Saturday, February 23, 2013

Pasternak’s Christianity in Doctor Zhivago

By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.

At a time when Marxism is no longer in vogue in its home country like it used to be; when its decline as a political ideology has reached rock bottom with the Communist Party in the parliament of the Russian Federation no longer in dominant control, it may seem unfashionable or even out-of-date to take up Doctor Zhivago as a topic for serious discussion. But this fictional work is not a period piece that has outlasted its significance. It has enough elements of universality in it to justify our interest in it this early in the 21st century.

Its publication in the late fifties caught the attention of the global community. Explosive events surrounded its appearance. It was banned in the then Soviet Union and had to be smuggled from Russia and translated from the original Russian to English and other languages before it reached the Western countries and the rest of the world. Its author, Boris Pasternak, was pressured into rejecting the Nobel Prize for Literature that was awarded to him in 1958 by the Swedish Academy. He was prevented from leaving his country in order to receive it. Against his will, he budged. (A similar story happened in 1970 when another Russian novelist was given the same prize but declined to receive it for fear of reprisal. Alexander Solzhenitsyn--of The Gulag Archipelago fame--was expelled from the Soviet Union four years later and lived in exile in the United States).

In the judgment of the Soviet authorities, Doctor Zhivago was anti-communist and highly critical of the totalitarian regime of the Soviet Union. Definitely, it was not expressly a political tract disguised as fiction designedly written as a diatribe directed against the failures of Marxism. Nor is it an apologia for Western liberalism. It is simply an artistic work embodying Boris Pasternak’s worldview. But what the repressive Soviet censors must have found offensive in the book is its undisguised religious allegiance to Christianity and its all too frank criticism of the ideas peddled by the Bolsheviks. We will then train our critical eye mainly on these ideational aspects of the novel more than its other novelistic elements.

In this work, the author looks at the world through the eyes of Dr. Yuri Zhivago, its protagonist. But Zhivago is not a saint, much less a perfect hero. As Tonia herself, his wife, told him in a letter, “I love all that is unusual in you…your great gifts and intelligence which, as it were, have taken place of the will that is lacking.” (p. 347)* He is weak-willed. His greatness though consists in his power of intuition and depth of spirituality. He is the intellectual and contemplative type. He is a poet and also a doctor. In a larger sense Zhivago may be said to be Pasternak’s alter ego as the former, like the author himself, is a deeply committed Christian. His Christianity is one born in a country where religion is persecuted, where atheism is a qualification for party membership and a passport to advancement in the bureaucracy. Pasternak is a Christian witness in a world ruled by crass materialism. His revolt is not one of existentialist nihilism but the protest of life crushed by repression and intolerance. He is all for an out-and-out change from the inhuman world of unfeeling ideologues into an ideal socio-political order where Christian values prevail. However—

…you cannot advance in this direction without a certain faith. You can’t make such discoveries without spiritual equipment. And the basic elements of this equipment are in the Gospels. What are they? To begin with, love of one’s neighbor, which is the supreme form of vital energy. Once it fills the heart of man it has to overflow and expand itself. And then the two basic ideals of modern man—without them he is unthinkable—the idea of life as sacrifice….There was no history in this sense among the ancients. They had blood and beastliness and pockmarked Caligulas who had no idea of how inferior the system of slavery is….It was not until after the coming of Christ that time and man could breathe freely….Man does not die in a ditch like a dog, but at home in history, while the work toward the conquest of death is full swing, he dies sharing this work….(p. 13)

Pasternak does not of course have in mind enlisting police or military force in bringing about this new humanism, this transformation of the mechanical world into a humanized one. The prescription he recommends is love, not hate; peace, not war; amelioration, not destruction. If there should truly be a regeneration of this earth to make it more habitable, the change must commence with every single individual himself. He stresses the supreme importance of this transformation in the attitude the individual adopts in relation to his fellowmen. Pasternak’s Christianity sounds a bit individualistic as he is of the belief that the individual stands above the herd or the “people” in the totalitarian sense. Gordon, commenting on the scene in the novel in which a young Cossack torments an old Jew in the war-torn field, and speaking the author’s mind, comes to discuss with Zhivago the question of what constitutes a nation:

What is a nation? …And who does more for a nation—the one who makes a fuss about it or the one who, without thinking of it, raises it to universality by the beauty and greatness of his actions, and gives it fame and immortality?

When the Gospel says that in the Kingdom of God there are neither Jews nor Gentiles, does it merely mean that all are equal in the sight of God? …In that new way of living and new form of society, which is born of the heart, and which is called the Kingdom of Heaven, there are no nations, there are only individuals. (p.104)

Pasternak’s preoccupation with the question of the individual’s worth, the concept being essentially Christian, makes of him a true Christian humanist. Each individual created in the image of God has inherent dignity and freedom as a guarantee of such dignity. So, no man should hand himself over to any superior structure or force other than his Maker. The state exists for man, not vice versa. Pasternak then lashes at communism which stands for all that Christianity is not. For communism strips the individual of his freedom and human dignity. While this ideology appears to be on the side of his economic well-being, full of pity for him after the manner of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, it is in fact his enemy because in exchange for the material comfort it offers, he forfeits his liberty which is sacrificed to the higher interests of the collectivity. The bird flutters away from its golden cage as only the open air can give it the freedom to fly. Those who hearken to the song of Marx’s sirens cannot but be reduced to mere cogs in the vast totalitarian machinery, appendages, as it were, that are easily discarded once they outlive their usefulness to the Politburo or Presidium or the Soviet state in general. And those who stubbornly refuse to toe the official line are herded like cattle in concentration camps or else summarily liquidated without compunction. 

Lara, the novel’s heroine, ruefully talks about her husband, Strelnikov (Pavel Antipov) who is a victim to his own ideals:

…He is a doomed man. I believe that he’ll come to a bad end. He will atone for the evil he has done. Revolutionaries who take the law into their own hands are horrifying not because they are criminals, but because they are like machines that have gone out of control, like a runaway trains….His alliance with the Bolsheviks is accidental. So long as they need him, they put up with him, and he happens to be going their way. The moment they don’t need him they’ll throw him overboard with no regret; and crush him, as they have done with other military experts. (p.247)

It is Pasternak’s religious philosophy that cannot understandably make him come to terms with atheistic communism. This, of course, does not necessarily mean that he repudiates his countrymen as a whole. There is always a dichotomy between an ideology and those who profess it. What he decries is not his own people but communism, not the patient but the disease. He is not against all revolutions either. His position in this matter is clearly seen in the scene when Lara explains to her panic-stricken mother, Amelia Guishar, at the outbreak of the 1905 Revolution that “All that’s being done now is done in the name of humanity, in defense of the weak, for the good of women and children….” (p.14) The success of the Russians in forcing down the Czar from his throne was really the dawn of freedom in the land of Russia. But the 1917 counter-revolution of the Bolsheviks was history’s fatal accident which reversed the destinies of the Russians. This is what Pasternak deplores because:

