Thinking about immortality while listening to John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jetplane”

Borges

To be immortal is commonplace; except for man, all creatures are immortal, for they are ignorant of death; what is divine, terrible, incomprehensible, is to know that one is immortal – Jorge Luis Borges, The Immortal

Borges, my favorite writer these days (as ‘favorite’ is a word in eternal flux), never fails to surprise me with his paradoxes bordering on the eccentric. I always bring this gray paperback wherever I go, reading and rereading his essays and trying to go back to the pages I’ve already understood thinking that I might have missed something and that I have misunderstood him. Sometimes I feel like he’s laughing at my gullibility in believing in his historical accounts of people I have never heard of. Most of the time I cannot bring myself to believe in anything he says but I know that dismissing them outright as impossible is a lost chance of looking at the world in his perspective.

Let’s take for instance his take on immortality. According to him, in spite of religions, the idea of immortality is very rare. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity profess immortality, but the veneration they render this world proves they believe only in it since they destine all other worlds, in infinite number, to be its reward or punishment. But immortality entails neither beginning nor end, that all things happen to all men, that each life is the effect of the preceding and engenders the following, but none determines the totality.

After a harrowing day, I, for a moment, was incapable of thinking about my immortality. And it occurred to me that from that moment I’ve forgotten thinking about my eventual demise until this time, I was immortal.

At least according to Borges.

chickenvamptime

Complexity and disengagement in the play Hate Restaurants

In a world that inadvertently drives everyone to insanity, holding on to that precious strand of normalcy can be pretty challenging, disregarding, of course, the fact that even the very definition of normalcy is also open to question.

In the play Hate Restaurants by Australian playwright David Finnigan, the predicament of the character Toby as she confronts all the characters who are in the verge of dementia or already enmeshed within its webs plays the central theme.

Rat

I was honestly unable to comprehend at first the direction the play is heading during the first few minutes. I thought I was being led to expect something close to a deconstructionist, structuralist, or simply a surreal theatrical presentation that will go into the dangerous waters of exaggerated profundity, an act too perilous as to try to be more intelligent than the audience, considering that first and foremost art must be enjoyed, not to be dissected as if it is a piece of cadaver awaiting for an autopsy.

But as the play progressed, in fact it is rather long, an hour based on my estimate, the characters are allowed to unveil their true identities and there under the glaring spotlight the character’s static identities are exposed. Each has his or her simple cartoonish complexities, each representing a kind or personality devoid of any any possibility to develop into a mature character that the audience can sympathize with; each is placed inside a box, and remains boxed until the play’s conclusion.

Simply put, each of them seems to represent a specific mental illness in a psych ward. A class reunion of used-to-be-patients of mental institution showing some recurring symptoms of their illnesses every now and then – the bipolar Toby, Cyclothymic Lucille, mildly autistic Billy suffering from episodic hypomania, schizoid (or simply inebriated) Louise, anorexic leader of the Little Friends of Science, and the probably-bulimic assistant to the leader of the Little Friends of Science.

Not to belabor the point, all the characters lack pathos and poignancy.

A friend pointed out that the reason of its complexity is the fact that it has a middle-class sensibility, the members of this class being more psychologically complicated than the rest of the population. But it’s quite hard for me to agree with this view simply because all of the characters, except for the members of the Little Friends of Science that transcend class categorization, are members of the working class. In fact all of them are overworked, including the owner of the restaurant Lucille, a fact that can explain the absurdity of their actions. Moreover, this play, written by an Australian using his country’s realities as a vantage point, is simply too detached from an Aussie middle class experience.

It is a complexity that went out of control, I believe. For a one-act play, the characterization fails to support the apparent simplicity of the plot. It is too much of this that made the play seems bloated and the audience, as a result, became incontinent by the play’s end.

My professor in Literature, Dr. Leoncio Deriada, in UP once mentioned in our class that incomprehensibility does not make a piece of work inferior. I beg to differ.

