Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

A Javanese Handbook for Would-Be Husbands: The Serat Candraning Wanita

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

A Javanese Handbook for Would-Be Husbands: The Serat Candraning Wanita

Article excerpt

Descriptians of women in Java and the male gaze

Writing at the height of the sexual revolution in the West, one Australian literary critic once scorned modern Indonesian literature for failing 'to deal in a convincing manner with the topic of adult heterosexual passion'. The absence in modern Indonesian literature of 'the themes of flirtation, seduction, adultery, rape, and the full bodily, intellectual and emotional commitment of lovers (married or not)', which in his view were so common in older Indonesian literature(s), constituted nothing less than a major shortcoming. This omission stood 'in strange contrast to the frankness and gusto with which the writers of the various branches of traditional Indonesian and Malay literature dealt with this topic.' (1) He approvingly quoted Theodore Pigeaud, who stated in his authoritative overview of Javanese manuscript literature that 'poems and tales describing erotic situations are very much in evidence ... descriptions of this kind are to be found in almost every important mythic, epic, historical and romantic Javanese text'. (2)

The image of traditional Javanese literature as profoundly erotic is so strong that it almost defies critical reflection. Now it is not to be denied that eroticism is well represented in Javanese manuscripts, but the so-called 'frankness' of the sexual scenes falls far short of the expectations of post-sexual revolution Western readers. More often than not, the love-making of the literary characters is described without any specific details about its more intimate physical aspects. After an elaborate description of the bridal chamber and the general atmosphere of a wedding night, setting the scene so to speak, all we generally read about are soft kisses and tender embraces, after which the narrator abruptly intervenes with a phrase such as 'we will not talk about what they did; we will talk about the following morning'. (3) In the middle of a potentially steamy fragment about the heated discussions of frightened young brides with their grooms on the decisive moment before the consummation of their marriages, another story is cut short with the argument that 'it will take too long if we will tell about it; let us change the subject'. (4) In the passages in which a narrator goes all the way, erotic descriptions are invariably poetic and couched in figurative expressions, mostly using the common metaphorical style of the battle, in which the woman is described as the citadel to be taken. (5)

Any general conclusions about eroticism in belles lettres need to take into account that the pleasure of telling a good story was probably more important than sketching realistic situations. Furthermore, the erotic material never seems to reflect an author's own time, let alone express a distinct personal vision. The same cliches, ultimately reaching back to age-old examples from Old Javanese literature, are repeated again and again. Fictional works of entertainment are thus of limited value for learning about the way pre-modern Javanese society faced human sexuality, but there is a branch of literature specifically dealing with sexual matters which may serve as a more candid and direct source of insight into what real people were supposed to think. In Javanese tradition there is no thematic category explicitly called 'eroticism' (or some other similar term), but erotologic works can easily be traced by trigger words in their titles, such as wirasat, firasat (physiognomy); asmara (love); asmaragama, sanggama (coitus); mani (sperm); katuranggan (katurangganing wanita, nature of women); or candra (candraning wanita, description of women). (6)

In this issue dealing with eroticism in Southeast Asian literatures, my contribution will deal with a voluminous Javanese manuscript work, straightforwardly entitled 'Book of descriptions of women' (Serat candraning wanita), which is kept in the National Library of the Indonesian Republic at Jakarta. …

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