It has been a long time since I last finished a really long book. (I don't have the time or the patience anymore.) But I just finished one. All 778 pages of Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and recipient of so many great reviews. You know how it is when you're reading a beautiful book and you don't want to get to the ending because you don't want the story to end? This is not that book. I have never wished for something to end so very soon, and turning that last page was such a relief. And yet I cannot deny the book's beauty and elegance -- how perceptive it is, how deeply connected to what is human. It was a gripping, involving read. So many times, reading it, I had to put it down and say, "How does it know so much?" And not just about being human, and about love and friendship, which is the story's core: there are scintillating bits about mathematics, too, and the law, and architecture, and medicine, and the visual arts, and filmmaking, and cooking, and travel, and New York. It feels like a book where the author has given all of herself into its making, each word a corpuscle from her own bloodstream. It is that alive and arresting. It is also very sadistic, and very brutal. When I was swimming in the middle of it, I had thought: what a fascinating book this is -- equal parts brutality and tenderness. Later I thought the tenderness was there to make the overwhelming brutality transcend even its limits: this is a book where even the bruises have bruises. Sometimes, I paused to ponder things like a change for a proper title. "This book should be titled The Complete Guide to Cutting Yourself," I'd think. "Or How to Be Depressed But Be Surrounded By Good People You Don't Deserve. Or The Graphic Guide to Abuse and Molestation." You know how it is in creative writing we are taught to push the stakes higher for the characters? I'm not sure the author follows that simplistically: it's not the stakes she pushes harder for her main character, Jude: she gives him pain, and thinks of even greater pain to inflict him with -- and after that, still another round of excruciating pain, an endlessness of pain that after a while it becomes repetitive. Somewhere around the 600th page, I told myself, "If Jude says sorry one more time, I'm going to throw this book against the wall." I couldn't do that, of course: I was reading an e-book in my iPad. Was I looking for redemption? Perhaps I was. Even Job in the Bible got one. (Alas, Job has nothing on Jude, named after the saint of lost causes. This is not a spoiler.) A Little Life does not easily succumb to our expectations -- and perhaps that is the book's strength. Also this: that it could contain so much darkness, and yet we still end up believing, somehow, in the pinpricks of light it allows to let in. But how endlessly beautiful this book was, with prose I couldn't help highlighting again and again. It comes down to that in the final analysis. It is a worthy read: it won't be an easy read, but you couldn't put it down anyway.
I like finding scraps of my writing in often surprising places, in old notebooks, on pad papers, in the folders of old cellphones. They could be anything. Old shopping lists, reminders to diet, beginnings of abandoned short stories, brief observations from an hour of eavesdropping on other people, witticisms that were only funny for fifteen minutes. In the Notes app of my iPad, I find that I apparently wrote this on 15 June 2013, at 11:13 AM: "It is always disconcerting to hear a cock crow when you're eating chicken."
There was a time in my social media life -- two or four years ago? -- where I found myself envying the "Ian" I saw on my own Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, etc. Last month, an acquaintance also told me she loved the life I was living as she perceived it of course on my social media -- and I cringed. Both made for bouts of unsettling feeling.
It wasn't that I was posting lies through photos and status updates. They were all true. But they were also a highly curated assemblage of images I was more or less, consciously or unconsciously projecting to the world. In reality, life is hard, and most times I'm just winging it, always hoping for the good times to come. Not every moment is an Instagram moment. You don't see me or anyone posting photos of ourselves staring into space, wondering or panicking over what to do next. Sometimes I too get sucked into the vicious cycle of envy as I follow my friends' lives as they unfurl in my newsfeed -- and it takes some pinching by reality to drum into my head that theirs are curated lives as well. We're all sad and frightened little creatures just putting on our best social media smiles -- and it's perfectly all right, too. (Just don't get into debt, though.)
9:05 PM |
The Fascination for Fascism and the Fear of Freedom
Talk of politics is a slippery slope of a topic I never wish to engage in. Its nature is very much like the morbid reality of Internet comments—you just don’t go there if you wish for your sanity to prevail. You don’t go there either if you want friendships to be preserved.
