Penman No. 301: Mysteries of Art (2)

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Penman for Monday, May 7, 2018

 

 

LAST WEEK, I wrote about acquiring a trio of unsigned paintings I’m attributing to Serafin Serna (1919-1979), drawing on stylistic, thematic, and circumstantial evidence. This week, I’ll walk you on the trail of an art mystery that’s puzzled generations of viewers and scholars at the University of the Philippines.

For many decades now, a huge painting has been parked somewhere in UP Diliman—first at the College of Law, from where it was moved to the College of Fine Arts. Although terribly deteriorated, the painting depicts a man—clearly Jose Rizal—being accosted under the trees by at least six other men dressed in two kinds of uniforms—two priests, four soldiers—with more onlookers in the background. Rizal’s arms seem to be held behind his back, so he must be on his way to his execution; his sad, pensive demeanor certainly suggests so.

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It seems to be an important painting—as any work with Rizal would tend to be, especially given its life-size dimensions (184 x 106 inches)—but the big question is, who painted it? It’s dated by the artist to “Manila, 1901,” but the signature above that has been blurred by age and grime. In the university’s inventory, it’s ascribed to an “A. Gomez,” the name whose letters appeared to emerge from the haze. Because nobody knows an “A. Gomez” who’s ever figured in our art history, the painting was considered second-rate and left quietly to decay.

Enter UP President Danny “Danicon” Concepcion, who as Law dean had seen the painting many times and had wondered, like everyone else, about its origins. Even without establishing who the painter was, now that he was president, he wanted the painting restored, given that it’s been with UP for so long and features a national hero.

For advice on the restoration, Danicon turned to my wife Beng, who’s worked on scores of master paintings over the past 20 years, from pieces by Juan Luna to Anita Magsaysay-Ho. (Just to be clear about this, Beng and I have agreed that she’s not going to do more for or with UP than give advice, pro bono, while I’m serving as Vice President for Public Affairs, to avoid any suggestion of impropriety. If no one else can or will do the job, then she’ll take it on for the most minimal fee she can quote, subject to all the applicable rules.) At the president’s request, Beng got together with noted artist Neil Doloricon, an old friend and former dean of the CFA, to sort out the situation.

They faced the same inescapable question: who painted Rizal & Co., and who was “A. Gomez”? As it happens, I think I’ve found the answer, or at least my theory of it.

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Using high-resolution photographs Beng took of the painting, I digitally enhanced the signature and rendered it in monochrome to sharpen the contrast between the letters and the background. Indeed there’s what looks like an MEZ at the end with a long tail, and ahead of them, what seems to be an A. But I wasn’t seeing a G or an O to make GOMEZ. The more I stared at it, the more I saw “MARTINEZ” shaping up.

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Some Googling revealed that a painter named Felix Martinez (1859-1907) was “a painter and muralist who created religious, genre, landscape and still-life paintings. He was a contemporary of Simon Flores, Lorenzo Guerrero, Paz Paterno and her half-sister Adelaida Paterno…. (He) also painted the interior of the San Sebastian church in Quiapo.” The ASEMUS website notes that “Felix Martinez y Lorenzo was a member of a family of sculptors and artisans. He was also an illustrator and an art professor. As an illustrator, he participated in… La Ilustración Filipina(1894-96) depicting daily life scenes. He also helped Regino García (1840-1916), another known Filipino naturalist art painter, illustrate La Flora de Filipinas(The Flora of the Philippines 1878), a creation of Fray Manuel Blanco.”

Examples of his paintings—particularly the one of “Gov. Blanco and His Troops” (1895), now at the National Museum—showed that again, in style and substance (and even in coloration), the Rizal mural could well have been his.

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Do the signatures match? From those I’ve recovered—particularly a sharp one from a portrait of Pepita Bertoll in La Moda Filipina(with thanks to Pinoy Kollektor)—there’s a striking resemblance. I could be imagining things, but I can seem to discern the elevated M and T. Of course it will take more than my 64-year-old eyes and my enthusiasm to prove the case—further cleaning of the signature and better digital enhancement will surely yield clearer results—but an argument for Felix Martinez seems to be shaping up. But whether it’s by Martinez or not, this painting of Rizal by one of his contemporaries deserves to be saved.

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Signature copy

(With many thanks to pinoykollektor.com for permission to repost the images.)

