Monday, August 19, 2013

Art as Mastering Knowledge and Action: On Yukio Mishima’s "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion"

The birth of an image is propelled in the story by language — by a statement once made by a Zen priest to his stuttering child: “there is nothing on this earth so beautiful, as the golden temple”. From then on, this declaration sprouts an imagination within the young protagonist who, in effect, nurtures the idea of an idealized beauty in the image of the golden temple. At first, his conception of the temple’s image is formless; the temple is initially invisible to him, yet apparent everywhere: like the sea, or the golden shadow cast by the sun. In his inner world, the temple lives and is nurtured real by his imagination; so much so that, even if the mountains block the temple from his view, he can still see it inside himself.

This capacity to imagine, in the most vivid manner, is an effect to the protagonist’s speech deficiency: he was born a stutterer, who masters his inner world but not his external reality, from which he is gravely alienated due to speech barriers. In accessing the outer world, language is needed to make our imaginative thoughts concrete; yet for the young Mizugochi, his stuttering condition divorces him from the external reality – the place where he must live and painfully exist. To compensate for his speech disability, he takes pride of not being understood, inwardly becoming the master of his inner self. He is preoccupied by the absolute beauty of the temple; and his knowledge of it – which lives inside himself – affirms his existence.

This is not, however, what the protagonist initially dreams for himself. In recalling his boyhood ambition, the young Mizugochi divulges how he wants to become both an artist and a stuttering tyrant. Revealed in this ambition, as such, is his aspiration to master both his inner and outer reality — an artist, on one hand, mastering knowledge and imagination; while, being a tyrant on the other, mastering action. In imagining the temple, the protagonist has already accomplished mastering knowledge through understanding beauty; however becoming a man of action remains a far-fetched dream, simply since carrying tyrannical commands necessitates clarity of language. 

This struggle between mastering knowledge and action is, within the protagonist, constantly unveiled during his childhood. The visit of a naval officer, for instance, who made him admit his hope of becoming a priest someday, allows the young Mizoguchi to imagine the exercise of power through his knowledge of death, to officiate perhaps the demise of his foes or the naval student himself. However, at one point, Mizugochi expresses his disappointment on the invisibility of this knowledge, compared to the physical beauty of things separated from the body – such as the navy officer’s shirt and sword, which he later scratches, as a demonstration of the kind of power accomplished by one’s action. 

Since action – initiated through uttering speech – hampers the protagonist’s access to the external world, he devotes his attention to imagine the golden temple, whose physical form and beauty lives within him — and at the same time, encompassing him inside its structure of absorbing darkness.  This deep and living relationship with the temple intensifies during the war, as the structure is surrounded by destruction, looming around it. In his words, “it was quite natural that wars and unrest, piles of corpses and copious blood, should enrich the beauty of the Golden Temple”. Indeed, it is during the war that the Golden Temple, in its actual form, resembles closest to the temple of his inner imagination. 

Similar to the protagonist’s existence however, the Golden Temple must remain vulnerable to destruction. And when the destruction of the temple did not materialize after the war, the protagonist’s relationship with it changes. It appears to Mizuguchi that the temple’s eternal qualities – its indestructibility and its defiance against time – do not correspond with the temporal nature and evanescent qualities of beauty and of life. In other words, for Mizoguchi, beauty adheres to the constant tension of creation and destruction, between knowledge and action, between the mind and the body. The imperishability of the Golden Temple, for the protaganist, should end through his own action, through his exploration of evil as a force of destruction.  

As long as the beauty of the golden temple stands, Mizoguchi’s mastery over the external world is hampered by the temple’s existence. In creating absolute beauty within his imagination, for instance, the golden temple must be destroyed to fulfill his ultimate aspiration: to dominate both knowledge and action, in the respective spheres of his inner and outer existence. The burning of the temple, therefore, is the protagonist’s demonstration of mastering both the creation of beauty in the imagination and the destruction of it through action. Mizugochi has met beauty but must act by “killing” it for deliverance — and so, by reducing the golden temple into its basic substance, he reveals that indeed “nothingness is the very structure of (this) beauty” and this is what all of us must significantly understand. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Life in Nature, Nature in Life: On Murasaki Shikibu's "The Tale of Genji"

Though unaccustomed to a peculiar literary style — marked by omission of character names, usage of highly patrician language, and depiction of archaic Japanese cultural traditions — the enduring quality which, I believe, fostered my deep appreciation of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji lies in the unveiling of poetry as an embodiment of aesthetic sensibilities achieved in particular by the Japanese aristocracy. 

In the novel, poems – either created presumably by the author or quoted from older collections of poetry – are deeply embedded in the narrative; presenting an unparalleled literary style, highly developed for its age. Poetry, enjoyed particularly by the Japanese aristocratic class, is revealed to be the highest form of art in 11th century Japan. Because of this, an examination of the role of poetry – present in the lived realities of Genji and other characters belonging to the nobility – shows trace of the aesthetic consciousness of the Japanese and serves to demystify the fascinating aspects of Japanese culture. 

 Japanese poetry, known as waka, occupies a central position in the imperial court as a revered art form and highly favored activity of the nobility. In Genji’s cultural age, both the emperor and crown prince are known to be “connoisseurs of poetry”. The fifth chapter in particular, titled The Festival of the Cherry Blossoms, demonstrates how princes and high courtiers are adept at composing Chinese poems, thus highlighting the active cultural borrowings and influences of the mainland in Japanese language and literature. 

During this period, producing a Chinese poem is considered a difficult task but, for the author, it is described as “positive torture”, endured and enjoyed by a particularly narrow segment of Japanese society. Because of this, the classification of poetry as an aesthetic form in the Heian period, informs of art’s capacity to isolate the noble class from the rest of the society. With this, we are reminded to view Genji’s world as a narrow picture of the highly cultured life lived by Japan’s nobility, privileged for their literacy and exposure to traditional aesthetics. 

Nevertheless, the incorporation of poetry in the novel reveals more than a division of class; for indeed, in examining the substance of these poems, the interrelation of human emotion and nature is harmoniously depicted in the literary form. In other words, the poems contained in the novel convey the relationship between our feelings and the natural world. For instance: the waves moaning our longings, the winds becoming messengers of our sorrow, the river of tears revealing our grief, the dews miming our tears. 

These references to nature – present in one of their aesthetic concepts such as mono no aware or “sensitivity to things” – reflect the sensibilities of the Japanese in perceiving the natural world as part of the inner self. Nature, for the Japanese, exists in harmony with our thoughts and feeling. Poetry then, becomes an avenue where the natural world and the human life, express its unity and interrelatedness. Genji and other characters in the novel internalize, through poetry, the realities of the natural world and their inner world, consciously mindful of the transitory and evanescent qualities of life in general.  

Another function of poetry, which perhaps contributes to its appeal among the aristocracy, is its capacity to conceal human emotions through highly eloquent and suggestive language. Japanese poetry is carefully tailored to not only express emotions about beauty and life, but also to allow intimate communication between a man and a woman. 

It is through poetry, for instance, that Genji is able to convey his emotions towards his numerous lovers. Poetry is his weapon to initiate amorous affairs. Because of its highly suggestive nature, poems also become an allusion to the worldly desires experienced by Genji, and by his lovers. To demonstrate this, allow me to present a poetic exchange, particularly between Genji and Naishi – an aged but lewd aristocratic woman. 