The main misfortune, the root of all evil to come, was the loss of confidence in the value of one’s own opinion. People imagined that it was out of date to follow their own moral sense, that they must all sing in chorus, and live by other people’s notions; notions that were being crammed down on everybody’s throat….The social evil became an epidemic. It was catching. And it affected everything; nothing was left untouched by it. Our home too became infected….Instead of being natural and spontaneous as we had always been, we began to be idiotically pompous with each other. Something showy, artificial, forced, crept into our conversation—you felt you had to be clever in a certain way about certain world-important things. (p.336)

What he finds unacceptable about communism is its materialistic interpretation of reality. In its view, man is only what he eats so that when Christ declared that man does not live by bread alone, the Galilean carpenter was preaching a lie. When Christians yearn for the heavenly bread, they forget the earthly thing. In hugging the illusion of an afterlife, they neglect to improve their earthly lot. Religion is an opium, as Marx put it, which alienates man from himself by subordinating him to a non-existent God. Christianity is a religion of beaten resignation, which, unable to cope with the realities of the present, falls back on the thought of the sunshine tomorrow. Such wistful attitude is the morality of the weaklings. The apologists of Marx take it upon themselves to liberate man from the thralldom of this illusion and deliver them to a temporal order where practical people dwell in equality, “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need.”

But Pasternak finds it impossible to say yeah to the panacea designed by the communists who are wont to mouth democratic rhetoric and phraseology but do quite the opposite. In a dialogue with the Bolshevik commander Liberius, he made Zhivago rant in righteous indignation of his enforced imprisonment:

The people you worship go in for proverbs, but they’ve forgotten one proverb—“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”—and they’ve got into the habit of liberating and showering benefits on just those people who haven’t asked for them. I suppose you think I can’t imagine anything in the world more pleasant than your camp and your company. I suppose I have to bless you for keeping me a prisoner and thank you for liberating me from my life, my son, my home, my work, from everything I hold dear and that makes life worth living for me! (p.283)

The "classless society" peddled by the communists is no less an illusion. Pasternak sees communism as offering but another utopia. He knows all too well that the Tower of Babel failed because it attempted the impossible—that of bringing heaven to earth by dispensing with God. A world without God becomes a confused arena where might is right, where the powerful rule through violence or brute force and give their subjects their material needs at the price of their freedom. To live without God is a temporal provincialism that reduces humans to the level of the beast. The question of the existence of God, which the communists deny, is actually the question of life and its larger meaning. Exclusion of the transcendent reality leaves man no way to go in the face of the ultimate questions like that of death. A tormented communist who feels the Grim Reaper with its scythe close in upon him may do well to listen to Zhivago with his idea of life and resurrection:

Resurrection. In the crude form in which it is preached to console the weak, it is alien to me. I have always understood Christ’s words about the living and the dead in a different sense. Where could you find room for all these hordes of people accumulated over thousands of years? The universe isn’t big enough for them. God, the good, and meaningful purpose would be crowded out. They’d be crushed merely by animal life.

But all the time, life, one, immense, identical throughout its innumerable combinations and transformations, fills the universe and is continually reborn. You are anxious whether you will rise from the dead or not, but you rose from the dead when you were born and you didn’t notice it….

There will be no death, says St. John. His reasoning is quite simple. There will be no death because the past is over; that’s almost like saying there will be no death because it is already done with, it’s old and we are bored with it. What we need is something new, and that new thing is life eternal. (p.59-60)

Nowhere in the novel do we notice Pasternak try to pose as a learned theologian well-versed with the intricacies of the discipline. His religious convictions stem from his own deep spirituality and personal insights as a poet. He is but an ordinary believer like you and me, but in his capacity as a literary artist he successfully integrated his religious views in his novel’s framework and thereby gave it a good measure of multivalence. One more thing need to be said about Doctor Zhivago. It is not a historical novel, although in a sense it is history enacted in the lives of fictional characters that come to grips with the moral, political and human dilemmas during the stormy period of Russia’s history as a nation. The hero dies of heart attack. The heroine disappears without a trace in the Gulag. This may all suggest a tragic end to the story. But the prevailing sentiment conveyed in the novel is that life goes on after the storm and stress of socio-political upheaval. With Tanya surviving her parents Yuri and Lara and carrying along with her the balalaika which she has learned to play well, then we know that things are bound to turn out alright.

*All page references are to Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, trans. by Max Hayward, Manya Harari, Bernard Guerney (New York: New American Library, 1958).

Friday, February 22, 2013

Man, nature and the spirit of Zen

By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.

The “tanka” is a short poetic form of thirty-one syllables arranged into 5,7,5,7,7 syllable scheme of five lines. It is one of the forms of traditional Japanese court poetry dealing with a variety of topics ranging from the most seemingly commonplace to the preeminently sublime. It is also the form used by many contemporary Japanese poets in giving expression to the “cry of their hearts” as they respond, like other human beings, to the world that at once allures and rebuffs them. The tankas selected here are taken from Fujiwara Teikas’s collection titled, Superior Poems of Our Times, compiled in the early thirteenth century.

One of the striking features of these poems is the preoccupation with the cycle of seasons. The poets experience a communion with nature so that its ambivalent moods which change with the seasons also become their own. Oe No Chisato writes: “A thousand things overcome me with their sadness/As I gaze upon the moon./Although autumn surely was not meant /To be felt by my one self alone.” The image of the solitary moon upon the background of an autumn night objectifies the poet’s feeling of sadness. At the same time, he is aware of the fact that somewhere in the autumn night other human beings share with him the same experience. Hence, the “thousand things” which with sadness overcome him are not his own burden alone. And the thought that one’s comrades and those close to one’s heart are confronted with the same situation cannot but reinforce the bond of fellowship that links one human being with another. Indeed, even the beautiful things in nature assume larger significance only when appreciated not by one’s own self alone but in the company of friends or a partner.

