A Blog by Virgilio Rivas

Tale of an Art Journey

“Without sprinkling it … and draws from it the virgin clue AS IF”
–Stéphane Mallarmé

“To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it
with the ability to look at us in return”
—Walter Benjamin

 

Forcing herself to imagine a reader, she takes the task to be what designates itself as her own: an alien confrontation.
Like an aleatory material, a text, any work of art, even a nature’s conceit, all smiles in a corner of a cave wall, nothing of this will come into sharp relief until something finds its way to a second land of origin, a new home, a second canvas, a second skin: language. A refiguration, she recalled vividly, emerging from a dream. Still her eyebrows were twitching like she never had an orgasm. What impotence might it have been had she forced herself to give birth to a concept.

“… she recalled her childhood as when she used to feed the cows: grass on her outstretched little hands, and the tongues getting a kick out her fresh smelling proposals; the sticky charge, the soft burning wetness, awakening a school of butterflies around her waist, took away her innocent childhood to embrace the steamy world of the senses…”

She can never become more than her present, her fate like a text, is refractory to her own will. In her waking life, it will soon dawn upon her, with only an image to pursue, that her ‘reader’ is always already that ‘other’ who knows her secrets. Whatever she can come up with, an alibi, for instance, can only turn out to be an absurd tale. Someone has already spoken her own words. She then attempted to recall: “The sentence pours language back into the universe.”
But what if the image unfolds without sanction, pops itself up as a clue, insistently, but rather hopelessly claiming an ephemeral space, as it fails while demanding the last attention it deserves? Having previously sought the virgin clue on the pages of Mallarmé, this strange concoction of temperament was nudging her members to climb the next mountain so as to figure out how to become the figure of the stranger, the wanderer on top of a sea of fog. But “unless she lives in the aura” of it, she would never get near the mountain of her choice. Besides, she needs “strong and sturdy legs” for the entire ascent. Under the pretext of chipping in to the repertoire, the greatest illusion of self-respectability that one imbibes after drinking an opera, simmering an old tale told many times over, a poem to make up for her thousand tiny failures, she takes the image, delighted at last, as something in need of composition.
But why, why imperatively this peculiar word ‘something’—why does it always carry a burden? No sooner than the image reveals itself as a clue language stoops to an alien sovereign. She was listening to Lazar Berman at the height of his incredulity—that he would never again play Chopin’s.
Looking at Edvard Munch’s painting, she is delighted, the second time around, after confronting an aleatory word (or sometime after her panic mode dwindled into a night owl). She remembered a scene from an opera. Later, she told a friend that this scene from her dream was a word-without-a-face. Her friend was not commiserating: “Give it one last try. You said it was an owl.” What comes out is no less a familiar rehearsal: an “event of obscuring, a descent of the night, an invasion of shadow.” Not giving up on her dream to become an author (someone who labors around writing by writing ‘around’ writing, she learned from reading Barthes), she said as if offering her best answer: “You know it as when the turnpike becomes unmindful of its function, surprised of its intimacy with the highway, you get it now? It makes you drip as from an irresponsible faucet.”
Understandably, that day she lost her only true friend.
Little by little, recovering from her own loss, the image seeps in to her being—only that she knows too well; she can never be more than an outcome of a failed commitment. In the same mute language in which the face reveals the clue to ethical responsibility in which the word ceases to be an orphan, the word also becomes confrontational. She is telling me now, she recalled her mother telling her on the day of her first menstruation, that she wound up at last as a shadow of a painting, born of ectopic pregnancy. She wanted to become an athlete.
Growing up without a father at the age of 12, she struggled to become a writer, and now as a salesperson, at her age bursting at the seams, she found the courage to announce the Death of ’B’. She quickly mastered the labor of language, telling her blog subscribers, people she met on the road, in libraries, supermarkets, churches, etc. to forget Baudrillard; not wanting to imitate a book though, far from it: all the felicities for orgies assembling into a fish swarm; quasi-evangelical ministries, paeans to little joys crying out with their own virgin clues. As an accomplished ‘seller of thought’, she addresses in her dream a mammoth crowd of her own.
The crowd went up to her and to her ‘place’ under the pretext that by joining her they were helping to enable culture. She told me in one interview that she and her place were two different topologies—but each not unlike the place where a god was forced to confess his own sin; no, she scolded me right away: this is not Dostoevsky; the pontiff is nowhere to be seen in this frame, pointing an accusing finger to a stranger in robe.
What comes out of the character of the Inquisitor is an image slowly coming to maturity, and by that it should one day be able to say on her behalf, now that even her pride has been compromised by her marriage with language, that she defeated a theory. “To be among things,” like a faint lineament on a painting only the most tentative of our senses may as yet be able to see: in a word, to be invisible in a crowd of lilies, to become a veritable tool of sovereign language, to copulate with the haptic space of as yet an outcome of a dream. As with Cézanne: to experience the landscape, all the time in herself, and yet given her propensity for excess, it is as if it was the hair of her own skin grazing a drove of bovines. She never thought they could be these huge and hungry; she recalled her childhood as when she used to feed the cows: grass on her outstretched little hands, and the tongues getting a kick out her fresh smelling proposals; the sticky charge, the soft burning wetness, awakening a school of butterflies around her waist – all of these took away her innocent childhood to embrace the steamy world of the senses. There, in that same little room where finally she faded into a worm.
Some years later, I learned she committed suicide, or what I thought she did. The kind of folks who knew her believed she went up to heaven; others were as crazy as their unpolished toenails: a mysterious lady morphing into a pizza pie.
The last time I saw her was during an unscheduled meeting. I was with a research team, and after scouring the caves of Bohol—we were told that two seismic activities were detected just as when we were snaking through inside a notoriously narrow shaman’s cave—a male friend, a former activist who years since after our last mob attendance together, exchanging expletives with the police, settled with his wife in Cebu, mysteriously gave me a call. He said, ‘she’s ready for her last interview.’ Dante however remained a complete puzzle to me as when writing unfolds its own dependence on “a joke and despair,” not to mention, all of its virgin clues—as if “ruled by their own laws.”

