Literature as meditation

Literature as meditation

By Sionil F. Jose

Again, let me draw you away from the cruel anxieties wrought by this pandemic and think big and deep about life, morality and evil – yes, evil – for it is in us, and we deal with it all our lives.

It is half of a human person from the very beginning of our birth. But alas, evil sometimes does triumph over our virtuous nature. Of my dozen or so novels, it is my last, “The Feet of Juan Bacnang” that I spent so much thought because it is a meditation on evil. I had discussed it with my Random House editor, Samuel Vaughan, a learned and distinguished former editor of Dwight Eisenhower. He reminded me that no man is all evil or all virtue. Bacnang is the Ilokano term for wealthy.

The plot is simple enough — human decay and perdition. It can be considered a sequel to my long short story “Olvidon” about a select group of Filipino leaders whose skins are turning white for reasons that science cannot explain. Juan Bacnang is a love child, born poor with misshapen feet. He is, however, able to claim his parentage, and from there, he rises to tremendous wealth and power. He never forgets his lowly origin, his village, and the girl he had wronged in his youth. Is this man’s future predetermined? Or does he shape it according to his free will? In mulling over this conclusion, I had consulted theologians and scholars and also dredged what I can from my reading of Philosophy. Or as some psychologist say, there is a criminal mind.

For those of us who are Christians who worry about our sins, is there really redemption for evil? Such transcendent questions perhaps have no answers but are worth asking just the same as we ponder the transitory nature of our own existence.

The meaning of life

My novel “Gagamba” which was translated into German by Markus Ruckstuhl is actually a collection of short stories presented as chapters. The characters are all patrons of the posh restaurant in Ermita – the same restaurant – Camarin – in my novel “Ermita.”

I was in college when I read Thornton Wilder’s novel, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” about a suspension bridge in Peru which collapsed and all those in it plunged to their deaths. Was this tragedy God’s plan? In Gagamba, a massive earthquake demolishes the restaurant and most of the customers in it – except a couple of fortunate individuals – a baby and the owner of the restaurant itself are killed. The novel’s point of view is from Gagamba, a cripple and sweepstake vendor who knows most of the restaurant’s clientele. He is encased in a box with roller skates’ wheels which plunges him away from the building when it collapses. Leonard Casper, the American critic who studies our literature calls Gagamba a meditation on death. I would rather call it a meditation on life. Does life really have any meaning? This question has riled philosophers from all traditions, from those who believe that men are born unequal, live unequal and die unequal, to those who believe that this most precious gift is also meant to be spent in freedom. In the end, the Eastern tradition which emphasize harmony in society is compared to the Western tradition which permits man to create a society according to his will. Both subscribe to the golden rules of doing to others what one must do for himself.

Gagamba posits that life has no meaning. It is the individual who must give it meaning in the way he lives…and dies.

All through time, we have seen how people have struggled in search for that meaning. In many instances, all of life itself is a search. Some have sought to be away from searching for this meaning and found refuge in the cave. For a very few, the only alternative is to abandon the search altogether both in the spirit and the flesh.

Man’s fate is indeed a contradiction, an unending contest between the virtuous and the evil in him. We can see this happening in our own society and time when our own consciences demand that we be true, but we succumb instead to the seductive lure of evil. It is us, alas, who are our own enemy, our inhumanity to our fellow men. Bertolt Brecht summed it so precisely when he wrote, “We who want the world to be kind cannot ourselves be kind.”

Meditating the pandemic

The many moments of solitude enforced upon us by this pandemic has made us think, I hope, about the gravity all of us now face, a crisis that will also define us. As that brilliant social observer, Solita Monsod asked a while ago, what kind of people are we? On the surface, we are all smiles given at fiestas and to superfluous pleasures. We are not gloomy at all, but our literature reveals our real nature; that literature is also often brooding, darkened with melancholy and burdened with irony. There is this old saying In Vino Veritas. Beware of Filipinos when they are drunk. With alcohol, the inert and bottled up violence and anger is released. In its extreme, it is the amok gone berserk, hostile to society and eventually, to himself. How are we to tame the beast in us?

Among the ancients, writers were not just recorders of history – they were also moral teachers. I hope our writers will always remember this. So literature now is grappling with today’s corruption and moral decay. Now, in times of crisis, anarchy and confusion when personal survival is on the block, civic virtue is ignored, or even lost, and may never be regained in its original form. How can we prevent this rot from being permanent? Can our culture give us the answer? Are we a moral people? Yes, we must ask ourselves, what kind of people are we?

Whatever our faults and weaknesses, our history tells us that we are enduring and heroic people. We need that heroism now to define ourselves by our deeds of selflessness and compassion. Otherwise, it is this pandemic that will define us. (MTVN)

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