The priest Sosie’s poem, for instance, is an invitation to a shared enjoyment of the pleasures afforded by springtime when cherry blossoms are in bloom. He writes: “Come, just for today/Let us lose ourselves wandering/Deep in spring hills—If darkness falls, how can we fail to find/A place to sleep beneath those blossoming boughs?” There is here an expression, too, of intense delight and of faith in the live-giving powers of nature. One is here reminded of the Russian theme of Sophia—a kind of cosmic, rapturous love for all creation. Yet the Japanese love for the “spring hills” and the “blossoming boughs” takes on a mystical aspect—that of the Zen wedding of spirit and matter. In the contemplation of the poet-priest Sosei the “falling darkness,” if it comes as it must, cannot overcome the luxuriant beauty of the blossoming boughs nor the sensuous delight derived from them since in the Zen consciousness everything resolves itself into the final harmony of the universe.

In another poem, however, Sosei presents a gloomy perspective, a distinctively Buddhist vision of the evanescent character of the phenomenal world of men and things. The world is Maya, an imperfect and pale reflection of the unmanifested realm of Being. He says: ”Here it is, yes here,/Where these set forth and those return/and others come to part/Both friends and strangers meet together/At the Barrier Post of meeting!” Sosei is said to have composed these lines upon watching the passers-by outside the hut that he had built at the Osaka Barrier. He regards from a detached vantage point the ceaseless coming hither and going thither of human beings as they proceed with the business of daily living. As he contemplates the scene, he was moved to compose this metaphysical allegory. The incessant flux of human life pictured in this poem is reminiscent of the Shakespearean metaphor of the world as a stage. But unlike Shakespeare who ends on a note of utter nihilism and black despair, the despair of Sosei springs from what in the Oriental lore is believed to be a privileged and higher knowledge--the common inability of human beings to liberate themselves from the wheel of rebirth which they could have done by the generation of new and good karma that would offset the old evil ones that pin them down to the sufferings of “samsara.”

Another poet-priest, Bishop Henjo (816-90 A.D.), a contemporary of Sosei (ca. 890), echoes the same note of subdued sadness about the human lot. He laments: “In this mortal world,/Whether we linger on or pass away ahead,/Our brief span is like/The greater fall of dewdrops from the leaves,/Or the shorter drop of moisture from the stalk.” The formation of dewdrops upon the leaves or of moisture upon the stalks corresponds to our coming into existence in the phenomenal world; and the expulsion of dewdrops from the leaves of grass and moisture from the stalks are analogous to the long or short duration of human life before its expiration.

There is really nothing new about the above notion; but Henjo succeeds here in not sounding too platitudinous in his use of the “dew” imagery to convey the motif of life as an insubstantial, ephemeral thing. But the evanescence being lamented on is only of life as it is lived right here and now. There is no dramatic posturing here of a defiant existentialist faced with the irrational prospect of being blotted out of the universe. The dewdrops fall and evaporate. However, they do not really vanish into absolute non-being. They return to the elements whence they came, just as life at the moment of death becomes merely transformed into other states of being. As Chuang Tzu, the great Taoist sage, said on the occasion of Lao Tzu’s death: “What we can point to are the faggots that have been consumed; but the fire is transmitted elsewhere and we know not that it is over and ended.”

In the treatment of the theme of love, a tanka selected here gives it a careful honing so that what could have easily fallen into mawkish sentimentality becomes an oblique, artistically understated expression of an intensely felt emotion. This is achieved by the figurative use of image that reinforces the sense of the discursively worded lines. Sakanoue Korenori writes: “If we cannot meet,/Joining together like the threads I twine/Now so, then thus,/To make a cord to string my jewels upon,/Of what shall I make up my thread of life?” The power of this poem consists not only in what is being said, but also in what was left unsaid. The lady speaker in the poem conveys the intensity of her love by implying that she could not go on living without the company of the man she loves or without consummating their love as suggested by the imagery of the joining together of threads in the second line. But this is precisely what she left unsaid but merely hinted at in the lines, “If we cannot meet,/…Of what shall I make up my thread of life?”

This poetic device of expressing the unknown in terms of the known is employed more deftly in the three-line haiku which is the shortest poetic form in the world. It is similar to the tanka minus the last two lines of seven syllables each. In Japanese graphic art, its counterpart is called “portraiture by absence,” in which the painting of an object or objects is indirectly evocative of something else, as, for example, a chrysalis implies the butterfly.

The overall tone of these poems is one of sadness even as the poets celebrate the beauty of nature. It is as if the pure act of living is already an act of supreme sacrifice instead of a blessing. This is essentially a Buddhist outlook. While we are not asked to adopt the same view of life, we can at least understand the mental attitude and conditioning factors underlying such sensibility. After all, there is a measure of truth in what the poet Shuzei says: “O wretched world, That affords no pathway to release!/Even the mountain depths/To which I fled when overcome by care/Echo with the anguished cry of deer.” Is this not also expressive of the mood of the twentieth century which was dubbed by W. H. Auden as the “Age of Anxiety”? 

A reading of Camus’ The Plague

By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.

To discuss from the standpoint of form Albert Camus’ novels exclusive of his ideas is next to impossible. This is so because Camus is in his element as a writer of what is called as the novel of ideas. His characters though are not mere embodiment of abstract notions even if it is true that his characters are what they are because of what they think. In other words, ideas are lived through; and by their ideas, they are defined and take on identity. This way Camus’ meaning is better understood and appreciated because felt and experienced by the reader. “What decides the world view of a writer,” says Arnold Hauser, “is not so much whose side he supports as through whose eyes he looks at the world.”

Camus has given us Clamence (The Fall), Meursault (The Stranger) and Dr. Rieux (The Plague), to mention some of his characters, through whose eyes we have enlarged our own vision. It is for this reason that Camus engaged generations of readers. Had he relied solely on the essay to give expression to his thoughts, it is doubtful if he could soar, as he did, to the heights he reached. His philosophizing however witty would have mattered little, if at all, considering that his colleague Jean-Paul Sartre, a comparatively profound thinker, would have easily outshone him in this respect.

Of late, Camus has become a literary god among the “Now” generation at a loss to find the fundamental values that have relevance to the problems of living. This is borne out by Eric Oatman who says in “Restless Youth” in one of the issues of the Free World: “If you haven’t read The Plague, you haven’t read anything.” This statement is evidently an exaggeration. The Plague is not everything if we consider that its author has written to his credit other relatively fine books. If anything, Oatman’s assertion is indicative of burgeoning awareness of the pertinence of Camus’ works to the modern times.

In The Plague we are presented with a miniature world in turmoil so well wrought that it assumes an air of reality all its own. The rendition of the whole story is convincing enough for one to confuse it easily with a historical event which it is not. This he achieves through the use of an impartial observer for his point of view. The narrator, Dr. Bernard Rieux, gives a faithful account of the events in the form of a chronicle with the result that the author’s hand is deftly detached from the makeup of the narrative. This reportorial method lends an objective tone like that of a news story. To offset the limitations inherent in this kind of point of view, Rieux is made to avail of other documents such as Tarrou’s diary notes which throw light on the personality of other characters particularly Cottard. Through Tarrou’s recorded observations, too, other aspects of the phenomenon are brought to the fore. The opinions or feelings included are either his own or expressly conveyed to him or his interpretation of the looks on the faces of the other characters.