Their conversation starts with the old Naishi’s aggressive speech, which goes: 
“Sere and withered though these grasses be,
they are ready for your pony, should you come”; 
— to which Genji, known for his carnal nature, liberally replies:
 “Were mine to part the low bamboo of your grove,
 It would fear to be driven away by other ponies”. 
Indeed, the exchange above, classic in its veiling the natural world and our worldly desires, is a testament to the poet’s might in depicting the impermanence of life and the immortality of art. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Queries, More Queries: On Friedrich von Schiller's "Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man"

Reading Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man requires dissection of our thoughts concerning “art and beauty”. However, for the mere mortal in me, to arrive at a complete understanding of his thoughts requires undertaking a mental journey towards the land of abstract ideas. For this, I do not fault Schiller’s elaborate language or his tedious explication of aesthetics; after all, launching an inquiry towards the abstract requires further abstraction, not to mention the need for a laboring imagination. Schiller, in dissecting the “phenomenon” called beauty, aims particularly at demystifying and dissolving “the essential amalgam of its elements”. In reading his letters, as such, we are transported towards the realm “beyond the reach of the senses” — and given this, comes an understanding within the reach of my own. Indeed, this paragraph worth explanation is necessary, in my view, to avoid misconceiving his thoughts; which goes this way:

My reading of Schiller’s letters comes with an understanding that it presents how the French Revolution and its violent aftermath affected his thoughts on beauty and the moral dimensions of art. As such, he explores, in his letters, the role of aesthetics in achieving true political freedom. For Schiller, it is only through aesthetic education by which freedom – the mother of all art – is achieved. He starts out by explaining how man, in his natural state, is composed of physical compulsive forces; while in his moral state, he is guided by reason. Here, Schiller introduces the opposition between the law of nature and the law of reason, citing that while the former involves feelings and compulsions; the latter affects the consciousness and thoughts. 

Throughout his letters, this duality between the natural and rational state is present in his exploration of the body – being the temple of the sensual form – versus the mind, where the rational, moral, and hence ideal form resides. In other words, Schiller introduces two fundamental laws of the “sensuo-rational nature” of man consisting of his sensuous drive or his sensual nature, and the formal drive or his rational nature. The challenge for Schiller, it seems, is to reconcile the conflicting and opposing dimensions of these drives through the play drive, which he conceives as “the most perfect possible union and equilibrium of reality and form”. For Schiller, the simultaneous existence and development of the rational and the sensuous through play, allows one to become a fully realized man of aesthetic. 

Beyond this simplified understanding of Schiller’s letters are the pertinent questions and ruminations which, at the very least, challenge his thoughts on aesthetics. First, though Schiller claims that both sensuous and form drives exist in a simultaneously equal and united one plane, it seems that there is privileging of the form to dominate the senses. When Schiller speaks of nature as an expression of plurality and individuality, and reason as an exercise of unity and conformity, how can it be assured that the individual maintains his singularity as opposed to his confirmation of the “moral” laws idealized by the state? In Schiller’s words, the archetype of the ideal man is embodied by the state – and so, how can it be assured that this “moral” state would not suppress man’s individuality by its relative conception of the ideal man? Lastly, because the aim of Schiller’s letters is towards the ultimate achievement of freedom, how can it be assured that this freedom will not be mis-used? When I think of freedom as an end goal, I cannot help but compare it with the type of “freedom” espoused by capitalist ideology that encourages relentless consumption.

These questions above, for all I know, may have already been refuted brilliantly by Schiller and perhaps only misconceived by me, but then these throbbing queries represent the mental journey I undertook to painstakingly understand the great philosopher’s interest to demystify beauty as an idea, which is of course, “beyond the reach of our senses”. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Being, Condition, and Time: On Ha Jin’s Waiting

Waiting relates to time — that is, in its progressive form, waiting encompasses all dimensions of time: the past as an inactive period spent in expectation, the present in its actual waiting condition, and the future in its seeking of the probable occurrence of the wait. Given this, a person in waiting is presumed to remain still – in its waiting state – while time flows and the surrounding condition changes. In other words, in waiting, there is an act of internal changelessness in the midst of external changes. 

This act, however, is separate from the inner reality, which is necessarily transformed through time, except for the essence of our being which, by nature, consists of the capacity for loving. To put it differently, there is, on one hand, an unchanging nature of our being – which, I contend, is our dormant capacity to love – while on the other, an inner reality – of feelings and consciousness, for instance – which permits changes with time and external surrounding. 

So simply put: within a person, there is a simultaneous existence of a natural being where love, as a dormant capacity, resides – and there is an inner reality which allows for alteration of feelings and consciousness based on time and external surrounding.  

Love is defined, in this manner, as an absolute capacity to perform the act of loving; yet this capacity is said to be dormant, precisely since it needs to be awakened or nurtured by one’s natural being. A person cannot not love – provided that the being is reared and roused for it; but one can misrecognize being loved as love. Being loved exists in the inner reality, which allows for an alteration of feelings, but it does not penetrate inside one’s being which concerns itself only of loving. Being loved is merely a surplus feeling when the loving is realized and happened to be reciprocated. 

Now, if love is a dormant capacity of the being, then performing it will be its form of expression. With this contention, the subscription to conceive love as an art here is apparent; for indeed, art is universal yet diverse in its expression among cultures and individuals. Again, if love – which is a dormant resident of our being – is likened to art, then not everyone is capable of creating and performing it. Moreover, if love is an art, then its expression is entirely dependent whether or not the external surrounding permits its expression. Lastly, if love is equated to art, then it has to remain undeterred by time.

Now, these two-tedious-paragraphs worth of ruminations about love is, to me, a necessary buildup to forward my thoughts about Ha Jin’s work; particularly since, it is from this novel where my ever-changing exploration of love is challenged and remolded. The pertinent question is asked: if the trinity of characters in the book – Lin Kong, Shuyu, and Manna – are in the state of waiting, then is it given that they are all in love?

The immediate answer is no — that is, if love is conceived in the Western ideology of romantic love. In Western society, where the liberal ideology emphasizes freedom, love becomes a personal and private choice which an individual makes. People in the West, in essence, marry for love and only for love; it is unthinkable to marry for something else. In other words, love in the Western sense comes with the idea of freedom – as a liberal ideology – and it is through marriage that this love is institutionalized. 

However, in contrast to Chinese society, where the communal surrounding constraints freedom for collective welfare, love is understood as an act of conformation and obligation to familial and social institutions. Marriage, in Chinese society, is a communal or an institutional choice characterized by bonds and alliances for societal welfare. In both Western and Chinese societies, it is worth noting that love is neither lost nor absent, but is dependent merely on the degree of freedom which the external surrounding allows it to be exercised and expressed. 

Here, we go back to transform our earlier question: if the main characters in the book are all waiting, are they exercising love in the Chinese sense? To answer this requires that the characters are explored and their experiences be subjected to my earlier ramifications about love and being. If love – characterized solely by loving – is a dormant capacity residing within the being, then it requires that a developed character is suited to perform it. While good-natured and intelligent, Lin Kong is also an indecisive, dispassionate, and passive character. Getting in touch with his nature – with his capacity to love – requires not only a buildup of character, but a decisiveness of self, of developing the natural being. 

Both his marriage to Shuyu and his requests to divorce her for Manna represent his adherence to external conditions of his culture and the state. Now, the decisiveness of self – notably missing in Lin Kong – is found in the character of Shuyu, who represents precisely how love is being accommodated within the particularity of Chinese society. Shuyu is able to develop the natural being which concerns itself only with loving. On the other hand, Manna – being the modern and educated representation of urban Chinese female – accomplishes the idea of love only within her inner reality which, as noted previously, is subjected to external conditions and time. Note that the changes in Manna’s character are exhibited from her initial affinity with Lin Kong, then shifts to the necessity for marriage because of societal expectations. 

