05 February 2018

Footnote to the angel of history

Kung nakakakita tayo sa ating harapan ng isang hanay ng mga pangyayari, nakakakita naman [ang anghel] ng iisang sakuna lamang, ng walang katapusang pag-ipon ng bundok ng durog-durog na labi na inihahagis sa kanyang paanan [1].

How could Walter Benjamin impute so much interpretation to what the angel in Paul Klee’s painting was contemplating? Was that what the caricature-like drawing actually thinking? As it turned out, there was an alternative image for the "melancholically beautiful" image of the angel of history. In a footnote to thesis IX of his Filipino translation of Benjamin's work, Ramon Guillermo mentioned another fascinating image, the one that was also used as cover page of the translation:

“Angelus Novus”: Painting ni Klee (1920) na naging pag-aari ni Benjamin sa isang panahon. Ngunit tila may basehan ang hinuha ni Bolívar Echeverría na ang higit na pinagbatayan ni Benjamin sa tesis IX ay ang guhit na pinamagatang “L’histoire” (Ang Kasaysayan) mula sa Iconologie nina H.F. Gravelot at Ch. N. Cochin (1791) (Echeverría 2005, 25y).


“Angelus Novus”: A painting by Klee (1920) that was for a time owned by Benjamin. But Bolívar Echeverría's [2] conjecture may have a basis: that Benjamin's main inspiration for thesis IX was the drawing called “L’histoire” (History) from Iconologie by H.F. Gravelot and Ch. N. Cochin (1791) (Echeverría 2005, 25y). [my translation]

In "L'histoire", the angel's head was turned to the right. Faced with a specter of destruction around her, the angel of history had chosen not to be a mere spectator. With vigor and passion, she transcribed what was happening in real time. Her right hand held the pen; her left supported the book.

And what of the figure of death in front of her? The old man's back functioned as the writing table, inclined at just the appropriate angle for the angel to write at ease. Like the angel, death was concentrating on his task, very intent to not make the slightest move, full in his support for the angel's role as historian.

And what was she writing about? Presumably something important, so urgent it needed to be put on paper. It had to do with a conflagration, an event that needed an angel to witness and record. We could somehow recognize a man and a woman fleeing a burning city in the background. Where were the rest of city dwellers? It appeared as if they were casualties of some kind of war. The magnitude of destruction was discernible from the smoke covering almost the entire horizon.

Death was assisting our angel historian, but his long scythe was almost leaning toward her left wing. Is writing history akin to a brush with death? Was the angel all too willing to sacrifice her wing just to be able to get a snapshot of war?

And what was that book beneath her? Tucidide on top of a trumpet, muffling the music of the instrument? What was the Athenian historian doing in this apocalyptic setting? Was he providing the framework of history for the angel to pattern her own historical narrative?

And that pointed, pyramid-like structure on the left? It was the one image that corresponded well to the perpetual accumulation of rubble in thesis IX. It was the structure of wreckage that could reach up to heaven, being driven by the storm called Progress (Fortschritt).

The drawing in Gravelot and Cochin's Iconologie certainly was a more illustrative and dramatic representation of the angel of history than Klee's. The reason for Benjamin's indirection, if it was that, may be moot at this point. In any case, the latter's cartoon sketch of an angel, as interpreted by Benjamin, was a helpless historian in the face of storm: his wings were pathetically frozen when struck by the force of the wind. L'histoire, on the other hand, was a more militant angel. She was unfazed by the events unfolding around her, and not even bothered by the sharp scythe of death. Faithful and objective was her transcription of human catastrophe so that the readers would be able to decipher the pattern of folly. Her purpose was clear: to be the conscience and the counsel of history. So that we never repeat it over and over and over again.



[1] From "Tesis IX", in Hinggil sa Konsepto ng Kasaysayan by Walter Benjamin, trans. Ramon Guillermo. Translation: Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, [the angel] sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. (from Thesis IX, trans. Dennis Redmond)

[2] For his translation of Benjamin’s theses from German to Filipino, Ramon Guillermo also consulted Bolívar Echeverría’s 2008 Spanish translation of the theses, in addition to Benjamin's French translation of his German original. The references at the end of Guillermo's translation also listed "El ángel de la historia y el materialismo histórico”, in Echeverría (ed.), La mirada del Ángel: En torno a las tesis sobre la historia de Walter Benjamin (México: Universidad Autónoma de México).

