Archive for the Culture Category

On Reason and Gut Instincts

Posted in Composition, Culture, Essay, Politics, Reflection on February 13, 2012 by theburningpulpit

It’s a cardinal rule–from the courtroom down to the Scooby-Doo detective shows–that evidence be presented to determine and penalize the culprit. This comes not only from the Roman idea that the prosecuted should be considered innocent until proven guilty, but from the fact that, as beings given reason, we demand to see the links between cause and effect: we need to see the cause so that we can understand the effect. No effect is manifest without a cause, and a different cause might not produce the same effect. There can be no water without oxygen and hydrogen, and sodium cannot produce water. It follows, then, especially in our contemporary institutions, that for something to be acknowledged as being there, as real, as the truth, then there must be some concrete thing that can attest to it, and nothing more. However, more often than not, such a simple cause-and-effect relationship cannot be found lying upon the ground. Evidence may always be misplaced, concealed, or destroyed. And this is the problem with many cases, from legal to fictional. The prosecuted cannot be convicted; a suspect cannot be arrested. And yet at the same time, the prosecutor or the detective (and sometimes, even the audience) is very much sure that the one facing trial, or the one sitting quietly by the scene of the crime, is the guilty party. And yet, where does this surety come from? A mere guess, perhaps. Or some vague psychological clue. The suspect’s face, or his aura. Intuition, gut instinct–all the sort of things that institutions cannot accept because beyond the realm of reason. Sherlock Holmes says that guessing is a shocking habit, abhorrent to the rational mind. That much is true. But does that make the gut, per se, inferior to rational inference? The judge and the chief of police might say so. But how about in real life, that is, life as we live it every day, chaotic as it is, full of surprises, full of uncertainties, full of lies and deceit and people whose money can change even the shape of evidence, of criminals whose intelligence can daunt or misdirect the detective? And not everyone can be a detective, not everyone can be a lawyer. But in many cases, gut instinct (or whatever we might want to call that which is outside of reason) can set everyone else better upon the right path. Take the masses, for instance. Yes, the uneducated, uncultured masses. They do not hold a J.D. or a Ph.D. or a F.A.W.T.H.A.L.D. but sometimes, they’re just right when it comes to certain issues. Collective unconscious? Maybe. Or take the novice chess player. In a chess book I once read, the author, a GM, was astounded by a rookie player discovering an easier way to win a certain case-game, much easier than what the chess authorities taught. Now, it may be too radical to clamor that our governments and our sleuths abandon reason altogether, throw the idea of obtaining evidence aside, and trust their gut instincts. For one, intuition is double-edged, and two, a thin line separates unadulterated gut feeling from whim. However, assuming the mantle of reason, making economic advantage corrupt it, and using the slowness of the process of obtaining evidence to their advantage, are all too often tools employed by the culprits, those who are powerful and wise. And those who are weak and meek have nothing but the sense that they are correct. So things must always be, perhaps. The good wise men, those like Holmes who advocate pure reason for the greater good, are either powerless, or still in school, or too few, or nonexistent save in novels that people cherish precisely because they have achieved impossible feats–good, but impossible nonetheless. And until the light of pure reason illuminates humanity’s way, or until humanity has fully grasped Divine Revelation, gut instinct must, we suppose, suffice.


On Soaps and Prayer Scenes

Posted in Culture, Reflection on April 12, 2011 by theburningpulpit

Despite my father’s protestations, no one in our family can deny that we’re Kapamiliyas–that is, we subscribe to ABS-CBN shows, especially its nighttime soap operas. That said, I am more or less aware of what’s currently happening in Mutya, Minsan Lang Kitang Iibigin, and Mara’t Clara. (There was a time when I was also updated on Imortal, but these days I’ve acquired the habit of sleeping early.) And what I’ve noticed about these shows–besides the unnecessary streams of consciousness and the killing sprees–is that our favorite TV shows often feature scenes of prayer.

Prayer. As in the major characters kneel down before an altar, often with rosaries in hand, and say a word or two to the Poon/Papa Jesus/Bro.

As a Creative Writing graduate and someone with a love-hate relationship with religion, I initially cannot but be irked with such scenes. First, I think that such scenes only waste time, time better spent developing the characters and the plot. In Mara’t Clara, for instance, Gina Pareño’s prayer scenes (probably the product of her package as, well, Gina Pareño) are unconvincing because her character was supposed to be an inveterate gambler who just did not have it in her to be a good grandmother. True, one may say that the events in the soap have pushed her along the road to redemption and maybe even salvation. Okay. But I still cannot readily accept that she would acquire good habits–praying!–almost overnight.

