Susan Sontag: Where the Stress Falls

“Is there a greater privilege than to have a consciousness expanded by, filled with, pointed to, literature?”

“Some people think of reading only as a kind of escape: an escape from the ‘real’ everyday world to an imaginary world, the world of books. Books are so much more. They are a way of being fully human.”

“If books disappear, history will disappear, and human beings will also disappear.”

…a citizen of literature — which is an international citizenship.

“Reading usually precedes writing.”

“A writer is first of all a reader.”

“…to write is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading.”

“But one can write as one pleases — a form of liberty.”

“Writing is, finally, a series of permissions you give to yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall… to find your own inner freedom.”

International Women’s Day finds me mid-Sontag. As you can see, it’s a beautiful place to be.

Happy Women’s Day! May you celebrate Woman everyday! 🤍

Postscript: I have finally finished reading the book, and this reader is left overflowing. Reading, writing, art, dance, music, photography, theatre, travel — this book brims with profound thoughts on what she cared about. She takes your hand and leads you to art, and shows you why it matters, despite a world that tries to convince us otherwise. If there is such a thing as a definitive Sontag, this must be it. 

June 24, 2022 – Goodnight, Khiva

As the veins of the Silk Route on land dwindled and acquiesced to naval routes, and explorers discovered treasures deemed more valuable than the fiber that changed the world, Khiva continued to treasure silk just as much as gold. Even up until 1924, the silk money of Khiva were hand-woven (and literally laundered when it required cleaning).

As I wistfully think about the ephemerality of places never to be seen, as they are, ever again; I also take joy in the experience of being changed by these places. I suppose it is unfair to ask them to stay the same while I am constantly being transformed?

And maybe this is why I travel, and read, and write… because how can one explore the world to its deepest, if one does not also attempt to explore the terrains of the self and the mind?

Good night, Khiva. Thank you for a thousand and one… lessons.

© 2022 MDR
Khiva, Uzbekistan

John Williams: Augustus

“Father, has it been worth it? Your authority, this Rome that you have saved,
this Rome that you have built? Has it been worth all that you have had to do?”

To have made palpable not only history, but the scope of human nature and the heart’s confidentialities; to have justly raised some of history’s forgotten women from the footnotes of the annals; to have retrieved a legendary man from his pedestal so he could tread in our minds as a mere mortal; to have given pensive credence to a line from that famous Quartet by Durrell in that the real ruins of Europe are its great men; there is but one word for the man, this book, the writing — august.

I have not read a more majestic novel!

As much as I want to reiterate the praises heaped upon this work and repeat the passages that moved me, I wish to put emphasis on what makes it meaningful to me as a woman — the noteworthy backstory, underscored by John McGahern in this edition, about the catalyst that gave us this book. In a conversation with writer Morton Hunt, John Williams learned the story of Augustus’ daughter Julia, whom the emperor deeply loved, but whom he sent into exile because she had broken the laws on adultery that he himself had enacted. The fascination with the fact that the only child of the first emperor of the Roman Empire had been overlooked in the histories led Williams to an immersion into the Roman world, which resulted in this work in which Julia is the heart.

It is this heart that grants us a compassionate portrait of Augustus. With this work published in 1971, and with that subtle power distinctly his, John Williams penned a revolutionary and enlightening approach on how to treat history’s women alongside the men — not to raise them unreasonably into women who played bigger roles in history than they actually did, but to remind us that they existed, they lived, and that they mattered.

Greeting this month with Memoirs of Hadrian and ending it with Augustus feels like a paradox at a time in my country when “history” is crafted to suit narratives and facts are doubted because they are purportedly written by the victors.

Friends, Romans, countrymen… in this, our history differs, because we have history written not by the victors but by the victims, and by those who became victims by speaking the truth. If we have the courage to question our history, we need also the courage to question our motives, and most of all, ask ourselves what kind of people our convictions empower.

“…nor did I determine to change the world so that my wealth and power might be enhanced… it was more instinct than knowledge, however, that made me understand that if it is one’s destiny to change the world, it is his necessity first to change himself.”

Alan Bennett: The Uncommon Reader

“I read… because one has a duty to find out what people are like.”

There is no travel companion like a book. This is especially true for delayed inter-island flights and boat trips, and long waits at the airport.

