Penman No. 403: Bad Times, Good Art?

Penman for Monday, December 21, 2020

IN MY last column, I wrote about how art and literature respond to times of great distress, like plagues and wars. My spoilsport proposition was that—against most expectations—crisis and chaos are not the best environments for great art, not just because the artists are too busy just trying to survive, but because it takes time, distance, and reflection to integrate, to re-order, the experience of falling apart.

Citing previous examples like Albert Camus’ The Plague and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, I said that this current pandemic will surely be the stuff of both bestsellers and ponderous novels, but the best writing about it will very likely not emerge for many more years, if not decades, to come.

If you need more proof, consider this: the best war stories were written long after the wars they dealt with. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, about the War of 1812, came out as a book in 1869. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, about the Civil War, was published in 1895; World War I’s All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque in 1929; Kurt Vonnegut’s World War II-era Slaughterhouse Five in 1969; and Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam-era The Things They Carried in 1990.

That’s not to say that artists don’t or shouldn’t immediately respond to the tumult swirling around them. Something traumatic like plague and war can be both material for, and instigator of, great art.

The one outstanding example that comes to mind is Picasso’s Guernica, made in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The story goes that Picasso was in Paris working on another commission when he heard about Franco’s bombing of the town of Guernica in April that year, whereupon he shifted his attention to producing the now-iconic antiwar painting, which he finished in five weeks. 

Another oft-quoted story is that of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose Symphony No. 6 in C Major, which came to be known as the “Leningrad Symphony,” was premiered in Russia during the siege of Leningrad by the Germans in July 1942, and became a kind of anthem of Soviet resistance. In the more cinematic retellings of this episode, it is said that the Germans realized they would lose the battle when they heard the symphony being played by a ragtag band of Russian musicians on the radio.

On the German side, there’s the story of the Berlin Philharmonic persisting in recording Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene and the finale from Wagner’s G?tterd?mmerung despite the Allied forces knocking on Berlin’s gates in April 1945.

These examples, with their heroic if not tragic overtones, seem to suggest that in periods of great disorder and distress approaching chaos, artists of all kinds rise to the occasion and summon up their finest talents in the service of—and here one is tempted to say “humanity,” but I am more inclined to say “order,” which is inherent in every artist. The desire for justice, for example, is a form of outrage over the disturbance of some natural equilibrium, a sense of fairness, and bringing music into the battlefield is a willful imposition of structure and narrative into the cacophony of war. These creative outbursts in the middle of the fray are also affirmations of one’s higher consciousness, a civilized rejection of the easier option to submit to brutishness.

This reminds me of Umberto Eco’s insightful description of how art works as “a minimum of order compatible with a maximum of chaos.” The artist’s impulse is to bring method into the madness, to see pattern and narrative in the mess of things. 

Sometimes art has responded to war in the most striking ways. There was a very close relationship between Cubism and the development of military camouflage in the aftermath of World War I, with Cubism providing the inspiration for the abstraction of natural forms, culminating in the so-called “Dazzle” ships whose wild geometric designs, by the marine artist Norman Wilkinson, were meant less to hide ships than to confuse U-boat rangefinders.

But for all these illustrations of disorder as the handmaiden of great art, I suspect that they are exceptions, and that the more commonplace product is that enemy of good art, cliché. 

Dystopic times invite posterization, where subjects can either be romanticized or demonized. There’s that overwhelming urge to settle for the literal or cartoonish depiction of the obvious, which would be hardship and pain, violence and sorrow, over and over again. I’ve often pointed out to my writing students—long before the pandemic—that the easiest thing to write is a lament about how terrible and unfair life is, and how awful one feels. Walk into any serious art gallery (real or virtual) and you’ll see that most works by young artists are predominantly dark and gloomy.

I’m not suggesting that we get all Pollyanish and paint an artificially happy world; but I do expect great art to be transcendent and complex, to move beyond the immediate and the literal and to remind us of the need for beauty and hope amid the suffering. Michelangelo did that with the Pieta, which is not only about a son’s passing but a mother’s deathless love. 