Image of L'histoire from: Materialist Theology

04 February 2018

Joaquín and the angel of history


Last February 2017, I wrote the following in a blog post about the impending publication of Nick Joaquín's The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic:

The inclusion of his famous play A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino (1966) in the Penguin anthology was an inspired decision. The three-act "elegy", which the playwright also labeled as "a novel in the form of a play", was a distillation of his romantic ideas on Spanish Filipino culture, its struggle against modernity and war, symbolized by the protagonists—two spinster sisters—and their tenacious hold on a highly symbolic picture painted by their disillusioned father and inspired by Greek mythology. A Portrait was the writer's statement about art and its role in restoring ceremonial traditions, art and its fragility against the savage wars of peace. The writer was much concerned about the inability of culture (Spanish Filipino customs and ceremonies) to adapt to encroaching lawlessness and to reconcile the history of the past with the chaos of the present. Much like Walter Benjamin's "Angel of History" in On the Concept of History (Thesis IX), after Paul Klee's Angelus Novus (1920), Joaquín's elegiac source spring was looking back at the past with the foreknowledge that the future storm would bring ruin to memory.

Vicente L. Rafael, who introduced the book, was reading my mind, and I, his. The book was published in April 2017, and I did not recall reading an advance copy of Rafael's introduction prior to that. The final paragraph of his introduction reads:

Nick Joaquin's stories provide us with such counsel. Swept by the catastrophes of colonialism and war, Joaquin, like St. Sylvestre [in his 1946 story "The Mass of St. Sylvestre"], looked both ways. Lingering on the threshold of what had happened and what was yet to come, he found himself irresistibly drawn, like the Angel of History, to the debris of colonial catastrophes that just kept piling up around him. He sought to retrieve from the ruins of modernity the means for conveying experience—his own as well as others'—in stories about forgotten legends, repressed events, flawed fathers, two-naveled women, and the miracles of a merciful Virgin that continue to emerge from the ever-perplexing and vertigo-inducing history of a certain Philippines. We, whoever we are, receive his stories told from a ruined world, hearing and perhaps sharing them as we would the shards of our own lives.

Rafael provided an endnote to the penultimate sentence:

The image of the "Angel of History," suggested in this instance by the image of the myriad angels surrounding St. Sylvestre as he leads his procession, is of course drawn from Paul Klee's painting Angelus Novus and discussed by Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in Illuminations, 257-58. I borrow the term "vertigo-inducing" from the great historical comparativist Benedict Anderson, who uses it to describe the conjunctural strangeness of the Philippines in world history. See Anderson, "The First Filipino," London Review of Books 19(20) (Oct. 16, 1997): 22-23 [online]. He, too, was an admirer of Nick Joaquin and Walter Benjamin.

Anderson was of course an admirer of Benjamin. He wrote an introduction to the Filipino translation of Benjamin's treatise, Hinggil sa Konsepto ng Kasaysayan (High Chair, 2013), translated by Ramon Guillermo. To me, the image of the Angel of History, in relation to Joaquín's oeuvre, was suggested by Anderson himself, by Benjamin  himself, and by Joaquín himself.

I bought Guillermo's translation in the Manila International Book Fair 2016. According to my Goodreads account, I marked it as "to-read" in October and "shelved" it in the "2016" folder in December (i.e., read the book in the latter part of 2016). Anderson's striking description of the Angel of History was what particularly drew me to it. Here's the relevant passage; forgive the lengthy context at the start.

In the growing darkness of the 1920s and 1930s, Gramsci, the great Italian Marxist thinker and leader wrote, incarcerated in Mussolini's Fascist jails, that communists had to combine "pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will." Kafka had written not long before his early death: "There is hope, but not for us." Benjamin, who had to flee to Paris when Hitler came to power in 1933, watched Franco bloodily win the Civil War in Spain, Tokyo's armies cruelly occupying a huge part of China, anti-Semitic dictatorships in Portugal and central, eastern and southeastern Europe, France defeated by Hitler and now led by Marshal Pétain's rightwing dictatorship, but only in its southern regions, and Stalin's compact with Hitler in 1939, whereby eastern Europe was divided between them. Benjamin's, [sic] "Theses on the Concept of History", never fully finished, was written in the doomed Paris of 1940. It is from this devastated last work which come some of the most unforgettable, despairing passages. "All documents of civilization are at the same time documents of barbarism" is the shortest, while the most melancholically beautiful is the image of the Angel of History, who has his back to the future and contemplates all human history as an accumulating, unending pile of wreckage, ruin, and disaster. Benjamin wrote that the Angel can not turn his back from the past because his wings are caught in an unstoppable storm coming from paradise, "the storm that we call progress."