Hence, it is not surprising why Lin Kong and Manna’s conception of love permeating only within their respective inner realities, and not within their being, failed. True enough; among the three characters who were all in the state of waiting, it is only Shuyu, who stood by her inner being – solely to perform loving – and hence, is able to accommodate the particularity of love in Chinese culture. Indeed, within Shuyu’s inner reality and being, time flows to embody the changelessness amidst the changes surrounding her in her waiting. 

(Note: In formulating this new conception of LOVE, I used three works to substantiate my ruminations. I did it because I could not accept that during the Cultural Revolution -- when the ideology was radicalized and stretched beyond its limit -- Ha Jin seemed to portray that there was no love existing in such society. And so, I used his novel as the grounding context of my formulation and used 2 books: Erich Fromm's "The Art of Loving" and Schiller's "On the Aesthetic Education of Man" to prove that love in China did exist even those times.)

Friday, July 26, 2013

To move and be moved: On Xu Kun’s "Last Tango in the Square One Midsummer Night"

Dancing calls for movement. For its performers, to dance is to move; for the onlookers, to see the act is to be moved. In China, where the state regulates movement – whether individual, social, or political – by its people, dancing becomes a subversive performance — a subtle art form to express forbidden desires and passion between two people. 

This subtle demonstration, in Xu Kun’s story, of converting what is presumably an unlawful romance into an aesthetic movement is performed by an old and nameless pair, whose passion and brilliance in the dance rouses attention of the masses in the square. Indeed, the pair’s commanding presence at the center of a public square highlights the place, not as an image of China’s urban modernity, but as a historically significant and symbolic antigovernment space, where the state clashes, curbs, and curtails emotionally charged sentiments of its people. 

While the square entices old and lower income citizens usually for leisure, it also draws borders on what these people can do within the square. Though decorated with an amalgam of foreign-inspired structures, the square remains witness to how the state continues to uphold conservative values while permeating into the private lives of its citizen. In response to the state’s curtailment of expressive freedom, the pair subtly performs their subversion through dance — an art form which exposes heatedly raw passion between a man and a woman. 

Through the particularly complex steps and styles of tango, a foreign dance, the pair demonstrates, to the “unfeeling” masses, the emotional core of romance which is freedom: the desire to be seen, to effortlessly expel energy in each other, and to freely unite the bodies under one rhythm. For the pair, their unique mastery of tango genuinely attests the sensuous connection and physical knowledge of each other; by getting lost into the private realm of dance, the pair is able to symbolically transcend the imaginary and restrictive borders of the square. 

Here, the fluidity of dance as an aesthetic practice mirrors the double-edged nature of art — playful in its function to compose beauty while inspiring subtle resistance to permit changes to occur in society. Take for instance the transformed attitude of the masses towards the pair. Notably at first, the masses in the story are appalled by the “two bewitching yet vulgar strangers intruding onto their space”. However, since the pair reveals the absence of modeled desire and impassioned romance in their lives, they eventually turn the couple into lead stars of the square. 

Now, the pair – through the charismatic and artistic appeal of their dance – eventually becomes the central figure, the source of inspiration for common folks to emulate expressive moves, to lose their shyness, to combat timidity, and to learn complicated steps. From here, we ask: isn’t this a picture of how China is also led by charismatic and traditional figures throughout the course of its tumultuous history?

In Xu Kun’s narrative, the social dance in the square – without the commanding and inspiring presence of the pair – is likened to a “vast mass revelry, like a dragon without its head is but a chaotic blur without its leader”. Here, we are somewhat reminded of Max Weber’s conception of charismatic authority which transformed China’s old, imperial rule into a single party socialist state because of inspirational figures like Confucius and Mao Tse Tung. In particular, the combination of rational, charismatic, and traditional authority molds China into its modern “emotionless” and unfeeling nation, which is seen as the key problem of the current Chinese society. 

Interestingly however, the reformative solutions to this suggest that expressive freedom can be performed subversively through art to provoke societal changes. Indeed, what is suggested in the story is the need for bold appearances of “stars in the square”, who are expected to subversively perform, aesthetically educate, and fervently inspire the masses to change their ways and resist state control and oppression. 

China, like any other ancient civilizations, is a product of movements; hence, it can be said that the complex and revolutionized steps it execute in present times are comprised of successive dances it has performed and borrowed from other nations throughout its historical time. As Xu Kun brilliantly suggests in the text, to dance passionately in China’s symbolic square is to call for movement — and the message is clear: the masses wait for its stars to move and be moved by their steps. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Of Romance and Exotic Beings: A Review of André Béteille's "Some Observations on the Comparative Method"

While André Béteille’s discussion on the employment of comparative analysis in social anthropology presents the inherent complexities and difficulties encountered in the method, it somehow overlooks how these scholarships on culture and society have in fact vastly contributed to the Orientalist discourse that enabled the West to shape its invention of the Other. 

As Western anthropological studies devote its attention both in classifying and typifying non-western societies, its byproduct reflects a purely imaginative endeavor to understand the exotic Other and to produce a system of (interested) knowledge that asserts Europe’s intellectual authority to study non-Western, “primitive” societies. 

Anthropology, for literary critic Edward Said, is just one of the many Western disciplines that capitalize, through hegemony, on knowledge production and representation of Oriental cultures to – simply put – fulfill its desire to “demystify” what is exotic and hence dominate it. In other words, it is no coincidence that when Said describes the Orient as a Western constructed place for “romance and exotic beings”, cultural anthropologist Levi-Strauss too, as cited by Béteille, refers to anthropology as a discipline that “combines science with romance”. 

I contend, in this paper however, that the love affair does not end there — that this imaginative and fatal attraction for the Other results in what Spivak termed as an “epistemic upheaval” that aids in the construction of our present-day “postcolonial, neo-colonized world”. 

It is crucial to elaborate, at this point, how anthropology has historically been complicit – through its theoretical illustrations and interpretations of “primitive” cultures – in generating interests to warrant “civilizing missions” as a rationale for colonization of non-Western societies. 

Since the Philippines is evidently a product of American civilizing mission; I cannot help but wonder: how much anthropology is involved in rousing American interest in “civilizing” the undeveloped Other, as showcased for instance by ethnic “savagery” of Filipinos at the 1904 St. Louis Fair? 

As pointed by Béteille himself, it is undeniable that, because of the discipline’s “strong emphasis on Otherness”, anthropologists develop an ambivalent attitude towards the Other and end up valorizing their own culture. Worse, this valorization of Western culture was sustained by scholarly publications of anthropological studies that legitimized and even reinforced the long history of “scientific racism” in the West.

Racial bias that affirmed superiority of the white race, for instance, was largely perpetuated by anthropological studies around 18th century, that measured intelligence and degree of savagery by skull and penis sizes. Though these anthropological productions of myths are now debunked, it is still relevant to examine how the discipline can easily become an instrument for Western colonial domination. 

As the West presently moves towards universalizing the influence of globalization, it is only right to remain critical towards how social anthropology might again be deployed to unlock the complexities of cultural “interpenetration” of societies around the world. 

Social anthropology’s role becomes even more significant since – again, through institutionalized scholarship – it aims not only to reveal the growing intricacies of “globalized” culture, but it can also be used to penetrate the fusion of identities, languages, and practices in our increasingly cartographed globe. 

Social anthropology, therefore, is aware of its potent force in today’s world; but this reality Béteille mildly obscures in the essay as he speaks for the institution devoted particularly to an interested understanding of non-Western cultures by the West.    