‘To be among things like a faint lineament on a painting only the most tentative of our senses may as yet be able to see…”

I was surprised Dante knew where I was and where my mind was wandering off, between night and nothingness, between Cezanne and his doubt, or several kinds of wild weeds, between that and a thousand-tenfold buffalo horns carefully assembled in a gallery, making sure that by a certain kind of arrangement this artificial space of functions would appear as if a veritable landscape of wild plants we barely know by names was announcing the second coming: if art means not giving up living in things, an aesthetic sweatshop of bovine horns proves exactly just that: we live among the phantoms of our industrial sins looking at us in return.
I told Bartleby, co-proponent of our research, ‘this is it!’ By that time Cebu’s interior was already behind us; after a rendezvous with beer and local food, we were ferried north into an isolated island. Between the unfading memory of Chocolate Hills, and the enchanting caves of Anda, and these physical ruins, lying before me, of an old Spanish fort north of coast where Magellan was killed, there, in that narrow ephemeral space of conceit, where I can see the approaching waves, a perfect spot to erect a watch tower to alert the townspeople of Moro pirates, he glanced back at me. In front of me was a pair of eyes cavorting in disbelief. We were all worried the weather building up in the Pacific would hit the Cebu mainland. The storm would ravage instead the whole swath of Central Luzon on the week of our return to Manila. I told him we did not come here for nothing.
I reminded myself at that point that perhaps because this might be the ‘end of a theory’ it was best to offer her a poem, but no—the sooner I thought of it I felt a shiver. She was already a horror having written the best known imitation of Keats. I pointed this out to our research assistant, Jason Adams, not his real name, showing him a piece of her work, and as usual, no one would believe me. Once I embezzled my logical mind (an outcome of graduate studies) fornicating with her false, insanely professional simulation of Franz Kafka. She was all Samsa in her salesmanship, complaining against the forced sanity that life had been taxing her little room, except that she never had to morph into a bug, at least, not yet. This was her world during the first interview. Besides having imagined herself countless times as that mysterious bride in the Grecian urn, she thought of herself as a water lily.
One day she confessed to her therapist that she liked to see herself as a shadow, as if her life was not already spent thoroughly prettily among the inhabitants of its pensive landscape. But this, she clarified, only upon a mention of Monet: “You can guess it, right? Like when someone called out your name, you turned your head to the direction of the voice; what utter pensiveness you would regain afterwards—you are no different from my dog.” I asked her who would mention Monet. She replied casually, holding a book that only after the interview I would realize was written by “B”: “It is as if I had words instead of fingers.” I never felt so sad that evening. I never knew her dog’s name. That night she pointed out to me the whole area was reclaimed.
She was briefly explaining as I was belying—with the help of her own words melding with the sound of sirens filling up the entire city—the little chance she still had if she would return to her old self. She was planning her complete irreversibility. And how obsequiously sure I was that I understood her words correctly as ‘her voice’ took me the social history of the place. Recalling that last interview, I was no longer certain she was the same person I interviewed on two previous occasions. Besides, I was supposed to conduct the interview in Cebu.
The next instant, she started talking about the legend of Mang Kanor, his dalliance with giant creatures, and how he mistook a person for a monkey he nearly killed one night. It was also in light of this legend that a story about a mysterious appearance of an old ship anchored on the shores of Lamanok (the name of the island) facing the mighty sea was told in a number of versions with the legend preserving the integrity of each, like a panoply of trees sheltering the unwanted: the grass underneath.
“There’s an island called Mabini. A boatman could take all of you there. Not really isolated, but the caves—ah, you would never wish you had a home to return to!” I recalled the same lines—she must be a shaman. I began to suspect she is. Those were the same exact words I heard uttered by the lone tour guide of the Anda caves. It was logical to assume all caves in the world have their shamanistic side. But I was held in a trance whose perpetrator was rather my own mangled sense of folk wisdom.
I forgot in a while the area is a tourist destination, known for its caves and mangroves, and she is from around this place. It could be me, alone, deciding to shed my tourist credentials under the illusion that as an adventurer I was hoping to finally encounter a horde of primitive cavemen responsible for one of the earliest prehistoric hand paintings in the many caves of Anda, but now worn out by time, long after Bohol was created by a massive tectonic uplift leaving behind a litter of hill-size coral reefs, gouged out from underneath to become the sovereign dominion of a star, bleaching the hills with powerful rays as long as it cared. Like a veritable whiplash of a Pollock, nature did not cease producing: combined with melting polar glaciers and uneasiness of the tectonic plates, Bohol produced a treasure of large underground caves. A folk hero once utilized these caves to delay the ambition of an empire to subjugate every native of the island. The caves functioned as weapons of invisibility. If nature loves to hide, little people were the first to learn her secret.
After a while acting nearly as a tour guide, the shaman turned to me. She placed an egg on top of the table, making sure it stood for a while. I was not sure what she meant as she took us all to the rituals that went with an egg, even less sure of a mounting evidence in front of me. Bartleby and Jason were beginning to breathe a strange commiseration with the dark arts as they sunk in quasi-mental oblivion, allowing their own silences to exchange psychic pleasantries with the ghosts protecting the cave.

