The Festival of Insignificance

It was the month of June, the morning sun was emerging from the clouds, and Alain was walking slowly down a Paris street. He observed the young girls, who – everyone of them – showed her naked navel between trousers belted very low and a T-shirt cut very short. He was captivated; captivated and even disturbed: It was as if their seductive power no longer resided in their thighs, their buttocks, or their breasts, but in that small round hole located in the center of the body.

festival

I had decided to forgo reading the reviews of the most recent Milan Kundra book before I went head on and read it intermittently on Saturday. Intermittently because partaking of a Kundera book in one sitting is akin to engorging the entire buffet.

So slowly I went on enjoying, savoring each sentence that are resonant of his style (if there is such a). His meanderings, the philosophical digressions (they call them) can be jarring for most, the narrator too loquacious, but I have come to expect them.

I must admit, shamefully, that I do not anymore remember how I first came across his work, and I admit (shamefully again) that it was The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I fell in love with it that I imagined myself as Tomas cleaning windows in Prague in the 1960s, sampling the endless permutations of women, my hair smelling like it were doused in vaginal discharge after my many trysts, and being told by Tereza afterwards to wash my hair.

Reviewing my old posts on this blog, I found none of those I tagged under the author’s name and that title could help me recall how I got hold of my copy of Lightness. My copy is badly mangled, scandalously highlighted, overly-annotated. I do not anymore remember how many times I have lent it and prayed that my precious copy be returned. After that, I, little by little, unconsciously at first, ravenously next, bought all his titles, including his books of essays.

I fell too madly, deeply in love with his works. The Joke, The Farewell Waltz, Life Is Elsewhere, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Testament Betrayed, Immortality, Slowness, Identity, Ignorance, and most recentlyThe Festival of Insignificance. I came close to donning a black turtleneck all the time. But of course, I won’t, as wearing a black turtleneck can be a challenge to justify.

If I had books that would most closely mark my twenties, they’re Kundera’s.

One thing stays persistently, paraphrasing Sabina, nothing matters in the long run.

I read Kundera for the meanderings and how these departures emphasize his incisive observations on the absurd, the banal, the insignificant. And by writing about them, he artistically made them all reasonable, original, consequential. Yes even the navel.

Such is the power of Milan Kundera.

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34: Ruminating on death and true love on a Sunday noon

A human lifetime is 80 years long on average. A person imagines and organizes his life with that span in mind. What I have just said everyone knows, but only rarely do we realize that the number of years granted us is not merely a quantitative fact, an external feature (like nose length or eye color), but is part of the very definition of the human. A person who might live, with all his faculties, twice as long, say 160 years, would not belong to our species. Nothing about his life would be like ours–not love, or ambitions, or feelings, or nostalgia; nothing. If after 20 years abroad an emigre were to come back to his native land with another hundred years of life ahead of him, he would have little sense of a Great Return, for him it would probably not be a return at all, just one of many byways in the long journey of his life.

For the very notion of homeland, with all its emotional power, is bound up with the relative brevity of our life, which allows us too little time to become attached to some other country, to other countries, to other languages.

Sexual relations can take up the whole of adult life. But if life were a lot longer, might not staleness stifle the capacity for arousal well before one’s physical powers declined? For there is enormous difference between the first and the tenth, the hundredth, the thousandth, or the ten thousandth coitus. Where lies the boundary line beyond which repetition becomes stereotyped, if not comical or even impossible? and once that boundary is crossed, what would become of the erotic relationship between a man and a woman? Would it vanish? Or, on the contrary, would lovers consider the sexual phase of their lives to be the barbaric prehistory of real love? Answering these questions is as easy as imagining the psychology of the inhabitant of an unknown planet.

The notion of love (of great love, of one-and-only love) itself also derives, probably, from the narrow bounds of the time we are granted. If that time were boundless, would Josef be so attached to his deceased wife? We who must die so soon, we just don’t know.

Kundera, Milan. Ignorance. Linda Asher (trans). New York: Harper. 2000. 120-2.

Mirror

A wave of anger washed over me, anger against myself, at my age at the time, that stupid lyrical age, when a man is too great a riddle to himself to be interested in the riddles outside himself and when other people (no matter how dear) are mere walking mirrors in which he is amazed to find his own emotions, his own worth. Yes, for fifteen years I’d thought of Lucie only as the mirror that preserved my image of those days!

The Joke, Milan Kundera, 1982 (trans.)

Choosing to be happy*

It has been four years or so since I graduated from college, and the past four years left me a bit disgruntled, dissatisfied, and aimless, even angry. At some point I began to question my motives for staying in Manila, teaching Literature (a subject I did not study in college) to undergraduate students in a university on Katipunan Avenue. At any given point, while on a cramped train for my daily commute to one of the three jobs I currently hold, or while walking in the rain to my next class, I would question the wisdom of the choices I have made, my existence, the reason why I am where I am now. At any given point, while in my class in graduate school, or writing a paper due the following day, I would feel out of place, lost maybe. What brought me here? What are these for?