Bad times and bad things may even prefigure or provoke some inner good, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it: “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” 

Penman No. 402: The Brain That Will Not Sleep

Penman for Monday, December 7, 2020

I APPEARED last Monday at a webinar sponsored by the?Philippines Graphic?and the?BusinessMirror?to react to a paper delivered by National Artist and fellow?Philippine STAR?columnist F. Sionil Jose on “Philippine Literature in the Time of Pandemic,” along with the essayist and critic Lito Zulueta. We had a lively discussion, with over a thousand students listening in, so it was a great opportunity to do some teaching (or preaching, of you will) about how writers work during great upheavals—in this case, the raging fire of a global pandemic. Here’s part of what I said:

Literature goes on. Literature cannot be locked down. It is a tongue that cannot be silenced, a brain that will not sleep, a nerve that will keep twitching even when hammered a thousand times. 

But the best literature about this pandemic will very likely not emerge for many more years, if not decades, to come. What we know is that the best writing is not produced in the heat of the moment. It takes a long time after a calamity or a period of deep distress, like a plague or a war, to write capably and insightfully about it. It requires distance and reflection.

Take, for example, three of the best-known works associated with the idea of a plague. Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which was about the bubonic plague that hit London in 1665, when Defoe himself was only five years old, was written more than half a century later, and published only in 1722. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” which was published in 1842, was not even based on an actual plague but was rather highly allegorical. Albert Camus’ novel The Plague came out in 1947 but looked back to an actual outbreak of cholera in Algeria in 1849, almost a century earlier.

And the fact is that the plague itself is never the real subject of literature—it is what it does to people, to bring out both the best and the worst in them. The plague is merely the backdrop or the trigger for the exposure of human greed, corruption, and indifference, as much as it can provoke nobility, heroism, and humility. This is also how literature has dealt with war, beyond journalism and history, which are concerned with chronicling and interpreting the facts. The best war stories, from the Iliad onward, deal with human character under pressure.

I have no doubt that the time will come when we will see a substantial body of Philippine literature emerge out of this pandemic—novels, stories, poems, essays, and screenplays—that will remind readers of the future of what it was like to live in 2020, and it won’t just be about Covid and lockdowns, but OFWs, tokhang, Netflix, K-drama, Lalamove, and Donald Trump. 

In his talk, Manong Frankie spoke of “the need to be true to one’s self, to be engaged with self, our time and our place,” and it’s something with which I totally agree, because this is how literature refreshes and revitalizes itself over time, with each generation grappling with its own demons. Each generation is defined by a particular challenge—for my parents, it was the Japanese occupation; for mine, it was martial law; for my daughter’s, it was EDSA; for today, it is Covid and its political context.

The young writers of today are writing very differently—in content and treatment—from Manong Frankie’s generation and from mine—and they should. Writers should write about their times, for their times, in their own voice and manner, and if they write well and insightfully enough, their work will have meaning and value for generations yet to come.

I mentioned the political context of Covid, by which I mean that this pandemic has been accompanied and aggravated by the politics of ignorance, fear, and populism. All around the world, it has been used by politicians to aggrandize power and suppress opposition, and this is something literature will also have to confront. 

Thanks to the slippery pervasiveness of social media, the truth is being replaced with insistent assertion, and control of the narrative is on top of the political agenda. If you claim “I won!” and “He’s bad!” a thousand times, some people will begin to believe it.

In a sense, the most daring kind of fiction now is out of the hands of creative writers like me. It is being created by political propagandists who are spinning their own versions of the truth, and who expect the people to believe them. The short story and the novel are no longer the best media for this type of fiction, but the tweet, the Facebook feed, the YouTube video, and even the press conference. The conspiracy has emerged as the most popular genre of fiction—the idea that people are out to fool you or cheat you, but they can’t, because you have a more clever version of the truth.

Covid and fake news may be the most dangerous combination yet. But as I’ve been saying these past few years, the best antidote to fake news is true fiction, which will be up to you and me to write.

Penman No. 386: History and Hysteria

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Penman for Monday, April 27, 2020

 

IT MUST be part of human nature, in times of disaster or adversity, to seek some consolation or refuge in the past, more specifically in the misfortunes of others. It’s a kind of Schadenfreude across generations rather than distance, although not so much to derive pleasure as reassurance to the effect that, in time, all miseries have an end, all crises can be survived.