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Camels of Beiping in Lao She’s Camel Xiangzi

Xiangzi is the metaphoric camel — the camel, Xiangzi. For Lao She, to introduce Xiangzi’s tragic fate entails a comparison between camels and his life. Both, needless to say, share the harshest environment known to mankind: as one bears the deathly condition of the desert heat, the other suffers the socioeconomic realities of Chinese society in the 1920s. This association between Xiangzi and the camels is first introduced in the novel when Xiangzi is abducted by a band of soldiers who, after stripping him off his belongings including his rickshaw, are leading camels as they wander in unfamiliar land. The presence of camels, however, awakens Xiangzi’s familiarity of the rural area. As he succeeds in escaping from the soldiers one night, Xiangzi brings the camels with him, though not knowing what to do with them. 

In the deep and total darkness of the countryside, Xiangzi – enlightened by his “uncertainty and utter loneliness” – realizes he cannot exist in isolation. That he needs another life form to reach a nameless village reveals two things about him: 1.) it gives a hint of the looming failure of his individualist stance against the uncertainties and instability of his socioeconomic setting; and 2.) it suggests his favoring attitude towards ownership and its promised “freedom”. Overnight, as can be noted in the novel, his treatment of the camel shifts from viewing them as living companions when he is in the dark, into treating them as objects of ownership as he moves towards daylight when the village is in sight. 

The idea of marketing the camels continues to occupy his thoughts; this despite the fact that Xiangzi’s own nature meshes well with that of the camels: well-behaved and meek, alone and rootless, assessed and valued for their strength. Indeed, his decision to sell these camels – his only true possession notably without his toil – demonstrates the irony of his participation in the ownership trade: determining the value and affecting the fate of these “working animals”; in the same way that his worth as a rickshaw puller is determined by the social forces around him. The act of selling camels, moreover, in the hopes of buying another rickshaw not only reveals his attachment to possessing a material object, but most importantly, misrecognizing this entity as the means to achieve individual freedom.

Unbeknownst to Xiangzi, this encounter with camels already prefigures the series of misfortunes that spells his fate. And so, what he describes as the “huge beggars of the animal kingdom” is an ironic representation of himself — a “laboring animal” too, who belongs to a class of rickshaw pullers, occupying one of the lowest strata in urban society. Xiangzi, in inhabiting Beiping’s economic life, participates as a cheap source of labor, involved crucially in the interconnection and movement of people and goods all over the city. To partake in this economic system, Xiangzi uses his body as a capital to earn fares through his labor.  In the process, his body then becomes “alienated” from him; precisely since the meager profit, which he earns from capitalizing on his physical strength, is again invested in purchasing a material object – the rickshaw, a property which he again misrecognizes for freedom and release from poverty.

As Xiangzi keeps on performing alienated and dehumanized labor, the existing structures of the urban society continues to reiterate that he neither owns his body, nor has control over his fate. The body depreciates in strength and value; worse, it is susceptible to irrational desires and sickness. Indeed, similar to the camels he once possessed and sold, there is no freedom for “working animals” belonging to his class. But perhaps, this is only because Xiangzi lives like a camel, unconscious on the existence and solidarity of his pack.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Celebrating the Death of my Existentialist Self

Tonight, I am high. I am floating. I am free. I can fly. It's surreal to have these feelings exist at once; all because I have freed myself from a particular Western philosophy that has guided my view of existence for a very long time. This philosophical belief is called EXISTENTIALISM.

My love affair with existentialist thought started when I suffered from depressive anxiety seven years ago. Alone and romantically depressed, I sought books which I thought would help me understand the emptiness of my condition. The "booksale" at a mall became my refuge as I scouted for Western authors whose names I'd just find from the usual content of an English literature book. The mentality was "ok, they said this is good, so I'll read it" or "ok this author's name sounds familiar, he must be good".

An Affair with Sartre

One of these books I picked from the books sale was an old copy of Jean Paul-Sartre's No Exit (Hois Clos). I didn't know how to read a play then (AND I STILL DON'T KNOW HOW UNTIL NOW!). But because one of my college professors said that Sartre is an important thinker, then I thought he must be interesting. At the back of my mind, I thought I should just keep reading his works and perhaps I'd find something significant. 

And so for days, I labored in imagining the narratives of two characters trapped in a room which was actually after-life version hell. Now these two characters knew and hated each other while they were alive; but then they're put together in an enclosed space which represents hell precisely because for Sartre, HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE. The impact of that play is that I was able to imagine a world without the Christian conception of heaven and hell. For me, it was about LIFE BEING "HERE AND NOW"; there is no afterlife, so all we must do is make the most out of life here and now.

Existentialism in a Nutshell

After reading Sartre's No Exit, I read up more on existentialism. In other words, my view of existentialism expanded because of my interest in the idea that the philosophy emphasizes the loneliness of existence. It appealed to me because it nullifies the existence of afterlife and supports my atheistic mindset that there is no outside force; there is only human who exercises his full potential in a given lifetime. Moreover, the basic tenent of existentialism tells us that EXISTENCE PRECEDES ESSENCE; this means that we "exist" first -- tabula rasa -- and then our essence (depending on how we live our life) will come later as we carve our individual selves and meaning. 

Now this idea is very appealing because it contradicts practically the very catholic concept of ESSENCE PRECEDES EXISTENCE; meaning this God(s) already gave us an essence (e.g. we are born unique and special in his eyes etc) before we even existed! This Christian concept sounded really ridiculous for my atheistic self and hence I found existentialism the best philosophy to counter this  backward and defeatist thought of Christianity. In a way, for me, existentialism suits my need as a depressed and lonely individual at the time. 

Atheism and Existentialism

An atheist who could not grasp the existence of a supernatural being must naturally turn to philosphy to answer his basic questions in life. This is what I love about atheism. I gives me freedom to explore philosophy and not merely subscribe on the given "essence" prescribed by religion. And so, existentialism undeniably fits my needs to cling on a philosophy which negates religious conception of God and afterlife as well as celebrates the freedom of an individual by reflecting deeply into the self and create meaning within it. 

I am an atheist because I am free. I am an atheist because I revere philosophy and because I treat idea as an ever-changing evolution and exercise of the mind as one looks deeply into the self over time. The best thing about being an atheist is that you are challenged to look deeply for that ESSENCE or MEANING within you -- just you alone.. without confessions, without spirits, without mediator priests, without a God. Merging that atheistic idea with existentialism meshes well in providing VALUE to one's self -- particularly as an individual, brave enough to face the solitariness of existence without God(s). 

An Affair with Comparative Literature

Now, let's fast forward: 2011. I started my MA in Comparative Literature in UP. I had a crisis, I must admit, when I first entered into the program; I asked myself: am I really fit to be in this course? Do I belong here? However, a year has passed and, having fairly good remarks from my profs, it convinced that I must be studying the right field. What I love about Comparative Literature (CL) is that it allows me to merge my "first-loves" in life: philosophy and literature. 

Sometimes, I'd end up feeling "so high" after my classes because I have learned a lot from my professors. I have read numerous books (sometimes I read 3 books in a week). Now of course it has also affected my health because I get obsessive in my quest for knowledge. But the greatest aspect about the program is that it allows me to celebrate my identity, first and foremost, as a Filipino and secondly, my being Southeast Asian. It expanded my world and knowledge which started from a very Western-oriented individual to embracing my Asian philosophical and literary roots. 

Asian Literature

I come from the "exoticized" Mindanao; so why choose Asian Literature as a major? The answer is I want to expand my niche and learn more about our neighbors. In CL, as much as possible, there is a need to be critical about the Western philosophies we have learned over time. I myself is a product of this very western thought. It is very painful to empty myself of it but it is necessary to understand my  true self, to understand where I come from. Through my numerous readings in CL, I must say that I am postcolonially trained; meaning I have been taught to DECONSTRUCT or participate in what Spivak calls "EPISTEMIC UPHEAVAL" in order to understand literary texts and (Western) philosophies. 

