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Living in a Time of Madness: Last Days of Java's Last Prophetic Poet

  • Room 203, Luce Hall, Yale University 34 Hillhouse Avenue New Haven, CT, 06511 United States (map)

Shortly before his death in December 1873, the renowned Javanese court poet R. Ng. Ronggawarsita composed a short work of social criticism and Islamic ethics that is among the most celebrated of Javanese literary texts. Serat Kalatidha (The Time of Darkness) reflects upon the avenues that remain open to the ethical subject in what Ronggawarsita calls the “time of madness,” the time of darkness and error that marked his dismal present in high colonial Java. Most celebrated as a prophecy, the poem is, in part, a critical reworking of an early nineteenth-century prophetic reflection on the Javanese past. My talk explores the troubled context in which the author wrote this twelve-stanza (108-line) poem and how its text forms both a critical commentary on the state of the poet’s current-day society and a pensive reflection on the ethical imperatives of Islam. In the course of this exploration, I reveal how Ronggawarsita’s poem forms a prophecy, not as a foretelling of an already determined future, but rather as a work that moves along prophetic time to provoke in his readers a productive intimacy with both pasts and futures.

Professor Nancy Florida is a historian of colonial and postcolonial Indonesia whose work concerns Javanese and Indonesian history, historiography, and literary studies; Islam in Indonesia; and mass violence and trauma. She is a professor of Javanese and Indonesian Studies at the University of Michigan, where she served as Director of the University’s Islamic Studies Program 2010-2012. Her most recent book, Javanese Literature in Surakarta Manuscripts, Vol. 3 (2012), is the third of three volumes detailing the contents of some 700,000 pages of Javanese manuscripts stored in three royal archives in Surakarta, Indonesia.

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