Penman No. 299: Books with Back Stories (2)

 

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Penman for Monday, April 23, 2018

 

 

LAST WEEK, I wrote about Philippine-related books I’ve come across online with stories to tell beyond what their pages contained. There was that facsimile of the Doctrina Christiana, for example, signed by Lessing J. Rosenwald, the man who donated the world’s only known copy of the 1593 volume to the Library of Congress.

I also said that quite often, I don’t end up buying the book for one reason or another (usually and predictably financial), but I take note anyway of that particular book’s special appeal. I might leave it on my eBay “watch” list for a week while I mull over whether or not to spend any serious money on it, and then I’ll likely decide that the curiosity value just isn’t worth the cash out or the shelf space, which could go to a worthier recipient.

One of those almost-bought books was William D. Boyce’s The Philippine Islands, published in 1914 by Rand McNally. There was a swell of these books at the turn of the century following the American invasion and annexation of the Philippines, which their writers proudly touted as one of the US’ “new possessions.” Part travelogue, part political tract, these reports from the exotic East not only satisfied the curiosity of Americans who had never ventured out of their home states but also advanced the imperialist agenda. In his introduction (you can read the whole text for free online), Boyce—the millionaire-founder of the Boy Scouts of America—huffed that “It is my belief that if readers will carefully weigh and consider what follows in these pages, they will be aided to a larger view of the value of the Philippines, and realize how unjust and unjust it would be to cut adrift these half-civilized children of nature, trusting alone to luck that they may swim rather than sink in the sea of difficulties that surround the most hazardous of human tasks—self-government.” He was, he declared, squarely against those like Mark Twain seeking “to force these valuable Islands out of the hands of their real owners—the American people.”

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It helps sell books to give your chapters titles like “The Dog-Eating Igorots” and “Blood-Soaked Jolo,” but what drew me to this particular copy was the seller’s note that the book was inscribed to one Rev. Joseph Casey, and signed “Truly W. D. Boyce, S. S. Lusitania Feb 3rd1915.” That was just three months before a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the Lusitania in the Atlantic, helping push America into another war. I was intrigued, but in the end, I passed—I already had too many of these triumphal tributes to American imperialism on my shelves, and my $60 could go to better and less aggravating fare.

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More amusing—but also troubling in its own way—was a book I didn’t even know existed: the paperback edition of Stevan Javellana’s Without Seeing the Dawn (Little Brown, 1947), reissued in 1952 by Popular Library and retitled the The Lost Ones. As if the subtitle “A Surging Novel of Passion and Hate” wasn’t suggestive enough, this paperback sported a racy cover with a seduction scene straight out of a femme-fatale noir film of the period. Blithely (but wisely, market-wise) disregarding the complexity of the relationship between Carding and his wife Lucia, the back-cover blurb goes straight to and quotes the book’s purplest portion:

“’It’s a LARGE bed…’ Rosita smiled wickedly at Carding from the pillow. She wore nothing but a sheer slip, and that was hiked above her rounded white thighs. ‘But I’m married,’ Carding told her, clenching his big hands, trying to tear his eyes away from her. Rosita shrugged. ‘You should have thought of that last night,’ she drawled. ‘Now it’s too late. I could never let you go now, Carding.’ She put a cigarette in her mouth. ‘Bend down,’ she said, ‘and give me a light.’ He got the matches in his trembling hands and leaned far over the bed. Her arms circled his neck like two bands of steel, tumbling her toward him. He was married—but he was a man!”

I also passed on the book, preferring the canonical high seriousness of my first edition, but it was a good reminder that, long before they joined the canon, many books were sold—had to be sold—as popular entertainment. There’s probably no better example of this than a two-volume, paperback edition of Jose Rizal’s El Filibusterismo, published in Barcelona in 1911 by Maucci, with covers that one would be hard put to associate with Crisostomo Ibarra (the blonde looks particularly unnerving). I don’t know how many copies were printed and sold, but this was just one of many popular editions of the Noli and Fili that came out in Spain within a decade or so of Rizal’s execution—his revenge from the grave, when you come to think of it. This colorful Fili, I happily got.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 295: Writers in Wartime

 

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Penman for Monday, March 26, 2018

 

 

I WAS busy a couple of weeks ago going through my library to see which books I could donate to a sale being conducted by our students to benefit worthwhile projects. I happily gave away about a hundred books and will be ready and willing to unload even more next time. But what inevitably happens when you sort out your effects like this is that long-forgotten objects turn up in the pile.