I have studied bits of Western philosophy; now is the time to explore an Asian counterpart or even perhaps VARIANTS of these philosophies. Right now, I am very fascinated about the idea of a hybridized knowledge, the conception of the third space,  and the insterteces of ideas. With the rapid globalization, I am interested in how knowledges are merged and reflected into a particular literary tradition or, just perhaps a basic piece of literature. It was the theorist HOMI BHABHA who said (this is not the exact phrase) : ONCE SITUATED, NO KNOWLEDGE IS EVER ABSOLUTE. This means that, once a thought is decontextualized from its origin (usually from its Western beginnings) and diffused to another setting (for instance, the colonized Philippines) then this concept/idea is transformed to particularly fit to realities of the Filipino setting. I think these metamorphoses of knowledge are very interesting to look at!

Back to Existentialism!

As I have claimed in this blog, I have officially freed myself from an existentialist view of the world. Because of Asian literature, I am able now to slowly distance myself from Western philosophy and beginning to explore Eastern/Asian thoughts. Now that I am beginning to familiarize and analyze with Asian texts, I am compelled to review my deeply rooted belief in Western philosophy and one of which is to examine my established notion of exitentialism. Last week , I read an early modern novel from China entitled Camel Xiangzi by a social realist writer, Lao She. Portrayed in the text is the fate of a rickshaw driver who, no matter what he does in life, is marred by misfortunes of poverty and the realities of his socioeconomic background.

Lao She, in this novel, wanted to examine the individualistic and existentialist self that has entered modern China in the early 20th century. Xiangzi is a rickshaw puller who believes that he has control over his life and that by just doing all good things, then he can achieve what he wants in his lifetime. This appeals to be an existentialist thought because it advocates that the character believes that with his individual toil and honesty/goodness (innate) in his behavior, he will be able to derive and achieve a meaningful life -- a life he  perceives to be within his control.

Death of Existentialism in Asian Context

However, it seems that Lao She wanted to negate existentialist concept with the fate of the character in the novel. Though this is not much highlighted in the book, it seems that individualism is discouraged simply because oppressed people need each other to rise up against the abuses of capitalist industries. EXISTENTIALISM therefore cannot exist when a country, like the Philippines for instance, do not present the right condition or environment for the possiblity of the philosophy's existence. In other words, PEOPLE MUST BE FREE FIRST FROM THEIR SOCIOECONOMIC CHAINS THAT IMPRISONS THEM AND THE COLONIAL OUTLOOK WHICH HINDERS THEIR WAYS OF THINKING BEFORE EXISTENTIALISM CAN POSSIBLY BE EVEN THOUGHT OF!

Existentialism was possible in Europe because the EXISTING ENVIRONMENT permits it to be PRACTICED within that specific context, where people are able to realize and freely exercise their potentials; for instance, they are well-off to explore what they want to do in life or they are FREE from colonial exploits unlike postcolonial nations who are in trouble with their shattered cultural identities. Existentialism is NOT APPLICABLE in a poverty stricken Philippines where, no matter how the poor WANTS TO CREATE MEANING IN LIFE AND ESSENCE -- THEY CANNOT; particularly because socioeconomic circumstances hinders them from exercising a deeper look into the self. EXISTENTIALISM, which is also very individualist, forgets that there are those (esp. coming poor peripheral contries) whose EXISTENCE are not even RECOGNIZED precisely because they belong to one of the lowest strata in society (e.g. subaltern minorities).

Finally, because today's awakening enables me to contextualize a particularly European philosophy, now I am back from the start in searching another view of existence. I am happy because I have freed myself from a particular dogma or philosophical chain. It is liberating, really. The challenge now for me is to again, participate in the quest for meaning (not propelled of course by religious dogma) and to find out truth about life and the self. Back to zero, as they say. But whatever, I do not refuse learning! So for now, I am taking a break -- celebrating and writing with drunken happiness about the death of my existentialist self. 

(P.S. Right now, I am really interested still in looking at how existentialism is being accomodated, perceived,and reflected in Asian literary texts. Now that Western philosophy is practically dispersed around the world, then it is just right to look at the metamorphoses of these philosophies as they are particularized in Asian texts and context; my interest in particular is SE Asian lit, of course. Exciting dba!). 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Back to Poetry (#5 - UP Diliman Series)

(Poem for Arne's birthday)

With light, the darkest blue
not of sea or sky, but of earth
viewed from space, conscious
of its life.

In darkness, the deepest green
not of leaves or moss, but of jade
bought from trade, precious
on the palm.

Light or dark, the pale world
of your face is hued for life:

of earth and jade, they say
light plays with color, but only I
of course, can speak of hues
altering brightness; of colors
changing nights to life 

for life, all
for life.

til Arne 07/08/13

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"To talk planet-talk" in Spivak's Death of a Discipline

In Robert Clements's Introduction to Comparative Literature, I pointed  as a critique of his work – that the attempt to trace the genealogy of comparative literature lacks explication on the very purpose of comparing national literatures worldwide. Why, I asked, is there a need juxtapose bodies of literature when it merely echoes the dominance and hegemonic influence of the West? 

Interestingly, Spivak’s Death of a Discipline provides possibility to free ourselves from that question. It provides an account that traces the origin of the institutionalization of comparative literature vis-à-vis area/cultural/postcolonial studies as a product of “forces of people moving about the world” (e.g the cold war, the flight of intellectuals from oppressive regimes, and the rise of Asian migration in the US). Moreover, globalizing forces, with its exploitative and dominating qualities, have inescapably mapped the computerized world in the “gridwork of electronic capital”. 

In facing this reality, Spivak compels us to overwrite the globe and think “planetarity”. The appeal of this idea, in my view, lies in our capacity to imagine: to visualize an escape of what seemingly is an inescapable cartography by capitalists of the computerized globe. Thinking “planetarity” means imagining ourselves not as global subjects, but as planetary species that dwell on the planet being loaned to us. 

In Spivak’s words, “to talk planet talk” in the “undivided ‘natural’ space rather than a differentiated political space” involves visualization of the earth as a “paranational image” (72). While this idea seems absurdly abstract and utopian, it remains a radically challenging concept that provides hope for resistance when everything seems inescapable in the globalizing earth. 

But then, how to ensure that this abstract imagining of the planet will not be again charted by capitalist cartographers of the globe? 

Of course nothing escapes the imagination, especially not the canniest uncanny thought of resistance and action. As I recall in Nietzchean philosophy – On the Genealogy of Morals – there is an instance in history where the “imaginary” triumphs over the dominant and oppressive. It is through the concept of ressentiment or resentment where the oppressed (Judeo-Christian slaves) stage an “imaginary revolt” against the oppressors (Roman masters) by labeling their values of strength and power as “evil”. 

Because of its symbolic and imagined qualities, ressentiment or internalized hatred is central to the later ascendance of the slave’s “good” morality. I can only assume that Spivak’s “planetarity” also believes in the kind of power that imagination leads society to resist and triumph over the destructiveness of capitalist cartography. 

The challenge though is to outmatch capitalist creativity, for it too has its own ability to materialize what is abstract and what is intangible. For instance, our imaginings of love, freedom, and nationhood are already unable to escape the capitalistic commodification of the abstract; how much more the imagination of the planet? 

Of course, Spivak provides us with strategies, from the obscurity of her writing to letting ourselves be imagined by others, without guarantees. But then, talking “planet-talk” will, sooner or later, be expectedly subjected to decoding and appropriation, by which capitalists are notorious for. And so, inasmuch as Spivak tells us that the outcome is “uncertain” or “to come”, it must arrive in haste before everything is too late.

Reference: Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.  

