Sat, 29 Nov 2003

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fiction and so called reality

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Since I sped right through Tehanu, I decided to keep going on to The Other Wind, and again, I am astounded by the faint echoes of things that I once knew, or had been told, once upon a time, in that imaginary place that was my childhood. My mind tries to reach for symmetry, for congruity, understanding that within every story, however fantastic, there is a bit of reality, that a story is a lie we use to tell the truth.

I believe that what separates humans from other animals is that we can imagine what-is-not. Even crazier, we can cause what-is-not to become.

Hopefully none of the following will make any sense if you've never read any of the Earthsea Cycle, as perhaps my meandering ruminations may spoil some of the magic of this series. In any case, you have been warned, and if you want to read the cycle without any preconceptions, it would be wise to skip the rest of this entry.

Earthsea has always made me think of the Philippines. Not that the Philippines is the only island nation in the world, but obviously, it is the one I am most familiar with. Moreover, the Hardic people of Earthsea are brown skinned, usually without much facial and body hair.

The modern nation-state of the Republic of the Philippines, however, is an artificial entity created by colonialism. It was not until I took a class in Southeast Asian Studies that I realized that my people's history, like the history of all ancient peoples, is not bounded by delineations of territory. I came to realize that, though my people are not really empire-builders (although some have created empires), the region of the Earth touched by the culture of my people is indeed imperial in scope, as far east as Madagascar, as far west as the Easter Islands, perhaps even the mainland of South America itself. That the island now called Taiwan may have been our ancestral homeland, and that what is now the Philippines become our bridge to the world (as it still is, I suppose), never becoming completely trammelled by an imperial power, as the islands to the south did in time.

In the beginning was freedom, because freedom and survival were one and the same, and if you did not survive, then you did not live.

Bondage was a thing created by religion, indeed, created even by our own religion, the Ways of the Sea and the Sky, the traditions of the animists, perhaps the reason why Catholicism (and Islam) was so easily adaptable to the environment.

The thing I learned about the animistic beliefs is the importance of boundaries. Of categories. Of names, i.e., labels. (This made sense to me, as many Filipinos I've met seem to be the most prejudiced people I know.) That which respects its proper boundaries is inert and safe. That which crosses boundaries is dangerous, and, well, powerful. So they told me that in the old days, it was the babaylan who was the spiritual center, the bridge, as it were, from the realm of physical objects and the realm of spiritual energy. The babaylan, who was ambiguously male and female. (And the word somehow became corrupted to bakla, the term for homosexual, which, perhaps mistakenly on my part, doesn't seem to have the same connotations that "faggot" has in English.)

Rivers were sacred things, not be lightly crossed. And if you strayed from the boundaries of the village, you were fair game for the spirits of the forest. The creation of the kris blade was an infusion of power: the elements of fire, metal, and water came together to forge that which was meant to sunder.

I have yet to articulate it all sensibly, but suffice it to say, learning this, it made sense why, despite being an island nation, descendants of a race of avid seafarers, many Filipinos did not know how to swim. Why, even with the coming of Catholicism, the animist ways still survived, couched in terms of the Roman catechism, perhaps, but nonetheless, plainly visible if you knew where to look.

So a woman who kept her long hair wild and free, unbound, as it were, was also dangerous. And to step over a person was as dangerous as crossing a river, or crossing the boundary between the village and the forest. Things that cut were practically sacred—tools used precisely for the breaking of boundaries.

There is more that I am forgetting.

But what does this have to do with Earthsea?

Well, as another excursus, there is the creation myth. In Earthsea, the Creator is named Segoy, who happens to be a dragon, and before Segoy spoke the words of Making, there was only sea and sky. My favorite version of the Creation myth of my people involves the sea and sky as well, and the trickster bird Manaul (who reminds me of Loki of the Norse, Inktomi of the Native Americans) who provoked the sky into throwing down rocks from the sky (meteors?!?) upon the sea to create land so that he could have a place to rest. (Is it mere coincidence and my apophenic mind to realize that, while dragons have traditionally been reptilian, reptiles have been discovered to be related to birds, just in our own era, and perhaps there were dragons in the long forgotten past before the human race had memory, although I still don't understand the breathing of fire.)