Joaquín himself was that same angel of history, enacting the same gesture of looking squarely at the ruins of Manila after the Japanese bombed it in the Second World War. The anguish of the novelist was evident in his elegiac and edgy descriptions of postwar Manila in The Woman Who Had Two Navels (the novel version) as "flat and spiky, its bared ribs and twisted limbs a graph of pain in the air", "traffic brimming between the banks of rubble", "the ruins noisy with night clubs", "a glittering fashion show in the bullet-pocked ballroom of a gutted hotel".

In Nick: A Portrait of the Artist Nick Joaquin (2011)—a biography of the novelist co-written by his nephew Tony Joaquín—the angel of history was pained at the image of destruction and atrocity in the walled city in front of him. The book was quoted in Ruel S. De Vera's review article:

There are many memorable scenes in “Nick,” but probably the most heartbreaking was that of Nick surveying the ruins of Intramuros after it had been razed to the ground during the Second World War: “Intramuros was so familiar and close to Nick’s heart. He knew where each building had stood. As he gazed around him and took in the destruction and realized all that had been destroyed and lost, a deep loud groan escaped from him and his body began to shake all over as sobs rose from the very pit of his stomach.”

I saw Ang Larawan: The Musical in cinema early this year. This adaptation of Joaquín's famous play was full of intimations and prefigurations of war. The role of art, history, tradition, and culture was sustained amid the spreading tentacles of modernity, war, and progress. The controversial portrait at the center of the play, the one owned by two unmarried sisters, might as well be the same horrifying image the angel of history was witnessing: the image that could crush his wings and send him tumbling into the future.

02 February 2018

Redonnet's splendid and vicious cycle

Hôtel Splendid by Marie Redonnet, translated by Jordan Stump (University of Nebraska Press, 1994)

The Hemingway school of writing isn't one I'm fond of. In his review of a bestseller, Chad W. Post described it as "short, direct, concise, with little abstraction."

A book that is solid, something you can easily envision, with sentences you never get lost in.
The whole novel is unchallenging in that way. It’s the kind of writing that you can sort of relax into, the type of writing that lets you forget that your life is stressful and a struggle. I can see why this appeals to a lot of people—it’s the sort of writing that uncomplicates your consciousness as you read it.

It's the kind of judgement that I can't hand down to Hôtel Splendid, Marie Redonnet's novel of a hotel's decline. To say that it belongs to the Hemingway school of writing was a superficial claim. That claim was without basis, uncalled for. In fact, it was a travesty for it was the opposite case. In fact, at this point, I found this (my) introduction to the book already stale.  

Hôtel Splendid belonged to the Redonnet school of writing. It was not a bestseller. But in the year of the fire rooster, one of my most rewarding reading times was spent on this slim novel of parasitism and survival. For sure, the sentences were crisp and short and clipped. Subject was followed by verb and terminated by predicate, but that was not the hard and fast rule. Some dependent clauses allowed some fresh air to unclog the musty air of the sentences. But taken out of context, certain passages would make for a mannered and insufferable style. It was the arrangement and clustering of sentences that give the short novel its heft and depth. Redonnet plowed on and gave an indubitable testament to the dreariness and clarity of suffering.

She wants me to wash her. That's hard for me because she has an odor that makes me queasy. She has never worked. Mother used to support her, and now I do. I inherited the Hôtel Splendid. But in exchange, I owe an allowance to my sisters. They chose to come and live at the hotel instead of taking the allowance. Here they are housed, fed, and served. Maybe I should not have agreed to this arrangement. Ada and Adel left the hotel very young with mother. They never came back until mother died. I am the only one who never left the Hôtel Splendid. But now that they have settled in, they are not about to leave. They have made themselves at home. They have taken the two nicest rooms, but that does not prevent them from complaining about the Hôtel Splendid's poor condition and lack of comfort. I should not let them get the better of me. I keep them alive, thanks to my work and the hotel. But the Splendid brings in less and less. It needs repairs. I don't have the means.

Think of Julio Cortázar's "House Taken Over", replace house with hotel, replace house owners with female narrator, then replace the "colonizers" with the narrator's two sisters (Ada and Adel). It's a stretch of a comparison, but the same feeling of foreboding, suspense, and helplessness that haunt Julio's haunted house pervaded Redonnet's decrepit, and hardly splendid now, hotel. But this was not evident at the level of the sentence but at the furious stream of sentences. Page 49 summed the whole quite well: "And since everything always goes wrong at once, her lavatory is blocked." And since the hypothetical realm of "if worst comes to worst" was made flesh, the comedy was uncanny for its pathetic tragedy.