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

History, Feminism, and Duality in Tsao Hsueh-Chin's Dream of the Red Chamber

Dream of the Red Chamber is more than a fictional work. It is a historical piece that provides readers with an understanding of the traditional culture in 18th century China: its social structure, its art, its architecture, its religious practices, its sciences, and its cultural beliefs. While the novel gives a general insight of Chinese culture, it also looks into the sociocultural aspects and values, specifically the Chinese aristocratic life of the Chia family. The richness of the Chinese literary tradition, for instance, is portrayed in the novel through Pao Yu’s general fondness for poetry, riddles, drama, and classical books. Also, with the garden of Takuanyuan – ideally representing the space with which Chinese arts and aesthetics are materialized – the novel provides a glimpse of the characters’ activities during their leisure time such as reading novels, “playing chess or musical instruments”, “painting or composing verses”, writing scrolls, and “taking a hand at embroidery” (145). Aside from this, day to day activities in an aristocratic household are also depicted in their food preparation, tea ceremony, dining manners, medical prescription and treatment, witchcraft practices, funeral ceremonies, and amusements in the family.

Dream of the Red Chamber is more than a love piece. It is a work which aspires to explore female characters and their destinies in a highly patriarchal Chinese society. As men in the novel are observably on the periphery because of their duties for the state, the lives of women are highlighted through an exploration of their psychology and personality: for instance, the frail character of Black Jade, the controlling nature of Phoenix, the power and influence of the Matriarch, the submissiveness of Madam Hsing, and the defiant character of Faith, the maid who refuses marriage. Here, we see the work as an important insight into early Chinese feminism, portrayed generally through Pao Yu’s fondness and high regard for women whom he compares to “water with clear minds”, in contrast to men who he thinks are “made of mud or unformed clay”. From the novel, we are also made aware of the social hierarchy, roles, and status of these women in the Chia household: from the primary wives to concubines; from chief maids to bondservants. While these young female figures are exalted through their character, it is implied that their inevitable destinies – to later be framed and forced into marriage – represent the tragedy of their existence as female beings.

Dream of the Red Chamber is more than a socio-realistic novel. It is a work that explores the metaphysical and dualistic aspect of existence: between the real and unreal, between illusion and reality, and between truth and appearance. The novel, as it can be recalled, starts with the story of a stone, which was abandoned by a goddess and who later sought help from a monk and a Taoist priest to bring it to the Red Dust. Here the transfiguration and reincarnation of Pao Yu from a stone and Black Jade from a flower represents the Chinese belief in “predestination” or fate. Indeed, theirs is a story of love which, from the onset, already spells catastrophe based on their dreams that blur between the fantastic and reality. On one hand, for instance, Black Jade’s dream of Pao Yu cutting out his heart and showing it to her implies tragedy and sacrifice; while on the other, Pao Yu’s disbelief that he actually married Precious Virtue appears to him as though everything is only a dream. Indeed, these star crossed lovers – mutually sick because their soul shares a common grief – are to me, reminiscent of lovers who, to borrow from John Keats, “can never, never kiss”, whether here on Red Dust or back to the mystical heaven. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Genealogy of Yun Ling’s Ressentiment in Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists

(Summary/Introduction of a full-length paper for Southeast Asian Literature class)

Teoh Yun Ling is a woman of ressentiment — a French term, explicated by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, to signify a subjugated feeling of hate and negative sentiment directed against an outer force that oppresses a subject. This ressentiment, within Yun Ling, stems from her containment of memories as a lone survivor of a brutal Japanese camp during the Second World War. According to Nietzsche, one’s ressentiment – as a negative and reactive sentiment that is not acted – turns creative when it sets forth an “imaginary revenge” against an oppressor, hence giving birth to values (GM I, 10). In the case of Yun Ling, her internalized loathing against the Japanese, though not acted, becomes creative when, after working at the War tribunal, she submits herself to become an apprentice of the Emperor’s gardener and carries out an “imaginary revenge” by permeating the imagination and consciousness of her perceived Japanese oppressor.

This reading of Tan Twan Eng’s Garden of Evening Mists intends to trace the path and examine the stages of ressentiment contained within the consciousness of a war survivor who directs her subdued loathing against her former captors, the Japanese, after their occupation of Malaya. Grounding the paper’s analysis on Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals (GM), this paper aims to represent Yun Ling’s narrative as an interpretation on the evolution of ressentiment as an internalized hatred — tracing the origins of its conception towards its eventual dissipation. Alongside the interpretive elaboration of ressentiment is the exploration of other Nietzschean concepts pertinent to Yun Ling’s narrative such as: 1.) justice as an invention of the powerless; 2.) forgetting as a positive form of repression; 3.) memory as a painful continuation of a promise; and 4.) the body as the site of history. Lastly, these aphoristic ideas from Nietzsche are contextualized to explicate aspects relevant to Yun Ling’s character such as her Malaysian Chinese identity, the Japanese occupation of Malaya, and healing through Japanese aesthetics. 

Evolution of Yun Ling’s Ressentiment

A Malaysian Chinese held prisoner in a Japanese labor camp with her sister, Teoh Yun Ling carries within herself brutal memories of wartime atrocities committed by Japanese troops throughout their occupation of Malaya. During her internment at the camp, she not only lost two fingers and was brutally scarred by the army; but more painfully, lost her sister Yun Hong in a mass murder committed out of desperation by the losing Japanese troops. These tragic memories in the vicious camp aggravated Yun Ling’s internalized hatred towards her oppressors and initiated the formation of ressentiment against them. 

Ressentiment, a concept developed by Nietzsche to explicate the source of society’s production of a value system, is embedded in the weak and oppressed whom the German philosopher refers to as the “slaves”. Historically abused by the masters because of their inherent weakness, the slaves staged a creatively imaginative revolt against this oppression by developing a value system which judges all actions by the masters as “evil” and their own as “good”. According to Nietzsche, there was a “slave revolt of morality” when the values held by the masters – strength, nobility, and power (associated with the Greeks and Romans) – are labeled “evil”, while the slaves (Judean, Christian) consider their own values of kindness, guilt, and meekness as “good”.

In this struggle between master and slave morality, ressentiment is central to the later ascendance of the slave’s “good” morality because of its symbolic and imagined qualities. In his reading of On the Genealogy of Morals, philosopher Gilles Deleuze refers to ressentiment as the “spirit of revenge” where, due to the experience of “too strong excitation (pain)” by an individual, a reaction ceases to be acted and instead felt (senti) internally and increasingly over time (111). In other words, persistent subjugation towards a person of ressentiment leads to the buildup of resentful hatred not avenged through action, but by internalized and imaginary revenge, which denounces the oppressors’ (masters) every action and values as “evil”. 

The imaginary revenge for a person of ressentiment involves an obsessive thinking over past suffering deeply embedded within the consciousness and memory; an association which Deleuze summarily describes as:

“The man of ressentiment in himself is a being full of pain: the sclerosis or hardening of his consciousness, the rapidity with which every excitation sets and freezes within him, the weight of the traces that invade him are so many cruel sufferings. And more deeply, the memory of traces is full of hatred in itself and by itself. This is an essential link between revenge and memory” (116, emphasis mine).

Associating vengeance and memory is a feature of ressentiment related to Yun Ling’s narrative as a war survivor who is unable to overcome her resentful hatred against her former oppressor. It is through identifying Yun Ling’s judgment and unconscious actions, in the novel, that the stages of her ressentiment can be explored; for while it is known that the development of her ressentiment traces its origin from the atrocities committed by Japanese troops, it is unclear how Yun Ling’s ressentiment evolves, progresses, and gradually dissipates when she met the Emperor’s gardener in the highlands of Malaya. 