The final pages of the books I’ve read this month, so far, were closed just as the plane touched the runway: Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Aciman’s Alibis, Berger’s Ways of Seeing, and Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader

Only Yourcenar has been reviewed properly in writing. The last couple of weeks have been spent with reading people, and it’s lovely how conversations naturally turned into in-depth book reviews entwined with life experiences that we otherwise would not have written for all social media to see. And I would not have exchanged these communions for anything post-able. My first line has to be rephrased: There is no travel companion like a book that leads you to people, places, and experiences.

Out of the four, it was The Uncommon Reader that surprised me. I have to admit that the British monarchy has not been of much interest to me, but I’ve been shelving this book for the reason that I felt it was the kind that would not stand in the way of real life and vice versa. And so, I reserved it for traveling. 

The insights about reading are more profound than I expected! From Proust to Ancient Ur, to Iran, it mentions things I find delightful! It is true, it did not stand in the way of real life, but it is apparently the kind that enhances life — especially a reader’s life — in a warm, hilarious, and light-hearted way.

‘Books are wonderful, aren’t they?’ she said to the vice-chancellor, who concurred. ‘At the risk of sounding like a piece of steak,’ she said, ‘they tenderize one.’

Is there anything we need more these days than to be “tenderized”?

Travels around the PH with Aciman

It struck an evocative chord when Aciman indicated that writing about places are coded ways of writing about himself.  I, too, have been doing this unintentionally… even when the pandemic caused travel destinations to be proxied by books.

Writing to excavate, rearrange, cipher, decipher, lace a narrative, find a certain space, leave things behind, and even to hold on, are what these essays on elsewhere are inadvertently teaching me as it accompanies me on my current meanderings across this breathtaking archipelago. 

“I like thinking that perhaps this is how we should travel, without foresight or answers, adventitiously,” he writes.

My brain violently disagrees, but my heart seems inclined; and it appears to have been orchestrating adventitious travels behind the former’s back.

The first trips post-lockdown are not to places, but to people — to my nerve centers, my life’s capital cities.

Marguerite Yourcenar: Memoirs of Hadrian

As subtle but as vital as breath, the passage of ideas and wonder surges with life through these pages and straight to the reader. 

Marguerite Yourcenar carves and immortalizes the many aspects of the great Roman emperor that was Hadrian, but unlike any work of history, she resuscitates his heart and offers it to us, pulsating and bleeding, as only Marguerite Yourcenar can.

Written in the form of a letter to his successor, Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations endure up to this day, Memoirs of Hadrian is the introspection of a man at the end of his days, stripped away of life’s pretensions and left only with his truths. I suspect that this, too, shall endure.

“I have known men infinitely nobler and more perfect than myself… There is but one thing in which I feel superior to most men: I am freer… For my part I have sought liberty more than power, and power only because it can lead to freedom.”

It is partly an ode to Hadrian the traveler, the only emperor in the empire’s history to have traveled to almost every part of its vast realm. Of traveling, he writes, “It disrupts all habit and endlessly jolts each prejudice.”

An ode to a man who could accept with calm the vicissitudes of Rome Eternal after his time (“If ever the barbarians gain possession of the world they will be forced to adopt some of our methods; they will end resembling us”) but could not understand a resignation to ignorance; and thus promoted Greek philosophy and culture and patronized the arts, literature, music, architecture.

A man who perceived that knowledge and literature were as important as food to a civilization, and libraries, dispensaries to the soul: “The founding of libraries was like constructing more public granaries, amassing reserves against a spiritual winter which by certain signs, in spite of myself, I see ahead.”

An ode to Hadrian the builder who believed in the richness of an architecture more varied than Vitruvius’ four orders would allow (“Our great stone blocks, like our tones in music, are amenable to endless regrouping”) and thus amassed inspiration even from faraway Ctesiphon, Babylon, and Egypt, drew the plans himself, and put emphasis on building from vernacular materials.

“To build is to collaborate with the earth, to put a human mark upon a landscape, modifying it forever thereby…To reconstruct is to collaborate with time gone by, penetrating or modifying its spirit, and carrying it toward a longer future… My cities were born of encounters… Each building stone was the strange concretion of a will, a memory, and sometimes a challenge. Each structure was the chart of a dream… I have wanted to live as much as possible in the midst of this music of forms.”

“In the evenings the art of building gave way to that of music, which is architecture, too, though invisible.”