One such item that emerged from this recent overhaul was a thin journal of no more than 70 pages, the December 1943 issue of Philippine Review, published by the Manila Sinbun-sya and edited by Vicente Albano Pacis, with Angel C. Anden and Jose Luna Castro as associate editors. A little research shows that the Review didn’t last very long—it ran from March 1943 and closed down in December 1944. But during that brief lifetime, it managed to publish such later luminaries as Nick Joaquin, and apparently enjoyed quite a reputation (it was also edited for some time by Francisco “Mang Kiko” Icasiano, whose musings “From My Nipa Hut” graced the prewar Sunday Tribune Magazine).

Indeed, this issue of December 1943 contained not only short stories by Ligaya Victorio Reyes and Estrella Alfon Rivera, essays by Camilo Osias, Luis Montilla, and Federico Mangahas, and a translation of Mi Ultimo Adios by Juan Collas, but also a short commentary on the language of the Constitution by a 22-year-old Jovito R. Salonga, who had just been released from prison for his work in the underground.

It’s a fascinating window on literature in a time of war, what the politics of the moment can do to writers, and what coping strategies they employ. (My thoughts strayed quickly to a recent discussion online about Filipino writers and politics in these times of tokhang.) The issue opens with paid advertisements—mostly from Japanese companies like the Yokohama Specie Bank’s local branch—hailing “The Second Anniversary of the Outbreak of the Greater East Asia War” while at the same time greeting readers a “Merry Christmas!”

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The Reyes and Alfon stories (“Christmas Visit” and “Jingle Bells”) speak of love and loss, acknowledging the sudden shift in the meaning of Christmas from that December of just two years ago to this one; both stories end with their protagonists weeping uncontrollably. The Reyes story can’t help falling back on old tropes, referring to “Gary Cooper.” So for the fictionists, at least, the transition remains sharp and painful, with metaphors to imply the darkening of the times.

Most of the essayists seem to have no such qualms. In his essay on “A Program of Enlightenment,” Camilo Osias (yes, he of the Philippine Readers series, and future Senate President) argues for a new culture “for all Filipinos under an independent Philippines,” one “characterized by a sound eclecticism in the choice of its elements—by the same careful eclecticism which the Japanese have observed in their cultural borrowings…. The cultural activities to be carried out shall emphasize the precedence of State, national, or social interests over those of the individual.”

For his part, the scholar Luis Montilla writes on the theme of “Rizal as an Orientalist,” and suggests that Rizal would have been sympathetic to Japanese motives had he been alive, even implying that this could be because Rizal was partly Japanese. In his footnotes, he quotes Austin Craig’s statement in 1940 that “I am putting the finishing touches to my Rizal genealogy, now being able to show Japanese blood as well as two Spanish and five Chinese ancestors. I have church or court certificates proving everything.”

Montilla concludes: “Having had his attention directed early to the abuses, calumnies, and indignities heaped unjustly upon his people by the white race, Rizal had to be, and was, the embodiment of a true Oriental…. Now, the duly authorized representatives of the great Japanese Empire have repeatedly assured the Filipinos that Japan has come to these shores not to subjugate the natives of the country, much less to absorb them, but to guide them in their regeneration as true Filipinos, and that when they… shall have been so rejuvenated as to be, as a nation, worthy of membership in the family of Oriental nations, they will regain their long lost independence (and fully realize) the supreme efforts put up by Rizal as an Oriental to help educate and re-Orientalize his people for their preservation and dignification as a race….”

Was I reading a display of what might be called cultural collaboration? Not knowing these writers and the circumstances under which they worked, I have to withhold my judgment, keeping in mind as well that there was good reason for many Filipinos—after centuries of white-man rule—to accept the invading Japanese as liberators. But I felt much educated by these articles, which also reminded me of how our printed words define us, rightly or wrongly, long after we’re gone. They just might turn up in a dusty corner of someone’s bookshelf.

Penman No. 264: The First Filipino Pen

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Penman for Monday, August 15, 2017

 

IT’S BEEN a while since I’ve written about the objects that gave this column its title—my fountain pens—so I’ll indulge myself after many weeks of hardcore arts-and-culture pieces to talk about my favorite pastime. Pens, after all, are both technological and cultural tools without which civilization and knowledge could not have advanced over the past millennium. Just imagine Shakespeare or Einstein without pen and ink, and you’ll see what I mean.

