Sunday, May 29, 2011

Not Looking Away

I don't know much about the Philippines. There was a time in my life when I used to take those fat old hardbacks out of the library, the histories of nations, 19th Century books, mostly, from back when nobody had any doubt about nations being the basic objects of history. History of Spain. History of Japan. It irked me, always, to have portions of the globe and no story to go with them. I'd read the books cover to cover. I don't know how much of it stuck with me: but the sheer bulk of the material must have had some effect.

But somehow no History of the Philippines ever came my way. Maybe because an obscure uneasiness tended to steer me away from places that came into the modern world as colonies – I'm still ashamed, and still have not done much about, my abysmal ignorance of Africa – and the Philippines seemed, maybe, the most colonial of all. The very name I assumed to be (rightly or wrongly? I have no idea) from Philip II of Spain, the Philip who sent the Armada against England. (It's odd how people keep these colonial names. We kept Georgia and Virginia and Maryland, even after six years of bloody brutal war to shake free of the British monarchy. I wonder why?)

Anyway – I knew the Philippines had been Spain's Asian colony, ceded to us after the Spanish-American war. I knew we'd fought a horrible war against an insurgency there – all such things of course are seen to someone of my generation through the frame of Vietnam, and I read Twain's famous essay about it, so that I always looked darkly on the monuments to those who fell fighting the Filipino insurgency that are dotted around Oregon. (Oregon has always been prime recruiting ground for dirty little wars abroad: sometimes I think, given the steady trickle of boxes coming home, that half the kids in Iraq and Afghanistan right now are from Oregon.) But I also knew that there was genuine ambivalence about America there, and that it was one of the places that resisted Japanese occupation most resolutely, during the Second World War. We must also have done some things right. But that was about the sum of my knowledge.

But the very thing that used to steer me away from it, steers me towards it now. It's precisely these palimpsest places, countries that have been half-overwritten by successive colonial powers, that seem to me, now, to be best-placed to understand what the world is becoming. The purity of nations has always been a fiction, and a particularly unfortunate one. There is no country without racial, linguistic, and religious minorities. If we can once get that fully through our thick heads, maybe we can realize that our political mission is not to to divvy the world up “fairly” into homelands of chosen peoples, but to somehow figure out how different peoples can cohabit civilly in mixed, messy, unfair impurity. That's the political mission of the 21st Century: we'll either figure it out or die. Nationalism brought us the blessings of the first two world wars: if it brings us a third blessing, it will be the last one.

It seems to me that our political duty as artists – insofar as we have one – is simply not to turn away. Not to avert our gaze from what is messy and disquieting in our histories and in our present. For me, to see the Mexicans who made my breakfast today, glimpsed momentarily through the pass bar; and to see Martha's resentment of being at a disadvantage, looking for work, because she doesn't know Spanish, in a city that had virtually no Spanish speakers when she was growing up here fifty years ago. Or to look sometimes at the strange silk map of the home islands of Japan, made by the US Air Force, that I was given by an old WW II bomber pilot. The weaving that ties us into all the crimes of the past and the future is not hard to see, not if we look.

The thing to steer by is precisely that obscure uneasiness, that impulse to look away. I take that to be the guiding principle of Juan Luna's Revolver. Juan Luna the Filipino painter who shot his wife and mother-in-law in Paris in 1892:
Juan Luna the painter was pardoned
        and ordered to pay one franc each
                to his victims' immediate relatives,

because of an obscure French law which explained
        that native people, very primitive people,
                have this tendency to run amok.

Of course one goes looking for the predecessors who reflect credit: there must have been some impulse to look away from these murders, some impulse to move along and look for some other Filipino expat artist wandering in the belly of the beast. She could have done that, and written a much more comfortable, much less important book.

1 comment:

Peter said...

That fourth paragraph crystalized my thinking. I was close to it, but now, perhaps, I'm there. Watching a George Steiner in a YouTube video say, "We are all hunted now," this week is pushing me, too. He means that that the archetypal ethnic cleansing of the 1930's has more recently gone all over the globe. (It has skipped North America, but we had loads of it during our nineteenth century.)