And so it is also an ode to a man who applied the laws of art and governance interchangeably: “Strength was the basis, discipline without which there is no beauty, and firmness without which there is no justice. Justice was the balance of the parts, that whole so harmoniously composed which no excess should be permitted to endanger. Strength and justice together were but one instrument, well tuned… all forms of dire poverty and brutality were things to forbid as insults to the fair body of mankind, every injustice a false note to avoid in the harmony of the spheres.”

It is an ode to the man who first ventured to call Rome “eternal”; who counted desperately on the eternity of stone, as we are able to continue to witness through Hadrian’s Wall, Hadrian’s Villa, Castel Sant’Angelo, the Pantheon; a man who believed that, “Anything made by man which aspires to eternity must adapt.” And therefore it is an ode to a man who looked for and looked to eternity — and thus, he loved.

Above all, it is an ode to a man who loved. For what is eternity without it?

Essays by Filipinos

These books were read little by little and treated as breathers between larger works, but they are by no means inferior or less meaningful to me. Having finally read the last of the essays, these three are now among the most prized books on my shelf. And I say this with confidence: Filipinos are my favorite essayists!

Using nature as a leitmotif, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s 𝘞𝘰𝘳𝘭𝘥 𝘰𝘧 𝘞𝘰𝘯𝘥𝘦𝘳𝘴 nudges us to keep our eyes open with childlike curiosity and to keep our hearts soft. It is amazing how she touches on racism, school shootings, climate change, and life’s difficulties without any hint of vitriol. Her writing is refreshing — not like a cool drink on a summer day. Refreshing like a good cry that unburdens the heart and reminds you of life’s wonders. Our hearts need this.

Gideon Lasco’s 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘗𝘩𝘪𝘭𝘪𝘱𝘱𝘪𝘯𝘦𝘴 𝘪𝘴 𝘕𝘰𝘵 𝘢 𝘚𝘮𝘢𝘭𝘭 𝘊𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘵𝘳𝘺 is a gift to the Filipino people that we should embrace with gratitude. He shows us the Philippines for what it really is and how deserving it is of new and hopeful eyes. What I’ve written about Pamuk and his relationship with Turkey, I can also write about Lasco and his relationship with our country: He is someone who recognizes a nation profoundly inside out, from its complicated politics to its inner conflicts and issues, its customs and traditions… and offers a viewpoint only a lasting lover can deliver who, after having seen a beloved’s glories and deepest flaws and undesirable secrets, remains and continues to love.

“When we realize that we Filipinos, far from passive victims of history, have always been active in making not just our history but that of the world, we begin to overcome the feeling of smallness that sets back our geopolitical imagination. What our past should give us is not an enmity for those who pressed us but an empathy for those who experience oppression.

What our past should give us is neither a feeling of victimization nor entitlement but a dignity of a people that has suffered much — but has overcome more.”

Even though there is so much to resonate with and quote from Carmen Guerrero Nakpil’s 𝘞𝘰𝘮𝘢𝘯 𝘌𝘯𝘰𝘶𝘨𝘩 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘖𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳 𝘌𝘴𝘴𝘢𝘺𝘴 despite being written between 1951-1961, I’m choosing to end with these relevant reminders as today we witness President Duterte’s final State of the Nation Address.

— “Politics is not all crooks and racketeers and ten percenters. It is not the loud, interminable speeches… or the handshaking in the barrios while a photographer snaps his camera or the number of dancing girls given to each delegate to the national convention. That is not politics, but only its aberrations. Among many of us, those practices have come to mean politics. But they are only the abuse of politics.”

— “This is one of the beautiful paradoxes of politics. Politics may make us, but it is for us to shape it.”

— “You should learn to look at elections, not as contests in goodness or popularity between two or more men, but as a national stock-taking, an occasion for citizens to make up their minds which course of national action to choose over another.”

— “You see how important it is for all citizens to be intelligent, well informed and judicious.”

— “The question is not whether some of us do not love our country or some of us do. The question is in what way we love it.”

— “As a parting favor, I would like to ask you all intelligent women not to take my word for this or for anything. Think about the things we have discussed here, and ponder on them yourself. Discuss them with your friends, seek the opinion of others, but make the decision yourself.”

— “In your intelligence, application, your honesty with yourself, and in your wisdom, will lie the future of the Philippines.”