With that excuse out of the way, let me report that for the past year or so, I’ve considered myself semi-retired as far as pen collecting is concerned. Where I used to pick up two to three pens a month, I haven’t (until very recently) bought a pen in half a year; more than that, I’ve sold off much of my collection, bringing down what once would have been around 300 vintage and modern pens to less than half that. I plan to reduce that further to a core of about 50 that I can pass on to my sole heiress, Demi, who will inherit no tracts of land or shares of stock or certificates of deposit, only colorful tubes of plastic and metal with pointed ends and messy blobs.

My most recent acquisitions could hardly even be called spectacular, save one. Off eBay, I picked up two pen-and-pencil sets of Parker Vacumatics from the early 1940s, because they came in the less-common azure pearl color and at a price hard to resist. Last month in California, poking around our usual haunts in the antique malls and flea markets around San Diego, I landed a Montblanc 22 and a Parker 21 from the 1960s, an Esterbrook from around 1940, and a Sheaffer Targa rollerball from the mid-1970s (yes, I keep a few rollerballs around, for filling in those immigration and customs forms on which fountain-pen ink tends to run because of bad paper).

Many people, even those more used to cheap (but perfectly good) ballpoints, have some idea what “Montblanc” is, so let me just demonstrate why it’s important to know what you’re looking for. I saw that near-mint MB displayed in a cabinet in a shop in San Diego, with a tag that said, “Not sure if it works,” which probably explained the very reasonable price of $48. That’s about a third of what this pen—in very good shape and working condition—would go for online. (The 22 is a lower-end but still attractive model and not the fat, cigar-shaped 149 that most people rightfully associate with Montblanc, which sells in the boutiques for about $700 but which you can get, slightly used, for half that price on eBay, if you’re a risk-taker and bottom-feeder like me.)

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The seller probably couldn’t make it work because he or she didn’t know how: the 22 is a piston-operated pen, requiring the turning of a knob at its end, and you can see the piston rise and fall in a see-through window on the barrel. That’s how I tested the pen and why I bought it without hesitation (intending to resell it later, but when Beng remarked how nice it was, she instantly became its new owner). In other words—and every collector, every picker of every little thingy from vintage Hamiltons to bird stamps knows this—knowledge pays.

So the MB was a great score, but the piece de resistance of this andropausal batch was truly one of a kind. Filipinos have been among the world’s most avid and most knowledgeable pen users and collectors (we have hundreds of members at fpnp.org), but until recently, no one has ever made one. (We found an advertisement for a “Rizal” pen from the 1920s, but it was likely a British or American pen rebranded for the local market—and yes, I’d happily pay for a specimen!)

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That changed when I got a call from one of our members, a bright young man and newly minted MD by the name of Mark del Rosario, who enjoys tinkering with pens, blades, and lathes in his home workshop when he’s not preparing for his internship as a neurologist. Mark had been fascinated by nibs (the pen’s writing point) and had been modifying them to produce different lines, but when he presented me with a box at our meeting and when I opened it, I saw that he had gone much farther than just toying with steel tips—because there was the first fully functional fountain pen ever made by a Filipino, a prototype handcrafted by Mark in frosted acrylic and sporting a lovely smooth German-made Jowo (“yo-vo”) nib. And he was giving it to me for my collection, to honor me as a prime purveyor of our common addiction.

I couldn’t congratulate and thank Mark enough, so I’ll say it here: finding a 1960s Montblanc in California for less than $50 was good, but being gifted with the first Filipino pen by its maker is incalculably better. The only bad thing about it is that now I’m looking at pens again….

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Penman for Monday, November 17, 2016

 

 

IT WASN’T on the official itinerary, but I have to report that the personal highlight of our recent participation at the Frankfurt Book Fair didn’t happen at the fair itself, or even in Frankfurt, but about an hour and a half away by train and bus. This was a plan that a few of us had hatched even before we left Manila: we’d do our jobs and put in our hours in the Philippine booth, then take a day off in pursuit of a pilgrimage that any Pinoy in Frankfurt shouldn’t forgo: a visit to Jose Rizal’s haunts in Heidelberg and neighboring Wilhelmsfeld.

I’ve been a lifelong fan of Pepe, not just for his writing skills and love of country (I won’t mention his charming ways with the ladies) but also his wanderlust which made him, in my book, the first truly global Filipino. Considering that he didn’t live very long, he was still able to do more and see more than most of us do in a full lifetime. The intensity of that life and the excellence he sought at every turn have been enduring inspirations for me, and I’ve realized that sometimes by design and sometimes by serendipity, I’ve been tracking his footsteps around the world.