The trouble in the city of Oran begins with the all too sudden appearance of rats that die out in the open. Local authorities are slow to recognize the danger in their midst, but as victims increase in number daily, the place is proclaimed in a state of plague. It is cut off from the outside world. The exile brought about by the epidemic creates varied reactions on the part of the populace. Parted lovers impatiently long for the absent partner. Couples who take each other for granted suddenly realize that they cannot really live apart. Others take to vice and drinking as escape mechanism of sorts. A number of the populace are merely indifferent. Some of them take advantage of the crisis situation to promote their personal agenda. And there is the group who puts up a fight against the public enemy. The Black Death lasts for a long period, from April, the month it set in, till the first days of February the following year. In the course of these months many have suffered and countless have died. Those lucky enough to survive the ordeal have cause for revelry afterwards, while for them whose friends and loved ones have succumbed to the bubonic plague, the nightmarish experience is scarcely over. Interwoven with those incidents are the individual stories of Dr. Rieux and his wife, Rambert’s efforts to get away, Cottard’s opportunism and the episode of his arrest, Grand’s disillusionment and eventual happiness, Tarrou’s account of his personal life, and Fr. Paneloux’s role in the general crisis.

All this is expressed in a language (at least in translation) that is a happy mean between the extremes of the high-strung and the all too simple. His selective details fulfill definite novelistic purpose and his descriptions serve to produce the tension that permeates the gripping mood of black gloom.

The “plague” is an integrating symbol. It is the “absurd,” an “abstraction” as inevitable as two and two make four. The plague is the irrational element in the universal order. The plague forces upon humans their unwanted privation and imprisonment. In many scenes, the dominant image of prison recurs. The city of Oran is a virtual “madhouse” or a “prison house” peopled with exiles of the pestilence. Isolated and unable to get in touch with the outside, the townsfolk are doomed to put up with “silence, sunlight, dust”—things one with the tropical disease. They like to regard the state of affairs to be temporary, hoping for a return to the normal order. The pestilence however goes on with its ravages, making the plague-bound townspeople feel abandoned “under the vast indifference of the sky.” Hence, they live only for the present moment and lose a sense of time. Time is at a standstill. The watch or clock has become a “silly-gadget.” “Hostile to the past, impatient of the present moment, and cheated of the future, they were much like those whom men’s justice, or hatred, forces to live behind prison bars.” This is the picture of man under sentence of death. This is the fundamental problem posed by Camus around which his philosophical speculations center.

For Rambert, the journalist from Paris, who happens to be cut off from the woman he loves, the pestilence is a stumbling block which he can turn his back on so as to be with his love. He feels he does not belong to the place. On the eve of his getaway, however, he comes to realize that it is shameful for one to be happy while others suffer. He changes his mind and joins the group committed to stemming the curse. The plague has become his own business as it is everybody’s.

Cottard, the criminal, is abnormally jubilant over the epidemic. He looks upon it as a chance whereby he can stay safe from the police and enrich himself through questionable activities like smuggling. He doesn’t want the plague stopped since it suits well his self-interests.

Jean Tarrou, another witness of the event, relentlessly fights the plague by organizing the sanitary squad. He nurtures a hate of all forms of injustice and always takes the side of the victim. He disapproves of murder and maintains that we are all murderers in approving of acts and principles that lead to murder, including legalized killing. He wants peace through sympathy, but asks if there could be a saint without God. He doesn’t believe in one.

Father Paneloux tells the townsfolk in a sermon that the plague is the flail of God. The people have forsaken the Lord so that He abandons them in the grip of the pestilence as a reminder that man should repent and turn to God.

Radically opposed to Fr. Paneloux’s is Dr. Rieux’s stand. Like Tarrou, he spares no effort in putting up resistance against the plague. But his struggle is one of revolt.  He hates death and cannot get used to seeing people die, especially those who refuse to die. Unlike Paneloux, he has no trust in God, otherwise he would abandon curing patients and leave the business entirely to Him. He says: “…since the order of the world is shaped by the death, might it not be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward heaven where he sits in silence.” 

Rieux’s defiance has a metaphysical dimension. His non-acceptance of God’s creation is premised upon the unjust cruelty perpetrated around him. For instance, after witnessing the final death-throes of M. Othon’s son, Rieux tells Paneloux: “…until my dying day I shall refuse to accept a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” He finds no justification for the sufferings of innocent children and a God who allows these things to happen is a sadist, pure and simple. (It will be recalled that Ivan Karamazov's atheism is premised on the same ground as Rieux's.) Thus, Rieux cannot simply come to terms with Paneloux’s position of all-out resignation to the Divine will. Paneloux’s views that “we should love what we cannot understand” and that “we should make God’s will our will” cannot have a place in the doctor’s thinking since for him, it devolves on man to put up a struggle against forces that threaten his dignity and happiness. We are doomed after the manner of Sisyphus to contend with the absurdity of our condition. And even if we lose the match as does Tarrou, even then it does not matter. The thing is to have fought well.

There can be no mistake that Rieux is speaking the mind of Camus. We see the shift of Camus’ position here, that is, from Meursault’s indifference to Rieux’s commitment. The former remains a helpless stranger, the latter stands involved. Meursault loves life for its own sake; Rieux loves human life and man in the general sense. Both of them deny God in order to affirm man—and this is their common denominator. In championing the human cause, Rieux has chosen to assert his will. He believes man, condemned to die as he is, can yet be free up to a certain point. Man can still choose whether to smash his head against the wall or not. For all the odds, man can somehow decide his destiny and at least be for a moment independent of nature and pestilence and what not.

It is interesting to note that through the efforts of the group led by Tarrou and Rieux the plague is finally averted so that Oran is free at last. But their triumph is not conclusive, for the plague could come back. One thing important though is demonstrated by it: “There are more things to admire in men than to despise.” Camus humanistic philosophy is nowhere given more forceful expression than in this novel. His world view is man-centered to the point of deifying man. The clarion call he makes is the rediscovery of man dehumanized by things that get the better of him—social codes, disease, death and war. This is the reason why scholars read existentialism in his works even if he himself refused to be categorized under any school of thought.

There is no denying that as a literary artist Camus has rendered a penetrating depiction of the pathological condition of our times, small wonder the present-day youth claim him as their kind of novelist. The Nobel Prize citation makes mention of “his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problem of the human conscience of our time.” All told, herein lies his significance as man and writer.    

