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Review: A complicated life

Review: A complicated life
Published: Mar 03, 2012

Jemma Purdey reveals the inner torment behind the charisma, generosity and enigma of the public man that was Herb Feith

Jean Gelman Taylor

How does one recount a life? And especially the life of Herbert Feith? And in a book written, I think, for that large circle which knew and admired him? Jemma Purdey has taken the path of chronicle, and she had stacks of material to support this conception. For Herb saved everything, notes to himself, jottings, drafts of academic papers, news articles that interested him, letters to him and the copies of letters he wrote others. He was a prolific letter writer, no child of the electronic age. Indeed, no such biography will be written again that distils the essence of a man from his letters. Purdey also found Herb in his numerous op-ed and journal articles, in institutional documents, in records of the many causes he supported, in the recollections of family and friends, and in the fabric of the societies and cultures that formed him.

Out of this welter of facts and minutiae of daily life – the ‘ten thousand things’ that make up a man’s life as fellow writer of Indonesian pasts, Maria Dermoût once put it – come two observations from Jemma Purdey that struck me as ringing true. She writes that, in encounters with others, Herb instinctively gauged what interested them and spoke of that. He was not a man who spoke of himself; he spoke with others and drew us out. Here, perhaps, was the charm of his personality. Purdey also writes that it was in Indonesia that Herb found acceptance, familiarity and friendship. Readers might think: how obvious. But Purdey is writing of a tortured Jewish soul, who sought the company of committed Christians, and who wanted to pursue a life of good deeds in a society of Muslims.

Herb found in Indonesia his community. It was made up of expatriates, foreign scholars, Indonesian Christians and Indonesians who called themselves ‘statistical Muslims’. He found community with people high and low, urban and rural, with the educated and with those just scraping by. He read political theory at Cornell University, was drawn to dependency theory, engaged with Western scholars who wanted to understand the new Asia and find in research the tools for assisting new nations along a path of progress. He taught political theory in his graduate research seminar at Monash. It was Indonesia now and looking forward. He did not look back. Purdey draws on Herb’s letters and publications to show he was percipient about trends in Indonesia in the 1950s and 1960s.

There is no sense, in Herb’s writing, or in Purdey’s chronicling, that Herb was studying a Muslim society with its inner tensions between native Islamic folkways and influences from Islam’s Arab heartland. In one way, Feith and Purdey reflect the first decades of his engagement with Indonesia. Taufik Abdullah writes that only in the 1980s did Indonesians become proud of being Muslim, perceive their society as infused by Islam and gain a sense of themselves as a local version of a world civilisation. As a student of Herb I was astonished to discover, the day I arrived, that Indonesia was a Muslim country. Perhaps his peace activism obscured Indonesia’s Islamic cast, enabled him to understand a Gus Dur, but not an Amrozi?

In Purdey’s summation, Herbert Feith was a pathbreaker who led the way in people-to-people engagement with Indonesia, a pioneer in peace activism and teaching, a visionary who brought new ways of viewing the world. He was a man who had little value for material things, one for whom deprivation of comforts was a choice. He led, Purdey says, by example. He learned by talking with those within his chosen circles. She leads her readers to this conclusion by structuring the book chronologically. Sections detailing Herb’s career, his restless worldwide travels and inner thoughts alternate with sections on Indonesian and Australian politics, the causes he took up, the mentors he sought, the utopias he envisaged.

The yearly visits to Indonesia came to an end after the first years of Suharto’s New Order. It was morally repellent to Herb and he now found Indonesia uninteresting. He sought a new direction. At first he hoped to find it in Bangladesh, championing the cause of the minority Biharis. But Bangladesh was a dead end. Tellingly, he wrote: ‘Dacca struck me as culturally alien to a degree I had not expected … it was partly that I was unprepared for this being so thoroughly Muslim a society’ (p.344). From there he turned to peace studies, dissolving the professional distance between scholar and activist. Indonesia was now seen through the lens of the third world; Suharto was the new Dutch governor-general integrating Indonesia into the global capitalist economy. In 1977 Jamie Mackie warned Herb that, after a seven-year absence, he was out of touch, and urged him to return to Indonesia to do what he did best: observe and interpret.

