Excerpt: Introduction by Peter Dale Scott

Excerpt: Introduction by Peter Dale Scott

I owe the existence of this book to the vision and persistence of my friend and co-author, Freeman Ng. It grew out of the 28 hours of interviews Freeman conducted with me about my poem Coming to Jakarta, a poem which was written after a night of panic, and which came slowly to focus on the U.S.-backed massacre of Indonesian leftists in 1965.

Just as writing the poem had been an important learning and healing experience for me, so also the interviews proved to be, as did the writing of this book and even the final editing of it. Without such a lengthy interactive process, I would never have dared to write a book so conceptually wide-ranging.

Those interviews, edited, form Chapter I of this book. For those not already familiar with the poem Coming to Jakarta, Chapter I’s edited transcripts of Freeman’s interviews with me may be the most important part of the book. Like the poem itself, these discussions view the massacre through the personal and poetic lens of the panic attack I experienced in November 1980, when I briefly, and not for the first time, feared I was going insane. The problem of how to stay sane in an insanely violent society emerges as a major theme of both the poem and this book, first for myself and then in general.

In Chapter II, I meditate on the experience of writing the poem, and on all serious poetry, as a disruption of the presentational self and the presentational world by disturbances from somewhere deeper within us, and how these disruptions of established order contribute to cultural evolution (ethogeny).

In Chapter III, as in my poem, I return to my obsession with the massacre, driven by a sense that it is important to air and deal with America’s covert involvement in that crime. The extreme violence and terror of that episode can stand as an epitome of the intolerable resort to violence that both characterizes our current civilization and threatens its nuclear destruction.

I return at greater length to the themes of art. healing, and political consciousness in Chapter IV, which serves as a bridge between my discussions about the poetry of Coming to Jakarta, and Chapter V, my 1985 political prose account of the massacre. (Chapter V, a prose summary of insights I had through writing the poem, is based on remarks I used in a debate with former CIA chief William Colby at a convention of Asian scholars. The chapter itself in this form was published repeatedly in Indonesia, even though officially banned by the Suharto government.).

In Chapter IV I write primarily about writing the poem as a cognitive process. But it was also, and more importantly, a healing one. The healing process is the more important: from being a rational but alienated anti-war activist at the poem’s outset, I become more committed to nonviolence with all my being, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, at its end. But in the chapter I mostly try to explain how writing the poem was also an essential step in the evolution of my ideas about deep politics, deep events, and the deep state.

Finally, I conclude with Chapter VI, an essay which looks at the slow emergence of Indonesia from the shadow of the massacre, and at cultural evolution from the perspective of literary responses to political catastrophes. In this way it reaffirms how poetry, seen in this light, has helped and still can help address our social psychoses, refine fundamental human truths and bring us closer to them, and thus help empower us to modify the violent structures by which we are now governed and misgoverned.

From this perspective, traumatic breakdowns can be seen as having a beneficial effect. To quote from the hymn “Patmos” of Hölderlin, whose traumas ultimately overcame him, “Wo aber Gefahr ist, wächst. Das Rettende auch” (“Yet where danger is, grows also what saves”).


When most of this book was written, I had no reason to think that either Indonesia or America would, in my lifetime, become open to examining the truth about the United States and the Indonesian massacre. But as we shall see in Chapter VI, in Indonesia at least there is a new spirit of reconsidering the government’s half century of propaganda about the massacre. This change is due chiefly to two remarkable films by Josh Oppenheimer, “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence,” that managed (thanks to the Internet) to be seen by Indonesians, despite vigorous official efforts at first to prevent this. This new awareness has changed Indonesian history.

I cannot refrain from mentioning that in 2014 Oppenheimer, in an unsolicited email, wrote me that “your writing about Indonesia has been an important inspiration for this whole project, and I have revisited it again and again. Above all Coming to Jakarta, but also your survey of American involvement in the genocide.”

— from Poetry And Terror: Politics and Poetics in Coming To Jakarta, by Peter Dale Scott and Freeman Ng, Lexington Books, all rights reserved.