I have to admit that—interned for a month with the TV, the laptop, and my books for company—I’ve acquired a rather morbid interest in discovering what other people went through at other times, faced with the enormity of mysterious and murderous disease. We know by now how Covid-19 has brought out the best and the worst in us, stoking our deepest fears even as we marvel at the courage and generosity of a relative few. We—especially those of us in the emotionally vulnerable middle class—cringe at the possibility that desperation will lead to chaos.

History sadly provides little comfort in that respect. Awful things do happen in awful times, chiefly thievery and murder, although not always by the people you’d expect.

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Writing about plague-hit Florence in the 1630s in Histories of a Plague Year: The Social and the Imaginary in Baroque Florence, (U. of California Press, 1989), Giulia Calvi noted that “Up to this point, the most surprising theme is how little fear contagion caused. In overcrowded houses, stinking alleys, and rooms that still held the dead, both actually and in memory, neighbors, relatives, and friends came and went—entering, stealing, taking things at random, and getting caught. They passed items from hand to hand, through windows and doors, wells and gratings; they knocked down house walls, climbed garden walls, and even lowered goods by rope from rooftops. The epidemic appeared to generate every emotion save fear of death.”

But a subtler kind of theft was also happening, with the emergence of medical amateurs, charlatans, and quacks offering all kinds of cures, from potions tried out in previous epidemics such as “simple curative roots and coral powder” to a recipe for “three black spiders, three serpents, three deaf vipers, three frogs, ten tarantulas, and fifty scorpions and other poisonous animals—alive, if possible—over a small flame like one used for soap or stew.” A thriving guild of doctors and herbalists controlled and approved the sale of these prescriptions on the street—for a fee, of course, evading which cost the offender a hefty fine.

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Hysteria bred by ignorance also led to wanton killing, as in 1820, when cholera and xenophobia led to the “Massacre at Manilla” of English French, Danish, Spanish, and Chinese nationals reported on in my 1822 copy of The Atheneum, a Boston-based magazine. It’s a grisly account echoed by the adventurer Paul P. de la Gironiere in his book published more than 30 years later:

“I had only resided a short time at Cavite when that terrible scourge, the cholera, broke out at Manilla, in September, 1820, and quickly ravaged the whole island. Within?a few days of its first appearance the epidemic spread rapidly; the Indians succumbed by thousands; at all hours of the day and of the night the streets were crowded with the dead-carts. Next to the fright occasioned by the epidemic, quickly succeeded rage and despair. The Indians said, one to another, that the strangers poisoned the rivers and the fountains, in order to destroy the native population and possess themselves of the Philippines. On the 9th October, 1820, the anniversary of my departure from France, a dreadful massacre commenced at Manilla and at Cavite. Poor Dibard, the captain of the Cultivateur, was one of the first victims. Almost all the French who resided at Manilla were slain, and their houses pillaged and destroyed.”

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But as dramatic as these events were, the real tragedy was that the plague quietly targeted its victims, and more often chose the poor. Early in January 1900, reports of bubonic plague began coming out of Manila, such as this account in a San Francisco newspaper: “The bubonic plague is yet sporadic. There have been six cases and four deaths. Preparations are being made to establish hospitals and quarantine. Great numbers of provincial natives are coming to Manila, with whom the city is overcrowded, the increase in accommodations being inadequate. The rice necessary for foodstuffs is more expensive than at any period during the last twelve years. The plague is dangerous to the overcrowded, unfed and unwashed natives and Chinese.”

A lab report such as the one excerpted below (from The Plague: Bacteriology, Morbid Anatomy, and Histopathology, Including a Consideration of Insects as Plague Carriers by Maximilian Herzog, MD, published in Manila by the Bureau of Public Printing, 1904) may have been clinically precise, but the sadness of a child wasted by the lice (pediculi) common to her station is inescapable:

“The body of a female child, 9 to 10 years of age, well developed. Post-mortem rigidity strong…. Before the body had been opened, three pediculi were picked up from the scalp with sterile forceps and dropped first into an empty sterile test tube and later into three flasks containing 50 cubic centimeters of sterile, slightly alkaline bouillon…. Inquiries were made as to the possibility of the girl’s having been infested with pediculi from someone living in an infected district.”

We learn that disease will ravage and kill the body, but also that, in the long run, disease and even death itself can be defeated—with knowledge, understanding, and willful compassion.

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