In 2009, my wife Beng and I, along with our daughter Demi and her husband Jerry, had booked ourselves into the Palace Hotel on Market Street in San Francisco, where it took a waiter (a fellow Pinoy, of course) to inform us that Rizal had stayed there during his only visit to America in May 1888, an event commemorated by a marker just outside the hotel, which we had missed.

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Two years later, Beng and I visited Rizal’s well-kept shrine in Dapitan, where he had spent four fruitful years in exile before being transported back to Manila. How poignant it must have been to catch the sunset along the bay with Josephine Bracken, inflamed and torn by two of the strongest passions to afflict any writer—love and revolution.

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And then in 2014, again with Beng, Demi, and Jerry, I sought out some of Rizal’s locales in Spain, from Plaza Mayor in Madrid to the Castell de Montjuic in Barcelona, where Rizal had been detained before being shipped back to Manila for trial and eventual execution. (The castle has designated a room, Sala Rizal, in his honor and in memory of the many political prisoners who had spent time in that place—ironically, one of the best spots from which to appreciate the city’s beauty.)

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There was no question, therefore, that I would make that sortie to Heidelberg, given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Five other sojourners made up our group: National Artist Virgilio “Rio” Almario and his wife Lyn, their daughter Ani and her husband, the geologist CP David, and the poet and Inquirer staff writer Ruey de Vera. Lyn and Ani were attending the book fair on behalf of Adarna House and the Book Development Association of the Philippines, but we all agreed that a visit to Heidelberg was well worth a day off.

Rizal had stayed in various places in Heidelberg and Wilhelmsfeld for much of 1886, marking his 25th birthday there, studying ophthalmology with tutors like Dr. Otto Becker while improving his command of German. When he moved to Wilhelmsfeld—a 12-kilometer walk through the forest that Rizal essayed and even today a 30-minute bus ride from downtown Heidelberg—Rizal boarded with Pastor Karl Ullmer and his family, and it was there that he completed the manuscript of Noli Me Tangere (a feat that, achieved at 25, still astonishes me when I consider the juvenilia most of us still produce at that age).

Rio Almario had visited Heidelberg once before but not Wilhelmsfeld, and the rest of us were total newcomers to the area (I had traveled around Germany and reported on it extensively in 2004, but hadn’t gone this far). So it was with giddy enthusiasm that we assembled at the Frankfurt Bahnhof and boarded the 9:20 train to Heidelberg. About an hour later, we were in Heidelberg, where we made a beeline for the information kiosk just outside the train station to buy bus tickets to Wilhelmsfeld. “Filipinos?” asked a clerk at the kiosk, apparently familiar with posses of brown-skinned Asians asking about Jose Rizal, and he whipped out a xeroxed guide to Rizal’s known habitations in Heidelberg and Wilhelmsfeld. There were about six of these sites in Heidelberg alone, so we decided to go for Wilhelmsfeld first, given our limited time.

After a pleasant ride along the Neckar River and the lovely autumn scenery (punctuated only by an unexpected stop during which two European bison appeared fairytale-like out of the woods), we reached Wilhelmsfeld, which announced itself in a most unusual way, with a Filipino flag flying abreast of its German counterpart in front of the Rathaus, or town hall (Wilhelmsfeld and Calamba are sister cities). We were in search specifically of the statue that sculptor Anastacio Caedo had made of Rizal in a special park devoted to him. An initial query led us astray, to the wrong church and into a drizzle of hail (magical story elements we couldn’t have invented to accentuate our pilgrim status), until a kind lady pointed us in the right direction.

Many shuddering steps later, we arrived at a park overlooking the valley, in the center of which stood Rizal’s figure, easily a foot larger than life, as it deserved to be. We celebrated by opening a bottle of Potsdamer beer which CP had brought along for the occasion, and raising a toast to the great wanderer who had preceded us by 130 years but who yet challenged us, as it were, to write a Noli for our own times. After lunch back in Heidelberg, we prepared for another long trek to find his clinic at Bergeimherstrasse, only to realize that we had gotten off on exactly that street, and were only steps away.

