Friday, March 8, 2013

The egocentric predicament and
self-transcendence in Albis' short stories

By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.

Big or small happenings in the literary scene surely have their own place in that amorphous body of cultural creation we call belles lettres. And, in our country, literary events, major or minor or midway between, like the publication of a novel or a collection of short stories either by a multi-awarded author or by an unsung writer or the merely respectable one, should be rung in in the general interest of Philippine literature in English, still young as it is and in the process of development.

Abelardo S. Albis’ publishers deserve kudos on the publication in book form of his stories—some of which are prizewinning ones—that first saw print in various national weeklies from across the pre-war era through the martial law regime. The book, The Bell Ringer and Other Stories (New Day Publishers, 1982), released in low-priced paperback, should not only be welcomed by literary scholars but should find favor with readers interested neither in cheap entertainment nor in the avant-garde but in conventional serious fiction.

The fact that Albis’ stories previously appeared in popular periodicals may suggest the idea that they are of the category of the sob stories that constitute the regular fare in pulp magazines. A closer look at them reveals that there is more to the stories than their deceptively simple narrative frame. And the stringing together of these pieces into a single accessible volume has brought in bold relief a pattern of life that is immensely human, drawn in scattered fragments in the stories separated from one another in printed space and chronological time.

When the reader reads any of these stories without preconceptions, without allowing the screen of fashionable critical precepts to stand between him and the stories but rather let the narratives unfold themselves as they are, he cannot fail to be stirred by the ironic drama enacted in the lives of these characters who are a conglomeration of the middle class and simple folks caught in the conundrum of their own humanity, the contradictions in the human situation. While the stories do not consciously confront the socio-political issues of the times, they explore the more fundamental problems of the heart. It is in his probing into the Filipino psyche that Albis is in his element. And only such a limpid mind like Albis’, without the pretensions to intellectual superiority and expressing itself in a clear, almost cut-to-the-bone prose, that can capture the inner movements of the soul. This inwardness, this three-dimensional delineation of character easily escapes casual, let alone hurried reading. The more careful reader who reads these stories in the same spirit in which they were written may ultimately do justice to Albis’ book.

Albis’ penetrating dissection of the psychological make-up of his characters can be noticed by the discerning reader right through most, if not all, of the collected fifteen stories.

In both the lead story, “The Unfinished Portrait,” and the title story of the book, “The Bell Ringer,” he has shown a sensitive understanding of the ambivalent reactions of the self as it tries to reach out and relate itself to another self and yet fails in the end. Successful communion or coming together of souls is aborted by the appearance of a third party. Thus, for instance, the artist-narrator’s oneness of spirit with his subject (a woman) gets destroyed when he learns that his model will soon be married to another man. Unable now to gaze at the “window” of the soul meant for another, all he could do is look at her hands and work over them on the canvas, leaving the face of the portrait no more than a sketch.

Timo, the bell ringer who might just as well be called Timid, fares no better in his fate. Frail, nervous, and unsure of himself, he has lived since childhood in his “little corner” which somehow affords him a feeling of security. Even his work as a bell ringer ironically serves to accentuate all too well his otherness, his isolation from the very people whom he calls out to the community of the Mass. For Timo, the belfry is both at once a haven and a prison; and from its enclosing walls he issues out to meet the choir singer, the girl in whom he has hoped to find a reason and a larger meaning to his life. Timo might have in a way grown in his personality had he succeeded in relating himself to the girl. But he misreads the signs. The chorister does not fall for him. Soon the third self comes along to bring about the ruin of his dreams. Bernie, his enemy and rival, from whom he suffered untold humiliations, easily wins what could have been his own salvation and his only hope. Timo thus falls back on his sanctuary. He turns in upon himself and, finding only emptiness there, hurls himself from the belfry to his certain death.

The whole trouble of Timo and no less of the painter in “The Unfinished Portrait” hinges on their attempt to achieve a fullness of being by possessing another self. As long as the “me” operates and adds to itself another “me” which is actually a “not-me”, no real integration is possible. The existentialist dialectic of subject and object demonstrates the futility of effecting intersubjective harmony between the “I” as subject and the “other” as object. This is so because the “other” is himself a subject. And a “subject vis-à-vis subject” relation is in the main doomed to failure. Timo cannot in fact possess the girl all for himself. Nor can the painter-narrator his beautiful model. Not only is the bond impossible. There is always the danger of the subject as such turning freely to another.