Monday, February 18, 2013

The outsider as Negro in modern
black novels

By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.

The phenomenon of the outsider both as a “marginal” man and the man “from underground” is neither new nor confined solely in American society. Yet it is not too farfetched to say that the outsider as archetype has found no turbulently modern expression than in the fabric of the Negro life in contemporary America. Notwithstanding the existence of other minority or ethnic groups in America whose encounter with mainstream American experience must of necessity produce outsiders in different guises, the black outsider is here given focus for analysis because of the overridingly explosive history, let alone the problematic character, of the Negro situation. But this study is not interested in mere sociology although that will not be brushed aside if it throws light on a fuller understanding of what it means to be a Negro on American soil. It assumes that an insightful probing into the Negro question may be found in the works of no less than the committed Negro novelists themselves.

It must be conceded that modern American writers other than the blacks have written with sympathy and understanding about the plight of the American Negro. There is Harriet Beecher Stowe, for instance, or Harper Lee or Mark Twain or even William Faulkner. Yet it takes a Negro to speak for his own kind how it is to be black in a world where he is at once an insider and outsider. The major novels by two notable black writers are here selected not only for being pivotal in the literary history of modern black fiction, but also for their perceptive treatment of the Negro as outsider. Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man are deemed to provide an in-depth perspective on the Negro dilemma. No pretensions are here made as to exhaustiveness of analysis, limited as it is to the works cited. Still, if some shards of truth into the Negro reality are afforded by looking into Wright’s and Ellison’s representative works, then that is justification enough for this essay. Extra-literary knowledge is brought to bear on the exploration of the black man’s problem to make possible a view of it on a wider perspective.

What is the outsider, to begin with? He is a man sundered both from within and from without. As a self-divided man, he is torn between two conflicting personalities in himself. As an outsider to society, he is painfully aware of his essential otherness or separateness from the rest of his fellowmen. He feels he is so different from others including even his family and friends. A virtual stranger even to himself, he cannot live side by side with other people without a danger of divorce. This existential situation breeds in him a sense of estrangement so that he either retreats into a shell of indifference as a kind of defense mechanism or else turns into a rebel out to defy the untenable scheme of things. Shuttling between two worlds in neither of which he fully lives, he ultimately emerges without roots; the very ground shifts under his feet so that he is rendered a vagrant without moorings, without a place to lay his head on.

The Negro outsider easily fits into the above sketch of the outsider. So, too, does a host of other fictional outsiders who may be said to be his prototypes if not actually his ancestors—from Dostoevsky’s man from the underground to Camus’ stranger or even Kafka’s K. They all share the weird feeling that there is a slip somewhere in the machinery of the universe. Both Wright and Ellison do not hide the fact of their common indebtedness to these old Continental masters. It devolves on them to translate their shared inspiration to their own personal idiom and the characteristic temper of their time and race, and in the process enable the Negro to see the spectacle of himself up against societal forces that shake the core of his being. Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov and Camus’ Meursault are both outsiders implicated in a crime against society. In their Negro counterparts, violence also figures prominently in the surface action. For the Negro, as for their European models, it assumes a meaning larger than the life it blots out.

The Negro, like the other ethnic groups in the States, is often referred to as a hyphenated American, i.e., “Negro-American” or “non-white.” This label, attached to the blacks, explicitly suggests the blatant discrepancy in their peculiar identity. The hyphen fulfills two contradictory functions—that of dividing an entire nomenclature into dual components, or that of combining elements to form a compound. Applied to the almost nominal entity that the Negro has been reduced to, it cannot but confound his wits. It is as if splitting one’s personality into opposed fragments and then living a socially integrated, happy life as a flesh-and-blood human being is the easiest thing there is. W.E.B. DuBois says: “The Negro ever feels his twoness—an American Negro, two souls…two warring ideals in one black body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”1

Fundamentally, the problem of the outsider as Negro is the problem of identity. Divided against himself to the quick of his being, he is in desperate need of wholeness. He is a man in search of himself. His salvation consists in finding himself, that is, in self-realization. But the whole trouble with being a Negro is that he is not even accepted for what he is. He is not defined on his own terms as though he does not really exist in his own right. He is conferred existence, if at all, only in relation to and by virtue of, the whites. It is with reference to the latter that the black man assumes a shadowy existence of sorts. The struggle for self-definition in the particular societal setting he is in thus becomes the Negro outsider’s all-consuming passion. For him it all amounts to a question of all or nothing.

It is for the foregoing reason that he cannot come to terms with a social setup that denies him the right to be himself. Richard Wright, in describing the genesis of Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Native Son, writes, “…he is a product of dislocated society; he is a dispossessed and disinherited man, he is all this…and he is looking for a way.”2 And Wright quotes Henry James’s statement as pointedly applicable to the tragedy of the Negro: “No more fiendish punishment could be devised…than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by the members thereof….”3

The truth of the matter is that the Negro is not really turned loose if we take Bigger’s word for it. He said all his life his restrictive society never gives the chance to make something of himself. He wants to be an aviator or a soldier so that in spite of himself he could relate himself to the world and live a normal life like all the rest. The blocking forces of that world however relegate him to the status of a dog, giving him no room to assert himself as a man. In the country of the white man, one gathers from Wright, to be black is a big joke, an error, an act of crime. That is the grim reality that Bigger is confronted with. Wright explains his hero and his kind, thus: “There was in…their minds…a wild and intense longing…to belong, to be identified, to feel that they were alive as other people were…to feel satisfaction of doing job in common with others.”4 But in a Jim Crow country where the Klansman holds a reign of terror, where white is might, where one race of men lords it over another, that is simply next to impossible. In the words of Bigger himself, “…We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s just like living in jail.”5 A compartmentalized social structure that excludes rather than includes, that smothers rather than uplifts the scums of the earth, may not long perpetuate nor serve the ends of the powerful without being met with its antithesis of rebellion.

It is against this backdrop that Wright intends Bigger’s crime to be understood. Bigger has always feared the white man before whom he cringes in humiliation and shame. Hence, he could not bring himself with all his cohorts to rob a white storekeeper although he could have done so and get away with it. He communicates with the Daltons, his white masters, mostly in timid monosyllables, saying yessuh and yessum only when spoken to. And because he fears them, he hates them all. It is true that the Daltons take him in their employ. But they are a part of the system that brutalizes the Negro. Mr. Dalton owns the slum tenements that keep the Negro in his place. Conditioned in accepting his own insignificance in the face of WASP superiority, and degraded to an almost sub-human level of penury by man’s exploitation by man, Bigger is brought to the limits of his patience or endurance and thus becomes a kind of a perverted Cartesian: I murder, therefore I exist.