Oh I failed to mention, Billy the Rat, has the most profound character development in the story; from a lowly, decapitated, big, black rat to a cute, docile looking rodent in the end.

Hate Restaurants is a one-act play featured in the Writers’ Bloc Virgin Labfest V sponsored by the Cultural Center of the Philippines. It is staged in Huseng Batute Theatre. Virgin Labfest runs from the 23rd of June until the 5th of July 2009.

Paigan (Fagen): when the sub-altern dares to speak but chooses not to

fagen_david

It is not necessary that one has to have a good background in the history of Filipino-American war in the beginning of the 20th century to appreciate the play Paigan (Fagen) by Liza Magtoto and directed by Sigrid Bernardo.

It is the story of Pedring, a member of the  insurrection and Tacio, his former comrade who is the brother of Pedring”s girlfriend abducted by the Americans and their indecision to kill Fagen in exchange of the 600 dollars for the rebel soldier’s head. Pedring captures the defected Black American soldier, David Fagen, and is about to behead him when Tacio persuades him to let go of the man because, like them, the soldier is also a victim of discrimination by the American troops whose majority is made up of white Americans.

Fagen is freed eventually by his headstrong Filipina wife who directed a ploy to deceive the Americans by using another man’s skull to be given to the Americans. According to legends. Fagen is still living in the mountains of Luzon with his Filipina wife until this time.

Indianapolis Freeman 2 pics

A news clipping from the Indianapolis Freeman about the occasional sightings of David Fagen

He became legendary not only because of his skills in eluding capture and staging impressive guerrilla attacks, but his supposed audacious belief in the Filipino cause for freedom and his rejection of him being used as an instrument to ‘free’ the Philippines as if it were the white man’s burden.

However, in the play Paigan, the focus is shifted from the black American soldier to the two Filipino characters of Tacio and Pedring. Two caricatures of Filipinos during those time whose options are limited to the black and white of total rejection of the American project or otherwise and whether an American, although partly black, can be their comrade in the fight against American colonialism.

This inability to come up with a strong resolve to behead Fagen on the part of Pedring and the constant dissuasion of Tacio against the act drag the play in the most of the middle part. In fact, a precious amount of time is spent on this part that viewers felt an uncomfortable restlessness concealed by their intermittent laughter at the slapstick of the two short, brown-skinned characters while they make fools out of themselves.

Granting that David Fagen did not die in real life, the playwright missed the very good opportunity of actually giving a voice to her sub-altern characters, to let them use their voice even to such an extreme point as to murder the demigod David Fagen.

David Fagen was fighting his own battle to stop discrimination among American troops, to give voice to the marginalized colored members of the US armed forces. And while stationed in the Philippines, he met Filipinos fighting the US occupation and, it seemed to me, convenient allies in his rebellion. And the Filipinos, known for their hospitality to foreigners, welcomed with open arms the renegade Fagen.

The play, by following faithfully this accepted ‘reality’ of Fagen escaping execution let go of the chance of problematizing the white man’s burden and the possibility of the Filipinos of southern Luzon having murdered Fagen, because like him they are also a sub-altern who long to be heard, and that the battle of Fagen is detached from their experience, that after all he is still an American who although not found in the top-most  stratum of the center, still is a part of the center.

But in the playwright’s attempt to be historically ‘correct’ this possibility is ignored and considered too extreme to be considered an option. And so Tacio and Pedring both laughable characters remain wallowing on the margins, holding on to the only description one can have of their characters – caricatures.

Probably, I was looking for something that is not in the play. A realistic treatment of a historical story. (Realistic as the adjective form of the movement called Realism not as how it is understood today.)

Paigen is a one-act play written in time for the Writers’ Bloc Virgin Labfest V sponsored by the Cultural Center of the Philippines. It is staged in Huseng Batute Theatre. Virgin Labfest runs from the 23rd of June until the 5th of July 2009.