Another problem I have with the prayer scenes is that they oversimplify everything–and sometimes, even the “effect” of prayer, even in this oversimplified mode, does not truly redound to the act. The primary example to this, I think, is May Bukas Pa. The relationship between “Bro” and Zaijan Aranilla (that child actor I really cannot stand, no thanks to his roles) comes across as unnatural and distorted: unnatural, because even theologians will say that a man who claims he can talk directly to God is either of the first order of saints or is terribly deranged–and Zaijan’s character is definitely more of the latter sort, as since when do we really and naturally see a kid as mature and as altruistic as he is? And the relationship is distorted because the representation of Christ as “Bro” in the soap is, as I believe, skewed: we see a detached and faceless entity telling the boy to just be nice and to put a smile on his face and wait for that pie in the sky, and hardly the historical Jesus who frowned at injustice and urged for the establishment of the Kingdom on earth as in heaven. Stretching this point, wouldn’t it be more to “Bro’s” character to urge Zaijan to actively tell Albert Martinez that what he is doing is wrong and that he should “repent and carry his cross” rather than just fading into the background, only there to give the boy a pat, or a smile, or some ephemeral advice? And going back to the act of praying (kneeling down before the altar), doesn’t the depiction in TV reduce it into a mere means of asking God for boons, or of giving Him a smiley and a spiritual thank you card? Does it not take away from prayer’s true nature: a deep communion with God, an act that truly exposes oneself in all his or her weakness, an act of pain and solace, of humility as well as humiliation, hoping that in the act of praying God will intervene and give him or her not this or that, but His own Self?

Ultimately, the misrepresentation and oversimplification of prayer in soap operas irk me a lot because I find prayer as unrepresentable and complicated. I must admit that I myself–I, who pride myself to know a lot of things!–do not know how to pray, and that unlike Jesus’ disciples, who, in asking the Lord to teach them how to pray, which is already in itself a prayer, I am yet unwilling to expose myself and to surrender my weaknesses to Someone I cannot see and cannot fully understand. (I do not even like exposing myself to those who I think I know and understand!) I cannot allow the media to represent the act of praying so banally, so trivially, and in so commonplace a manner because I believe it should be approached by everyone else with the same awe, the same trepidation, the same caution as I do. Prayer should be taken seriously. And to be taken seriously, prayer should be taken as something Other, something too immense, something beyond us.

Or should it?

TV shows are the products first and foremost of business; and for a business to be effective, it has to take into account popular demand. If prayer scenes exist and thrive in ABS-CBN at least, this is most probably because these are demanded and found pleasing by the viewers and subscribers. And what can we say of the viewers and subscribers? Who are they? We may, for the purposes of this reflection, lump the bulk of these viewers and subscribers into one category, and that is the masses. And who are the masses? In our country, the masses are the working class, those who live somewhere from a little above to a little below fifteen thousand pesos a month, those who are for the most part simple Roman Catholics who go to Mass every Sunday. TV, then, by incorporating these prayer scenes, cater to these viewers and subscribers, and so hope to reflect their realities, their aspirations. And their reality is the simplest of prayers: give us this day our daily bread.

Perhaps, just perhaps, I am wrong. It is we who are wise who are at fault. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one of the greatest of the Russian writers, has implied that truth comes not from the intellectuals with their complicated and Westernized knowledge, but from the simple country folk with their simple and honest beliefs. God, after all, has overthrown the mighty, confounded the wise, and exalted the lowly ones. And so, in Crime and Punishment, we do not find truth and vitality in the intelligent but unnerving Svidrigailov, nor in the ridiculously socialist Lebezyatnikov, but in the simple and warm Sonya and the endearing drunkard Marmeladov. In the latter’s words, especially, we find a simple, almost peasant-like, but nonetheless profound and heartfelt declaration of faith:

“…And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek . . . . And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us. ‘You too come forth,’ He will say, ‘Come forth ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ And we shall all come forth, without shame and shall stand before him. And He will say unto us, ‘Ye are swine, made in the Image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!’ And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, ‘Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say, ‘This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.’ And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before him . . . and we shall weep . . . and we shall understand all things!”

