If you were to approach Bali from the North East, you will see the great Mount Agung – Bali’s highest peak – and the smaller, stouter Mount Batur. The two mountains stand large upon the supple, tropical scape of Bali and its smooth, pristine white beaches like lopsided, uneven teats.
Of course, there are other equally analogous – but perhaps more tasteful – ways to bring to literary life an asymmetrical two-mountain formation. You could go with mismatched characters in popular culture: Batman and Joker; The Mountain and Tyrion Lannister; Rizzoli and Isles; Pinky and The Brain. You could use coffeehouse lingo: one’s a venti, the other’s a regular. One’s Starbucks, the other is That Booth That Sells Coffee At The Corner of Kopitiam. One’s a tall robusta brew, the other’s a decaf (both are definitely off Java).
Instead, I chose ‘lopsided, uneven teats’. What does that say about me?
Is it reflective of my personality that I used ‘teats’ and not ‘breasts’, ‘boobs’, ‘tits’ or ‘badonkadonks’? Is it revealing that I chose to engender my comparison of the mountains to the feminine? Is it even more revealing that after I chose to engender it, I described it as defective – as ‘lopsided, uneven’? Is my conscious avoidance of adjectives more suited for mountains, such as ‘majestic’ or ‘imposing’, telling of my biases?
All that said, Mount Agung is undoubtedly majestic and imposing. Its foot is shoed with gorgeous green farmland bedding the lush flora along its slopes in an exquisite exhibition of fertility – Mount Agung is an active stratovolcano whose infrequent but tumultuous eruptions have done wonders for the arability of the land surrounding it. It stands slightly over three kilometres in height, greatly towering over the other mountains that ennoble Bali’s north.
It is also a holy site. Erected along its terraced south-eastern slope is the great Pura Besakih, the Mother Temple of Besakih and the holiest site of Balinese Hinduism. The sprawling complex houses 23 separate temples, all to venerate Mount Agung’s association with Mount Meru, the residence of the Gods and the central axis of the universe.
Being in the north of the island, it takes at least two hours to reach the foot of Mount Agung by car from the pleasure centres of Kuta, Seminyak, Canggu and Ubud. Arranging for a climb is easy enough – most Balinese hotels are already partnered with mountain climbing groups who will provide transportation to and from the mountain, a guide and a porter (for small groups, they’re usually the same person), and even insurance. If you want to separate accommodation from leisure like state from church/temple, you can make arrangements with any number of TripAdvisor-recommended trek and tour groups.
The decision to climb Mount Agung was, to put it crudely, impromptu. The truth was that it was unplanned, but I was prompted to climb it for its ties to spirituality. Even though I was not a practitioner of Balinese Hinduism, something about its incredibly majestic size and the way it lords over all of Bali that fascinated me. Symbolically, it would be like I conquered God, or perhaps the mountain of enmity I felt towards my father. I could not tell.
COMING ROUND THE MOUNTAIN, WHEN HE COMES
I told the concierge of my plans to climb Mount Agung that very night (it was eleven in the morning), and a short phone call to their preferred partner in trekking later, I was penned in for a sunrise expedition. The damage was 2.5 million rupiah (just over S$260), though I’m sure part of it went to the hotel for their phone-calling services.
I was in Bali to write my book, but another adventure was at hand, begging to be afoot.
A blue Toyota SUV arrived at my hotel at about 10 pm. The driver, a portly man in a baby blue short-sleeved shirt, and the guide, a lanky man with a toothy grin named Made Suardika, greeted me at the lobby. I didn’t quite catch the driver’s name so I referred to him as ‘Pak’, a veneration for older Indonesian men.
They led me to their SUV. Already in it were two Caucasian dudes, decked out in full trekking gear – including those miner hats with the forward-pointing lamps attached. They were tall, lanky blonds.
The one closer to me, the one with the gentle eyes and thick lips, wearing an oversized orange windbreaker, said hello first. He said his name was Tomasz. I told him mine and that it was good to meet him.
I offered my hand to the other gentleman.
He took it and said, “Olivier.”
The first thought that came to my head was: it’s okay to add an extra ‘i’ in Oliver, but it’s less okay to add an extra ‘i’ in pens. I wanted to say it, but I did not let it slip.
Olivier seemed the kind of guy who would have asked, “What’s a piens?”
I told him it was good to meet him too.
FREUD WAS FULL OF SHIT
The car took off, and sped into the night, towards She-Who-I-Must-Conquer. I opened my book. I had bought Oedipus Rex as part of a lifelong fascination with all things classical. Over the course of the journey, I read up to the point in which Oedipus was gouging his eyes out with golden hair-pins after finding the corpse of his wife/mother.
Olivier broke the silence that had pervaded the car for the past two hours. “Freud was full of shit,” he said. I thought he was speaking to Tomasz, but when he repeated it, I saw that he was looking straight at me and my book.
Freud’s theory of the Oedipal Complex, Olivier explained, was derived from a flawed reading of the legend of Oedipus. I had never questioned it. Oedipus did end up in an incestuous marriage with his mother and kill his father—
“Unknowingly,” said Olivier, who I would later learn was German. Oedipus did not kill his father out of some jealousy for his mother’s affections, nor did he develop misappropriated sexual love for his mother. Oedipus’ downfall was a result of toying with fate and disregarding the oracle, rather than the burgeoning sexual impulses of a young man.
