When I went to Bali a few years ago, I didn’t go, like most tourists, for the beaches or, like Elizabeth Gilbert, for love. I went for the religion. I wanted to learn something about the unique brand of Hinduism practiced there.
Balinese Hinduism differs from Indian Hinduism in many ways. For example, in Balinese temples there are often no images of God. But for me the most arresting religious image I encountered was the empty chair.
I saw this chair, typically crafted of stone, everywhere in Bali—on streetcorners and mountaintops, and in households and rice fields. It is a shrine to Ida Sanghyang Widhi, the High God to Balinese Hindus. And it symbolizes, among other things, the indescribability of the divine.
Historians say this icon was brought to Bali in the sixteenth century from Java. Religious Studies scholars see some Buddhist influence here, which would not be surprising since Buddhism thrives throughout the Indonesian archipelago that encompasses Bali.
I saw the empty chair as an invitation—an invitation to reckon with God on your own terms and in your own way. I also saw it as an elegant refusal—a refusal to reduce God to simplistic terms we can understand.
ZZZZZZZ—huh, wha? Sorry, please go on.
Clint Eastwood has now turned “the empty chair” into a meme of a very different sort. In his speech on Thursday at the Republican National Convention, he argued with an invisible Barack Obama in an empty chair, drawing applause from the audience but upstaging Mitt Romney in the process.
What struck me as I saw this performance was how different Eastwood’s use of the empty chair was from how people use it in Bali.
In Bali, to stand in front of the empty chair is to reckon with your limits, and particularly with what you don’t know. But Eastwood and those who applauded him were driven by hubris, not humility. They claimed to know what Obama would say if he were in fact sitting in that chair, and of course the words they put in his mouth (including profanities) were words of their choosing, not his.
Maybe this is what Neil Diamond meant in “I Am I Said”:
“I am,” I said
To no one there
An no one heard at all
Not even the chair
Of course the chair didn’t hear. It was reckoning with your limits… or its limits. Or something.
I’m still not sure this piece isn’t a complete joke. Rather, I know that it is, but I can’t decide if it’s intentional or not. And lest you have any concerns:
My point is not that Obama is a God and should be treated with the reverence of one.
Personally, I thought Eastwood’s performance was note perfect. His seeming rambling always rounded to a sharp point. Mark Steyn compared him to a jazz improvisor, but I think it was pure comic genius. Professor (racist code word alert!) Irwin Corey made a career out of this sort of performance.