The swamp is swallowing up the cemetery, because there will be nothing but the swamp. Even though she [Ada] limps because of her rheumatism and has to walk with a cane, she will not give up going to the cemetery. She will go as long as there is even just a piece of a gravestone still visible. She says grandmother's gravestone is like a boat that has been shipwrecked and is slowly sinking. She has more and more difficulty walking. It takes her all day to go from the hotel to the cemetery and back. She has a touch of gout also. She is going to be a cripple soon if this keeps up. You would think Ada's rheumatism was contagious. I walk with a cane too. Since Ada took grandmother's cane, I use a stick. It does not make as good a cane. The guests complain about the noise that the two canes make in the hotel. With my rheumatism, it's painful to bend over to unblock the lavatories. The guests should be more careful. No matter how much I tell them that, they don't care. Adel sets a bad example for them. She treats her lavatory like a trash can. It's disgusting. Ada's appearance is changing. She has the beginnings of a goiter. 

One only had to note in the passage how the health of the characters and the state of the surrounding graveyard went on a downward spiral ("she limps because of her rheumatism and has to walk with a cane ... shipwrecked and is slowly sinking ... more and more difficulty walking ... a touch of gout also ... I walk with a cane too ... With my rheumatism ... the beginnings of a goiter") to gauge the amount of change happening within a short span of time. Anthony at timesflowstemmed observed this uncommon space-time compression wherein "situations and emotions change polarity within a few paragraphs". By free association, Redonnet was heaping up anarchy upon chaos in the hotel and its environs. Everything was going the way of doom. The compression was also evident from one immediate sentence to the next.

The plumber is my only ally. He comes as soon as I call him, and I call him more and more often. It is incredible the things he pulls out of the pipes. What would become of me without him? I am worried because he had a small but unexpected attack, and now he has to keep to his bed. Now would be a bad time for the pipes to let me down. The pipes have become all porous. You can see that just by running your finger over them, your finger is wet. It isn't a good sign that the pipes are porous. It's the same with the wood, which is turning spongy. Fortunately the guests are not observant. [emphases supplied]

From a rhetorical question ("What would become of me without him?") to "a small but unexpected" shift in the health of the plumber. From wishful thinking for the pipes to not let her down, to a stab of reality that the pipes have, really, talk about the timing, become all porous. The sentences rambled along in a montage of ruin and destruction. The hotel turned and turned in the widening gyre. It was not for nothing that the hotel took its name after a favorite movie of the narrator's grandmother. In that movie the hotel, that was actually right beside a swamp, was in an oasis in the middle of a desert. In the movie the wind continually blows; the oasis "was slowly becoming choked" with the sands of the desert.

Hôtel Splendid was not as inscrutable as Kafka's castle, but almost as unavailing and mythic in its cruelty. In addition to the three siblings, hotel and swamp were like characters whose states of fixity were challenged by the inherent impermanence of things. Would that the vicious cycle of life degrading unto death was celebrated through natural, pure neglect or deliberate, man-made disasters. By the time an apathetic and silent figure (maybe a burned out artist figure) checked in at the Hôtel Splendid near the end of the novel, first as guest then as a potential long-time boarder, the novel had taken its full course, following the contours of human existence and the rhythm of the swamp. The narrator was still asserting her self-respect and dignity, things tangible that's left when everything else went the way of dust and mote. She might as well be the muse haunting the hotel's now-ghostly existence.

01 February 2018

In the year of the fire rooster

Hotel Iris
Hôtel Splendid
Ang Makina ni Mang Turing
Ang mga Hangin ng Abril
R.U.R. (Robot Unibersal ni Rossum): Isang Dramang Kolektibang may Komikong Prologo at Tatlong Yugto mula sa Tsekong Manunulat na si Karel Čapek
Walang Kapatid: Kasaysayang Bisaya / Wala’y Igsoon: Sugilanon’g Binisaya
Ang Ikatlong Anti-Kristo
Ito ang Diktadura
Mga Uring Panlipunan
Ella Arcangel: Tomo Una: Ito ay Panganib
Rubdob ng Tag-init
Tabi Po: Isyu 3
The Lover
Seven Houses in France
Palawan and Its Global Connections
The Book of Proper Names
Strategies for Rapid Climate Mitigation: Wartime Mobilisation as a Model for Action?
Rationalizing the Local Planning System