But—with the national elections just around the corner—it is the high season for all things politics. I will allow myself this singular instance to dip myself in the murky waters. It will never happen again.
But I think you know what I mean when you are tight with someone, for example, and one day, that someone proclaims in Facebook: “Marcos was a good President—and I’m voting for his son Bongbong for Vice President.” Or: “Binay is our savior.” Or: “I’m all for Poe.” Or: “Roxas is the man.” And you are left reeling, asking the bewildered question: Who are you, and what have you done with my friend?
In other words, politics is the lens with which we demonize ourselves to other people.
The truth of the matter is, human nature and the way we have come to shape our principles—a sense of politics included—is a dark mystery for which we can only begin to understand by invoking this cliché: the heart wants what it wants. Reason or logic is not part and parcel of this. You can do a long litany of the many provable abuses committed by the Marcos regime, and the diehard Marcosian will still turn a deaf ear till he’s blue in the face. You can cite the shenanigans of Miriam Defensor-Santiago during the impeachment trial versus Joseph Estrada, and her fans will throw copies of Stupid is Forever at your face in righteous indignation.
Nobody wants facts (or platforms) in politics. The heart just wants what it wants.
Which is why I actually do get the widespread support for Rodrigo Duterte or the lingering longing for the Marcos dictatorship among many of my friends—many of whom are close to me, and whom I know are perfectly decent human beings. I, of course, will always raise an eyebrow when any of them proclaim their [suspect] politics with such ferocity on social media—but I also understand that they probably do the same to mine. (You’re probably reading this right now, and muttering: “This is utter bullshit, Ian.”)
But if you really want to understand where these two particular stirrings for Duterte or Marcos come from, it’s important to study history and psychology.
In the first instance, I invite you to take a close look at the crippling post-First World War conditions in Germany that gave rise, especially among the youths, to a widespread longing for “national dignity.” This culminated in the eventual popularity of Adolf Hitler, who promised order and embodied tough charisma.
Read Jon Savage’s Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture (2008) for this. In his book, Savage paints a portrait of German youths demoralized and frustrated with the decay of social systems and the seemingly unmanageable culture of graft and corruption in government, so much so that being German had become a sullied identity. (Sounds familiar?) There was no sense of national pride. It was also the same in pre-World War II Italy, which saw the rise of Benito Mussolini. These two fascist dictators rose to massive fame on separate but identical platforms of tough-mindedness that bordered on militaristic hysteria—and the young of Italy and Germany, all of them in need of a superhero, lapped it up and were the first to embrace the spectacle of their toughness. Mussolini and Hitler knew that the way to control the destiny of their nations was through their nation’s youths—and both did indeed bring back a sense of pride of being Italian and German, but the bloody aftermath of World War II would, of course, show the high price that was paid for the fascism that they embodied.
In the second instance, it is also wise to understand why most people are actually scared of “freedom.” It pays to read Erich Fromm’s seminal The Fear of Freedom (1941) to understand what seems to be a conundrum of a thesis—because who doesn’t love freedom? Isn’t it an ideal we all long for and fight for? But to quote Alexey Yanovski: “Freedom is uncomfortable. Freedom is unknown, which is scary. Very few people actually want freedom. They prefer formulas.” This is true. In his pathbreaking book, Fromm posits that in the process of becoming freed from an iron-fisted authority (say, Marcos), we are often left with feelings of hopelessness that will not abate until we develop some form of replacement of the old order (say, Marcos Jr.).
The best way, perhaps, for anyone to understand this is to recall the movie The Matrix, directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski in 1999. Think about Neo’s (Keanu Reeves) ultimate choice in that film, as intoned by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne): “This is your last chance,” Morpheus tells Neo in the inciting incident of the story. “After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
The red pill is freedom—but freedom also means the horror and bitterness of knowing for real what has become of humanity—i.e., batteries for harvesting by robot overlords—and surrendering to a life where nothing remains constant, and everything is fraught with danger. The blue pill is remaining in the trap of the Matrix—a prison, yes, but it is a comfortable prison, a dream really, where “life” seems to go on in the ordinary ways it unfolds.