Though we may contest the contents of Marmeladov’s declaration, we cannot deny that he believes this so truly and so purely. And this is perhaps more, so much more, than what we, we who are wise, can say for ourselves. The simplicity of the masses, of the peasants and their pure peasant beliefs–can we scoff at these things and merely dismiss them as the whims and deluded fantasies of a half-lettered folk? Returning to the issue at hand, shall we be irked and shall we be incensed whenever we see prayer so commonly and so simply depicted on TV? How dare we raise our eyebrows, we who are wise, we who are proud, when our lowly brothers and sisters nod their heads and accept these scenes as realities, when they applaud the telenovelas for showing things as they themselves experience them in their lives? Shall we deny them the affirmation of contact between themselves and God, of a God who is simple and loving and who, in turn, loves those who are simple in loving Him?

Maybe it is we who are wise who should learn from the masses. Maybe it is we who sat on our white thrones inside our white towers who should go down to the fields and listen, listen, listen. Folk Catholicism? Simplified Christianity? Are these what our brothers and sisters have? Almost certainly. But then, perhaps their hearts are in the right place–at least, more so than ours. Perhaps there is something to their reality. And speaking of reality–isn’t art, first and foremost, a reflection of reality? Granted, art does not and should not mimic what is. But must art ignore it altogether? Sinners exist. Psychopaths exist. Sex beasts exist. Ivan Karamazov, Smerdyakov, and Svidrigailov all exist. But so do the simple masses. So do the Sonyas and the Marmeladovs, the Father Zosimas and the Alyoshas. And let us not altogether take this one simple thing, this one simple prayer scene, this one simple reflection of their existence, away from them.

On the Philippines: Order and Progress?

Posted in Culture, Politics, Reflection on April 1, 2011 by theburningpulpit

An indirect response to a scintillating read.

It has always been said, and by very perceptive minds too, that the Filipino people need be disciplined so that Philippine society can progress. Rizal in returning from Hongkong encountered some friendly Italian friars, who said that the Philippines could be a paradise if only it were governed properly. Some of our old-timers reminisce about the “good old” martial law days, saying that back then, people have discipline. And on one hand, I must nod and agree on our terrible lack of discipline. I hurt whenever I say this, but we Filipinos do need a little more lesson in not going beneath and/or beyond the rules. We have yet to develop a good system of national ethics, like Japan with its honor code and America with its ideal hardworking self-made man. And yes, we must already go beyond the blaming phase. The colonial Castillan, the bad friar, the oppressive dictators… in the end, they are not the ones who constitute and drive the Philippine nation–we are. And so, there is a grain of truth in the homies’ lingo: suck it up and push forward.

But questions popped into my head as I read this very interesting article. First, do we really want this discipline, this progress? And what do we mean by “progress?” By “discipline?” Are we capable of discipline? Is it desirable? How do we propose to instill this discipline into our people? Once we have this discipline, will progress ultimately follow? And once we attain progress–and is it, too, desirable?–then what?

Let me first reflect on the word, “discipline,” which I believe is the easier concept to grasp. To be disciplined is, at its root, to be a disciple–to be a follower. That which the disciplined person follows is the “rule of law,” a common standard set by a leader or by consensus. I hesitate to say “a leader” alone because, if this is the case, then discipline only works as a ruler-ruled dynamic, and is only a step away from encouraging an enlightened despot from seizing totalitarian power in the name of discipline and progress. This is, perhaps, what many among us Filipinos fear. Having been ruled (or, perhaps, having perceived ourselves as ruled) for 400 years by such tyrants and strongmen, we are naturally averse to having some new dictator impose his own will upon us. We would rather have a country run like hell by ourselves, than a country run like heaven by someone else (and us surrendering our independence), as President Manuel Quezon said. We value our freedom, our independence–but, again, what do we mean by these terms? During the Philippine Revolution, the upper classes sought independence from retrogressive Spanish colonial policies, while the masses and the peasants sought kalayawan, license after three hundred years of submission. And so things stand today: we cringe whenever our rights of speech are trampled upon; we want to spit and litter. And the common denominator is that we do not want other people, the authorities especially, from getting into the way of our fun.

