The World as a Stage

Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali

by Clifford Geertz
Princeton University Press, 295 pp., $5.95 (paper)

The term “negara” in Professor Geertz’s title refers to the pattern of supreme political authority that prevailed over much of Southeast Asia in the precolonial period. The main purpose of Geertz’s study is to delineate the general structure of the negara by focusing on one particularly well-documented case, that of Bali in the era preceding the Dutch invasion of 1906. The outcome is a fascinating and remarkable book, in which the detailed ethnography is presented with exemplary skill, while the wider implications of the investigation for an understanding of political life are explored at the same time with rare sensitivity and intelligence.

Before turning to the general significance of Geertz’s findings, I will try to reproduce his portrait of the negara itself, even though any such attempt is bound to suffer from being overexplicit as well as oversimplified. The political system Geertz describes was grounded on the assumption that the achievement of good order in political life is essentially a matter of mirroring the divine order of the universe. When the Balinese reflected on the character of this divine order, they arrived at two connected beliefs which in turn served to underpin the fabric of their social world. The first was a view about the nature of divinity itself. The cosmos was pictured as a hierarchy in which Siva, the supreme God, sits enthroned at the axis in a state of utter immobility. He is surrounded at each of the cardinal points by lesser powers, the whole tableau conveying the idea that the highest divinity consists in being the still center of a turning world.

The other relevant belief concerned the relationship between mankind and the gods. This was held to be one of descent in both meanings of the term: not merely a genealogical descent but also a decline in status from a pristine level of divine worth. However, it was further believed that this process of decay had developed unevenly, so that the sublunary world still contained a small number of families that retained some closeness to their divine origins, as well as a vastly larger number that had fallen away more grievously from the core and apex of divine excellence.

The most important institution which these assumptions helped to sustain was, as one might expect, a form of “divine right” kingship. The point of creating a negara was, as Geertz puts it, to establish “a cosmologically based exemplary state”; therefore such an ideal of monarchy could scarcely have failed to become central to Balinese political life. However, the actual conduct of Bali’s kings could hardly have been more unexpected or indeed more paradoxical from the point of view of Western theories about the religious basis of sovereignty. Since politics in Bali was conceived as the art of mirroring the cosmos, the king’s principal task became that of offering an earthly analogy for Siva’s rule over the universe. But as we have seen, Siva’s supremacy was expressed in the form of a blank and unending passivity. So…

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