Her nose is like a clove of garlic, her cheeks like halved mangoes, her chin like a hanging swarm of bees…
For centuries, people—using the language that later came to be called Indonesian—tried to depict what was beautiful in a woman’s face using metaphors from everyday nature: the curve of a clove of garlic, the sphere of a cut wild mango, the shape of a hanging swarm of bees.
These similes became clichés and felt exaggerated and stale. The critic H.B. Jassin, in his book about literature titled Tifa Penyair dan Daerahnya (The Drum of the Poets and Their Origins) which was published in the 1950s, mocked these figures of speech as grotesque depictions of women: chins like bees and hair like unfurling palm fronds.
Since then, this kind of simile has disappeared. Modern Indonesian literature, with a new explosion of creativity, had its own metaphors. It developed in the cities, and was unfamiliar with the flora and fauna of rural areas. Poetry of the 1940s more often uses metaphors of sea journeys, ports of call, and even, as in one of Chairil Anwar’s poems, flying with ‘the only possible non-stop flight’.
Metaphor grows from our connection to our surroundings. Old similes even show how close words are to bodies and the earth. We see how language is interconnected with experience, rather than a product of thought. Space and time are sensed with the body and understood with the senses, not with the brain and geometry. There is no ruler and compass. The extent of distance and the duration of time are compared to ‘the time it takes to chew betelnut’.
More intensely than our digital era, people in the past were sensitive to the wonder and enchantment of sensual things that touch the senses, as Nietzsche said in the late 19th century. So it is that in old Malay literature, clear yellow-hued skin is said to be the color of the langsat fruit, and friendly words are ‘sweet as honey’.
This is simplification, of course—or more correctly sensory simplification—for here only one simile is formed from sense and color with all kinds of gradations. But this is still different to simplification though definition.
In Indonesian, the word for ‘definition’ is ‘batasan’, which appropriately means ‘limit’. Definitions demarcate, and concepts are shaped from this demarcation. In the concept ‘animal’, for instance, we limit the presence of multiple aspects and ignore the many differences between a cat and a giraffe. Even in the concept ‘cat’, we do not distinguish between the white cat in front of me right now and the white cat that passed through the sitting room yesterday. We make abstractions: ‘cat’ becomes ‘cats-in-general’, something abstract—a concept.
But people cannot rely on concepts alone. Life would not feel like life if we extinguished metaphor—which is close to the world that is concrete, and can be felt, seen and smelt. Even concepts basically originate in metaphor: there is always the relationship with the body: the Indonesian word pembangunan for ‘development’, as a concept in economics, comes from the root word bangun, or ‘arise’, which is to move from lying down to standing up; the Indonesian word jabatan for position or occupation comes from the verb menjabat which is to extend the hand in a handshake.
Metaphors come from corporeal experience. When Nietzsche said, “The drive toward the formation of metaphors is the fundamental human drive, which one cannot for a single instant dispense with in thought, for one would thereby dispense with man himself,” this is because the body and thought are never separate. There is no dualism between the spirit, or intellect, and the body. As Nietzsche said in Also Sprach Zarathustra, “The body is a great intelligence.”
Language is born from this intelligence. But in history, there are times when the body is treated as though it does not exist. When the sciences began their forward thrust, the language used was language that was unconnected with the body, language which claimed that its meaning does not change because of our viewpoint. ‘Equilateral triangle’, ‘H2SO4’, and so forth were given meanings that were consistent.
And so it is when relationships between people are regulated with laws: the language operating is language with meanings that are standardized and frozen. The law will not accept that the concept of ‘criminal’ in one case differs from ‘criminal’ in another.
The same thing happens when religion is distant from religious experience. Religious experience, as William James says in The Varieties of Religious Experience, is an “individual pinch of destiny” which cannot be repeated and cannot be multiplied, as when a Sufi feels the love of God. But when religious elites want to strengthen the unity of the faithful, this unique religious experience is marginalized. Language becomes entirely a regulatory machine, which wants neither difference nor unpredictability.
With this—science, the law, and legalistic religion—humankind can indeed easily control the world. Humankind can reject life that is full of the unpredictable, life in history that is concrete. But it can also do the opposite: choose to have language that is intimate with garlic, bees, curling fronds—with the earth. In sadness and in joy, I prefer to choose this.