But as I have earlier said, the “rule of law” is not only the product of an enlightened despot. As Immanuel Kant says, in man is the innate ability to legislate for himself through the exercise of reason. In man is the ability to engage in dialogue with his self-interests and the interests of society at large, with himself as well as his fellows, and so arrive at a “rule of law” drawing its enforcing power not from one ruler, but from institutions built up by the society for the greater good. And yet, we Filipinos seem even more reluctant to build and uphold institutions than to hail strongmen and leaders. We Filipinos gravitate toward personalities (Magsaysay, Noynoy, Nora Aunor) more than groups (Tagalogs, Kapampangans, Azkals, Barangay Ginebra) more than institutions (the AFP, the PNP, government as a whole, the Philippine nation). Why is this so? Why do we shy away from long-standing institutions and policies set in stone and place our trust in the tribal units, in the people whose terms last only six years? This is probably the “heritage of smallness” Nick Joaquin speaks of. We Filipinos, since our precolonial days, have always settled on the small things: bamboo over wood over stone, raid over pitched campaigns over conquests of unification, clan over confederation over nation. We are afraid of big things because we are a small people used with small things. It took the Spanish 300 years of rule and influence to build stone cities out of the villages of nipa huts, to forge a Philippine identity out of the scattered tribes. And even then we Filipinos have not yet truly learned the lesson: our stone and cement cities still do not reach for the stars, and our national unity is pro forma only: Tondo still quarrels with Cavite, Cebuanos still hate the Tagalogs, Moros still claim to be a different nation. ‘Rule of law’ through national consensus still seems to have a long way to go.

How, then, do we inculcate discipline to ourselves and our people while at the same time avoiding the terrible despot and the intimidating institutions? We must, inevitably, choose one route or the other. The best possible action for us, if we profess ourselves democratic, would be to get over our fear of big things and create standing institutions and policies, those which will enforce the common good and last for ten thousand years. If we believe in totalitarianism, we must find the strongest iron fist in this country and submit all our wills to him. We have had the chance with a dictatorship in, say, President Marcos. In the end, however, we revolted and threw him out. We have had the chance with democracy in the People Power Revolution and the constitution–and even as we speak we go over and/or under these institutions.  We may speak of a third route, and that is the home, the supposed building blocks of society. Yes, it is true that discipline can be learned in the home, in the school. A “rule of law” exists in these things. But what happens outside, where our parents and principals (the strongmen) and the school rules and regulations (the institutions) do not and cannot enforce authority? It is apparent that before discipline can be taught at home and in the school, the youth–and we Filipinos in general–need first to find the ability to respect the strongmen and/or the institutions that create this “rule of law.”

So much for discipline per se. But here another question emerges: do we really want, do we really need, this discipline? Yes, we are at once tempted to say. But why? For progress, we blurt out immediately. But what sort of progress do we want?

We can cite many examples of progress in the so-called progressive countries in the world today: the European countries, the United States, Japan, and China. Each of these countries have large economies matched only by their tall buildings. Their people may live more comfortably than most of us do. They have highly technologically-advanced tools. And they also have problems of their own. And perhaps, their problems stem from their common denominator: unchecked–and that is to say unlimited and uncritical–progress.

In Europe, the center of the Industrial Revolution (and culture and fashion and all “nice” things), we see a people with a growing sense of ennui, a sense of postmodern directionlessness. Europeans are party people with lots of beer and spirits and healthcare and social services, but why do they experience a high suicide rate? (Interestingly, European nations also have high levels of atheism, though here I speak as a Catholic who wants to have a religion than as a social analyst who makes correlations between high suicide rates and religion–I have yet to assume a relationship between the two in this article.)

In the United States we find a solipsistic nation, one that views its own interests and its own culture as the primary, if not only, one in the world. In Hollywood as well as in its international economic policies, the United States centers more on itself, and it injures racial-cultural sensibilities (see Aladdin, The Mask of Zorro, and The Last Airbender for criticisms) and other countries’ interests (see the Imperiyalistang Kano).the United States, after all, is the country that discriminates African Americans and Mexicans (and Filipinos) and still thinks immigrants are out to get their jobs, and that the Chinese are Japanese.

Which brings us to the Chinese. China is the economic wonder of the late 20th-early 21st century: from the backwater and war-ravaged country of Chairman Mao, China has become the second largest economy in the world. But at what cost? China also has one of the highest pollution levels. China’s prosperity is, for the most part, limited to its big cities on the Eastern side–the countryside, I’ve heard, still has those legendarily terrible toilets. And who wants to live in a country that keeps its Nobel Prize winner in prison, erects the Great Firewall, and basically does not regret Tienanmen Square?

