Chasing Dubois's Ghost
My guide was startled by my sadness and later asked about the incident. He could not understand how I could feel "so sharp about someone dead 100 years." He explained that the Javanese mourn their dead mothers, fathers and grandparents, but not "someone you never see." Nothing I said about my emotional connection to this long-dead man whose words and work I had studied so closely seemed to resonate with him. I tried a metaphor, saying that I was walking in Dubois’s footsteps, chasing his ghost, but this seemed equally incomprehensible. Then I remembered a passage in my phrasebook.
Verbs in Indonesian are not conjugated. That is, unlike European languages, the form of the verb does not change according to the tense or the person. So, for example, mereka pergi can mean "they go", "they will go", "they were going", "they went", or "they have gone." . . . Usually the context in which you hear the verb will make it clear whether the speaker is referring to the past, present or future.
In Bahasa Indonesian, the past is implied, not demarcated. The linguistic difference reflects a perceived difference in the nature of time. Western time is a linear, unidirectional narrative; Javan time is not. This revelation confused me as profoundly as my search for the concrete remnants of history had confused many Indonesians on my journey.
If there is no past tense, is there no past? The past is the stuff of my work as a paleoanthropologist and historian of science. Thinking about a culture that functions without a past made my eyes cross. What did this mean, I wondered, for Dubois, searching for evidence of the deep past in a land where the past exists only by implication?
Then I recalled a moment of epiphany at the monument Dubois erected to mark the spot where he discovered the remains of Pithecanthropus erectus. I had looked up and seen a man up to his knees in river water, fishing, and standing on the old excavation.
I felt as if I had been slapped, so sudden was my insight. Dubois risked everything, found the missing link, erected a plinth to mark the spot for all time, and he didn't put his own name on it. During his lifetime, Dubois was called hard, stubborn and impossibly demanding by his colleagues; his wife left him; even a former student called him a "psychical monster." But now I saw the truth: Everything he did was about P.e., not about himself. What was not there was more important than what was.
Much later, I learned that the closest equivalent for "history" in Bahasa Indonesian is "a long way away in time." It was the perfect phrase, a long way away in time: That was where I had been. Sometimes I was so close to Dubois that we shared experiences. Yet those who guided me to him neither knew where I wanted to go nor recognized the place when we arrived.
I learned some simple and powerful lessons in Java. Things are not always as they seem. The past may be indistinguishable from the present. Context is everything: geological context, intellectual context, linguistic context, cultural context. In Java, it seems as if the physical laws of time and space are warped into a Möbius strip. One can never hope to see all that is there, and sometimes what is missing is most important of all.
© Pat Shipman