But Herb had no new Indonesia research project. He had no entrée into the inner circles of decision-making in the New Order; his Indonesian friends now were on the margins of the nation’s life. After 1978 he never taught another dedicated Indonesia course at Monash. Now Indonesia was presented within courses on third world poverty and conflict resolution. Perhaps he had acquired fame too early? Purdey notes of Herb’s MA thesis, submitted for examination in 1954, that it was ‘the first major work by an Australian scholar on post-independence Indonesian politics’ (p.155). It was followed by his widely acclaimed Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia (1962), published in a world of academia few of us could recognize today: a world of frequent study leave; generous funds for worldwide travel with no apparent requirement to publish; a world where a manuscript was guaranteed publication by Cornell University.

But Herb’s was a lifelong struggle against depression, against inner doubt that crippled his ability to write extended studies, against a sense of never fully belonging. His eminence as an academic did not translate into public acknowledgement in Australia, despite his many missives to government and his op-ed pieces in intellectual magazines of the day. His resumed trips to Indonesia were ‘to talk Indonesia’ with colleagues and postgraduate students, and to help Indonesians who were trying to escape by securing them admission to Monash University and taking them into his home in Melbourne until they found their footing in a new land.

From Australia he pursued Indonesia causes: Papua and particularly East Timor, but not Aceh. He approached great crises in Indonesia’s national life as creating an opportunity for negotiating and peacefully resolving conflict. He thought East Timorese could find common cause with groups fighting oppression inside Indonesia. His Indonesian friends found Herb sincere, but utopian, detached from reality. And, indeed, one wonders at the conundrum. How could the eight year old who watched Hitler’s troops move in to Vienna to the rapturous applause of Austria’s Christians become the man, sophisticated in the study of political theory, who carried inside himself the knowledge that he had personally escaped the destruction of Europe’s Jewry – how could this man believe that Indonesia’s armed forces, Muslims, Communists and rebels could arrive at a peaceful, satisfying reconciliation of live and let live?

His faithful biographer reports from Herb’s personal jottings his awareness of being vulnerable to superficiality, his bouts of illness and depression that prevented him from standing up in the lecture theatre or reading his students’ drafts. She reports his relief at retirement in 1990. Now Herb could engage in acts of goodness and loving kindness, unfettered by obligations to university bureaucracy.

It was given to Herb to find happiness in Indonesia again. Following Suharto’s fall he was welcomed in liberal circles, for he was the historian of 1950s ‘constitutional democracy’. Invitations to Gajah Mada University allowed him to teach peace studies and conflict resolution, and to receive visitors and journalists at his simple lodgings in Bulak Sumur. From there he apparently did not observe the growth of Islamism, its definitions of enemy other – the West, Israel, ‘deviant’ Muslims, Christians – the opposition from Muslim spokesmen to Megawati’s bid for Indonesia’s presidency, the demands for implementation of complete sharia, the laskars. He was elated by the referendum in East Timor and rendered distraught by the pro-Indonesia militia’s revenge. Perhaps it was as well that he was back in Australia as Christians and Muslims fought each other in Ambon.

In the past decade I have lost my three professors of Indonesia: John Smail, Herbert Feith and Jamie Mackie. Jemma Purdey ends her long book with the word Requiem, the prayer for lasting rest inscribed in the Latin mass for the dead. Perhaps, somewhere, there is a whispered Kaddish for Herb too. Indonesians and Herb’s friends across the world paused to remember him that November of 2001 as a man of ethics, who brought moral passion to scholarship and good deeds. From Vienna to Yogyakarta was a difficult and humbling book to read, and more difficult yet to write about, discovering, through Purdey, the inner torment behind the charisma, generosity and enigma of the public man.

Jemma Purdey, From Vienna to Yogyakarta: The Life of Herb Feith, Sydney, University of New South Wales Press, 2011.

Jean Gelman Taylor(jeant@unsw.edu.au) teaches history at the University of New South Wales.

Inside Indonesia 107: Jan-Mar 2012

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