Less technically, the bell-ringer and the painter have not really achieved maturity by completely bursting into freedom the confining shell of their little selves. The same thing may be said of some other characters in the book. There is the mother who unknowingly entraps the son with her own handcrafted blanket, a symbol of protective security that rather enslaves than permits the living of one’s own life. Luckily, the son, an Igorot mountaineer but already nurtured in another milieu, sees through the danger of it and asks his mother to give that token of love to the right person, his father. In the end though the mother realizes that her son must be right. “Like the pine tree he had reared his head far above the others. And like the pine tree she must be strong so that she would not drag him down.”

Cast in the same mold as the bell-ringer is Silverio Cruz, who rises from being a utility boy to becoming a soil scientist. Like Timo, he is shy and uncomfortable with people, but unlike the former he is blessed with a better intelligence which enables him to rise above his circumstances. There is, too, in Silverio’s story a breaking away from the old self, from the country and people that could not fully make him grow into his full human stature. His departure does not however mean a complete severance of old ties. In fact he responds to the summons to adventure with a view to returning with the boon of a better self transmuted in the life-nourishing center of the cosmos which for most Filipinos is a distant land like America. His past weighs him down—the many humiliations he endured owing to his lowly origins, the privations he suffered to earn him and his family the right to a better life. From a girl named Fe, his sweetheart, he has sought faith to encourage him to carry on. And considering Silverio’s personality, it indicates that he has the resilience of a quicksilver needed for his task and the experience he is to undergo. As the ship sails away from Manila harbor, Silverio sees in the clouds an image forming into a chrysalis from which emerges a moth that flies first uncertainly, then freely into the surrounding air. That moth is a projection from the back of his mind, an unconscious representation of his own self on its way to being released yet still within the thralldom of the past.

The Albis characters we have thus far commented on at least make the attempt to break out of the shell of selfhood even if they remain caught in its clutches. The other ones simply refuse to let go the entrenched ego and thereby fail to attain the moral and spiritual growth that comes with the annihilation of the personal ego. Florencio Rosario, Gustin, Oniang, and Tanang, not to mention the vain Carmelina, in their respective ways chase their own tails.

Florencio Rosario is far from being a stock character in a stock situation appealing to a stock response. He is the embodiment of the self-centered person whose moral weakness prevents him from achieving a humane, harmonious relationship even with those of his very own flesh and blood. He could have disclosed to the prisoner on the eve of his execution that he is the father who sired him although not man enough to assume responsibility for his passion. Florencio is the kind of person who recoils from “what the other people would say” no matter if it leads to his own disaster or of those whom he loves. Telling the truth even if it entails loss of face could have gained for him moral growth. In preserving the lie that shields his ego, he remains what he is—a man of straw.

A similar withholding of identity occurs in “The Magnolia Fower.” Here, it is the father who is the prisoner and on the loose. He visits his family for the last time, but refrains from telling his son who he is. Gustin is clearly a victim of events twisted as it were by the Furies to seal his doom. Even so, it still lies within his power as a human agent to make the moral choice. Gustin “…swapped a four-walled prison cell that had imprisoned him only for a definite term in favor of an unwalled prison cell that held him indefinitely, and which had no foreseeable future other than a grisly death.” Actually, Gustin escapes from his own shadow so that locked up now in himself he cannot anymore open himself to the world, much less to his son who anyway believes him to be already dead. He should see in death his own final liberation even as the magnolia flower renews its fragrance after dying countless times.

If the fathers in Albis’ stories are totally estranged from their sons because of the separative tendency of the ego, the mothers smother their children in more ways than one. Not to speak of the Igorot mother with her gift of s/mother love, there is Nena who drives away her two boys with hurting, spiteful words that only serve to draw apart rather than bring people close together.

Then, also, there is Tanang who holds, selfishly if innocently, her daughter Fina as a helpless pawn in the prison of her own thinking. Her only child with Edong, a farmer who died in the war, Tanang has brought up Fina in her own likeness and according to her prudish ideas of sexual purity spawned by a conservative religious education. Tanang wants Fina to be like herself on her wedding day, “chaste, immaculate, unkissed.” Fina, on her part taught early in the ways of obedience by her convent school training, does not take umbrage at her mother’s views and even respects them. The rigidity of Tanang’s false morality reaches its supreme expression when she refuses to let a man perform artificial respiration on her after drowning in a swimming spree. She boldly declares right in the presence of everyone around: “Only the man who will be her husband will press his lips upon the lips of my daughter.” These words are actually a sentence of death, inexorably sealing the girl’s sad end. Tanang’s naïve resignation of Fina’s fate to the will of God when she could have easily lived by being artificially resuscitated betrays the stern bigotry of a one-track mentality.

It may be further said of Tanang that she does not really love Fina for what she is. What she does love is not the person of her daughter but the image she has fashioned about her—as being like herself, refined and chaste. So, when it comes to deciding between her child as she is and her child as she thinks she should be, Tanang chooses the latter. She prefers her own ideas about her daughter to her very life itself. And that for Tanang is what counts.