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Weeks later, a totally unexpected bonus followed. I was in Singapore covering the Writers Festival when fictionist Cathy Torres—a diplomat who was serving with the Philippine Embassy in Berlin after a stint in Singapore, and had also joined us in Frankfurt—casually mentioned to me that Rizal had taken note in his letters of the black elephant statue beside the old Parliament House where the festival was being held. As it turned out, Rizal had visited Singapore four times—the first time in 1882, on what also happened to be the 21-year-old’s first trip abroad. The tip prompted me to look up Rizal’s Singaporean connections—immortalized in a marker near the Cavenagh Bridge, beside the likes of Ho Chi Minh, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Deng Xiaoping—but what floored me was discovering that he had once stayed at the old Hotel de la Paix at the corner of Coleman and Hill Streets—long gone, but since replaced by the Peninsula-Excelsior Hotel, where I was staying. I felt like I was no longer following Rizal, but he was following me.

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In Dapitan, he had written: “I left, scarcely a youth, my land and my affections, and vagrant everywhere, with no qualms, with no terrors, squandered in foreign lands the April of my life.” If this was squandering one’s youth, what a glorious waste it was.

 

Penman No. 129: Autographs and Memories

Jose_Rizal's_signaturePenman for Monday, December 29, 2014

 

WE AFFIX our signatures to documents everyday—to checks, memoranda, requests, receipts, and felicitations—with nary a thought to where those signatures will go, those hurried scribbles that say “I was here,” “I saw this,” or “I caused this,” and, therefore, “I matter.” For most of us, those signatures will go the way of the documents that occasioned them—to some vault, shredder, or rubbish heap—their practical purposes having been served, and bearing no other value otherwise. That is, unless you’re a George Washington, or a Paul McCartney, or a Princess Diana; and then you might sign a table napkin and turn that into pile of dollars.

I’ve always been fascinated by signatures and autographs (the commonly held difference being that signatures meet legal requirements, while autographs satisfy emotional needs). My earliest model, of course, was my father’s signature, written with that flourish typical of his generation, with an understandable hint of self-magnification. Impressive signatures took time and care to practice and to write, so my father’s attention to his own left me awed and respectful. Even if he was only a clerk in his office, he signed his name as presidents did.

Mine, alas, is completely undistinguished—illegible, to be more accurate, something once likened by a curious onlooker to a paper clip pulled from both ends. I know that some people seek to cultivate a mystique by designing unreadable signatures, but I never meant to, and find the practice pretentious. My father’s signature seemed larger than life, but before and beyond anything else, it proclaimed his name, which (especially in this avatar- and alias-driven present) is probably the most honest thing you can do.

I had these thoughts in mind when—among the last things we did before flying home from Washington—I took Beng to a very special exhibition at the National Archives Museum on “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures” (still on until January 5). It promised to showcase the signatures of both prominent and obscure figures and their contributions (positive and otherwise) to the shaping of history, and the exhibition did not disappoint. Being something of a history buff and museum rat, I had previously come across the most well-known ones in facsimile and in other exhibits—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy, and, of course, John Hancock—but here was an opportunity to appreciate them in context, appended to actual documents that should have, but not always, mattered.

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Albert Einstein’s ends a long letter passionately—and, in hindsight, poignantly—arguing for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Adolf Hitler’s—accompanying a large sheet attesting to his marriage to Eva Braun—is surprisingly small. Another unexpected twist comes courtesy of the poet Ezra Pound, who can masterfully edit his friend TS Eliot and yet, it turns out, can barely spell, as when he pleads in 1914 with the American consul in London on behalf of his fiancée, and here I quote him verbatim: “As an american about to mary and english woman, I write to you….” The Hopi Indians petition for their land in 1894, signing their names as pictographs of rainclouds, fish, and birds. Their voices are as lost and as forgotten as the letters of ordinary citizens writing to the President for various causes, none more futile than an appeal by the children of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for their parents’ lives to be spared.

As we left the museum, Beng and I wondered aloud why we couldn’t come up with a similar exhibition of historic signatures—say, of our national heroes and National Artists and National Scientists—by way of introducing our younger citizens to the story of our nation, as told by individuals in letters and other interesting and important memorabilia. This is, of course, a generation that writes messages, not letters; that tweets, not corresponds. The value of a signature—think of Manny Pacquiao’s on a boxing glove, or a porn star’s on a T-shirt—is what it will fetch on eBay.