There are specifically four stages identified to demonstrate the development of Yun Ling’s ressentiment – from its conception up to its eventual dissipation – which both corresponds to the plot progression of the novel and Nietzsche’s aphoristic concepts in On the Genealogy of Morals. At first stage of her ressentiment, Yun Ling works at the War Tribunal as a clerk, prosecutor, and ultimately a judge to investigate and sentence Japanese war criminals. Seeking justice however did not allow her ressentiment to dissipate as, true to Nietzsche’s assertion, justice is an invention of the weak (slaves) who are too powerless to directly harm their oppressors (GM I: 10). 

Yun Ling’s ressentiment enters its second stage when she still failed to forget her past because post-war events surrounding her become bitter reminders of Japanese atrocities. Forgetting, for Yun Ling, is impossible since pain nurtures the memory, or more aptly, “only that which ceases to hurt stays in the memory” (Nietzsche, GM II: 3). Due to growing frustration, Yun Ling directs her loathing against external entities – her bosses, colleagues, and the state – which, according to Nietzsche, is only typical for a person of ressentiment who constantly needs to “direct one’s view outward instead of back to oneself” in order to trigger its external stimuli for reaction (GM I: 10).

Yun Ling then decides, after getting sacked from her legal work, to fulfill a promise to her sister who died in the camp. On the third stage of her ressentiment, she decides to create a memorial Japanese garden in order to carry out her sister’s dreams. Here concepts of “promise”, “debt” and “guilt” – which Nietzsche considered as man’s “capacities” that allow painful remembrance – have notably haunted Yun Ling’s consciousness. Being guilty because of an unfulfilled promise leads Yun Ling to seek the help of the Emperor’s gardener, with whom she is only allowed to become an apprentice “until the monsoon season”. As will be qualified in the paper, theirs is a relationship which can be described as typical for a master and slave relationship; for while the self-assured Japanese within Aritomo is subdued by Yun Ling’s narrative of war brutalities, Yun Ling’s hatred gradually dissipated by the sublime effects of Japanese aesthetics.

The last stage of Yun Ling’s ressentiment involves ultimately the reversal of the master-slave relationship between her and Aritomo. Here ressentiment triumphs to perform a creative revenge that subtly dominates the perceived oppressor. Notably, as their relationship flourish, Yun Ling is able to awaken Aritomo’s guilt and conscience through her wartime narratives. Soon after the garden is finished, Aritomo decides to use his artistry to make an inscription on Yun Ling’s body through the art of horimono – the Japanese tattoo. Here we see how – in the act of using the body as a site for inscribing her past – Yun Ling subjugates her Malayan Chinese identity through the Japanese taboo art in order to liberate herself completely from ressentiment. With the past written on her body, she is assured that “the palest ink will outlast the memory of men” (115). Meanwhile, for Aritomo, doing horimono for Yun Ling is his last act, his final oeuvre, before vanishing without a trace deep in the Malayan jungle.


Deleuze, Gilles. “From Ressentiment to the Bad Conscience”. Nietzsche and Philosophy. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006. 111-119.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On the Genealogy of Morality”. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Ed. Walter Kaufman. New York : Modern Library, 1968. 452-532.  

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Invisibility and Invincibility of Subaltern Minorities in Amy Tan’s Saving Fish From Drowning

Similar to the discomfited fates shared through national imaginings and constructions of postcolonial nations, the failure of Burma’s decolonization from the British imperial rule is determined by the wrongful privileging of a dominant nationalist group that deliberately displaces, neglects, and/or terminates the existence of its minority populations.

The trail of displacement for Burma’s subalterns – fictionalized as the renegade group of the Karen tribe known as The Lord’s Army (or Lajamee) – demonstrates how nationalist movements necessarily exclude, ignore, and/or extinguish subaltern minorities to represent and put forward the interest of a prevailing ethnic group using the state’s military apparatus.

In tracing the “itinerary of silencing” for these subaltern minorities, literary theorist Gayatri Spivak resolves that there is “no space from which the subaltern can speak” since they are already being represented or ventriloquized by the dominant discourses being forwarded not only by those who oppress them, but also by the seemingly “concerned” outsiders and other interested sectors in society.

However, for the supposed Lajamee tribe in Amy Tan’s novel, it is not enough to assert that subaltern minorities cannot speak; but that they cannot see as well – through their blinded faith – and that they are condemned, moreover, not to be seen by the dominant eyes of the state and the external populace. 

As subaltern minorities, the Lajamees are fated to be invisible. Their displaced and chartless existence – concealed behind the unnavigable jungles of No Name Place – liberates them, in fact, from being erroneously recognized, misrepresented, and manipulated by the dominant forces in society. With this, it is merely apt to contend that it is through the tribe’s initial invisibility – and their higher desire for a mystical one – that holds the key to their invincibility. In other words, making the tribe visible by hauling them out in the open will not, so to speak, “save them from drowning”.

Instead, as revealed in the novel, the tribe’s visibility suffers a predictive curse which, in fact, only emphasizes the tribe’s subalternity or the condition of being known “not as a subject, but existing in a subjected state of being” (Chakrabarty). At this point, it is perhaps helpful to transform Spivak’s “itinerary of silencing” into the Lajamee tribe’s “itinerary of ‘invisibilizing”— and contend that if ‘speaking’ does not belong to the subaltern, then ‘existing’ too does not equally pertain to them, but to the dominant and well-defined structures of historical existence. 

Indeed, as established in the novel, exhibiting the presence of the Lajamees not only allows a distorted representation of their existence but also a subsequent “instrumentalization” both by the state and interested outsiders. The newly refashioned nation of Myanmar, for instance, through its State of Peace and Development Council, denies the persecution and atrocities being done to the tribe and offers them truces and peace agreements, while luring them back to the same dominant and antagonistic relationship they had with the state.

The supposed “concerned” Americans, on the other hand, provide the means to exoticize and commercialize the Lajamees and their ways of living merely for Western consumption. Here the exposure and subsequent neglect of the tribe by Western media – and the botanical invasion for Balanophora and anti-malarial herbs at No Name Place – highlight the curse of the tribe’s visibility. 

This is not to say though that by pointing out the tribe’s “invisibility as key to their invincibility” is tantamount to saying that there is no hope for subaltern minorities to see the promise of existence. Rather, we can trace Amy Tan’s use of “Saving Fish from Drowning” to provide insights as to how mankind can gaze out to the sea but cannot assume the suffering of marine life — precisely since everything that we see, including those we cannot see in nature, have their own space and ways of adapting to life.

Narrowing this view into understanding the condition of fishes in the sea, it is essential to shove ignorance and recognize that there are those “mighty Nemos” who, by way of leaping through the bounds of nature and time, learn how to eventually crawl, walk, and even fly. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Little Frog’s Epic Battle between the Heart & Mind in S.P. Somtow’s Jasmine Nights

A work of genius deserves an equally brilliant critique. But since the mere mortal in me cannot, for sure, write beyond eaughings and what-whatings, I turn to Seneca, who put forward in his writings the idea that, “there is no great genius without some touch of madness.” S.P. Somtow, perhaps in resembling his own creative brilliance, presents a glimpse of how the world gives birth to a literary genius – depicting, in particular, how a young and privileged intellectual constructs, contemplates, and makes sense of a world in chaos… of a world in madness. In Jasmine Nights, we see a reflection of that “lovely mess in the mind” found in Somtow’s literary craft as he blends philosophic musings with religious mysticism, historical allusions with epic fantasies, and supernatural visions with youthful and comical imaginings. 

