The Deep and the Shallow
I agree with many of the things F. Sionil Jose wrote about in his column in The Philippine STAR. I agree; to a certain extent, we have become somewhat shallow. There’s no denying that shallowness he rails against. We do enjoy shallow entertainment. We do elect shallow officials into government. We do have a problem with memory. But in the same vein as Liberty Chee, I also disagree with many of the things he wrote.
Not that I’m going to lay my neck on the line against one of the Philippines’ most celebrated writers, but even he has his shallowness.
It’s easy to agree with Mr. Jose. After all, in a country where self-reflection comes with a great degree of self-mortification, it’s easy to criticize/mutilate the Pinoy, all the while forgetting that the one doing the criticism/mutilation is Pinoy himself. As a vanguard and guardian of history and memory, F. Sionil Jose should be the first to understand how deep the Filipino can be. Even our most “backward” and “feudal” ideas find depth in things like our deep attachment to religion, the intricacies of Filipino politics, and the deep undercurrents of our very complex history as a people.
It’s tempting to say that our shallowness comes from the depths of our poverty. To a certain extent, it’s true; it’s expensive to get doctoral degrees to gain depth, much less buy tickets for performances of traditional Asian dances to appreciate depth. You can’t get Al-Jazeera and the BBC if all you can afford to watch on your small TV set are free signals from rusty aerials. Books, particularly the classics and Palanca-winning anthologies Mr. Jose are so proud of, are very expensive: the poorest of the poor who need them the most can’t buy them, can’t read them, and can’t afford them. Depth, from this viewpoint, requires deeper pockets. The “finer things in life,” and the “deepest indulgences of the mind,” are not really up there on the priority list if you have a deep-seated hunger in the pit of your stomach.
But that’s just one angle. What I’d really want to get at is Mr. Jose’s idea of “depth.” His experience of depth, my experience of depth, and your experience of depth will always be different. There is kababawan everywhere, even in the things he experiences. There is shallowness in Japan, though their culture is rich with tradition. There is shallowness in America, though they may be the center of technology and politics in the 20th century. There is shallowness in the classics: the Greeks and the Romans were not above graffiti, orgies, and the swilling of wine and excessive eating of figs. There is shallowness in The New York Times, too. If our yabang is shallow, the same can be said for other nationalities that suffer from cultural cringe, racial supremacists who believe in a master race, and so on and so forth.
The woman from a shantytown who stakes her hope on a game show has depth, too: the depths of her poverty, the depths of her being a woman in poverty, the depths of how her world view has come to seeing a host as a messiah. Students may frequent the second-hand bookstore, but they do find their reading materials there (some of my own best finds of “deep books” – the tracts of Kuhn, Wittgenstein, and Evans-Pritchard – all came cheap from Book Sale). A woman in a hospital corridor may not be reading The Economist, but there are depths that we cannot perceive; like if she’s staring blankly into space wondering how her son would get well from a really bad illness.
Those are depths that many of our fellow Filipinos swim in. Depths of feeling, philosophies that do not find themselves in scholarly writing in the Western tradition. There are depths that we do not know of, because our experiences and even our empathy won’t allow us to know. To memorize depth is one thing, and to experience it is another.
There are certain depths to fashion that the literati may not immediately latch on to. There are depths to sport that philosophers may not easily understand. There are depths to inuman, at that: when a group of tambays ponder upon the meaning of life over a bottle of gin, does it make them any more shallow as someone who does the same thing, but alone with a glass of expensive rum? In a way, it reveals Mr. Jose’s idea of “depth” as something equal to “props:” that “depth” can only be perceived and understood intellectually, that a political issue always has its answer in a quotation from Plato, or one’s mere presence in a bookstore makes someone a “bookworm.”
In his anecdotes on tinikling, his bookstore, and primetime television, it is easy to say that F. Sionil Jose is a man of deep thinking. Make no mistake about it: he is a very deep thinker, a very deep writer. Yet his folly – his shallowness – comes with glorifying the depths of appreciating Japanese dance and Western artefacts without appreciation – or recognition, at that – for how deep the experiences of others may be. He cries out against gross materialism and the glitter of gold and its equivalents, but such outrage comes from a lack of understanding – or recognition, at least – of how deep other stories are, other than his own.
Perhaps that idea of “shallowness” can be changed not by “deepening” the culture but reconfiguring one’s own views…
But that’s another story.