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Some people collect autographs for fun and profit, and like any hobby involving demand and supply, a thriving business has grown around the pursuit and acquisition of scarce signatures, especially from people who will never write another one. Sometimes context is everything; a woman who got JFK to sign her newspaper just before he boarded that fateful car in Dallas made $30,000 out of that grim memento. The most sought-after signatures today, according to one listing on the Web, are those of the Beatles, the Apollo 11 crew, Marilyn Monroe, and—no, not JFK, or Churchill, or Hitler, who all follow this curious entry—the Sex Pistols with Sid Vicious. For what it’s worth, George Washington remains the star of the show, his signature on the Acts of Congress earning that book’s owner close to $10 million because of the confluence of the man and the material.

I’d be happy to run into a sheaf of yellowing papers at an antique shop or an old library and to find these signed by Rizal, Bonifacio, Juan Luna, Gregorio del Pilar, Paz Marquez Benitez, Angela Manalang-Gloria, Manuel Quezon, Jose Garcia Villa, Botong Francisco, or some such person. I doubt that I’ll be ever so lucky, precisely because we don’t value old books, especially those that have been scribbled on. As a literary tourist of sorts, I’ve been fortunate to have books signed by Joseph Heller, Kazuo Ishiguro, JM Coetzee, Junot Diaz, Frank McCourt, and Edward Jones, among others, but I’d trade most of them for any one of the above.

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Because our daughter Demi still understands what documents mean, she will be inheriting—aside from a trove of leaky pens—a passel of books and letters signed by many of our finest writers, her dad’s friends and mentors. I’ve been quite shameless about soliciting these signatures and autographs, fully expecting that the time will come, sooner than later, when our scrawls will be replaced by digital thumbprints, already a reality with Apple’s TouchID.

Maybe that’s how digital books will be signed in the future—with the press of a thumb or a forefinger on a touchpad—and it will simplify my life as an author, but take me even farther away from the verifiable veracity of the written word, and the written name.

Penman No. 103: Too Much Drama

Penman for Monday, June 30, 2014

IN MY other life as a dramatist, which came to an end some years ago, I wrote about a dozen plays for the stage and more than twice as many television plays and screenplays, mostly for the late Lino Brocka. Lino and I happily turned out double-hanky tearjerkers with such rousingly commercial titles (which someone presumably from the marketing department thought up) as Kailan Mahuhugasan ang Kasalanan, Ano ang Kulay ng Mukha ng Diyos, Maging Akin Ka Lamang, Miguelito, ang Batang Rebelde, and my very first one, back in 1977, Tahan Na, Empoy, Tahan.

I may have stopped writing drama to focus on fiction and nonfiction, but now and then the old skills get a workout. I’ve always said that there’s no better training for a writer of fiction than to have been a playwright, because playwriting teaches dramatic economy—how to set up a scene, how to get the most out of your characters, how to use dialogue effectively (meaning, at its most complex, how to get your characters to say things they don’t mean, or to mean things they can’t say).

Last week, I said as much again to a group of writers and program analysts from a TV network who wanted to see how writers think. I told them that drama’s to be found not only in filmscripts or on the set—it’s all around us, taking place quietly in some fastfood joint or some bus stop or some hospital ward; the writer’s task is to see that drama, to palpate it from the tedium of everyday life, and to sharpen and brighten its edges so others can see the extraordinary in otherwise ordinary moments.

We’ll save the rest of the drama lesson for another day; I bring this up only to establish my bona fides when it comes to talking about drama, and about my thesis today, which is that—even for a writer of melodrama, for which I make no excuses—there seems to be entirely too much drama around us these days, or theater if you will. (There’s a subtle difference, if you think of drama as the situation and of theater as its enactment on some kind of stage.)

Case in point: I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s sick not only of Senator Bong Revilla’s whinings about the heat in his room at the “custodial center” (it’s not even a real prison, for Pete’s sake), but also of how the media has fussed over it like it was a real news story (“Can Congresswoman Lani make it back from Greenhills in 15 minutes with the air cooler? That’s all the time she has before visiting hours end!” said one radio reporter breathlessly.) My totally un-PC prescription? Give him the fan, give him whatever creature comfort he wants, but reduce his cell to about a third of its size and keep that one window, from which I hope he sees a mall, or something with lots of people and traffic in it. There’s no better reminder of what prison means than limited space and movement, no matter what you may have with you. (I remember watching a Marlboro neon sign blink at me on the far side of martial law prison, back in 1973; that was torture.)

