Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Fan language

Fan language

Posted 01:26am (Mla time) Feb 02, 2005
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A13 of the February 2, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

BEING typecast as a historical relic is an occupational hazard. My students probably assume, from my lectures, that Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio were my classmates in kindergarten. When I annotate some hazy old photographs, coaxing out a sense of life in the late 19th-century Philippines, they marvel how I can do it if I hadn't lived in the past.

I bring new light into required readings by highlighting lusty passages in "Noli Me Tangere" and ask if the sexual undertones are really in the text or merely another example of Ambeth Ocampo over-reading. In Chapter 25 Maria Clara and her friends are wading in a river searching for heron's nests believed to make people who held them invisible. Here was a brief description of Maria Clara that made me remember Nick Joaquin who insisted that Rizal was so enamored of his tragic heroine that his language turns mushy and romantic whenever Maria Clara enters the scene:

"At last, Maria Clara emerged from the bath accompanied by her friends, fresh as a rose opening its petals with the first dew, covered with sparks of fire from the early morning sun. Her first smile was for Crisostomo, and the first cloud on her brow for Padre Salvi..."

A few paragraphs before earlier, we find the friar hiding in the bushes and this is what he sees (quotations are from the translation by Soledad Lacson-Locsin):

"Their legs were wet up to the knees, the wide folds of their bathing skirts outlining the gracious curves of their thighs. Their hair hung loose and their arms were bare. They wore striped gay-colored blouses ... Pale and motionless, the religious Actaeon watched this chaste Diana: his sunken eyes glistening at the sight of her beautifully molded white arms, the graceful neck ending in a suggestion of a bosom. The diminutive rosy feet playing in the water aroused strange sensations and feelings in his impoverished, starved being and made him dream of new visions in his fevered mind."

The above texts reflect what was considered sexually attractive in those days: bare arms, a good neck or nape, tiny rosy feet. These appear very tame compared to the present when you can find more flesh and steamy action in magazines or pirated VCDs. Rizal's daring seems corny in comparison with Xerex Xaviera but one can see that there is value in leaving some things to the imagination.

For many students raised on heavily edited high school texts (or chapter summaries or, much worse, the badly drawn black-and-white “komiks” version) like the above, are like a revelation. Rizal can be seen in a new light: he could be funny and he could actually laugh, unlike all the glum and brooding monuments we have of him all over the archipelago.

When people take the trouble to read through Rizal's texts, they get a revelation. We can never shake off the national hero bit and that makes reading him an imposition, an obligation of a good citizen. I tell my classes that Rizal's greatest misfortune was becoming our national hero. If he had not been so exalted, maybe more people would read him for pleasure and learn more about the past and themselves.

There is something about the late 19th century that made things more interesting: the use of codes and symbols, which probably made people more aware of things below the surface. For example, the most common gadget Filipinos have these days is the cell phone. It comes in all shapes and sizes. It comes in a rainbow of colors and can be customized and accessorized into something mildly fashionable by hanging charms on them or even putting them inside various sheaths from something as ordinary as used eye or sunglass boxes to Louis Vuitton key holders minus the keys. These things transmit voice, fax, e-mail and even pictures. What would our history have been like if our heroes had the same gadgets a century ago?

Things were indirect then, social etiquette restrictive. In the wonderful opening chapter of the "Noli," Rizal describes the living room segregated by sex, with men on one side and women on the other. Ibarra says the women "open their mouths to suppress yawns, but cover their faces instantly with their fans, scarcely making a sound. Whatever attempts at conversation are ventured dwindle into monosyllables, like the sounds one hears at night, caused by rats and lizards. Is it, perhaps the different images of Our Lady hanging from the wall between the mirrors, which makes them silent and assume a religious composure; or are the women here an exception?"

A Filipino gentleman in Rizal's time would have to be conversant with the non-verbal language used by women, and I don't mean text messaging. Communication was discreetly made through the main feminine accessories of the time-not cell phones, but fans and handkerchiefs. If a woman covered half her face with her fan, she meant, "Follow me." If she counted the ribs it meant, "I want to talk to you" If she carried the fan on the right hand, she was saying, "I want to have a lover," if on the left, "I'm already taken." To fan herself briskly did not mean it was hot, but rather "I have great love for you." To fan slowly was to say, "You mean nothing to me." And to put the fan away meant, "I don't want to be courted." Worst was to close the fan suddenly, which said, "I hate you."

So when you re-read the "Noli," look out for other clues and know that the women once described as “mahinhin” were more daring than we think. If only they were not so repressed.


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