04 September 2020

Stefan Zweig's shame

The quest for spices began it. From the days when the Romans, in their journeys and their wars, first acquired a taste for the hot or aromatic, the pungent or intoxicating dietetic adjuvants of the East, the Western World found it impossible to get on without a supply of Indian spices in cellar and storeroom. Lacking spices, the food of Northern Europe was unspeakably monotonous and insipid, and thus it remained far into the Middle Ages. Centuries were to elapse before the fruits, the tubers, and the other products which now seem commonplaces were to be used or acclimatized in Europe. Potatoes, tomatoes, and corn were unknown. There were no lemons to prepare acid drinks, there was no sugar for sweetening, the cheering tea and coffee were still lacking; even at the tables of the rich and the powerful, there was naught to relieve the sameness of perpetual gluttony – until, wonderful to relate, it was found that a touch of spice from the Orient, a dash of pepper, a minute addition of ground nutmeg, the mingling of a little ginger or cinnamon with the coarsest of dishes, would give an unwonted and wholesome stimulus to the jaded palate. Precious culinary overtones were interspersed between the crude treble and bass of sour and sweet, or sapid and vapid; and the still barbaric medieval gustatory nerves speedily found it impossible to dispense with these exotic flavourings. More and more of them was demanded. A dish was not properly prepared unless it had been pricked up with so gross an excess of pepper that it bit the eater's tongue immoderately. Even beer was strongly seasoned with ginger, and mulled wine was so laden with spices that it tasted like liquid fire.

Stefan Zweig's opening salvo to his biography Magellan: Conqueror of the Seas (translated from the German by Eden and Cedar Paul) set the spicy pretext for his conqueror's travel from Portugal to the Philippines in the 16th century. In search of spice in the Eastern world, a flotilla of five ships started on a circumnavigation of the Earth that ended fatefully. Zweig was in owe of his subject's audacious exploits, extolling the navigator's Conradian suffering and sacrifices at sea. The teller's motivation for writing his tale was explained in the book's introduction.

It would be well for every author to analyse what urge, what desire for personal gratification, has led him to commit his thoughts to paper. For my part I have no doubt as to the internal causes that led me to pen the present work. I did so under stress of a comparatively unusual but very powerful sentiment – that of shame.

How come shame? Apparently, Zweig felt guilt at the modern comforts afforded by his slick travels in calm seas that he could not imagine his present luck compared to the struggles of ancient voyages and sailor battling the harsh elements and dire conditions of the sea. Thus, he felt shame at his enjoyment of the amenities of the modern ship he was on.

Compare your present experiences with those of the valiant navigators who were there first to cross this ocean, and to make the world known to us. Are you not ashamed of yourself when you think of them? Try to picture how they set forth, on ships little larger than fishing-smacks, to explore the unknown, to sail they knew not whither, lost in the infinite, ceaselessly in peril, exposed to all the vicissitudes of storm, to every kind of privation.

I could almost imagine the hapless and pathetic situation of our novelist. So moved was he by the romantic idea of sailors battling the winds and tides and having to endure bad food, cramped quarters, and unbearable loneliness. There was a sigh in these pages that cried for those star-crossed spice boys marooned in their fates, "alone in the unending desert of waters". Clearly, Zweig identified with the romantic notion of danger as men ventured into the unknown "to make the world known to us". This was the very European, very Western perspective of frontier mentality. And what was in store for Zweig's civilized sailors but doom as they entered the lair of the barbarians?

And so Zweig was "thoroughly ashamed of [his] impatience" while recalling the travels of his "nameless" conquistador heroes. So he studied them in libraries to learn more of their destinies, leading him to the one person that epitomized his dream. "Was not this the most glorious Odyssey in the history of mankind, the departure of two hundred and sixty-five resolute men of whom only eighteen got back to Spain on a crumbling vessel, but with the flag of triumph flying at the masthead?" There was something fanatical and obsessive about this perspective of Zweig's. Almost pitifully, shamelessly – in spite of his initial shame – he stanned Magellan.