I left home for college more than eight years ago. It was an inexorable day the Chinese protagonist in Jorge Luis Borges’s The Garden of Forking Paths would refer to as “day without premonitions or symbols”. Looking back, I sometimes think I should have never left home; I should have just stayed in the province, enrolled myself in a university in the nearby city of General Santos, be with people whose familiarity led me to feel that constant sickening ennui then, and live a life released from complications.

I embarked on a personal odyssey, though to a home I imagined I belonged, and chased Fate in the big city. And that day without symbols changed me forever.

Now I understand the hesitation, a subdued abhorrence, of the character of my favorite novel, Tomas, for symbols. I have chosen heaviness thinking the choice will lend meaning to my curious and starry-eyed 16-year old self then. My search for “something higher” caused this spiritual vertigo, this fear of falling.

And an unconscious desire to fall, says Kundera, “the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves”.

I do not have any intention of letting myself slip down the slope of existentialist rage for I am completely aware I shall never recover from this existentialist hole unscathed. I believe the exercise is not only a complete waste of time but also fatal.

But these questionings, far from being philosophical, are, to me, as corporeal and visceral as corporeal and visceral can get. I am enraged. And being this sensuously enraged is beautiful. It is not mere abstraction.

How I hate philosophizing!

I am in my mid-20s. They say this age places one at the pinnacle of his vitality. But too many times I saw myself irreparably exhausted, dragging myself in doing the things I once loved doing, being on the verge of running amuck. All because of the unfulfilled promises of this vitality.

For too many times, I have feared that those little cracks have already surreptitiously made their way into the dark crevices of my being and have already eaten me from the inside out and that what is left of me now is a mass of bloody flesh incapable of distinguishing the real from the fictional.

Below layers of fictive security our daily routines deceptively make us feel we possess is a reality so shaky, shifting, and unstable. Most people my age would disagree with me, vehemently judging my cynicism as vain, if not selfish, as I am a product of the comforts bestowed upon me by the equally frivolous and elitist institution of higher learning that situates itself in a country in the third world and a premiere state university that touts itself the bastion of liberal ideas amidst the crushing weight of ugliness, corruption, poverty, and hopelessness surrounding it.

One day I shall pack my bags, say adieu to my life in Manila that I used to love and learned to detest (though these diverging feelings of love and detestation, in some very rare moments, converge).

One day I shall redeem myself from the routine and the make-believe.

And go on an odyssey back to my real home.

I think of my situation now as being caught in deep shit. How I love to say this word, shit. It is liberating. It is free of abstraction.

Shit is the highest good so long as one is not caught, deeply, in it.

A week ago, I took a jeepney ride on campus going to Quezon Avenue MRT station when I happened to be seated beside a classmate of mine in grad school who studied Literature in the university where I am teaching the subject now. Our conversation meandered until toward the end of our trip the subject of our talk settled on world-weariness. She related to me how bad it felt to be jobless and added that the stigma of being a graduate of that exclusive school along Katipunan and be unemployed was just too much to bear, and how she felt, during that very moment, palpable weariness of the world.

I guess, she is as deeply entrenched in shit as I, though the fashion of our being entrenched differs. She wants to escape it; I, on the other hand, wallow and linger in it, though maybe not for long.

For some, those who are lucky in the real sense of the word, still have that choice. For most, the choice is not theirs. I am grateful that I can still consider myself to be part of the former group. After all, I am still afforded choice probably because of my education, my age, my ability to use language to my advantage, my meager savings in the bank, my mother’s prayer, or simply because of sheer luck. And this opportunity I am exhausting to the fullest.

I always tell my students that being young gives them enough excuse to commit mistakes and to learn from these mistakes, that failing should not be something to be afraid of because they are at the best time of their lives to commit mistakes without having to face the grave repercussions that adults committing stupid mistakes face. And that they are lucky to be given this choice. And that this choice is theirs.

Although I feel miserable at times, it’s a little comforting to know that this misery is self-inflicted, and that I can choose, if I want, to be happy. That I can choose to end this spectacle, be kinder to myself, and, from a note my favorite professor in university once wrote me, “smell the flowers”.

*a reflection written more than a year ago I unearthed while searching for an old college picture a few minutes ago.

Kitsch-ism

I was having a late lunch/early supper at a diner beside the College of Music, waiting for my class, when these two familiar-looking ladies (they were casts of a musical by Floy Quintos which I happened to watch this weekend) called the attention of the waiter and gave him something close to a disgusted, do-you-know-what-you-are-doing  look, requesting him with tone of impatience to silence the stereo playing a Matt Monroe classic.

The two ladies brought back memories of Kundera’s Sabina who wants to hear nothing of the rubbish that envelopes the restaurant where she dates Franz. The music makes her ears bleed; anything kitsch, that music which happens to fall under this category, causes her hemorrhage.