And, though perhaps not in as straightforward a way, in both cultures (the imaginary and the real), a name is used to bind. In Earthsea, giving a true name causes one to have power over whatever is named. In Southeast Asia, to give something a name is to define its boundaries, and thus bind its otherwise dangerous power. (Somehow, I can't articulate why, this makes me think of Einstein's famous equation E=mc^2. Each atom of creation is bound by Bohr's quantum energy levels, and the counterintuitive nuclear forces, without which the Big Bang would've just cooled off and faded away probably without creating matter at all. But I simplify things I don't really understand.)

And death: in the East of Earthsea, in the Kargad Lands, they believe that when we die, our spirits are yielded unto the universe, and are then reborn anew, without memory of the last life. Likewise, my animistic forebears believed that death was final, that the energy of our spirit was yielded back into the storehouse of energy in the universe, that our lives were ever bounded by life and death.

And here is the apparently political point that Le Guin makes. The obsession of the afterlife has caused an imbalance in Earthsea's Tao-like Equilibrium. In the West of Earthsea (although not the Uttermost West), the Hardic people believe that when you die, you cross the wall of stones (again, with the crossing), and enter upon the "Dry Land," where the stars do not change and no other living thing moves, and it is always night time, and the spirits of the dead do not see each other, such that loved ones will walk past one another and not recognize each other. (As someone else noted—I'll try to track it down someday—this is very much in tune with the original Jewish understanding of Sheol, which was, in many ways, the precursor to the Christian vision of Hell. We find out (this is a spoiler) that this Wall was created by humans to try to cheat death, and that this Wall caused what should've been Paradise to turn into the Dry Land, and only when they die do they realize their folly, that what they have created is not eternal life, but merely, eternal consciousness of being dead. And thus, they cannot be reborn, and are bound to this twilight existence, with no surcease of suffering.

I don't know why, but my ancestors' version of the afterlife seems to ring true to me. In the sense that there is no afterlife. When you die, that's all there is, there ain't no mo', and while there probably is a God, there is no heaven, not in the way we understand it. There are no pearly gates, there is no happily ever after. After the end and before the beginning is the void, and all we have is that space in between. A dead mind—no, that makes no sense, because what is dead cannot change, and what cannot change cannot be a mind. When you cease to have a mind, you cease to be, and we cannot imagine the void because to be able to imagine, you must have a mind, but to understand the void you would have to not have a mind. The Godelian paradox. You may define everything except what is not. You cannot truly define what is false. Again, I simplify matters which I have little understanding.

And I can't help but reflect how, despite the fact that the New Testament is in fact a handbook for revolution, that Jesus was a revolutionary, a subversive—that is another story, the Christian faith seems to have been completely perverted into a tool of oppression. Instead of reminding its people that the meek shall inherit the earth, that the first will be last and the last will be first, and that Jesus came to divide not to unite, to set son against father, daughter against mother, for much of its history, instead it preached that we should make ready for the afterlife, and that any suffering in this world was to be borne with patience. That the status quo was the will of God, that the abuse and oppression caused by the wealthy and the powerful was how it was supposed to be. I think it is only in the past generation that some parts of the Christian faith realized that their mission was in this world, not the next, and that if God was truly loving, then oppression would not exist, that oppression was a human-made thing, a transgression against the laws of God. Although many Christians still live in the Dark Ages, and use the fear of God's punishment as weapons against their enemies.

And so, perhaps, Roman Catholicism is the Wall which my people have accepted, a false promise of an afterlife that excuses the misery caused by the wealthy and the powerful.

But I have strayed.

In any case, the similarity is only faint, I realize. The languages Le Guin uses has nothing in common with Austronesian tongues, really, except that they are essentially quite alien from English, and from the Romance languages that Westerners are most familiar with.

But still, Le Guin was the daughter of the Kroebers, those infamous anthropologists who exploited the last of the Yani, and who have a building named after them at UC Berkeley. Her books show this influence (that of the white man's sience of anthropology, and also perhaps its cultural antidote that was born at Cal, ethnic studies) Perhaps it is just the commonality of a mythical island homeland (for, being an American, my imaginings of the Philippines are doomed to always be mythical) and the philosophies that were born in that cradle of democracy, the University of California.

I have wandered far afield. I will stop here to regain my bearings.

11:14:33 29 Nov 2003 > /books > permalink > 4 comments

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