A night of comic tragedy in Isang Araw sa Karnabal

In the almost hackneyed leitmotifs of redundant tragedies ever-present in the lives of ordinary Filipinos, giving life to a tragic subject using the methodologies of a tragic play or anything with a likeness of such in theater will only drag and blur the theme, the subject, and the artistic attempt, rendering them all trite and unable to achieve the level of poetry and the unfamiliar.

Torture

Such light but intelligent treatment of very serious social realities in the Philippines proves to be, for me, the strongest point of Isang Araw sa Karnabal, a one-act play by the acclaimed playwright Nicolas B. Pichay and directed by veteran theater director Chris Millado.

The play is set in a local perya (carnival) where Toni and Zaldy meet for a date. Although it is not clear whether they have a formal, romantic relationship, they are intimately attached to each other. Their initial conversations, marked with funny punchlines and comical delivery belie the dark circumstances they’re both caught in. Toni’s father disappeared allegedly abducted by military agents during a Labor Day rally five years ago. Zaldy’s five-year-old sister, on the other hand, disappeared and whose body was later found decomposing after suffering from torture.

Both are forced to face the desaparecidos in their lives. Desparacidos is a term originating from South America that means people who are victims of forced disappearance by an  oppressive government. Toni has not let go of the hope of one day finding his father even though he has been gone for five years already. Zaldy wants to move on and forget or to at least have a semblance of normalcy in their lives. The topic of their conversations, which are as variegated as the concerns of the different roles they play as lovers, daughter, brother, and as contemporary persons, mirror the everyday of most Filipinos–full of struggles, longing, at times punctuated by delusions if only to get by life. Nonetheless this same ordinariness giving snippets us of their sometimes mundane concerns juxtaposed with the great and the beyond-themselves allows the characters to be elevated to the greatness of heroes confronting their worst archenemies in great tragedies and epics.

Carnival

Everything in the play (the characterization of the two actors and their good complementation of each other, their bright costumes, the colorful set that looks almost like a soft cotton candy sold in Enchanted Kingdom, and the recreated gay air of a theme park) establishes a stark contrast to that of the serious theme of the play: how people affected by external struggles deal with the problem and how their relationships with other people change because of these circumstances.

If there is something this play is successful at, it is giving a face to the almost monotonous and overly-homogenized group of people who are victimized, including their families, by the state’s oppressive apparatuses. The number of forced disappearances which escalates in the Arroyo administration, the most since Marcos’s time has become so stale a topic for most the primetime-newscast-viewing public.

I believe that the primary reason ordinary people feel apathetic towards these issues is that these killings, disappearances, tortures have gone trite and clichéd due to mainstream media’s almost repetitious and shallow presentation of the news. This play, in contrast, humanizes those dehumanized faces and provides tangibility to this almost imaginary and unreal truth.

While watching the play, I thought: Look! Here’s a play that is too specific in its scope, not at all presumptuous, simple, funny but turned out to be expressive of the universality of hope, profound, and serious and successful in all its effort to inject humor wherever and whenever is it possible.

The playwright’s vision, was methodically and almost perfectly made into a tactile experience for the theater-goers because of the superb direction by Chris Millado. The imaginative lighting and sound techniques both make this modest production as impressive as any highly budgeted production.

Isang Araw sa Karnabal is a one-act play written in time for the Writers’ Bloc Virgin Labfest V sponsored by the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

The characters of Toni and Zaldy are played by Skyz Labastilla and Paolo O’Hara, respectively. The played is staged in Huseng Batute Theatre on the following dates: 27th and 30th of June at 8pm; 27th of June and 1st of July at 3pm.

Jorge Luis Borges and how to de-legendize the man called Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson and Madonna

Since I commenced reading Borges’s essays last night and was introduced to the “labyrinthine and enclosed enigmas designed to be understood and participated in by man”, the potential of problematizing and opening up of the possibilities of charting the uncharted complexities of the human mind, in the word of the former Philippine president Fidel Ramos, titillated me.

While reading, I could not help but ask myself this inevitable question:

How is it possible that other people are endowed with a cosmopolitan mind to acknowledge and comprehend the intricacies of existence while other are left to wallow in their everyday boredom?