And the Japanese–the one country the linked article praised–is a nation that has yet to learn from its history. Dr. Shinzo Hayase in his book, A Walk Through Memories in Southeast Asia, implies that the Japanese still has to recognize the terrible atrocities its military government committed in the Second World War. In Japan, they do not remember the comfort women and the forced labor; what they remember is the glorious honorable patriotism of their soldiers and the Bombs destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (And to think that people–and authors!–like Yukio Mishima want to renew the old bushido, the same system that plunged Asia into the war!) And so the Japanese, in their non-knowledge, come across as insensitive whenever they enter into economic relationships with the Southeast Asian nations. Many Southeast Asian nations, up to this day, still hurt whenever the Japanese Prime Minister still visits the Japanese war dead shrine. Japan’s progress, then, ultimately sits on the shaky foundation of callous forgetfulness.

And so we see that progress, when unchecked and unreviewed, can be quite disordered. Progress can bring about as much trouble as benefits. In the name of progress, kings and even populations have been killed: from France to Russia to Germany to China to Japan, and to many more. I am not saying that progress per se is bad: I suspect Nick Joaquin, my idol, to be quite the progresista with large-scale enterprises in mind. After all, he comes from the tradition of the Ilustrados like Rizal and Luna, whom he admired as Promethean geniuses. And yet, we must bear in mind that we cannot and should not pursue progress so blindly. People from the same Ilustrado class, in their desire to wrest power from retrogressive Spain and bring enlightenment in the Philippines, also committed and condoned atrocities in the Philippine Revolution. The innocent friars were abused along with the guilty. And it was the masses had to fight and die in their wars. And when the Revolution faltered, they were the first ones to abandon it. Progress, if it is to be true, has to be well-rounded: everyone has to be a part in it, and everyone has to benefit from it. The country, in the end, should not suffer further because of it, but rather, be all the more enlightened and benign.

In the end, we must agree with the article: we want, we definitely want, order and progress for the Philippines. That much has been clear to us since the dawn rose over the Spanish galleons in 1521. But we must ask ourselves: what kind of order and progress do we want? And, just as importantly, how are we going to get there?

On the Importance of Reading Filipiniana

Posted in Culture, Reflection on December 23, 2010 by theburningpulpit

So I am graduating after more or less three months! But before I bring out the trumpets and the–heaven forbid–vuvuzuelas, I have come to the sobering realization: I would have to “publish or perish” soon. And glossing over my terrible publishing track record (or, you know, the lack thereof) this means that, if I do get to release my books, the latter would join the ranks of unsold and unread books in the Filipiniana section on National and Powerbooks and who knows what else. Emphasis, of course, on “unsold and unread.”

For some reason, I have always thought of myself as a Filipino author: I’ve only remotely considered marketing myself internationally; accordingly, my tone has been blatantly “Filipino.” (Quotation marks because, really, no one has yet defined what a true Filipino tone is.) But then I remember that among us writers there are who, through no fault of their own, envision a more universal target reader, and thus their stories take on a more universal setting. Of course, I think many of us (even I, at times) aspire to be “universal,” and there is nothing wrong with that. But we must warn ourselves that, due to the mere fact that we are born to Filipino parents, our works would always be labeled “Filipiniana”–and so we take on, whether we like it or not, the connotations attached to the said label: too intellectual or too romantic, and practically unreadable and unmarketable.

In short: we all have a next to nil chance of becoming the next J.K. Rowling.

But perhaps all this can change, I told myself. And perhaps we ourselves must begin with buying and reading Filipiniana. I know it is hard, but certainly there are rewards for reading our own countrymen’s novels and stories. True, authors like Joaquin up to Apostol have been too cerebral, Rosca and Bautista radical, and Zafra and Bob Ong too… zany… but as long as literature is the mirror of society, Filipiniana cannot but present us with lenses (though perhaps not the definitive lenses) for viewing and understanding Philippine society. Moreover, if we don’t read Filipiniana, what measuring stick would we have to gauge our works? How can we learn from the failures of our literary forefathers (if there were any that so led them to obscurity) and so improve our writing?

Also, perhaps it would also be good if we (and now I am addressing my peers especially in the Ateneo) would cooperate, patronizing and promoting each other. Perhaps this is too pragmatic, verging somewhat toward the pedestrian, but this is one way of keeping ourselves afloat. If every one of us were to spread the word to another person, and this other person refers our titles to others, then would it not only be a matter of time before our books get around?

So, all in all, maybe it is high time for us to begin reading Filipiniana. True, the classics and the Hemingways need not go away. But insofar as we are Filipinos, we must put our Gonzalez, our Matute, and–yes–our Villa at the forefront.