Memory Work: Poetry, the Unconscious, and Justice

A Review of Peter Dale Scott’s “Poetry and Terror, Politics and Poetics in Coming to Jakarta”

In Poetry and Terror, Politics and Poetics in Coming to Jakarta, Peter Dale Scott again takes on his great subject—the 1965 massacre in Indonesia—during which some two million people were slaughtered. 

In 1988, Scott published his groundbreaking book, Coming to Jakarta: A Poem about Terror, (New Directions). In 2018, he returns to it. Over some thirty Saturday afternoons between 2011 and 2013, Freeman Ng, the writer and digital artist, recorded online interviews with Scott. The two discuss the unfolding genesis and evolution of Coming to Jakarta. 

After the Shoah, that mass murder was perhaps the worst of the twentieth century. Following the overthrow of Sukarno, the U.S. “supported and facilitated the ensuing massacre.” Indonesia served, in turn, as a model for the 1973 CIA coup in Chile. Scott describes his poetry as akin to the Errinerungsarbeit, or “memory work,” that followed the Nazi era. The recovery of suppressed memories is necessary for communal and individual healing. Such work exposes our culture’s shared lies, our false reasonableness. At great personal cost, and often as a lone voice, Scott uncovered and exposed the depth of American involvement in the mass murder in Indonesia. Poetry and Terror is valuable on its own terms, even to those who do not yet know Coming to Jakarta. Those who know the poem will find their understanding deepened and extended.

Psychic upheavals can lead to truth and understanding and can be, as Scott terms it, “fortunate falls.” Wordsworth’s Prelude followed a series of emotional crises after the French Reign of Terror and the poet’s separation from his French lover and their child. T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” followed psychological treatment in a Swiss sanatorium. Scott’s Coming to Jakarta began as a response to his “night of panic” and heightened depression, rooted in repressed memory and a sense of personal guilt. That terror was for Scott personal and social. Through Poetry and Terror, we see Scott’s career, his lifelong fight for truth, in a new light. As the poet struggles within himself, we learn about our country, the world, and the possible role of poetry in seeing clearly and even in making things better, in "repairing the breach." Through Scott’s example, we learn about tenacity and continuing to act in hope even if feeling hopeless.

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Scott and Ng discuss the unfolding genesis and evolution of Coming to Jakarta. They move us through the poem canto by canto. At times we hear Scott in dialogue with himself. He brackets corrections of earlier assertions, unwilling to bury what he has come to reject. We see a free mind in movement, openly in conversation with itself over time. That same open self-correction is to be found in the essays with which Scott concludes the book. Open exploration is Scott’s core ethos, and he has found poetry to be his richest means to that end, the most personally revelatory and transformative, and the most politically enduring.

Most of us suffer, Scott argues, from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. Contemporary America is insane, and the “job of poetry, its political job, is to refresh the idea of justice.” Scott recognizes his own “powers of denial” as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Commonly referred to as the “Berkeley Mafia,” several Indonesian economists trained in capitalism at UC Berkeley in 1961-1962 were appointed to key positions of power in the early days of Suharno’s “New Order” in 1966. The power of the regime was consolidated through mass murder and terror. The bodies of victims were skewered with bamboo so that they would float and terrify others. As late as 1975, in a kind of civilized detachment, Scott records publicly minimizing his university’s role. “We are part of the enemy,” he writes. Such attempts to minimize or rationalize or repress are common human failings, one part of our dual nature, leading to individual and communal suffering. Scott records with anguish episodes in his boyhood. He deflected violence onto others, bullying an orphan boy named Donald to keep from being bullied himself. That boy left school, enlisted in the military, and died in a German submarine attack in the Saint Lawrence waterway. Scott reports recovering other repressed memories in composing his poem. For example, when Scott and a colleague made plans to interview a credible witness claiming to have seen opium loaded on an Air America flight, that witness discovered a blast had opened a hole a foot wide in his car. In placid Palo Alto, he was terrified into silence. Scott had not allowed himself to remember the incident or see it as meaningful. In writing the poem, he remembered and reevaluated.

Scott comes to see his own civilized politeness as part of a larger problem. Though we expect organs of truth like the New York Times to offer sanitizing sunshine, that paper has offered uncorrected falsehoods. Scott offers as an example its false report on November 24, 1965 of a supposed North Vietnamese precondition for an American withdrawal of troops before the beginning of peace talks. During the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, when some 80,000 people were killed, the Times, along with the American press in general, remained largely silent. Culture, including some kinds of poetry, can create barriers to our health and full consciousness, offering up for our consumption false consolations, anodynes, and masks. Silence itself can be a weapon. Great poems, by contrast, can “help address our social psychoses.” Scott comes to see his Coming to Jakarta not merely as a form of personal recovery and renewal but as a contribution to cultural evolution (“ethogeny”). 

Why would Scott expect a relatively unpopular art form to effect such radical change? Robert Hass’s excellent introduction to Coming to Jakarta, reproduced in Poetry and Terror, offers one answer. The poem intends to integrate disparate social, economic, and aesthetic impulses “not just to understand the nature of terror, but to produce an aesthetic effect that might be called the sensation of understanding, the formal feeling of understanding.” In reading, we experience Scott’s inner process of uncovering and understanding. We too make discoveries that are linked to poetry’s essence, which requires an openness to the unconscious. The poem’s composition began, we learn, as a response to a fellow poet Robert Pinsky’s prompting not to allow a lyric to end in the mundane reality of an image but instead to embrace an “open ending.” That terminal question would become his epic’s beginning: “Have you something to tell me?”  

For years, Scott reports, he despaired of Coming to Jakarta having any effect on the world. Much later, he learned the poem was one source of inspiration for Josh Openheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014), documentaries viewed by large Western audiences and millions of Indonesians, spurring talk by a retired Indonesian army officer of creating a commission for truth and reconciliation. Oppenheimer wrote to Scott to thank him for having been “an important inspiration for this whole project.” The elections of 2017 and the imprisonment of a Chinese Christian reformer for blasphemy have caused Scott to step back from his hopes for immediate change. 

Auden asserted “poetry makes nothing happen,” instead flowing from “the ranches of isolation and busy griefs.” Many writers, critics, and readers assert that politics is the province of prose; the work of advocacy and transformation must not busy itself with poetry. Scott asserts a Romantic role for the poet and poetry. The suffering poet can be a prophetic seer. By submitting himself to the open dictates of his unconscious, stirred up, he has spoken living and enduring truths. Scott refers more than once to the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” 

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