Senator Jinggoy Estrada’s departure for the custodial center was only slightly less theatrical, thanks again to the media who couldn’t get enough of the father-and-son story being played out in all of its bitter if obvious irony. Of course we expected the family to bond around Jinggoy, and for tears to be shed; that’s any family’s natural privilege, and its natural response. Indeed what underwhelmed me, from my dramatist’s standpoint, was how predictable everything was from start to finish, especially the inevitable “Mayor Erap, ano’ng nararamdaman ninyo sa pagkakakulong ng inyong anak?” I wanted to scream, “E ano pa?”

I can just see the video highlights from these staged “surrenders” figuring in these politicos’ next campaigns: the prayers in church, the mug shots, the hugs and waves from distraught spouses, parents, and kids; the cell doors closing, as the music goes up and under, before we hear a murmured voice-over: “May bukas pa….”

Case in point Number 2: Sometimes silence is drama; when your wife refuses to explain why she doesn’t want to talk to you, that’s drama. When the Palace refuses to explain why it dropped Nora Aunor from the list of National Artist awardees, that’s drama. All President Noynoy’s spokesmen could say was “It’s the President’s prerogative….”, which is exactly what we heard from President Gloria’s spokesmen a few years ago, the only difference being that she made dagdag, while Noynoy made bawas. I did read something about Nora’s exclusion being “in the national interest,” but it boggles the mind to figure out exactly what that means. I can understand defending the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal as being “in the national interest”; I can even understand rooting for Manny Pacquiao on fight day—temporarily setting all his other quirks and antics aside—as being “in the national interest.” But dropping Nora?

As I wrote in this corner a few months ago, I was on a large, multidisciplinary, second-level committee that endorsed Nora Aunor to a higher body (the NCCA and CCP Boards plus the National Artists); we endorsed Dolphy as well, and if I remember right, he and Nora got the same highest votes across the board. Granted that our recommendations were just that and subject to final approval upstairs, I feel among many others in the arts that we at least deserve a full and cogent explanation for all these pluses and minuses that take place in Malacañang. The Palace—and I don’t mean just the present occupant—has never been known to be a bulwark of artistic support and sensibility, if you look at funding for the arts in relation to everything else; if it never cared for or about the arts, why should it suddenly care—negatively at that—about Nora Aunor, whom the arts community clearly feels is deserving of its highest accolade? If you can’t help, at least don’t get in the way.

I’d been told by some Palace contacts that questions came up about Nora’s alleged drug use. OK, I said, it’s fair enough to raise these questions which presumably involve moral turpitude. But since when has it been fair to use morality as a standard for artistic excellence? We’ve had National Artists whose personal lives were hardly spotless, but whose art precisely may have been deepened and enriched by those encounters with their darker side. (Conversely, we’ve had National Artists who may present themselves as moral exemplars and accuse everyone else of some fatal shortcoming, but whose work is unremittingly mediocre and soporific.) Edgar Allan Poe, Salvador Dali, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Miles Davis, among many others, would never qualify for state honors in their countries (not that they ever cared) if our Malacañang’s standards were employed.

Last case in point: I wholeheartedly agreed with the NCCA when it protested the Palace snub of Ms. Aunor, but also wholeheartedly disagreed with the NCCA when it reportedly protested allowing the use of our national heroes’ names for such popular products as beer. (Think “Cerveza Rizal” or “Mabini Beer.”) The reason given by objectors was that it would be a sign of disrespect for these heroes to associate something as morally undesirable as alcohol with them.

Really? Which planet are we on? Didn’t our heroes drink beer and stiffer forms of alcohol—in spite (or dare I say because) of which they performed heroic deeds, anyway? Rizal complained that his fellow ilustrados in Spain drank and womanized too much, but that hardly meant that he was completely abstemious in either department. He didn’t care much for hard liquor, but drank beer (like me, on whom single malt would be a total waste). George Washington was a beer guy as well, and even famously left a handwritten recipe for his own brew (later marketed in an “Ales of the Revolution” line). So will the moral police please lighten up? If Nora’s good enough to be a National Artist, then Jose Rizal should be good enough to go on a beer bottle, and I’ll hoist many a cold Rizal in his own honor.

Heroes aren’t heroes because they’re perfect human beings; they’re heroes because—despite some truly terrible character flaws and peccadilloes (one of them even shot his wife, remember?)—they left something indelible to the national spirit and imagination, enough for us to think of ourselves as a nation. Heroes and National Artists (the real ones and the best ones) can do that; politicians—whether in prison or in the Palace—can’t.