In the Light of Raden Adjeng Kartini

(Article published in “Le Banian”, july 2017, Paris, translated from French by Anne Losq)

When reading Raden Adjeng Kartini’s letters, we can understand why she became a key figure in her country. Although her life was that of a young princess retained in the family palace and subject to her father’s law until her relatively late marriage, she also rebelled against the rules of her milieu and the conventions of her time. The calm child was also a revolutionary. This spurred the birth of an icon, both an image and a fantasy, a force of the imagination and a messenger of reality, marked by an ancestral myth and sowing the seeds to a new story. Political authority can’t ignore such symbolic work since that is what legitimizes it to all, no matter the regime that serves and embodies it: since 1964 (under Sukarno), the 21st of April became a national holiday, as it was the date of birth of the first activist for women’s education and the founder of the first school for girls in Indonesia. Kartini’s death at 25 years old in 1904 – four days after the birth of her first child –  as well as her published letters, which were translated into several European languages as early as 1911, quickly made her into a legend: she became the Mother of Indonesian women, a “Mother”, just as other great Indian saints had become, but unlike Joan of Arc, Thérèse de Lisieux, Louise Michel or Marie Curie in the French Nation, despite France’s penchant for the archetype of a fighting, liberating and nurturing woman, as Delacroix’s painting “Liberty Leading the People” attests.


Out of the hundred published letters, I only read nineteen, which were published in Jakarta by the Ecole française d’Extrême Orient and translated from Dutch by Louis Charles Damais. These writings showcase a humble yet determined activist. History wasn’t mistaken; the letters are filled with remarks and observations that reveal a visionary, the Legend holds true. I wish to testify first as a simple reader – Kartini is, for example, very critical of religious obscurantism and shares instead her wish for an “internal religion, without a baptism[1]”. I also wish to testify as a musician regarding thirty lines that were written in 1902, describing the sensations of Kartini’s soul traversed by her alert mind when she heard a gamelan. Such a paroxysmal experience says more about music – its foundation – and the deep feelings that reflect spontaneously in it, than many musicological discourses can: these few lines are some of the aptest ones I have had the pleasure of reading on the meaning of music and its scope. In our cultural sphere, Jankelevitch and Ansermet, who could also venture towards extremes, knew how to interrogate the musical experience with the same penetration. And this latter word is not used in vain, since it does indeed imply the virile act of a sharp spirit penetrating its object, and inseminating it until it transforms it from the inside[2].


Listening to a Glass Gamelan, Made of Silence and Light


A glass gamelan is played in the palace in which the young woman has been confined for several years now. As soon as the first notes ring, she listens and relays her experience immediately[3] to a Dutch correspondent. Thirty lines in all, informed by three sub-moments within her revelation[4]:

1 – Astonishment – the turmoil of the heart and the soul;

2 – Together, memory and oblivion revitalize the first moment of astonishment and intensify it towards melancholy or its opposite, ecstasy;

3 – And, finally, the vision of the mind – grasping the present time.


Of course, we shouldn’t take away a single word from lines that contain everything, but I would like to offer a blueprint meant to lead the reader to the full text:

The first movement, which starts similarly to the world of Wayang: “ … that is no tinkling of glass, of copper, of wood; it is the voices of men’s souls that speak to me… And my soul soars with the murmuring and my soul shivers and trembles within me with anguish and pain and sorrow.”

Second movement: « Still now that the gamelan is silent I cannot recall a single note, everything is driven from my memory, the sad and lovely air is gone that made me so inexpressibly happy, and so deeply melancholic at the same time. I can never hear “Ginonding” without deep emotion, the first chords of the splendid prelude, and I am lost.”

Third movement: « I must hearken to the murmuring voices, which tell me of the past, and of the future. The breath of its thrilling silver strains blows away the veil which covers the secrets of what is to be, and clear as though it were today visions of the future rise to my mind…. and in my heart it is again light.


Such a journey has no beginning and no end. It renders us aware of the immediate and unifying conscience music can awaken within us, this « Spherical sound[5]», immaterial and nonetheless very vibrantEmptinesswhich contains nothing and yet penetrates each and every thing, for which the blossoming and the beat were to be, a half a century later, the very heart of Giacinto Scelsi’s music[6].

Everywhere around us, selfies multiply, sent as soon as they are taken. And the images that are exchanged tell us more about the flight of reality, the desire for the self and for the other, in an endless mirror game mise en abîme. The present instant is vastly different from these instant snapshots, it is a unique instant which extends without repeating itself, another dimension of the Being that can only be accessed by inverting the movement for which the selfie is a symptom. It consists in asceticism of the heart and of the mind. Before technological times, and based on what the young solitary princess saw with her own eyes and within herself, she knew this all too well. She lived it intensely: “We had sought so far and so long, we did not know that it was near, that it was always with us, that it was in us.[7]

[1] See p.171

[2]This statement can be read in Louis Massignon’s excellent preface: «We notice, in the case of Kartini in Java… the resurgence of an old theme that is archetypal to humanity, the isolated appearance of a “sublimed” exceptional person, of a woman “masculinized into a hero”, for having initiated other women to Knowledge usually reserved to men; and, beyond that, to the conception of wisdom”.

[3]See p.64-65. This is, at least, what she stages in the act of writing: “It is not my fault, Stella, if now and then I write nonsense. The gamelan in the pendopo could speak to you better than I. Now it is playing a lovely air.” This explains that, in the text, the narrated experience reflects alternating moments of silence and sounds, while also continuing to progress in line with its internal movement.

[4]And to think that she had to leave school at twelve and a half..! She was able to brilliantly benefit from her many solitary readings (quality of the content, rigor in form) and the dependability of her intuition!

[5] According to Giacinto Scelsi’s words.

[6]1905-1988. A large part of his works are on Youtube. His writing in the original language, French, are published by “Le Parole Gelate” in Rome and “Acte Sud” in France.

[7] See p.151



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