NEW YORK—Lately, there has been a lot of talk of Hell. One of Dan Brown’s fictional characters in his latest novel, Inferno, Sienna, describes Manila as being the “gates of Hell.” Much of the reaction has predictably been fury at this dismissal, by a third-rate though best-selling author who apparently has never set foot in Manila, a city that dates back to 1572, counting the Noble and Ever Loyal City as a Spanish citadel, and goes back even further, when seen as the Muslim entrepot it once was.
To the Muslims, or Moros, the Spanish term for their historic enemies, the Spanish must have seemed the devil incarnate, infidels who made a mockery of their beliefs and saw non-Catholics as effectively condemned to eternal fire and damnation. Of course, the Moros believed the same fate awaited the Spanish.
Dan Brown’s fictional put-down came up recently, at the launch at the Asia Society of a collection of noir fiction set in Manila, titled, what else, Manila Noir, edited by Jessica Hagedorn. Published by Akashic Press, a New York-based indie outfit, the book includes well-known fiction writers on both sides, from Jose Dalisay and Angelo Lacuesta, to Sabina Murray, Gina Apostol, and Hagedorn herself—the latter three making up a panel to discuss the book and the idea of noir. Also part of the panel, moderated by Allan Isaac, was Ron Morales, five minutes of whose film, a very noir Graceland, was screened. I certainly would like to see the whole film. As for the book, I haven’t had yet a chance to read it and will do so once on the road, but at the Q&A, someone brought up the matter of Brown and his miseducation.
At heart, noir isn’t so much about the settings, though these determine the tone, whether through the black-and-white shadowy urban underworld of crime or the machinations of characters desperate to survive in stultifying small town, but about the moral rot at the heart of the human universe. It involves notions of damnation and possible redemption, with damnation as the default setting for our condition. In the noir world, grace is in short supply, and the bad guys and girls, the classic femmes fatale, are much more compelling than the square-jawed heroes or the virtuous beauties with their conventional beliefs in the innate goodness of human beings. Harry Lime, the ,criminal black marketer as played by Orson Welles, lingers much more in the mind than Joseph Cotton’s well-meaning but naïve pulp writer, Holly Martins in that one hell of a noir film, The Third Man.
Sartre offered to my mind, one of the best definitions of Hell, and of noir: Hell is other people—the most famous line from his play No Exit. Three dead people find themselves locked together in a room for eternity. The combination of personalities and pasts, is meant to drive each one of them crazy, with no end, or exit, in sight. There is then no need for torture devices, or eternal hellfire, or devils prodding them with pitchforks.
On the opposite side of the same coin is the mystical notion of the divine. The mystics of different holy traditions claim that God is within us, just as the infernal is: there is a darkness in each of us that comes about due to the inability or refusal to allow one’s humanity, and the acceptance of the other’s humanity, to come forth. The dark night of the soul, the famous line from the 16th-century Spanish poet and Roman Catholic mystic, San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross) encapsulates perfectly the near-death experience one must undergo in the search of enlightenment. (One of the poet Jose Lacaba’s most well-known works, “Ang mga kagila-gilalas na pakikipagsapalaran ni Juan de la Cruz,”—“The Amazing Adventures of Juan de la Cruz”—riffs on this theme with its opening line, “Isang gabing madilim” or “One dark night.” It centers around the life of the impoverished Filipino Everyman, Juan de la Cruz, whose search for sustenance and ordinary pleasure are continually thwarted by society, both religious and secular. In the end, he takes up arms against the state rather than starve to death—one can say that he becomes part of the awakened masses, though not in the Buddhist sense.
In Buddhist terms, we can only be awakened when we attain compassion for other living beings and see through the veils of desire and greed. Sitting under the Bodhi tree, supposedly for 49 days, the noble-born Siddharta Gautama at the end attains enlightenment and is thereafter called the Buddha, or Awakened One.
Brown is an awakened one, but only to the sound of cash registers; otherwise his universe is all surface, his Hell the conventional, unimaginative setting whose exclusive feature seems to be material discomfort. There is a lot going on—there is always a lot going on in a Dan Brown novel—but really his narratives are vehicles stuck in traffic that goes nowhere. That certainly is a common feeling sitting in the traffic jams of Metropolitan Manila, or for that matter in many other urban areas in the world that are just afflicted by poverty and environmental degradation. But imagine being stuck in such a jam, and having to read Dan Brown over and over again. Wouldn’t that be hell?
Copyright L. H. Francia