I think, given the tough choice, most people would choose the blue pill, freedom forfeited. Only the truly strong will take the red pill and everything that freedom promises—a life of uncertainty and inheriting the terrible charge of having to truly shape, by yourself, your own path and destiny. According to Fromm, psychology-speaking, human beings are hardwired to want to be told what to do, to be herded around like sheep by a higher authority.
The films of Chantal Akerman are not an easy to like, just as much as their creator had been famously prickly in real life. (She was kinda homophobic, too, and had apparently died a suicide.) And she had disdained, for example, the labelling of her films as feminist tomes -- although feminists are her biggest champions because her films say so much about the experience of being woman alone in the traffic of the contemporary world. One of her most accessible films is also one that can test the patience of any regular moviegoer: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) -- and yes, thats the full title -- is famously slow and lengthy, clocking in at more than three hours in its matter-of-fact documentation of the daily life of the titular character as she goes about her regular business of keeping house, baking potatoes for dinner, and entertaining johns in her sideline as apparent prostitute -- and responding to all these with the same sense of clockwork precision and ritual bordering on resignation, until the twist in the last third of the film. (I watched this film last year by doing housework myself, and it was a strange and immersive meta-experience.)
Saute Ma Ville (1968) is her first film, made when she was just 18 -- and in this short film, she had already established that voice singular to her. It may be a pseudo-comedy of a young woman trapping herself in her own apartment, but its implications and its end are shocking and sad.
And here's a revealing interview Akerman did for the Criterion Collection, where she talks about the seed for Jeanne Dielman -- and those last words she uttered, as she thought back to the acclaim she won at 25 over that film, are chilling and insightful.
Rest in peace, Ms. Akerman. You have been needing that peace for quite a while now. And thank you for your strange films.
I was reading this fascinating article in The Atlantic Monthly where writer Selena Hoy muses over a cultural observation: that Japanese kids—often as young as six years old—are such a common sight on Japanese mass transit, and posits that “even in big cities like Tokyo, small children take the subway and run errands by themselves, [and the] reason has a lot to do with group dynamics.”
Hoy continues: “It’s a common sight on Japanese mass transit: Children troop through train cars, singly or in small groups, looking for seats. They wear knee socks, polished patent-leather shoes, and plaid jumpers, with wide-brimmed hats fastened under the chin and train passes pinned to their backpacks. The kids are as young as 6 or 7, on their way to and from school, and there is nary a guardian in sight. A popular television show called Hajimete no Otsukai, or My First Errand, features children as young as two or three being sent out to do a task for their family. As they tentatively make their way to the greengrocer or bakery, their progress is secretly filmed by a camera crew. The show has been running for more than 25 years.”
I think this still bears some resemblance to small town life in the Philippines. I can still remember my own childhood in Dumaguete where I was sent to do various errands (mostly having to do with buying stuff from the local sari-sari store) by my parents and a whole barracks full of elder brothers—five of them, in fact. But I think it is a slowly disappearing part of family culture among Filipinos, with our increasing urbanization and the plethora of maids we have around to do our bidding.
I think of the bigger cities we have in the Philippines, something comparable to Tokyo, and I admit to a kind of unease. Because to be honest, I’ve always felt safer in Tokyo in a way I can never feel safe in Manila, for example. I’ve lived in Tokyo in my early 20s and this barest fact about life in that Japanese city has always been apparent to me. Even with the problem of language (and the fact that Tokyo is a megalopolis), I know I can go from point A to point B without too much trouble. In Manila, even when I take a taxi, my guard is up, waaaay up, it is quite stressful—and I can only conclude with this question: Will I ever feel safe navigating around my own country’s capital? The answer seems to be, given the realities. What’s up with that?
Hoy explains why the opposite seems to be the fact of life in Japan: “Taking responsibility for shared spaces means that [Japanese] children have pride of ownership and understand in a concrete way the consequences of making a mess, since they’ll have to clean it up themselves. This ethic extends to public space more broadly (one reason Japanese streets are generally so clean). A child out in public knows he can rely on the group to help in an emergency.”
Perhaps that’s what’s lacking with Filipinos in the Philippines [and I make that as a clear distinction, because we’re totally different creatures abroad]: we don’t take responsibility for our shared public spaces. And there are many instances of this neglect.