Now that (Chinese) new year is almost upon us – either a creative or a timely excuse for being late to the yearend/yearstart party – I will kickstart the year (of the Earth Dog) with a look back at my reading fare: in terms of quantity, the lowest in recent memory. The lowest count since the year of the ox (2009): the first year in blog-record. But I do not regret the few pages I browsed. This was amply compensated by day job work load, career overreaching (reviewing for and passing two state exams), moving to a new home (stress and fulfillment combined), and looking at the ceiling (procrastination) or watching a lot of movies and tv shows. Sometimes I'm tempted to branch out to other subject matter (food review, film review) for the blog. Just to produce content, the amateur reader (excuse me, Tom) might wear the hat of a journalist or short story writer or food critic or travel tour guide. But the thing is, as shown by the graph below, there is a high correlation between the number of books read and the number of posts published. It's a no-brainer but I'll take home the insight just to gloss over the fact that the multi-year trend is downward. If the year of the fire rooster is any indication, then the Earth dog is bound to be an all-time low in reading owing to another stressful, demanding, procrastinating year punctuated by extreme weather events and a disruptive eruption of a volcano, metaphorically speaking.


Hotel Iris by Yōko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

Hôtel Splendid by Marie Redonnet, translated by Jordan Stump

Ang Makina ni Mang Turing [The Machine of Old Turing] by Ramon Guillermo

Ang mga Hangin ng Abril [The Winds of April] by N.V.M. Gonzalez, translated from English to Filipino by Edgardo B. Maranan

R.U.R. (Robot Unibersal ni Rossum): Isang Dramang Kolektibang may Komikong Prologo at Tatlong Yugto mula sa Tsekong Manunulat na si Karel Čapek [R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots): A Collective Drama With a Comic Prologue and in Three Acts from the Czech Writer Karel Čapek] by Karel Čapek, translated to Filipino by Guelan Varela-Luarca, from the English version by Claudia Novack

Walang Kapatid: Kasaysayang Bisaya / Wala’y Igsoon: Sugilanon’g Binisaya [Without a Brother: Visayan Novel] by Juan Irles Villagonzalo, translated from Cebuano to Filipino by Roderick C. Villaflor

Ang Ikatlong Anti-Kristo [The Third Anti-Christ] by Eros S. Atalia

Rubdob ng Tag-init [The Summer Solstice] by Nick Joaquín, translated from English to Filipino by Michael M. Coroza

The Lover by Marguerite Duras, translated by Barbara Bray

Seven Houses in France by Bernardo Atxaga, translated from Basque into Spanish by Asun Garikano and Bernardo Atxaga, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

The Book of Proper Names by Amélie Nothomb, translated by Shaun Whiteside

Fort by B. S. Medina Jr., translated from Filipino to English by the author

Leche by R. Zamora Linmark

Ang Matanda at ang Dagat [The Old Man and the Sea] by Ernest Hemingway, translated to Filipino by Jesus Manuel Santiago

Children of the Ash-Covered Loam by N.V.M. Gonzalez


Palawan and Its Global Connections, edited by James F. Eder and Oscar L. Evangelista

Strategies for Rapid Climate Mitigation: Wartime mobilisation as a model for action? by Laurence L. Delina

Rationalizing the Local Planning System (RPS) by Ernesto M. Serote


Ito ang Diktadura: Koleksiyon ng Libros para mañana (Mga Aklat para sa Kinabukasan) – Aklat 2 [This Is Dictatorship: Collection of Libros para mañana (Books of the Future) – Book 2] by Equipo Plantel, illustrated by Mikel Casal, translated from Spanish to Filipino by Annie Yglopaz and Kata Garcia

Mga Uring Panlipunan: Koleksiyon ng Libros para mañana (Mga Aklat para sa Kinabukasan) – Aklat 1 [Social Classes: Collection of Libros para mañana (Books of the Future) – Book 1] by Equipo Plantel, illustrated by Joan Negrescolor, translated from Spanish to Filipino by Annie Yglopaz and Kata Garcia

Ella Arcangel: Tomo Una: Ito ay Panganib [Ella Arcangel: First Issue: Danger Is Here] by Julius Villanueva and Mervin Malonzo

Tabi Po: Isyu 3 [Excuse Me: Issue 3] by Mervin Malonzo