Penman No. 167: The Real Value of Remembering

Penman for Monday, September 21, 2015

TODAY MARKS the 43rd anniversary of martial law, a time many Filipinos have forgotten or would rather forget. Those of us who went through it sound like a broken record when we say that—with the usual addendum that young people today have no idea what martial law means—and the phonograph gets creakier every year, the echoes fainter. It annoys us when no one else seems to make a big deal of the most centrally formative period of our sixty-something years, but it takes just a little math to realize, “Why should they?”

Forty-three years is longer than the interlude between the two World Wars, and longer even than the time between World War II and Vietnam. In the meanwhile, the world went through computers, VCRs, the collapse of the Soviet Union, cellphones, the Internet, and 9-11. Here at home, we went through EDSAs of various kinds, Pinatubo, Maguindanao, Yolanda, and Mamasapano. That’s an awfully long time, filled with mindboggling diversions and distractions, to keep your mind fixed on a scratchy black-and-white TV image of a man in a barong casting some strange voodoo hex on the the nation.

Thus I’m hardly surprised when my 19-year-old students admit to a blithe ignorance of Marcosian times. You can’t call it amnesia, because they had no memory to begin with; even the fervent clamors of today’s young activists draw on borrowed memory (but then again, isn’t that what history is, a sense-making narrative woven out of someone else’s recollections?).

I’m not a historian, but I try to do what I can to make the past come alive for my students in my Literature and Society class—not even to educate them on the nuances of specific events such as the declaration of martial law, but simply to make them aware of a life beyond the present, beyond themselves. An interest in the past can’t be forced; sometimes the best thing we can do is to open a small window on it, and then to enlarge that opening so they can see the bigger picture, and share in the excitement and the novelty of looking backward rather than forward.

Every now and then, when the urge grabs me and there’s an excuse to do so, I bring some odds and ends from my inestimably deep trove of vintage junk to class, as tinder for discussion. A 1923 Corona typewriter leads to a chat about the technology of writing, and how technology affects writing (Eliot and his typewriter, Hemingway and his pencil, computers and revision); a 1922 issue of the Philippine Collegian shows how little has changed (“Look, UP was asking for a permanent endowment even then!”); an 1830 grammar book, perhaps the oldest manmade thing these kids have ever held (yes, I pass the book around for them to get a feel of old paper), offers proof of the near-immutability of grammar (“It’s like glacial ice,” I say. “It moves, but you can’t see it.”)

A young person’s starting point very often is, “What does this have to do with me?” I try to answer that two ways: (1) “Why does it have to have anything to do with you?” Part of growing up is learning and accepting that the world isn’t your nursemaid, that it could and will often be totally indifferent to you and your little plaints. But also (2) in a gentler mood and whenever possible, we connect the dots between, say, the god Achilles and his choice of a short but glorious life and, yes, the martial-law activist who didn’t expect to live beyond 25.

Last week, I urged my class (note “urged”—I keep absolute requirements to a minimum) to watch the movie Heneral Luna—to my mind, easily one of the most significant Filipino movies of recent years. Beng and I had seen it the night before; the theater was three-quarters full, and when the movie ended, the audience applauded, the two of us included. The movie reminded me of how many gaps remained in my own appreciation of our past; if I, a full professor at UP and a self-styled history buff, didn’t know the full story of Antonio Luna, how could I expect my charges to know anything about martial law?

That leads me to think that it won’t be the textbooks or balding professors like me who will make our youth wonder about what else they missed, but the movies—or, more broadly, literature and its power to make dramatic sense of events, its humanization of history. More than four decades after the fact, not enough novels have been written and not enough movies have been made of the martial law period (Lualhati Bautista’s Dekada ‘70 being the standout in both print and film). Indeed, a definitive and comprehensive history of that time—and an independent one that kowtows neither to Marcos nor to Mao—has yet to be put together, although specific aspects of martial law (legal, economic, political, and personal) have been ventilated in various books and forums.

The real value of remembering martial law or some such national calamity, I’ll hazard, isn’t just in mouthing the oft-repeated “Never again!” I seriously doubt that even those who never experienced it will accept its repetition. Rather, it’s in looking back 43 years to take stock of what we’ve become since, as individuals and as a people—in memoir writing, we call this the difference between the remembered self and the remembering self. The very fact that they’re not the same thing should tell us something. It’s easy to say “No” to martial law ca. 1972, but what exactly will we be saying “Yes” to come 2016? The past keeps getting dimmer, but then again, some days, so does the future.

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