With this, Jasmine Nights, as a literary masterpiece, cannot be simplistically classified as a mere story of initiation; for while the novel depicts a young man’s journey towards self-discovery, the work also aims to demystify mankind’s inherent pursuit of understanding the ternary alliance of life’s great mysteries – namely: death, love, and sex. Man has long been preoccupied by this trinity of mysteries — death, for its obscure finality; love, for its enduring complexity; and sex, for its endearing pleasure. Somtow, in his novel, attempts to construct these three as foundational quests for discovery towards an individual’s development of being — towards one’s journey from innocence to experience, from naïveté to maturity, and from enigma to the demystification of self. 

In other words, the life of Little Frog – except of course for his material privilege and stature – resides in us; for we all keep narratives of our first encounters with death, our initial struggles for love, and our introductory encounters with sex. Little Frog, for his part – amidst the scent of Jasmine surrounding his paradise – probed deeper into life’s great mysteries primarily through imagination, acquired and influenced heavily by his exposure to Western classics. Moving in relation to his social upbringing and reality however, he finds himself caught between the duality of man’s construction of the world: between the East and West, black and white, yentafo noodles and bacon, between likay and Greek plays, temple fairs and Limbo Rock parties — all of which signify how Little Frog’s life becomes, in itself, an epic battleground primarily between the language of the heart against the language of intellect. 

Language, particularly our acquisition and possession of it, performs a fundamental role in uncovering truths about our basic assumptions and preoccupations of the world – as mentioned: death, love, and sex. In the case of Little Frog, death, for language of the heart, is a passage for rebirth, a part of the Buddhist wheel of life; for the language of intellect, however, death is dealt with resistance or, in Dr. Richardson’s reference to Dylan Thomas’ villanelle, death is about “raging against the dying of the light”. Love, on the other hand, for the language of Little Frog’s heart, is embodied in Samlee, because of her enigma and devotion to mysticism; while, for the language of intellect, love – as Little Frog sees it in his Aunt Ning-nong – is treated as “rubbish”; existing solely as a calculated arrangement for convenience and responsibility. Lastly, sex, for the language of the heart is an inexplicable union lost amidst intoxicating smells of nam pla and  jasmine; while, for the intellect, sex is demystified through the satisfaction and brief release of a somewhat “uncontrollable sneezing” confined inside a packet of rubber. 

Indeed, the epic battle between the language of the heart and mind is at the core of Little Frog’s linguistic dilemma. He is caught between listening and expressing himself through the words of Western masters versus engaging himself and affecting the lived realities of people outside his paradise. Here, Somtow depicts a crucial and necessary phase in the development of a young intellectual’s trail to literary artistry and greatness. Because while the world, inherited by the young writer, is constructed in the constant friction between opposing dichotomies, Somtow’s work is able showcase that one can arrive at a syncretic understanding of dualities. In Little Frog’s conception of the play, for instance, he is able to demonstrate the possibility of bridging the “mythic and the down-to earth” and creating a “grand synthesis of East and West” using borrowed language and stolen lines from English literary masters, while employing his friends to play roles contrary to their epidermic appearances. 

It is notable that, in the novel, Somtow does not allow the privileging of either Thai or Western culture. Instead, the author works toward the realization of a grand scheme that will unite the language of the heart and mind as well as merge imagination and reality. Indeed, this is a reflection of greatness on Somtow’s part; for it must be noted how this idea has been echoed repeatedly by countless writers and thinkers, both postcolonial and Western. Hegel, for instance, described the formation of truth in the synthesis of thesis and anti-thesis. Hesse, on the other hand, demonstrated the juxtaposition of Eastern and Western thoughts and consciousness as a common theme for most of his novels. Derrida, moreover, sought to shake the center and deconstruct the structure of binary oppositions. Furthermore, Bhabha put forward the idea of hybridity, mimicry, and ambivalence as the “in-betweens” that will destabilize binary opposition constructed by colonial authority. Through Jasmine Nights, Somtow puts forward roughly the same idea as other great thinkers of our times – syncretizing both language of the heart and mind in order to demystify and harmonize the madness found in this constructed world of ours.  

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Musings on Death in Chart Korbjitti’s The Judgement

I will talk, in this paper, only of death; perhaps as a form of tribute to all Faks in the world who has lived a painful existence with their struggles not only, as Schopenhauer puts it, “against wants or boredom, but also against other people”. In Chart Korbjitti’s The Judgement, the person who best articulated death, not surprisingly, is the only one in the village who handles the dirty work for the dead. For the cremator Khai, the death of Fak stirs his thinking about the mysteries of life – how we go through it like blind men who can’t see anything because, in the first place, we do not know where we come from; from birth, we struggle through life and die – yet this death is unknown, unexpected, and unknowable, especially since “we don’t know where we go after we die”. 

This idea of blind existence, as articulated by Khai, has similarly been echoed by philosophers who themselves describe the study of philosophy as similar to a blind man’s search for a black cat inside a dark room which is not there. Uncle Khai’s understanding of existence, more specifically, is also an equivalence of Kierkegaard’s description of how we go through life, unendurably, like spiders that naturally plunges down on “an empty space and cannot find its footing however much it flounders”. In other words, there is only vagueness in life, certainty in death, and mystery in the afterlife. It is notable that, in this order, death is central between the stages of vague existence (life) and mysterious nonexistence (afterlife). In this case, the centrality and certainty of death is what precisely gives it a central position in culture – the social organization nurtured by man to nurture its ways of life – and religion, the social institution that provides man with elucidatory narratives about afterlife. 

In Southeast Asia’s many religious societies, death – existing as a passage to afterlife – is dealt with utmost reverence and importance. Thailand’s Buddhist society, in particular, performs a highly ritualistic observance for the dead through chanting prayers and giving offerings to the monks. It is notable that while death – understood in Thai society as part of Buddhist wheel of life – is convoyed naturally by sorrow; people attend to it as well through the rather festive, merit making ceremonies – gathering villagers for days in the temple grounds; highlighting thus the centrality of the institution in inhabiting the social, educational, and religious space in the lives of Thai people. The novel’s depiction, moreover, of a traditional Thai funeral – from storing the body momentarily until the process of cremation – depicts the elucidatory narrative of Buddhism about afterlife: how death becomes a passage for a person’s rebirth, occurring when the soul inhabiting the body is released through cremation. 

While the articulation of death is known to every Thai, the realization of their beliefs through communal practices is a different matter. Fak’s “useful” death and his father’s neglected funeral are attended expectedly by isolation and desolation of practice. Indeed, while death may often be deemed as the great equalizer; it is not so when facing the fact that some deaths are more important than others. Death is not equal for people inherently condemned by their subaltern status. Both Fak and his father arrived in a rural community without an identity; devoid of property, family, and social standing. Fak, in this case, must start carving out his life on the village’s social bedrock of narratives which is dependent on his relationship with the community, conformity to the norms, and adherence to people’s expectations. 

In other words, his is a nonexistent yet “useful” life that could be recounted as a model narrative either of success – about a poor man’s accession to monkhood – or as a story of misfortune about a man ostracized for his failed morality. In his lifetime, Fak unknowingly disappointed the community in two instances: first, his request to disrobe when he was about to reach the age of ordination and second, his decision to keep widow Somsong after his father’s death. The result of these underlying transgressions is social ostracism through vicious gossip and neglect, all of which are insufferable consequences especially for the weak and naïve in character. Fak’s painful existence should, in the end, remind us of our judgment or, to what Korbjitti refers to as, “the commonplace suffering that man inflicts and endures under normal conditions”. That this judgment was never altered even after Fak’s passing is a testament that time, not death, is the great equalizer — for Fak, already dead, got even with his monetary loss from the headmaster only through Khai’s effort and widow Somsong’s expulsion of her rather sticky and sticking revenge.    

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