‘A standing egg means approval of the nature’s spirits and the same egg that would throw itself into relief, falling off the edge of the nature’s abyss—that will be the egg to give the sign someone has to suffer a curse.’

Whatever the issue is the same meta-kinetic justice supervenes. Seeing I did not get her side of the story, she tossed a coin, and with the usual grin, lowered her face so close to mine I immediately sensed a child in distress.
Head or tail? I chose home.
Each of us has a cave to hide in, otherwise a cave we hide from others. Recalling the events that were behind us now, one cave refused to go until recently. Rilke reminds me of its insistent character, a simile that echoes an incantation—the likeness of ‘words’ to ‘summer days’, each scarcely containing itself, like a ‘rose-interior,’ like a cave that “[overflows] and [streams] into the days…until all of summer becomes a room, a room within a dream.”
I was sinking in the shallow waters of the marine sanctuary, my feet touching the tip of my memory. The mangroves were quietly kneeling at their roots as the silent tide dearest to a night like this was starting to mingle around them. On the far side, the moon was slowly seeping out of her nightdress; her wardrobe faintly burning in a kettle; on the hither, a lone ripple was brainwashing a coral reef, steady and persevering, in exchange for a night without sin, long enough before the light finally reclaimed her place, before the little memories faded in slow, gentle death.

 

ABOUT THE ESSAY

The story, first of a projected series, was based on a research expedition I initiated off the islands of Cebu and Bohol, two of the most earthquake and typhoon-prone areas in the whole archipelago. The research was conducted entirely during Holy Week (2015). The setting as well as the characters in this story was an outcome of Bakhtinian double-voicing, like an incantation, a mixture of reality and fiction, a tempest on a teapot; but also a punctum, an ephemeral space where images, in their fleeting moments, tiny pleasures cavorting in the wake of the death of God, overwhelm the immaculate arbitrariness of words whose secrets we were once not allowed to peer into. Benjamin and Brecht would protest if I didn’t figure them in: the distorted simile between real and fiction overlaps with Bahktin’s; Brech’t Verfremdungseffekt strikes through the text, I guess, to produce an outcome of buggery, namely, the TEXT itself. But all these are still on the way to becoming the absentee term like, once again, the text.

-to be published in The Mabini Review, 2015

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