The case of the other mother, Oniang, is quite pathetic. For while her possessive affection does not smother its object, it is she who gets smothered instead. An old widow of eighty, she does not really live for herself but for her only son, Lando. He is her alter ego for the sake of whom and by virtue of whose existence, she, too, lives. Even when Lando raises his own family, they live together in their own farmhouse in the village. He is their chief means of support. Thus it is that when one evening a band of armed men takes Lando along with them, his family naturally becomes disconsolate. Then as their place grows too dangerous for their own security, his wife Selma evacuates the family to their sister’s house in the town. Oniang, half-crazed by her son’s absence, resolves to stay put in the stubborn hope that Lando will come back. Prevailed upon to go, she walks along with them only up to the railroad station, then determinedly retraces her steps back home where she thinks of receiving her son and cook for him, as is her wont, his favorite food. A bullet hits her and overnight she bleeds to death.

With Lando gone, Oniang is understandably lost. When one self derives its reason for being from another and practically becomes its extension, it recoils upon itself and is rendered helpless with the loss of the other. Oniang’s complete dependence and desperate fixation to her son becomes her own undoing. Left alone to herself, she is nothing. Her “dream” of a happy life of reunion with Lando is the refusal of the ego to relinquish the strings of its attachment to the things that give it the illusory sense of personal perpetuation. In turning back to her illusions, she goes berserk. Crossing past the threshold of the unknown region, she may at last find real peace and freedom denied her on this plane. Whether it is Lando or just another man who afterwards comes to the dug-out does not matter any longer. For Oniang now, it makes no world of difference.

At least two of Albis’ characters, Ana and Letty, attain a measure of maturity. By that we mean the ability of a person to force back the centripetal pull of the bounding self towards the larger reality of the not-self. This involves sacrifice of self-interest in favor of the well-being of others who, in point of fact, are not something different and removed from the personal self. From the moment the self stops thinking only in terms of what it can get for itself and begins to consider what it can give of itself, it may be said to have really come of age. It is in this sense that we may speak of Ana as being far different from the other mothers previously described whose life-generating womb has turned into a life-denying tomb.

In Ana’s story, the self dies to itself before its time that another self may live. Ana is a helpless widow immobilized by a paralytic stroke. She gives away for good her only child, a two-year old daughter to the midwife Maria. It has not been easy for her but a prescience of her impending death adds strength to her decision. She assures Maria: “If I recover from my sickness…I promise you, I’ll not take the child from youl I give up my child to you—all my rights to the child to you….” Thus, Ana makes her covenant irrevocable. Her act of renunciation is indeed heroic because she does not wait for death to end it all. No sentimentality gets the better of her resolve to make secure her child’s future even if it means having to part with her forever. It takes no philosophic acumen to see no greater love than this that all is given for nothing.

In the same heroic breath, Letty ascends to the heights of nobility by deciding against using for her convenience an innocent human being not only as a salve to her bruised self but as an instrument to camouflage her disgrace as a fallen woman. For Letty has been deceived by Lino to whom she yielded, unsuspecting that he is a married man. That she is on the family way aggravates her trouble. As though by God’s grace, Ciano, a widower fresh from abroad, takes fancy to marrying her. A providential development for Letty is at hand. Without giving it much thought, she consents to his proposal. That is her moment of indiscretion. Letty comes to her senses so that even as the preparations for the wedding are under way, she clandestinely bolts from the place to the city. She shrinks from compounding the deception around her with another deception and bring the “suffering of the deceived to an innocent man.” Nothing less than strength of character can keep the integrity of a self already torn asunder by the evil of human dissimulation. In abandoning the false defenses of the ego, Letty gains in moral stature.

The psychological transformation or lack of it in Albis’ characters is coextensive with their rise or fall in the moral sphere. Those who tenaciously cling to the obsessions of the self destroy the human in them as in others. Whereas those who turn away from the self as the point of reference become the agent of an expansive force that deals life and not death. In other words, the slavish absorption in the concerns of the ego is their source of destruction just as altruism delivers them from themselves. Sometimes, though, the death-force in Albis’ fiction takes on the shape of the non-human like the violent wind that wreaks havoc on man and beast and vegetation alike. Yet nature ever heals itself even as the human spirit builds anew from the ruins.

Albis, in the span of almost two quarters of a century, has relentlessly pursued his vision of the self tossed about in the universal rhythm of becoming and dissolution in the familiar grounds of human reality. His stories as a whole reaffirm the fundamental truth of the death and rebirth of the self bound and unbound in the smithy of interpersonal relationships. He has drawn the picture. It remains for the Filipino reader to see himself there. 

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