The reader knows all too well that Bigger has accidentally killed Mary Dalton. He knows that in his heart of hearts he has killed a thousand Miss Daltons before, and the physical fact of her death in his hands is but its concrete objectification. In killing her, Bigger kills by extension all his white enemies of whom she is the symbol. That Bigger has killed is not however merely a matter of getting even with his oppressors. For him whose existence is rendered meaningless by a world that denies him out of hand and tears apart his personality, murder gives him a sense of freedom, of wholeness. At least it is an act he can call his own, something he has done of his own accord in assertion of his rebellion against the powers that be.

No burden could be more terrible than proving one’s inherent worth as an individual by an act of violence unconscionable as it is. But when one is driven to it in order to show a cruel world that one is not an abstraction nor “an empty husk of identity,”6 then one could stand up to the consequences without fear. That is why Bigger could feel no compunction nor feel sorry for it all. That is also why he refuses audience to the Negro preacher who persuades him to repent and turn to God. Bigger later throws away the cross given him, for he knows that the picture of life the preacher represents and even his own mother’s religiosity are nothing but evasions of reality, an escape from the truth he had known in the act of murder. “I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ‘em…”7 he says. The whites and others have been blind to the truth of his own humanity, to the hard fact of his own being. Mrs. Dalton’s sightless eyes are a symbol of the blindness of the world around him, the same blindness that almost leaves him scot-free. Bigger merely wants to be treated like a human being, and not made to feel like a dog. Only Max, his lawyer, sees him as he is. For once in his life there is the one man who understands him. “You treated me like a man,”8 he tells Max. Purged of fear and hate by his crime, made whole at last in the core of his personal reality by a baptism of blood, he accepts now without bitterness or rancor and without hope of mercy the sentence of death meted out to him by the society he has outraged.

Ellison’s “invisible” man also pursues the same struggle for self-discovery as does Bigger. But while it is Bigger’s creator who asserts that the Negro is America’s metaphor,9 it is Ellison who has thought of that metaphor in the negative, that is, while other writers present the black man as all too conspicuous, he presents him as invisible.10 The dramatic impact of Bigger’s violent action is a bit subdued in those of Invisible Man. But their common search for identity and the meaning of that quest stems from the same built-in contradiction of being a black man in a white man’s world. Though they differ in their personal reactions to their respective milieus, with Bigger turning into a defiant rebel and Invisible Man remaining a nameless wanderer, they are both drop-outs of a callous society blinded by racial prejudice. But Invisible Man makes one discovery unknown to Bigger. It is that his search for himself entails struggle not only against whites but against blacks as well.

The reason why Ellison’s hero is invisible is that he is black. Black is actually the absence of color, reflecting no light. But this invisibility is more than mere opaqueness. Because he is black, no one takes notice of him. Invisible Man’s obscurity is not so much ontological as it is social. The other’s look is either one of recognition or non-recognition. If the former, then one feels sure of himself, of the solidity of his being, of his humanity. If the latter, one begins to doubt one’s existence. Invisible Man complains: “I am invisible…simply because people refuse to see me….You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds….You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world….”11 A nonentity, a nobody, he can have no name. Remaining nameless, he is catapulted from one adventure to another in an attempt to discover who he is. He goes forth in complete non-identity to continuing non-identity. And he is full of illusions about life as he ventures forth into mundane reality. When reality catches up with illusion as it must, he withdraws into his hole to piece together the shattered fragments of his hopes. He then goes through some change in his outlook after being shorn of illusions. His misadventures have almost destroyed him but they made him learn his lessons.

In dealing with the white man, Invisible Man arms himself with his late grandfather’s code of subservient rebellion. In effect it is a sort of nonviolent resistance: “Son, after I’m gone, I want you to keep up the good fight….Our life is a war….I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction.”12 These words practically ask him to put on a show of smiling acquiescence while drowning the White persecutor in a surfeit of his own venom. This ethic of disguised servility assumes that the white man is indeed powerful. But as the reverse of this could be the truth, then it simply becomes suicidal. In fact it easily makes a prey of the whites who envy the Negro for his legendary potency. They mock what they themselves do not and cannot have and then turn it against the Negro who is the real source of strength.13 Invisible Man, for instance, remembers having participated in a battle royal in which he fights with other Negro boys for the entertainment of white dignitaries who reward them with gold coins put in a rug that is actually electrified. Here is a case of brutish “mocking of Negro’s envied potency,”14 a potency turned against itself! What the whites themselves cannot do because of their impotence, they relish in the Negro’s doing it for them. This also explains Mr. Norton’s giving Jim Trueblood a hundred dollars after listening to this story of committing incest with his own…daughter. The local Negroes ostracize Trueblood but the whites appear to be outwardly understanding and generous to him—to undermine him with grins, agree with him to death and destruction? The very words of Invisible Man’s grandfather are turned against themselves as if to give them a dose of their own medicine.

What if the face of the enemy turns literally black? Obedience no less becomes tantamount to self-destruction. The equally devilish blocking characters in the novel are opportunistic Negroes who have gained influence by kowtowing to whites. Their loyalty is to the source of that power for whom they are ready to turn traitor to fellow Negroes. As Invisible Man is expelled from the college for Negroes for inconveniencing the white benefactor Mr. Norton, Dr. Bledsoe tells him: “I had to be strong and purposeful to get where I am. Yes, I had to act the nigger.”15 Bledsoe virtually stabs him in the back with a letter of reference that, he is to learn some years later, is actually derogatory. Another elderly Negro victimizes him. Brockway, a boilerman at a paint factory in the north and blindly loyal to the white management, tricks him into overpressuring a boiler which explodes and kills him.16 Nothing hurts so hard than betrayal by one’s own people. Yet, Invisible Man relates it all with ironic detachment. He is not spared the pain for sure, but he can see through the almost farcical drama in which he is caught. He muses: “…one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of the whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker…and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray.”17 Given this confusion of color and identity, real invisibility could after all be a means toward authenticity. It could even be immensely preferable to false masks.