We use our sidewalks as garbage bins. (There are no actual garbage bins, for one thing.) We don’t make it a point to keep to the right in public escalators, to give space for those who may be in a hurry. We barely line up for anything, preferring to cluster around and using palakasan as key to facilitate things. We leave the tables in the restaurants we frequent with remains of meals that resemble a sty. We snarl our traffic with devil-may-care driving selfishness. And we make excuses for these by justifying to ourselves that others are not following rules—so why should we?
There are even bigger instances of our misuse of public spaces. We build ugly infrastructure and buildings without any thought to whether the immediate community needs it. (That overpass near Silliman High School is a glaring example). Or whether it blends well with the environment. (That strange rectangular contraption cum billboard along the Rizal Boulevard near the tempurahan which is apparently meant to invite the framing of photos of passing tourists—as if it’s a perfectly good idea for anyone to want to do that). We also consistently elect public officials who sleepwalk over issues of the public good (like public transit).
And lastly, we treat our public parks and monuments like afterthoughts. We have been luckier in this respect in Dumaguete—but elsewhere, it has been a glaring problem. The artist Paulo Alcarazen once posted on Facebook a series of photos of the monument along Roxas Boulevard in Manila dedicated to our OFWs. Each photo in a set of three was taken within a few years of each other. Taken all at once, the series presents a sad study in devolution and heartbreak: the monument over time becomes surrounded by suspicious development, with the greenery that initially surrounded it over time becoming an ugly sea of concrete. And the statues comprising the monument themselves have become compromised. The original monument consisted of five figures in bronze—a mother, an elder daughter, a younger son, and their dog in a gesture of excited welcome to a returning OFW father. But over the years, some of the figures have totally disappeared (perhaps shanghaied by bakal boys), and what has remained of the monument now is just the figures of the mother and the daughter, both sans limbs.
There is a famous explication about public safety that is popularly called the “broken windows theory.” It is a criminological theory of the norm-setting and signaling effect of urban disorder and vandalism as markers for crime and anti-social behavior. In that theory, a hypothetical community where the buildings have perpetually neglected broken windows is said to invite a rise in criminality and anti-social behavior in that community.
And we have so many “broken windows” in Dumaguete.
The trash on our streets.
The chaos of our traffic.
The devaluation of our public parks.
The uneven sidewalks running along our city streets.
And we keep complaining why our city is no longer the “city of gentle people” of yore? Why there are unsolved killings in our midst? Why our youths turn to drugs? Why there is a pervasive lack of public love for our local heritage?
Responsibility for public spaces and public safety. Everything connects.
A history of the athletics in this part of the Philippines, I think, is something some local sports scholar should seriously consider studying. There's a ton of information out there. For example, there's the fascinating story of Sillimanian high jumper Simeon Toribio, one of the country's first Olympians, who won the Bronze Medal at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. In 1928, he wrote a letter back home to Dumaguete [subsequently published in the August 1 issue of The Sillimanian], where he talks about arriving at Port Said in Egypt on the way to the Amsterdam Olympics: "By way of practice, we have endeavoured to keep ourselves in condition. At every port the boat calls, we set out for some jogging. It is difficult to find any jumping pit. On board, we have made a cushion for my landing so that with my rubber shoes, I can practice jumping with no danger."
Toribio was also a campus poet. This is one of his poems, published in 1927, and already heavy with sports metaphors:
O'er the hurdles you go for the tape at the goal,
O'er these hindering bars from your starting foot-hole,
With the cheers and the cries in your front, at your back,
At the left and the right of the track.
Now you keep your fast gait and keep on stepping right,
Then a pebble that lies on the way of your flight,
Your alighting foot sprains, and lowers your nat'ral speed,
For it does e'en to any race steed.
Up and down! up and down! up and down! what a force!
From the start to the goal, can there be any worse?
But you never would stop and while onward you go,
A good lesson you teach -- don't you know?
That like jumping o'er hurdles in life we are bound
With our rooters unseen, -- but with hope so profound;
We should clear the high hurdles steadier,
So we breast our life tape the earlier.