Column No. 20, published on November 27, 2007
A line connects “Beowulf,” the Medieval Old English saga now reincarnated on the silver screen, directly to our own epics, like those that sing of Lam-ang of the Ilocanos and Sandayo of the Suban-ons. That line continues, through the martyr’s narrative that Ninoy Aquino wrote with his own blood, right down to our day.
It is the quest for the hero-protector, or rather the stubborn notion, persisting over the centuries and across civilizations, that one man will emerge to save the people. “He is our hope,” the Suban-on guman sings, “To keep our waters,/ To watch over our springs.”
Lost in the howling wilderness that our politics has led us to, harassed by the Grendels of our own making, we feel that need more than ever: A man, “no one else like him alive,” will yet lead us.
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Conversations about the sorry state of our politics these days often turn on the hope that someone will start a chain reaction of radical change. Perhaps Among Ed, the priest-turned-governor of Pampanga, will be the focus of a new politics of participation? Perhaps Tony Meloto of Gawad Kalinga can inspire politics with the power of example?
Even the hopes some oppositionists have nursed, that Speaker Jose de Venecia will turn against his political allies, starting with the President, tap the same deep vein in our thinking: One brave man, like Lam-ang, can inspire the defeat of legion: “Oh, so many were they/ Nobody could count how many!”
It is this role of “man for the people” that presidential aspirants are auditioning for, in various guises: the man on horseback, the self-made man, the man of the market, the man from Subic. Even Margaret Thatcher’s “the best man for the job is a woman” is making a comeback.
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The troubling thing about all these epics (all the way back to Homer, in fact) is that, despite being the work of a collective imagination, they are elitist in nature. They celebrate the feats, to borrow from Seamus Heaney’s translation of “Beowulf,” of the “highborn and powerful.”
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Robert Zemeckis’ own take on “Beowulf” is a diverting must-see, but mainly for the daring script, written by recent Manila visitor Neil Gaiman and “Pulp Fiction” screenwriter Roger Avary.
(The use of digital motion-capture is distracting, and in the case of Grendel’s evil mother, inexplicably de-eroticizing. Angelina Jolie’s idealized, tattoo-free nakedness is a daydreamer’s idea of sex.)
I think it was the Boston Globe that described the movie perfectly, as a “pulp epic.” In their retelling, Gaiman and Avary create a hero on a more human scale. He still does battle with fabulous sea monsters (like Lam-ang, who spears “the biggest crocodile”) and possesses supernatural stamina (like Aliguyon of the Ifugao, who fights his rival for a year and a half before taking a break). He still traffics in the marvelous (like Sandayo, who tames a river by forcing its waters back to its source). But like modern man, he has his own demons: He cannot tell a story without embroidering it, and he cannot resist temptation.
This is a hero more our size.
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I was not one of those who went to the airport on Aug. 21, 1983 to welcome Ninoy home, but I can understand the appeal this exile held for those who did: He was the “man for the people,” returning at long last.
In one of the many instructive footnotes in “Cacique Democracy in the Philippines,” Benedict Anderson cautions us — those of us who imagine the Filipino nation — about “the current martyrology surrounding the assassinated senator.” He was writing in 1988, which makes me wonder why the great scholar misunderstood the place Ninoy held in the country’s heart. Ninoy is worth commemorating not because he was highborn and powerful, although in his single term in the Senate he did fascinate people with his cinematic use of a personal helicopter and his aura of easy entitlement. He is worth celebrating because he is, precisely, a martyr, not the hero of an epic.
What makes him the representative Filipino is the seven years he spent in prison and the three years he spent in exile, which utterly changed him. Without these years in the political and spiritual desert, his death wouldn’t have mattered as much. Indeed, without these years, I doubt whether he would have made the decisions that would lead to his death in the first place.
Already, we can see in Ninoy’s self-sacrifice the seeds of an anti-epic. Whereas the hero in “Beowulf” or “The Harvest Song of Aliguyon” saves his people or achieves feats of derring-do by becoming more of himself, a martyr saves by dying to himself.
To find our way out of the wilderness, we need more martyrs, not heroes.
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A word about, well, the “word-hoard” of our own epics: They are wonderfully evocative. In Jovita Ventura Castro’s translation of the composite text compiled by Leopoldo Y. Yabes, for example, the Lam-ang epic includes this almost-throwaway line from a battle scene: “Like the rain in the evening/ The spears fell.” This sent me burrowing through my books, to recover two images it had reminded me of. First, a 50-year-old word-picture from Philip Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings,” with its unforgettable close: “there swelled/ A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/ Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” And then a page from the back of the breviary, where I found St. Augustine writing epistolary advice: “The monks in Egypt are said to offer frequent prayers, but these are very short and hurled like swift javelins.”
A writer, Borges once wrote, “creates” his own precursors. A reader too.