Start searching »

In our third age

Reviewed item: 

While still in the field, I crashed into the wall that separates the second, or the working stage of our lives, from the third, the age of retirement, reflection, and recollection. It came abruptly and decidedly; all of a sudden, I was through; I knew I did not want to do any new research; the things that had preoccupied me during thirty-five years of professional life lay behind me. I would retire, somewhere around the Mediterranean; Southeast Asia was over and done with.

Even Amsterdam, the town that had always been like a warm womb in which I would relax after a stint of high visibility ‘in the field', didn't agree with me any longer. In between exploring a few cities at good distance from the harsh northerly winter, I still wrapped up my remaining findings in an ultimate academic title, Southeast Asian Images. Upon its conclusion, I was free to indulge in writing about how I had gained my insights and evolved from young dog in the mid-1960s to professional stranger at the end of the 1970s. It opened the gate through the wall. The gate, though, turned out to be like Alice's mirror as it landed me in a place where prospects had gone topsy-turvy and where time stood, as it were, in reverse.

In our third age, whether we like it or not, the past catches up with us and demands that we face it. It is a time in which memories that lay dormant for fifty, sixty years unexpectedly leap to life; it is a time that skeletons spring from their closet, that resentment over parental schemes long past starts gnawing at our soul, that we have to deal with indecisions that cast their shadow over our lives. Gracefully, if we have had the guts to face our frustrations, grudges have dissipated, and the past may accordingly become a story-telling friend, a pleasant companion in the time we are aging, as it is apparent from Nicholas Tarling's Memoir.

The point, therefore, is not whether we should deal with the past or not; with our lives willy-nilly revisiting us, we have little to choose from. The point rather is how we deal with the inevitable temps perdu. Some of us write about it to exorcise and be through with it; others visualize the evolution of their lives and personality in a Bildungsroman that may offer something of interest to people who have never known them; certain scholars, most memorably Clifford Geertz with After the Fact and "An Inconstant Profession", write intellectual biographies that visualize the origin and evolution of their cerebration in the context of contemporary theorizing and history; quite a few produce a memoir that relates the way they went to their offspring. Tarling's is within this latter category, but in the absence of marriage and children, his privately published memoir is presumably addressing an audience of former students, friends, relatives and colleagues.

The recounting

As a fellow Southeast Asianist preoccupied, first, with my field biography and, currently, with the adventure of growing old and older still, I am interested in the relations of others, and so I solicited to do a review. As a result, and for fairness' sake, I had to read through a 277-page soliloquy devoid of inner tension, plot or action in which hundreds of names are dropped and not a single character comes to life. Even the author remains a shadowy figure. Whereas it is clear that he holds his Mum dear-the biography draws heavily on their letters-no personality appears. We get to know the names of his siblings but nothing about the author's relationship with them. At the end, we know that Tarling has no affinity with dogs, the army and sports; that he is a reticent person, sticking to himself and books, a perennial bachelor, a keen student and a successful academic; noisy dorms, colleges, flats, hotels, and neighbours (three to four score mentions) get on his nerves, at the same time that he finds relief in the concert hall and in listening to his records-he hints at two to three hundred performances and compositions. He also likes to watch theatre and, especially in his later career, to act on the stage, but also there we have to do with listings that, in the absence of context or setting, fail to enliven the narrative. In a way the author anticipated that his' would not qualify as a Bildungsroman or even as an intellectual biography when he warned the reader that he has no real aptitude for ‘original' or ‘imaginative' writing (47).

For the outsider, the interest of the book is in fleeting remarks about one or the other of some one to two hundred place names that occur in the text, such as Singapore as a China town in the late fifties and Hong Kong without high rises, or about certain historical conditions, such as WW II, postwar scarcity, the novelty of having a radio, sea travel to Australia, and occasional opinions on the academic curriculum, but like with the names of persons referred to, it all remains perfunctory.

Intellectual biography

We need scholarly memoirs that show us the origin and development of ideas, and so I sympathize with the urge of describing our course in retrospect. The challenge, though, is in producing an enjoyable text. As eggheads, we usually have no experience with creative writing; the texts we produced were written in an entirely different mode, and with close to twenty books to his name, Tarling will be remembered as a prolific historian of Southeast Asia. To give the intellectual background of that enterprise would have provided us with a significant contribution to historiography-in-action. With History Boy, however, we have no more than a boring, linear progression from station to station, from student to renowned scholar, then from dean to vice-chancellor-in brief, an extremely personal account that holds little of interest for his fellow Southeast Asianists.


Geertz, Clifford. 1995. After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist. Harvard University Press

" 2002."An Inconstant Profession: The Anthropological Life in Interesting Times". Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 31, pp. 1-19

Mulder, Niels. 2008. Doing Thailand; The Anthropologist as a Young Dog in Bangkok in the 1960s. White Lotus Press

" 2009. Professional Stranger; Doing Thailand in its Most Violent Decade: A Field Diary. White Lotus Press


Facebook icon    twitter icon    RSS icon is an initiative of the International Insitute for Asian Studies