Invisible Man’s urge to help his own people in spite of it all derives from a superior knowledge denied them in their blindness. As an outsider he has the ability to see deeper through the larger issues of life that affect the fate of everybody. This messianic motivation gets him involved with the Harlem Brotherhood. Endowed with oratorical skills, the same talent that wins for him scholarship in college, he attracts the attention of the Brotherhood which is committed to the cause of underprivileged Negroes. Encouraged by his newfound white friends, he enlists in the party. But his first speech before an assembly of Negroes on the theme of social justice gets the disapproval of the party leader and its theoretician as being evasive of ideological principles. Under strict discipline, he is made to study its scientific doctrines. Here he stumbles again on another blind alley. With Tod Clifton gone, a young party worker who wills his own death because of disillusionment with party discipline, Invisible Man later on severs relation with it and attempts to come to terms with Ras, founder of a rival organization called Black Nationalist Party that champions Negro separatism and hate of all white people. But Ras calls him a traitor and tries to have the mob lynch him. He luckily escapes and lands on a coal bin through an open manhole as the sound and fury of race riot above go on unabated.

Invisible Man feels being used by the Brotherhood as a sort of a natural resource for the furtherance of their own ends, to be dispensed with after outliving his usefulness to the party. He says: “Here I had thought that they accepted me because color made no difference, when in reality it made no difference because they didn’t see either color or men….”18 It may be recalled that Bigger was similarly treated by the communists, except Max, who looked upon him as some kind of abstraction, a symbol of exploitation.19 The outsider who is possessed by a will to an integrated life cannot find fulfillment in political organizations that actually value ideologies more than persons. The process of dehumanization around him is thus interminable.

There is also in Invisible Man a feeling of powerlessness, a feeling that he has no control over the things which happened to him. It is as if his fate is thrust upon him without his having participated in shaping it. Even the major decisions that shape his destiny are being made for him by other people who do not give him the opportunity to have his say in the matter. Or if he speaks up at all, the message of his speeches simply goes over the heads of his listeners. All this could be the result of his being a person of no consequence, of his being “invisible.” Yet his “invisibility” sharpens his hindsight that enables him to philosophically assess the meaning of the events in his life. Being nobody, no man with no name, he winds up as everyman. All through the course of his hard-luck adventures, he has donned on dubious identities, and even gets mistaken for other persons so that he is at once every man and no man in particular. Refused recognition as a man both by whites and blacks alike, he turns his gaze inward and finds for himself the authentic self that has for so long eluded him. His feverish search for identity comes within his ken at last. “All my life I had been looking for something….I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer….I am nobody but myself.”20

The world of Invisible Man is a dizzying wasteland of black and white, each vying with the other in convincing him of his nonexistence. For all that, having encountered his authentic selfhood after peeling off the false ones, and dying to them all, he achieves a new sense of freedom. This sense of personal liberty, born of self-discovery, makes him realize his infinite capacity to love. “In spite of it all, I find that I love,”21 he says. From that freedom premised on love originates the idea of social responsibility, an almost mystical consciousness of one’s stake in the fate of all. Thus he says as the novel winds up, “…even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.”22 In saying this, Invisible Man’s story assumes a far-ranging meaning outside the race controversy, even beyond the ambience of the fictional landscape delineated with virtuoso strokes. After the storm of his life and the better wisdom gained underground, he hopes to transform the world without. Reculer pour mieux sauter. Invisible Man on the higher frequencies speaks for us all who are engaged in the business of living in a community of people who are rendered puppets of their own conditioning. His quest becomes ours, too.

In the case of Bigger Thomas, the world is polarized into a clear-cut duality of black and white, and to the latter he vents the full force of his fury. Unlike Invisible Man, the essence of his entire being is anchored on hate, which is actually but the inability to love. His quarrel with society is the protest of life wronged and maimed to fit the sinister schemes of those who exercise power. Bigger Thomas revolts to show that no one can willfully abuse the dignity of a human being without having to pay the price for it. As Bigger in prison examines the loose ends of his life, he goes a bit further in the contemplation of the larger purposes of existence. He takes the long view and raises the eternal questions: “If he were nothing, if this were all, then why could he not die without hesitancy?...Why this eternal reaching out for something that was not there?”23 And as Bigger’s story draws to a close, one realizes that his revolt is not really confined within the limits of his immediate environment, but has taken on a metaphysical dimension. His crime is also a dramatic defiance of the transcendent principle operating in a temporal scheme that to him makes no sense. He asks thus: “Why this black gulf between him and the world, warm red blood here and cold blue sky there, and never a wholeness, a oneness, a meeting of the two?”24

The final redemption of the outsider as Negro may come about when people around him begin to see him less of a Negro and more of a human being. From the moment the black man himself transcends the parochial dichotomies of color or lack of it, he stands above the ordinary rabble in the awareness of the essential oneness of all that live. Invisible Man’s credo of social responsibility and Bigger’s metaphysical questioning of the human predicament indicate that they may not have strayed too far afield. To really find back one’s feet upon the right track would entail a radical turnaround of consciousness so that, seeing oneself in the other, there really is neither underdog nor topdog, neither black nor white but only one common humanity under the skin.


1 Quoted by Addison Gayle Jr. (ed.) The Black Aesthetic (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1972), xxi.

2 Richard Wright, Native Son (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1940), xxxi.

3 Quoted by Sanders Redding, Soon One Morning (New York: Alfred A.Knoff, 1963), 56.

4 Wright, op.cit.

5 Wright, ibid.,

6 Richard Wright’s term quoted by Edward Margoli, ed., The Art of Richard Wright (Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969), 21.

7 Wright, ibid., 358.

8 Wright, ibid., 354.

9 Quoted by M.G. Cooke (ed), Modern Black Novelists (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971), 1.

10 Albert H. Morelicad, Harold Blum and Others, One Hundred Great American Novels (The New American Library, 1966), 194.

11 Ralph Waldo Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Random House, Inc., 1947-8, 1952), 3.

12 Ellison, ibid., 19.

13 Cooke, op.cit., 66-67.

14 Cooke, ibid.

15 Ellison, passim,

16 Ellison, ibid., 436.

17 Ellison, ibid., 12.

18 Ellison, ibid., 18.

19 Ellison, ibid., 437.

20 Ellison, ibid.

21 Wright, op.cit., 351-352.

22 Wright, ibid.

23Wright. ibid.

24Wright, ibid.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Si isay ca man?

By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.

“Who do you think you are?” Si isay ca man?

This is invariably the question we throw at somebody who comes on too strong or happens to be overbearingly haughty to our sensibilities. We ordinarily have very little patience for the ego-tripper, much more so with the egomaniacal barbarian. If someone comes along who puts on airs for one reason or another, we can hardly wait to cut him or her to size instead of just letting the guy alone. What is it that the small-town braggart, the ordinary citizen with delusions of grandeur, or the arrogant public official drunk with power have in common? Well, they all share one thing—a bloated ego.

