Hindsight No. 3: A False Nostalgia

Hindsight for Monday, January 31, 2022

SINCE MY belated debut on Facebook just over a month ago, I seem to have acquired something of a reputation for my posts about the past—not in the scholarly mode of a real historian, which I most certainly am not, but as a collector and keeper of objects that evoke strong associations with times and people long gone. These include century-old fountain pens and typewriters, and even older books and documents steeped in the accumulated oils of the hands that held them.

I’ll admit to having an intense, almost fetishistic, interest in the past—the 1930s are of particular significance to me, because I’m writing a novel set in that period—and I can identify with the romance conjured by postcards of ocean-going liners and of the old Manila Hotel. If you play “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” on a turntable, you’ll float to the ceiling in my esteem. In my dreams, I fantasize about strolling into the Crystal Arcade one fine day in 1937 and stepping out with a fistful of Parker Vacumatic Senior Maxima pens while towing a cart with all 55 volumes of Blair and Robertson.

But that’s where the nostalgia ends. In many if not most respects—as I’ve told friends who, for example, ask me if UP’s fabled Cadena de Amor ceremony is worth reviving—there’s one place the past deserves to be, which is exactly where it is. Nostalgia is comforting precisely because the past is over, and because we tend to remember just the good parts, and even burnish them to perfection.

But it was never really all that good. Amorsolo’s maidens all seem fresh out of the batis and every Joseon prince’s robes on K-drama seem immaculately pressed even after a swordfight, but the past was literally a filthy place. Queen Elizabeth I was said to take a bath once a month. William Shakespeare and his friends wore those fluffy collars around their necks because that’s all they changed. The lovely ladies of Versailles doused themselves in perfume to quell the odor of their unwashed bodies. The “buntis” window grilles we now admire in old Manila houses were once drenched with dubious liquids being dumped on the street below.

Neither was it so peaceful. Even without counting the devastation of war, the past was fraught with danger, hardship, and unrest. It may have been a grand and glorious time for the rich in their cars and villas, but the masses were suffering in the farms and factories. Power was brazenly exercised, as in the torture and murder of Moises Padilla in 1951. Postwar congressmen carried .45s at their waist into the session hall. As a young police reporter in 1972, I learned where you could find a gun for hire for P500 per target.

We like to think that the past was simple, with fewer choices to be made. But it was never that simple for many without real choices. Poverty was and is never simple, because every morning the mind races to figure out where supper is coming from, and if Nanay can survive on a third of her prescribed dosage or on plain salabat.

All these come to mind when I hear Filipinos today—many of them not even in their 40s—talking about how a return to the “glory days” of Marcosian martial law would set this country back on track and bring us the prosperity, the peace, and the prestige we once enjoyed. I wonder what it is exactly they are “remembering,” and if they understand what putting a Marcos back in Malacañang will mean to this country. This goes beyond the historical amnesia we often hear about these days; the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows calls it “anemoia,” a nostalgia for a time someone has never known, or that never happened.

No, I’m not calling them stupid or wicked by any means. In many cases they’re simply innocent or uninformed, and therefore suggestible. If they feel oppressed by the present and are facing an uncertain future, the past will acquire the appeal of the womb, offering safety and security. The idealization of martial law as a time when streets were wide and clean and when new buildings were rising right and left is a more inviting prospect for those who can’t be bothered with facts and figures about debt-driven growth, cronyism, and horrific abuses under military rule. (For those facts, check out https://newslab.philstar.com/31-years-of-amnesia/golden-era)

That even oldtimers can wax nostalgic over the Marcos years isn’t hard to understand. Like the Germans under Hitler, many if not most Filipinos then never saw a prison camp, never had a son or daughter tortured and salvaged, never had a business taken over by the regime. Those of us who actively resisted dictatorship were in a distinct minority—as we still are today. Complicity has to be endemic for despots to thrive.

But now once again we are called to arms, in a battle for the imagination—a battle of competing narratives and modes of narration. Will the cold, hard truth alone triumph over romantic fantasy, or will we need to be more inventive in our messaging to get through to those unlike us? Instead of just revisiting the past, should we dwell more on a rosy but realizable vision of the future? Instead of staking out May 9 as a referendum on martial law, should we double down on what a presidential election should be—a competition between platforms and qualities of leadership? (And then use the next six years to correct our history textbooks.)

It’s true that we have good reason to long for seemingly lost or threatened graces like statesmanship and civility (not to mention intelligence) in politics, as well as plain good manners and delicadeza. There are good things we can yet recover and revive from better days, with the right leadership and inspiration. But to do that, we have to save the future from those who would drag us back 50 years into a past that was as morally sordid, as violent, and as dispiriting as anything that ever happened in our history. 

2 thoughts on “Hindsight No. 3: A False Nostalgia

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