22 May, 2010

Baking in the National Library


I have just finished watching this little known movie entitled AGORA about the siege the early Christians laid upon the Great Library of Alexandria at the fourth century when the Roman Empire had recognized Christianity as the official religion of the empire. And how the female philosopher, Hipatia, struggled to keep the knowledge of the ancient world alive amidst the zealous acts that leave such chaos at its wake.


Just a few hours ago, I had spent almost a day at the National Library of the Philippines. To those of you who have known me through Jesuit University and that other school across that university along Taft Avenue, if you can’t find me anywhere else, I usually am at the library not to catch a snooze but to explore the stacks and read the rest of the day away.

As I entered that Bauhaus structure along T.M. Kalaw Avenue at probably one of the hottest days of this summer, the sparse lobby gave no impression that within these walls, the people of this nation will behold before them such wonders found only in printed bound parchment that those who have dared contain them there laboured that we may know the tangible and intangible world by ways never revealed to us before.

Truth be told, that last sentence had more in it than what that place could have offered me. As I applied for my reading card which cost me only 50 pesos [almost $1 US], the insufferable heat in that place could not ruin my resolve to gain access to a few books that I needed which were currently out of circulation.

In my quest for reference books for the research on this book I’m developing with another writer, I was led to the online catalogue of the National Library since the rare books I was looking for cost an arm and a leg for $300 on the internet. I’m not a cheapskate, but the contents I needed from pages those books are all up here in the swirling primordial mist that is my mind -I just needed them for footnoting.

As I went into the reading rooms, and through the stacks to look for what I needed, I could not help but stare at the state that place was in. The place was clean as libraries go, but the disrepair, the poorly maintained stacks, and the general atmosphere of the place akin to that of a backwater town that government funding forgot.

As I walked those halls, It did not seem to me that this was the place that held almost everything about the world since the first movable type. What is this place to be for some impressionable youth seeking to fuel himself in the arts and sciences? One could argue that what really matters is what is inside those books and not the place that hold them. But if the place lacks the very books that can take them onto this journey -No, that the one that sends Bastian into Fantasia but you get my drift- then what?


Is this neglect associated with the priorities of every government that came and went? In the middle of my research I composed a text message that I sent to my mentors in the hopes that they may at least help me make sense of the experience.

“Sitting here at the National Library, a week after elections and just before the new come to take office, I wonder what will a new president really do for the Arts? To be specific, what does it matter to my art now that the people seem to have found hope and change in a man who is also of the old order?”

And this was the most disturbing reply

“Anak, ano ba naman ang alam niya sa Sining natin? The Arts have always been the least of any leader’s priorities since I can’t remember. If anything, the Arts to him may be just like tonight’s latest “gossip” that would be replaced with another juicier one by tomorrow. Palibhasa gossip rin lang naman ang alam ng kapatid niyan and I’m afraid they may play the Arts card when it is to their advantage like a badly acted teleserye”

And there I was, sitting on one of the wooden tables at the end of the Filipiniana section telling myself once again, that a place such as this should be the beacon for those wide-eyed youth seeking to be inspired, seeking to understand the world, and be fueled to contribute to the Sciences and most especially the Arts. No matter how disheartening that text message was.

That place must contain the infinite variety of the world as it is seen not by just one eye. For how are we to flourish if we do not at least leave a generation of new thinkers and even madmen that would challenge the way we see the world.

In our little corners, we [the few who still dare] try to keep the Arts alive. But what is Art without the interdisciplinary understanding of it? Are we to entrust that to the fantaseryes and teleseryes on recent vintage? When the fame of our world class performers are all limited to talent within the framework of western material, where is the emergence Filipino Identity in this global melting pot? It’s not there because there is nothing to catalyse it.

A few new computers with LCD screens does not a state of the art facility make.

I fear we are just fostering a wikipedia and “cut & paste” next generation if the very places that should contain the world for them only contain an island; leaving the rest of it to be googled away.

When forced to abandon her quest to keep teaching, Hipatia then says, “Sinesias, you do not question what you believe, or cannot… I MUST.”


Because, what is that to me who struggles to create illusion within a proscenium frame to suspend any disbelief? Because what is that to me who seeks to add to that ISBN list with something that I see as uniquely Filipino?

If the mandate of the people is indeed for the good of everyone, what does that vote translate to us? Are they expecting us to be the sacrificed so that the many may be prioritized? Or are they expecting us to run for Party List seats in congress so we may finally be heard?

I may not see the National Library to be the like the Biblioteque of Alexndria any time soon. As it currently fails to deliver that brand of awe that a place where knowledge and things in their infinite variety may be discovered anew. The only saving grace of that place, are its employees. The people working there, under the dismal circumstances, are testaments to the resilience that we Filipinos are known for. That petite lady with the glasses at the special collections gives me a better appreciation of what a civil servant has to endure.

The change that you have been promised is not something that can come overnight. But if you don’t really voice out what needs to be changed, then the priorities just won’t get listed.

I remember something important about the Dark Ages, when the rest of the world falls into this hype of change that often results in chaos, there are those that retreat to the halls of learning and chambers of knowledge translating the knowledge of the old world so that there would be enough of them to spark the Renaissance.

Maybe I’m thinking of gloom and doom too much too soon… But if in six years, that structure along T.M. Kalaw remains as it is, then corruption is really the least of this nation’s concerns.

Go ahead, ask the average Filipino teenager who Idianale, Magwayen, Tungkung-Langit, Alunsina or Lakampati are, and you would not be surprised that they know more about Aphrodite and Apollo. Maybe even you who are reading this won’t even know off the bat.

I will be announcing “eating my piece of humble pie” if anything is bound to change at all.

thus spake the barefoot baklesa

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