And indeed, I was caught by Borges’s apparently absurd way of looking at our seemingly orderly world. He appeared to have created a world in complete pandemonium and from here, using his absurd philosophy, created a universe that is more orderly than before. Or how in his unique universe the dreamer becomes the dreamed, or the writer being written about, or Hamlet being a spectator of his own play.

Or Michael Jackson becoming one of his audience and all his audience each becoming a Michael Jackson.

The world did not express its fanaticism toward Michael Jackson because of his exceptional talent and charisma. The world created Michael Jackson to explain its fanaticism to the unknown, be it greatness, death, or life. The man’s life became caught within this “stupor, exaltation, alarm and jubilance” that perhaps explains the paradox of his existence that was both comedic and tragic.

“We are all at once writers, readers and protagonists of some eternal story; we fabricate our illusions, seek to decipher the symbols around us and see our efforts overtopped and cut short by a supreme Author: but in our defeat, as in the Mournful Knight’s, there can come the glimpse of a higher understanding that prevails at our expense.”  Irby, J.E.  (Ed) (2000), Jorge Luis Borges Labyrinths. London: Penguin Classics.

The village idiots

beggar_seated_on_bank_282x470

This is a story of a far away land in an undisclosed location in the middle of northern Philippines where Filipino politics had not yet reached and where people’s lives had not succumbed as yet to the idiocy of politics.

In this community of ten thousand, everyone lived like  idiots. When somebody made a mistake, they laughed at it throughout the day until they got exhausted that would prompt them to sleep soundly in the night. None of the people in this far away land had ever seen any human settlement other than their village. Some attempted to venture and seek, out of that human desire for adventure, other parts of the world, but they ended in vain. Either they died along the way or they never returned to tell the story of how it was to live outside the community. No one from the outside ever reached the village and documented the unique way of life the people of this unknown place had. Not until just recently.

The people in this village lived in complete peace and happiness. Being idiots, although it sometimes caused them to start planting rice during the climax of summer heat, which ended up, of course, to massive crop failure, or to feed their pigs and other farm animals with banana leaves, which of course made the animals bloated and sickly, they seldom experienced hardship because any problems caused by their stupidity was viewed as another opportunity for merry-making and an entire afternoon of laughing spree.


The community had no established form of formal government or any kind of hierarchy based on power. However, this did not mean that their society was free from any form of stratification. There was, in fact. The more dimwitted a member was, the higher was his place in the society’s social echelon.

But being the most idiotic of the idiots was not an elected post as it is in mainstream Philippine society today. In this community, whose name was already forgotten, it is determined by the level of idiocy one has committed. The grander was the act, the more far-reaching the effect, the more stupid it looked, the higher was the member’s position in the society’s caste.

And so they continued to live at peace with each other. Each member felt secured by the fact that as long as they remained idiots nothing would harm them, and that being an idiot would keep them from harming themselves, as well as other idiot members of the community.

They were occasionally plagued with pestilence, famine, and disease; but nature had been good to them, generally. This continued for several centuries. Until one day.

It was an ordinary day; somebody’s house was burning because instead of cleaning the house using water and detergent, one housewife, lured by the addictive, pungent odor of paint thinner, poured some on the bamboo slats she was trying to clean. Accidentally, the burning wood she was using to cook rice fell on the bamboo slat and started the fire. The fire consumed her hut in half an hour. She was teary-eyed, laughing at the ashen remain of her house. The village people gathered around her and asked her to buy them tuba, a local alcoholic beverage, to which she replied that all the monies she tucked between her bamboo walls burned with the house. Everyone burst out laughing. Because of this, she was elevated to the third rank idiot position.

During that day, from nowhere, according to some accounts it was from the sky, a newspaper appeared right in the middle of the remains of the burned hut. It was a newspaper published in Manila. The people got curious and started reading the paper.

