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 na├»ve 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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