In his book Interpretation of Dreams, Freud wrote, “His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours — because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so.”
I do not remember dreaming of sleeping with my mother, and I do not remember harbouring thoughts of murdering my father. “Have you?” I asked Olivier. He, of course, shakes his head. I asked Tomasz. Parting his thick lips, he said, “When I was in my youth, I wanted the reverse. I wish I had a closer relationship with my father, and I wanted to kill my mother.”
The three of us fell into silence. The driver said something to Made Suardika, and the guide laughed.
THE HERMENEUTICS OF SUSPICION
We reached the carpark outside of Pura Besakih at about one in the morning.
Suardika walks up the stone steps of the Mother Temple and burns a stick of incense and places it at a receptacle in the form of some deity’s cupped hand. He places a canang sari – an offerings box containing coloured flowers to please the Gods and the spirits of the mountain – at the doorway of the temple.
He then took us to a dirt path next to the mountain, and we took our first step towards the heavens. Our trek had begun.
“Freud’s hermeneutics of suspicion? Bullshit.” Olivier had added, over the crushing of twigs and leaves and a hundred tiny animals under our shoes.
The hermeneutics of suspicion was one of several unifying themes in the writings of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche – one that questioned the purpose and necessity of religion and God. Freud believed our need to develop a closer, more personal relationship with God was a projection of our need to secure our parents’ approval, a product of wish-fulfilment rather than whatever it is we believe spirituality is.
The counterpoint to Freud’s disregard for God came in British author Richard Webster’s book Why Freud Was Wrong. In it, he accused Freud himself of projecting his rather dejected childhood onto his input into the hermeneutics of suspicion. In developing the psychoanalytic method and in rejecting notions of religion, Freud had created a complex, and very successful pseudo-religion. People no longer rose above the dregs of sin and suffering by supplicating to a higher being, but by lying at the shrine of the psychiatrist’s office, bearing their soul only to find that the crux of all – ALL – their problems is some erotically charged, unresolved issue with a parent.
In Islam, you have salat. In Catholicism, you have mass. In Judaism, you have tefillah. In Freud’s Church of Psychoanalysis, you have free association. How you respond to seemingly random words betray more of your personality than you know. Free association and psychoanalysis, of course, is a discontinued practice among today’s mental health specialists, like an old religion buried under the sands of human progress. Dust to dust.
His work, however, did lead towards more productive discoveries in the field of mental health. He wasn’t so much a messiah, he was merely a messenger who misinterpreted the message he was supposed to impart. He was, nevertheless, a fantastic observer. His recordings of his patients and subjects were impeccable, and he maintained empiricism in his observations. What he gleaned from these observations, however, is, to quote Olivier, ‘bullshit’.
We trudged on up the mountain. Tomasz gives a nervous chuckle or two as Olivier continues his tirade about Freud.
At about 2000 metres from the ground, the temperature started to get noticeably colder. I found myself thinking of Icarus, flying closer to the sun only for the heat to melt the wax that held his wings together. I thought of Icarus… and thought Diodorus (who wrote the tragedy of Daedalus and Icarus) was also full of shit.
SIGMUND FREUD: FATHER OF MANSPLAINING
As cold greens gave way to colder, barren, rocky wasteland towards the top 800 meters or so of Mount Agung, our expedition trudged on through ragged breaths. Olivier was no longer ranting, but he had brought me on a thought-train that led to one realization.
Sigmund Freud was the father of mansplaining.
Women, Freud argued, are hommes manqué – men who have failed to live up to their ambition. Women are both symbolically and rather literally castrated, and suffer from ‘penis envy’ (used here to mean envy due to a longing to have a penis, as compared to how it is used today). He used this ‘theory of femininity’ to mansplain that girls suffer anxiety early in their lives due to their genital inferiority to boys. As a result, they develop a sexual desire for their fathers, who possess the penis whose absence between their legs they are acutely aware of.
British philosopher AC Grayling once wrote in an article for The Guardian, “Freud identified the “phallic phase” in girls as an infantile stage involving external genital pleasure, initiated by the nappy-changing mother (whom girls blame for their “castration”, hence mother-daughter conflict); so any woman who does not mature by developing a capacity for internal, that is vaginal, orgasm has remained in the infantile stage.”
As you can imagine, this theory of femininity did not go well with opponents of incest (a large bulk of the population), and even more so, feminists. More modern studies, backed by empirical research, have shown the clitoris to be the sensory focal point of the female genitalia. Moreover, women are capable of multiple orgasms stemming from the clitoris. Today, some argue that female sexual pleasure is independent of a male partner.
We reached the top of Mount Agung at about 5 in the morning. We sat on a large rock, shivering above the clouds, and were blessed with the most majestic sunrise I had ever witnessed. In that moment, I forgot about my issues with my father and/or God. I forgot about the anxieties I might have had during my sexual maturity. I thought of my mother, so far away from where I was, in a completely filial, non-sexual manner. I wondered if she was happy, healthy, safe.
There, I found out more about my trekking companions. Tomasz was going through a divorce. Suardika had five children, ages five to twenty. Olivier’s father was named Sigmund.
Read the full text of Oedipus Rex here.