Although they were dumb, they were not illiterate. They read in that paper that the right reaction whenever they see a burning house was to cry and to blame the owner of the house for negligence, or the fire department for the very slow response, or the government for not strictly implementing building codes. They stoned the careless housewife to death, a punishment she deserved according to the village code of conduct.

They found out that their village leaders must be duly-elected leader and not selected based of the level of idiocy.

In the agriculture and farm section of the newspaper, they discovered that banana leaves are the worst things to feed to their animals.

And so a village-wide riot occurred. Reading in the newspaper that war is a natural consequence of misunderstanding, the men then took their farm implements and whacked the heads of the first person they saw. The women, opting for a less violent means, called on the village witch to cast a spell to other women whom they think are shrewder than anyone of them. The village witch had a busy day that day. It was also her last day to see the daylight.

For after that, the village vanished and nothing was heard about what happened to them.

Last week, however, archeologist from the National Museum discovered skeletons of pigs in northern Philippines. And according to the tests they conducted on the remains of the pigs, the stomach of the animal, which miraculously remained intact, contain bananaine, an enzyme found only in banana leaves which confirmed the story that sometime in the distant past, a village of idiots existed whose members were believed to have fed their pigs with banana leaves.

Who’s afraid of Maria Cadete?

old woman

She was born in October, 1909 or 1913; nobody really knows exactly when. When she was 16, she married a sailor, some said a mason, and other people who considered her their enemy said that she had an affair with one of the porters stationed in the pier of Iloilo City.
She eventually married this porter, rumor has it. This man’s name is Emeterio Campaniel whom she bore two daughters: her first child named Asuncion when she was 18 and her second daughter, Leonor, when she was 21.

She then left Tiyok, as her husband was fondly called by people who knew them. He physically battered her whenever he got inebriated. Maria existed during a time when battering women was not scoffed and derided by the society, when it was accepted as a part of “disciplining” misdirected and erring wives. She, however, was a woman ahead of her time: she left her husband when this action by a wife was unheard of; she retained her maiden name, Cadete, despite the usual practice of dropping it and taking the husband’s name; and she took care of her daughters in the absence of any financial support from their father.

An unsuccessful married life became a reason for her to pursue a different career that again challenged the conventional roles of the women of her time.

She had an aura of a character in a legend sprung from a small town. She acted as adviser to the local people of Janiuay, Iloilo on legal matters during her heyday before World War II. According to stories, the defendant or the plaintiff or whoever side she was against, trembled whenever they knew that Maria Cadete was the legal adviser of the other party. There was no clear accounts of her life during this time but according to what’s passed around, her expertise in dealing with rape cases and land settlement was unparalleled.

After the Second World War the legendary fame of Maria Cadete among the people of Janiuay waned until she was relegated to oblivion for unknown reason. She was last seen in Bukidnon on the island of Mindanao doing menial job, a far cry from her former work as the legal voice of the people in that farming community in central Philippines. Rumors then spread that she permanently settled in the Cotabato region during the early 80s.

Later did I know that this legendary Maria Cadete and my taciturn great grandmother Maria are the same person. I heard the story of Maria Cadete, who inspired hidden deference and regard in me, told in the third person by people around me without any reference to the old woman I call Lola Marya. My lola used to stay in her own hut for wanting to have a life of her own, free from any meddling from her two daughters and eight grand children.

I never bothered to connect the dots that led to my questionings as to the why the old and reticent woman of 93, that’s her age when I left for college, kept on asking me whether I was going to study Law in college, or on the progress of my schooling as a “law student” whenever I went home for a vacation.

Yesterday, I confronted the legend that I’ve always believed ever since I heard the uncanny Maria Cadete. Lola Marya, who until this time clings on to her life as she is celebrating her 100th year and the Maria Cadete who inspired awe in me because of her recalcitrant defiance of her Fate both existed physically at the same time, in the same places ignoring the physical law of impenetrability.

And what is even more amazing is the fact that for almost a hundred years now, these two inspiring women always have been one and the same.