But so did those two women to me. Their pretense reeks with kitsch-ism. I finished my dinner quickly and left the place that was already drowned in their echoing laughter.

Readings for January

Of late I admit that I’ve set reading books aside. Like most Gen Y-ers, I am also as susceptible to attention deficit disorder, or something akin to it. I could not focus on just one thing. Before I realize it, my mind already starts to wander and think of another thing. And this has taken a serious toll on my reading habit. I barely finished two books in a month, and there were months this year when I finished nothing.

To correct things, I only have one resolution for next year, and that is to read a least ten books, regardless of thickness and difficulty, every month, discounting those required for my class at the university.

This afternoon, I went to National Bookstore and a used-books outlet to complete my reading list. Most of these are for leisure, neither heavy nor dense. Here’s my list of readings for the first month of 2010:

1. Wolf Totem (Jiang Rong) Searching for spirituality in the 1960s China durng the Cultural Revolution, Beijing intellectual Chen Zhen travels to the pristine grasslands of Inner Mongolia to live among the nomadic Mongols—descendants of the Mongol hordes who once terrorized the world. At the core of their beliefs is the notion of a triangular balance between earth, man, and the fierce, otherworldly Mongolian wolf whose fates are all intricately linked. The few wolves that remain haunt the steppes locked with the nomads in a profoundly spiritual battle for survival.

2. A Man of the People (Chinua Achebe) A young man caught in the tricky politics of an Africa country, redeemed himself, and rose above the chaos and frustration. I’ve read Things Fall Apart by the same author, and based on this novel, Achebe’s use of the English language, devoid of any spectacle and ‘prose fireworks’, will make A Man of the People an easy but profound reading.

3. The Discovery of Heaven (Harry Mulisch) This book, considered the magnum opus of the Dutch author Mulisch abounds in philosophical, psychological, and theological inquiries of the rich twentieth century trauma that focuses on diverse themes like friendship, loyalty, family, art, technology, religion, fate, and good and evil.

4. The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco) I got intrigued in this book when the story was hinted by my professor in her Comparative Literature class. I thought I’ll try it and see if I am a good-enough reader to survive the dead-boring first 100 pages, which according to my professor is a method employed by Eco to sort his readers. Those who give up in the initial pages are not worthy of the riveting, fascinating, ingenious, and dazzling narrative. Page 101 until the last sentence of the final page, she said were written so well that the hurdle of the first 100 was all worth the effort.

5. The Places in Between (Rory Stewart) In January 2002 Rory Stewart walked across Afghanistan—surviving by his wits, his knowledge of Persian dialects and Muslim customs, and the kindheartedness of strangers. By day he passed through mountains covered in nine feet of snow, hamlets burned and emptied by the Taliban, and communities thriving amid the remains of medieval civilization. By night he slept on villager’s floors, shared their meals, and listened to their stories of the recent and ancient past. Along the way Stewart met heroes and rogues, tribal elders and teenage soldiers, Taliban commanders and foreign-aid workers. He was also adopted by an unexpected companion—a retired fighting mastiff he named Babur in honor of Afghanistan’s first Mughal emperor.

Through these encounters—by turns touching, confounding, surprising, and funny, Stewart makes tangible the forces of tradition, ideology, and allegiance that shape life in the map’s countless places in between.

6. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera) A young woman in love with a man torn between his love for her and his incorrigible womanizing; one of his mistresses and his humbly faithful lover. In a world in which lives are shaped by irrevocable choices and fortuitous events, a world in which every thing occurs but once, existence seems to lose its substance, its weight. Hence, we feel the ‘unbearable lightness of being’ not only as the consequence of our pristine actions but also in the public sphere, and the two inevitably intertwine.

7. Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man (Joseph Heller) This sort of the author’s autobiographical novel is a story of a modern-day cultural icon Eugene Pota who became a legend in his lifetime because of his first novel. Subsequent work never achieved the critical acclaim to match what was garnered by his first novel. Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man is a poignant exploration of the pain and frustration that this caused.

8. New Writing from the Caribbean Selections from the Caribbean Writer (Erika J. Waters, Ed.) The stories ranged widely over the relationships between men and women, parents and their children, and the condition of exile. The contributors are drawn from Caribbean countries of Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Montserrat, the Virgin Islands, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago.

9. Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad) This is my third copy of the book with the best looking cover page and paper quality. I have already read the short novel twice, and I confess that it was not an easy read. This is my third, and hopefully the last attempt to penetrate the dark jungle of Conrad’s mind.

10. Touch and Go (Eugene Stein) From Belize to New York, Brussels to Los Angeles, Stein evokes strange—yet strangely familiar—worlds, feelings you did not know were there, flavors aplenty. Into the dark corners of your heart and mind he shines a unique light on love, life, and desire—illuminating and brilliant. This is unfair, but I will see how Stein fares if I pit him against David Sedaris, a favorite in this genre.