In recounting this Odyssey as faithfully as I could after the examination of all the documents available, I have been animated throughout by the strange feeling that I must be painting a fanciful picture, must be relating one of the great wish-dreams, one of the hallowed fairy tales of mankind. Yet what can be better than a truth which seems utterly improbable? There is always something inconceivable about man's supreme deeds, for the simple reason that they greatly transcend average human powers; but it is by performing the incredible that man regains faith in his own self.

The downside to all these fanciful picture was Zweig's deliberately Western and colonialist privileging of the white man's burden. Zweig's misplaced shame in 1937 could only be called out by asserting the point of view of the "savage". While European historians and novelists waited for the barbarians, no one really understood the barbarian within.

The historical clash between Magellan's forces and Lapulapu's warriors in 1521 provided the flashpoint in which to understand and misunderstand each other and the 'Other'. In his critical introduction to Lapulapu: The Conqueror of Magellan by Vicente Gullas (a novel translated by Erlinda K. Alburo), the critic Resil B. Mojares called into question the Western colonialist appropriation of modern history and denigration of the pre-colonial subjects.

Magellan biographer F.H.H. Guillemard (1890) saw the battle in anti-heroic terms, "a miserable skirmish with savages." Stefan Zweig (1938) wrote that the great Magellan was "felled by a ludicrous human insect named Silapulapu," who was "one of the most insignificant of the princes," and referred to the Mactanons [people of Mactan] as "a horde of naked islanders." Playing with sarcasm, Zweig write of Lapulapu's refusal to give up Magellan's body:

He valued the trophy he had won, for now the news was spreading through the islands that Silapulapu the Great had destroyed the white lord of thunder and lightning as easily as he would have destroyed a fish or a bird. [Mojares quoted from the 1938 edition of Zweig's novel titled Conqueror of the Seas: The Story of Magellan].

Mojares considered modern historians' one-sided histories, including Zweig's, as embellishments of "the bare bones of fact". The acts of imagination could be blinded or blindsided by one's limited experience or deliberate limitation of feelings. One could not blame Zweig for his spicy narrative and (racist?) narrative. After all, the "ludicrous human insect" that defeated Magellan in battle was not Gregor Samsa's transformed body but an insect beyond the horizon of shame that the novelist saw in his binoculars as he looked back to re-imagine history.

I do not have anything to say about Zweig's fictional version of history – sapid or vapid – for I have not read it except for Introduction and a few pages of the first chapter called "Navigare Necesse Est". Of Vicente Gullas's 1938 novel – to which Mojares provided his lengthy introduction – which apparently mythologizes Lapulapu on the other hand, I have nothing to say either. Mojares's honest assessment of the book was trying to convince me not to read it further.

As a novel, [Lapulapu: The Conqueror of Magellan] has few literary merits. Its plot is loose, repetitive, and episodic (in the manner of popular, serial fiction at the time) and its characters flat and sentimentalized. ... Transposing early twentieth-century realities to sixteenth century Cebu, the novel is filled with anachronisms, incongruities, and contradictions. Freely drawing from history and oral lore, Lapulapu is an excessively fictional invention.

Later Mojares would describe Gullas's novel as peddling "a mendicant form of nationalism that claims that what the West has brought has been ours all along".

Soaring free of the ground of empirical facts, he distorts the historical Lapulapu beyond recognition.

A work of fiction, Gullas' Lapulapu is the most extreme example of the reinvention of the hero.

Was Gullas "re-inventing a hero"? Was his reinvention of Lapulapu a form of "veneration without understanding"? Was the legacy of Lapulapu distorted or misunderstood, tainted enough for him to be included in Nick Joaquín's gallery of flawed heroes in A Question of Heroes.

Two unfinished books, one seemingly racist, one obviously over-fictionalized. These imagined heroisms, these hagiographies. Just what is the limit for (historical) fiction to be excessive?


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