. Many ideas enter, as in a forthcoming book by Alissa Waterston inspired by Hannah Arendt and depicted as an illustrated work.

Why symbols? Why not focus on reality? A few minutes ago in a parking lot I saw a woman pushing a chair, on rollers, with a pack of paper on the seat. The chair was veering from side to side. I suggested, joking, you might try a cart instead of a chair. She replied, I’m taking the chair home to use at my desk. Her point is, the chair is multifunctional, now a cart, later a chair. Likewise symbols. A hammer can drive a nail and also be a symbol: for instance, take the hammer and sickle. A nail can also be a symbol: “A kingdom is lost, all for want of a horseshoe nail.”

Symbols are often contrasted to reality. This is real, that is merely symbolic. “Real politik” as compared to “ideal politik” focuses on real forces, such as economics or power. By comparison, Descartes proclaimed “I think, therefore I am,” reminding us that economics or power depend on ideas; banks run on numbers and accounts, money and credit cards likewise. These are symbolic. So are such social forces as race and gender. Medicine and health enter a history mixing body and spirit. In the dark ages of Europe, spirits and spiritual healing predominated until Islamic science of medicine enriched Europe and priests and physicians vied for influence. Penicillin revolutionized physical healing but psychosomatic psychiatry in medicine and faith healing in religion remained actors. Cybernetics underlined the idea of interacting forces as compared to unilinear thinking. The ecozoic perspective synthesizes ecology and psychology, as in the work of Thomas Berry, and perspectives ranging from feminism to antiracism enrich awareness of the importance of the symbolic.

In anthropology as elsewhere, such interactions are explored and debated. “Symbolic” anthropology can be contrasted to “real” anthropology, as science is compared to the humanities. I once presided over a debate over a proposal to impeach the editors of the major journal of the American Anthropological Association because of their leaning too far toward postmodernism compared to science. The motion to impeach failed, and diverse perspectives still live.

For a bit, let’s consider a few examples of symbols in daily life or in special events. Do you have an impression that protestors tend to destroy buildings other than hospitals? If so, we might think that medical care is valued? Another example is places to eat and places to sleep. Claude Levi Strauss theorized at length that humanity created culture through inventing fire and cooking, thus eating together. Driving with our children, I once asked them to write down names of places to eat and places to sleep. Sure enough, places to eat often had personal names, like MacDonalds, and places to sleep, motels, often had names of nature, such as “Whispering Pines.” Yes, food goes with sociality, it seems, and sleeping is more solitary and “natural.” Or so it seemed by the children’s brief tasks. One might also note contrasts between universities’ domains of nature and culture, the natural sciences and humanities, not only curricula but also architecture and symbols, perhaps reinforcing a dichotomy that someone like Thomas Berry attempted to bridge by “ecozoic” to correct an imbalance by humans exploiting nature. We might reflect on symbols and labels for nature and non-nature. We speak of yards, as in our backyard or Harvard Yard, while the British say “garden,” a word we use for a separate space where we grow flowers or vegetables. These categories contrast with the “street” as in “street people” as homeless, which contrasts, say, to the “Ivy League,” connoting exclusive and privileged domains signaled by a certain kind of plant, which in turn contrasts to being “down to earth” instead of “stuck up” like those Ivy Leaguers and academics. “Words, words, words,” sang Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady,” frustrated with talk without action, but such words as symbols do matter and define.

Most of us are not charismatic leaders like Sukarno or Churchill, not to mention Muhammad or Buddha, but we can relish opportunities to pitch in and participate in efforts or occasions that mobilize or at least contemplate symbolic expressions that impact our lives.

Here is an example of the role a symbol can play in addressing the issue of conflict and calling for peace. In this case, the symbol was derived from the Bhagavad Gita. The event was held in Puna, India, at the peace palace of MIT, a university of some 70,000 students mainly studying engineering and computer science. The organizer was a recent graduate of that university, Darshan Mandada. After graduating, Darshan won a fellowship from the Rotary Foundation. Rotary International selected six universities around the world to offer master degrees in fields contributing to peace. Among the universities selected were Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which collaborate in such a program. The co-directors of our program were Francis Lethem and me, he at Duke, I at UNC. We are succeeded by Susan Caroll, who works at both schools. Darshan, a native of India, organized a program at his alma mater in that institution’s peace hall. Some fifty speakers were invited, including Francis and me. We and many attendees gathered in the auditorium.

