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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