Darkness Made Visible

John Cadet

If you shine a powerful light into a black hole, you will see nothing whatsoever - even the light swallowed up. That's not to say that there's nothing there. Think of all the things that have gone into the hole over the countless aeons and not come out again. At the very least, extraordinarily potent forces are at work in the darkness. But for all that you can see, however piercing the in-going light may be, the result is the same - nothing visible.

That was very much the situation when Dr. (as he is now) Niels Mulder first came to Thailand in the middle 60s. All sorts of canny Westerners had visited the kingdom and shone their intelligence into its tumultuous darkness, returning with interesting accounts of what they'd seen there... from literary confections like Children of the Sun, and the products of Cornell's bright boys, who swore they'd observed a ‘loose-structured' society, to the reports of the missionaries, many of whom were convinced they'd encountered the Tempter himself - as they probably had, the poor devils.

In only one respect was there general agreement. From 14th C. Confucian Zhou Daguan to 19th C. Christian divines, and right down to present-day Tom, Dick and Harriet on their Soi Cowboy barstools, it's been taken as axiomatic that in Southeast Asia as a whole, and in the Thai sphere most especially, women enjoy a degree of moral ascendancy over their men-folk to be found nowhere else. The fact that no such distinctive relationship is acknowledged by the Thai male is of course irrelevant. We are speaking here of what the outsiders see when they look inside.

As to what they see when they go inside...

Mulder arrived at an exciting juncture in modern Thai history, between the dictatorships of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat and the triumvirate that followed him - when to speak, let alone to act politically could be fatally frowned upon - and the brief but glorious ‘Thai spring' of 1973-6, when a thousand voices were raised and quite a few schools contended, also with fatalities.

Young, incredibly diligent, not at all impressed by the socio-anthropological models then on offer, Mulder learned the language, read the literature, listened to popular music, interviewed a broad spectrum of academics, clerics, political activists, lectured at the major universities and published in social science journals. He also experienced at first hand the life lived in Bangkok from the slums to the flesh-pots, so he was able to garner, organise and refine a mass of material that in 1979 was published as Everyday Life in Thailand: An Interpretation (Editions Duang Kamol). Now in its sixth edition and re-titled Inside Thai Society: Religion. Everyday Life. Change. (Silkworm Books), for the non-academic outsider this is probably the best academic introduction you can have to the Thai world-view, so that upgraded, the book reads as well today as it did when first written.

And ‘incredibly diligent' is no exaggeration. Not content with the double life between Amsterdam and Thailand, Mulder tripled and then quadrupled that life by turning his attention and language talents to the cultures of Indonesia and the Philippines. As a result he now has some five major works in publication, and can claim to be one of the foremost guides to, and interpreters of, Southeast Asian culture.

Which brings us, briefly, to his latest opus, the curiously-titled Doing Thailand: the Anthropologist as a Young Dog etc...

Mulder had some problems finding a publisher for this book, and after a couple of pages you begin to see why. Through with shining his light into darkness - with formal research - his intention here is to look back on his early years in this country and review the methods and experiences that shaped the images he's come up with since.

He does so brilliantly, so that, far from being the usual top-down picture from the ivory tower, this is a Bruegel-like phantasmagoria of Thailand in the Vietnam-war era, painted from the bottom up, the way no-one else has presented it.

So why the difficulty publishing?

The problem is that Mulder, young as he was then and more mature as he may be now, has all the sensitivity to Thai cultural imperatives of a bull-elephant in a china shop...No, no! That's pitifully inadequate. Of a bull-elephant in must in a china shop. It's not that he doesn't know Thai mores, or simply refuses to conform to them. On the contrary, he rejoices in his nonconformity and insists on flaunting it. As a result he was thrown out of his Chula hostel for bringing in a prostitute, upset the sensitive souls at Thailand's premier university by not dressing, speaking and behaving as an acharya should, put up in the Makassan slum with an illiterate Northeasterner who plied her 20-baht trade in Sampeng. And having assiduously learned all he could from her, and tried to lift her fractionally above the hand-to-mouth existence she struggled in - and with his wife due to arrive from Amsterdam, and the girl showing signs of possessive truculence (he sees the value of sleeping his last few days with her, face down) - he puts his scanty belongings together and does the flit. His marriage comes apart, of course. What could you expect, when he tries to show his wife not only his Sampeng stamping-grounds but the girls he'd enjoyed there? So that when, during his later ECAFE spell, he makes a dog's breakfast of his part in a Royal diploma-awarding ceremony - that simple ritual that every graduate practices and performs faultlessly - you're likely to feel your case that he flaunts and rejoices in his nonconformity is incontestable.

And if you still have doubts, turn to photo 34 of this book, taken during a visit to the ‘Shrine of the Mother Ruler'. It shows the younger Mulder waving cheerfully to the camera, sitting astride a four-foot long, perfectly-fashioned, Shiva-linggam, the representation of a phallus. ‘Take that!' so to speak.

The great value of this book then is that it presents not only a picture of the underside of Thai society that nobody else has given us, but the portrait of the Westerner in the process of painting it. Mulder may well be the monster of energy, appetite and ego he portrays himself as, but he's unquestionably a sacred monster, a highly-talented anthropologist, raconteur and writer, and it's good that White Lotus Press has had the courage to publish him as it does here, warts and all - with the promise, it seems, of more to follow.

Pricey at B.575 for just above one hundred pages, did you say? Take the reviewer's word for it - Doing Thailand is worth every satang you pay. It's an eye-opener.

Text and images © 2008 J.M. Cadet

The reviewer lives and writes in Thailand , and his works - The Ramakien: the Thai epic among them - are available in major bookshops