A few minutes before opening the event, Darshan asked me if I would say something to begin. I told the story of the Bhagavad Gita. In ancient India, two great families, the Pendawas and the Korawas, were prepared to fight each other the next morning. Arjuna, the noble knight, was in a chariot driven by the god, Krishna. Arjuna confessed that he did not want to kill his cousins, the Korawas. Krishna replied that it was his duty, his dharma, as a member of the warrior caste, to fight but that while doing so he could be peaceful inside, in spirit.

After offering this story, I learned a remarkable thing. The patron saint of MIT, whose image was on display, had been a youth in a village in the 1700s. He had done a vast study of the Bhagavad Gita, then instructed the villagers, saying, “I have completed my calling, my task in this world, this exegesis, so now it is time for you to bury me alive.” The villagers did so. The grave of this patron saint is in a temple that we visited at Puna.

The conference proceeded. Dozens of speakers spoke about issues pertaining to peace for several days. After we had all spoken, a man, a former priest from the United States, appeared, representing the great Indian leader, Mahatma Ghandi. The priest said, all that these speakers have said was said a half century ago by Ghandi. He then quoted Ghandi at length to prove this point.

During the next few days we participated in various rituals and symbolic acts. Some of these honored Ghandi, who had been in prison in Puna. Francis and I, for example, were lifted several stories by a “pea picker” to place a wreath of flowers on a large bust of Mahatma Ghandi.

In the ensuing years, a thousand of the peace fellows have been launched, serving around the world in fields ranging from medicine to diplomacy. Each year we hold a conference where the peace fellows present what they do to audiences in our auditorium, named for Nelson Mandela. Their activities have resulted in the Rotarians building an endowment to support their fellowships, and the fellows are employed in many institutions, ranging from the World Bank to world communities.

Symbols as well as hard work and remarkable commitment are part of the peace fellows’ efforts. Anthropology comes into play as do many disciplines and basic organizational planning and work.

So much for my and others’ participation in the anthropological study of symbols as one among many approaches. Seeds were sown. This topic has moved on, into areas such as race, gender, climate change, and the world at large. Marks have been made, for example, in the work of Thomas Berry, the world scholar from Greensboro who unites Carl Jung with ecology. These currents of thought and action are apparent in many domains, including work by the editors of this magazine and its contributors. The title, “South Writ Large” grounds the work in a place while expanding it conceptually, philosophically, geographically, and ethically as well as globally. A grounded globalism.

Humility is suggested by the gentle wit of an Indonesian friend. She, Tati, arranged for me to participate in a panel discussion to be broadcast by Radio of the Republic of Indonesia (RRI). Concerned that we would be conversing in the Indonesian language, I asked if the chair could tell me what questions might be posed or topics broached. The answer came in a letter delivered to our door: What is the meaning of life?

Less gentle is QAnon now flourishing in Germany with anti-Semitic symbolism echoing past history: one of many echoes of our dark side. Let us also remind ourselves how much of our prejudice reflects symbolism. Color of skin symbolizes for many intelligence and competence; yet physical anthropologists from Boas onward have demonstrated how so-called racial differences reflect not so much genetics as cultural perception. Linguists have demonstrated the same regarding speech.

A simple experiment by my daughter Natalie made the point. After spending some months in England at age ten, she came home with a British accent. At school in the United States she was assigned an exercise, to telephone people and ask their opinion about a certain issue, disarmament. She asked half the people the question in her British accent, half in her Southern accent, and discovered that many more spoke with her when she used the British accent and at greater length. Accents, like skin color, are symbols interpreted as reflecting intelligence or other qualities.

Moving toward more explosive reactions to symbols, consider the recent beheading of the French school teacher in response to his portrayal of Muhammad. Such a tragic incident echoes long histories not just of Muslims and Christians, immigrants and Europeans, and violence and order but of colonialism and its aftermath. An Indonesian character, Pak Sakera, rebelled against the Dutch colonialists whose heads he would cut off with the parang, a machete with a curved blade. I watched a dramatic enactment of Sakera in a meeting of the Indonesian Communist party in 1963. Some years later on a dark mountain road in Sulawesi I was threatened by a man with a knife, fortunately without a bad outcome—but a reminder of a host of meanings and experiences. Think of the knife as symbol in references from Crocodile Dundee to fear of castration in Sigmund Freud’s Oedipal complex. (Remember the scene where Crocodile Dundee is accosted by young thugs in New York City, one of whom pulls a knife: Crocodile responds contemptuously “That’s no knife, THIS is a knife,” as he brandishes a huge knife he uses to kill crocodiles, and the thugs flee in terror.) In Indonesia, the kris, a knife or short sword, is so sacred and powerful a symbol for a man that if a groom cannot attend his own wedding the bride can be married to his kris.

In short, symbols matter, in our lives and existence.