Why does that kind of behavior get on our nerves? Moreover, why is it that on the other hand we lavish praises on an individual who is known for his or her modesty, who does not puff up himself or herself with pride even when there is every reason to do so? Something in our value system prompts us to favor one as admirable and despise the other as undesirable. I suppose it is not just an issue of ethics. It is also a question of aesthetics. When we disapprove of somebody’s actuations, we do not only say “sala.” We also say “macanos.” One of Shakespeare’s characters remarked that it is great to have a giant’s strength, but that it is cruelty to use it like a giant. What we truly are simply speaks for itself. There is really no need for self-advertisement.

We are not here advocating non-assertiveness or self-deprecation as virtues par excellence. Even humility becomes vice when indulged in self-consciously. In which case it becomes false modesty. Besides, weakness is the refuge of the inferior. The great German philosopher Nietzsche frowned upon meekness and lack of elan vital as roadblocks to the full realization of man’s potentials for greatness. There is in fact nothing wrong with self-affirmation and a sense of satisfaction in one’s noteworthy achievements. Superior strength of character, intelligence and ability are the hallmarks required of those who would dare to make a difference or escape from the human antheap. In the works of Ayn Rand, enlightened self-interest and native talent are extolled as the cornerstones of the individual’s accomplishments. Timidity has no room in the fictional edifice she fashioned or the philosophy she conceived. One of her books bears this catchy title ”The Virtue of Selfishness.” Oh, well.

At this juncture, it would be immensely useful to clarify, if we can, the commonly muddled issue as to whether or not selfishness is the same as self-love. Let us have for our springboard Christ’s command “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This sentence may be considered as elliptical as it can be restated fully as “You shall love your neighbor as (you love) yourself.” But then the original formulation stands: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. So, it is not really loving one’s neighbor as if he or she were one’s own self, but loving one’s neighbor as oneself. There is here no literal separation or division between oneself and one’s neighbor. There is only a unity. At any rate, even if we take the explicit rendering of Christ’s original statement, it is still evident that love of others is premised upon love of one’s self. They are not diametrically opposed since, to begin with, the latter is the precondition of the former. Self-love then does not really run counter to love of others. It is evidently true that I cannot love my neighbor if I do not love myself in the first place. Love of oneself and love of neighbor are thus not mutually exclusive but interlocked.

Now, the minute I love myself solely without regard for the other so that I only think and act in furtherance of my own self-interest, that self-love all too easily turns into selfishness. Then, we see the birth of a monster that goes by the name of narcissism.  On the other hand, once I sacrifice myself for others even at my own expense, or even perhaps at the cost of my own life, not that I love myself less but that I love others more, then that gesture amounts to what is called as altruism, the highest form of love that is divine. The Greek word for it is “agape.” Jesus Christ put it thus: “Greater love hath no man than this that a man lays down his life for his friends.”

Agapeic love was exemplified by Christ himself when he submitted Himself for humanity’s redemption. But the question naturally surfaces: Is anyone, human as we are, capable of such kind of love, which is absolutely unselfish? May it not be asserted that only Christ can love in this manner as He is the greatest expression of God’s own love for mankind? In modern situation ethics, all moral laws are considered to be relative, depending upon the concrete surrounding circumstances. But there is one exception. The law of love is declared to be absolute. Its command is: "Love and do what you will." The unwritten assumption is that if any man can but love in the agapeic sense, he cannot make any moral error. Thus it is that moral perfection is achieved through its highest expression in unconditional self-giving.

Are there stories that unmistakably demonstrate that ordinary humanity is capable of manifesting “agape” in our dealings with one another? Well, I suppose we may not be disappointed. A poem by Phoebe Cary, “A Leak in the Dyke” comes to mind. It tells the story of a heroic Dutch boy who plugged the leaking dyke with his finger to save his people from drowning and died in the process. There is too the story of Sydney Carton in Charles Dicken’s novel,  A Tale of Two Cities, who decided to be decapitated in the guillotine in place of another man for the sake of the woman he loved, even if he knew his love would remain unrequited. But these are fictive characters. Are there flesh-and-blood heroes who offered their lives in self-sacrifice? 

In 1990, following the 7.8 Ms Luzon killer quake which claimed the lives of countless people trapped in the debris of collapsed buildings, a man labored his way through the rubble of Hyatt Hotel in Baguio City and saved the lives of a number of injured victims. The imminent danger attendant to what he was doing did not deter him from his determination to save others. As he was pulling one more wounded victim to safety, a concrete block mortally struck him down. He was buried alive there together with the wounded that he had tried to rescue.

Another true story of bravery and heroism happened in 1993 during the Krus sa Wawa feast, an annual Bocaue pagoda festival. A 13-year-old boy pulled out from the jaws of death four kids who would have drowned when the pagoda capsized. He did not think of his own personal safety while swimming to their rescue. Unfortunately, he died after saving the kids from drowning.

A recent incident was reported on TV involving a father who threw himself in front of a speeding motorcycle to shield his daughter from being directly hit. True, he suffered serious physical injuries. To him, however, his broken bones were nothing compared to the fact that his daughter was spared what could have been a certain death. I bet there are yet more true-to-life stories of rescue, perhaps even more spectacular, that may not have been reported in the news. But for our purposes here, let these three real incidents suffice.

These guys may not have heard of “agape.” All they knew was that in those crucial moments they were badly needed by fellow human beings in distress. And they responded spontaneously without counting the cost to themselves. It may then be asked:  What made them do their selfless acts? For personal glory? That’s out of the question. Or is it because they must have felt it in their bones that deep within they and those victims were one? An idiom in Pilipino expresses this idea beautifully: Lukso ng dugo.

Joseph Campbell made mention of the German philosopher Schopenhauer whose interest was said to be aroused by similar incidents recounted above. It struck the latter as curious what is it in the human makeup that impels us to perform selfless acts of heroism. The conclusion he reached is that though our individuality is essential in functioning on our plane of manifestation, yet our affinity with one another is more than just physical. It is true that the life force coursing through the veins and arteries of our separate systems is one and the same, even as the current flowing through or lighting up a series of different electric bulbs is one and the same. Campbell said that our actual ultimate root is in our humanity, not in our personal genealogy. But even more than our common humanity or blood kinship, what truly binds us together is one spirit, one consciousness.

So then, once we transcend our separate self-sense and attain true communion with our fellowmen, we won’t be hard put to find it in our hearts to make allowance for the foibles of our pet peeves, the ones with bloated egoes. We can perhaps excuse the most offensive A.H. hereabouts on the ground that s/he may not be fully aware of the irritating impression s/he is creating in the other people's perception. Besides, legions are there who have not awakened to the eternal dimension of their individuality, but content merely to act out the vanity and quirks of their person. If it were not so, then they would have known what to say with conviction when asked, "Si isay ca man?"