HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - October 19, 2020 - 12:00am

In this pandemic, all of us are living in anxiety and abject fear, knowing that death is just around the corner. For us, the elderly, we are aware of how our immune system has weakened, and we are so vulnerable that we are resigned to our fate when it comes. This pandemic is just one of the many crises that we face. I sometimes pity our public officials for the heavy burdens they bear and the fact that they are as powerless as most of us are. It is therefore the height of personal callousness and insensitivity that today, I am writing about a subject so meaningless and irrelevant to most of us. Forgive me. But on second thought, perhaps even just for half an hour I will be able to distract your mind and even entertain you with this brief essay on obscenity. I hope my young writer friends can look at sexuality in their writing as sensuality and therefore write about it with all their senses working but in a manner that is not too graphic but which excites the imagination just the same.

When I opened my bookshop in 1965, I had a special shelf for x-rated titles. I carried most of the porno books published by Olympia. The so-called coffee table cum art books were graphically illustrated. The bestseller was the Japanese “Shunga” with so many erotic depictions of the sexual union, the men and women with wooden expressions. I assisted two very distinguished collectors – a Supreme Court justice and an editor – in building their porno collections. There were occasions when both were in the shop, and we would have conversations on art and history. Never on sex. Looking back, I deeply regret those conversations were not taped. I eventually closed this section for, while it attracted a lot of browsers, they were not buyers.

I was amused when one of my readers called “Sin” and “Ermita,” “manyak.” In both novels are sex scenes that are comparatively graphic enough to be called pornographic. I wish there were more of it in our literature the way it is with European literature. Japanese literature is unique in the sense that sex in it is almost always kinky, bordering on the perverse. I really can’t explain the paucity of sex in our literature (meaning English). Are our writers prudish, or are they scared of pornography (obscenity) charges? To the best of my knowledge, there have only been two cases of obscenity that have been condemned as such – one was a poem in English by Jose Garcia Villa which resulted in his expulsion from the University of the Philippines, and another was a short story by Estrella Alfon, “Rivers in the Forties.”

Our writers in English were aware of how sexuality in English literature was criminalized. As a writer, Oscar Wilde was jailed for homosexuality. D. H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and the novels of Henry Miller were banned in the 1940s, Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” used fug instead of fuck.

I think that all languages have an earthy side and are spiced with sexual epithets. In its highest reach, it is sublime poetry, but in its lowest form, it is in the rants of President Duterte. Do lower class Filipinos talk like he does?

Sexuality is a fact of life, like eating or sleeping. In many instances, it is the core of religion itself. Tantric Buddhism sanctifies it. When I first visited the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, we were billeted in the huge dzong (temple) in Paro. At the entrance were two figures of a man and woman – 12 feet tall, their faces wrought in anger. My escort, the young Dawa Tsering (he went to school in London), told me they were in orgasm. On a broad stairway leading to the second floor, on both sides of the stairway, celibate monks were painting sexual scenes; by the time they reach the top of the flight, they would have to go back to redo the scenes from the beginning because they would have faded by then. The chore in itself is an act of worship. All over the country too, are phalluses – paintings or sculpture – all of them symbols of their faith.

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In the old days, virginity was highly valued in the Philippines. In the morning following her wedding night, the new bride would hang her blood stained blanket by the window for all the villagers to see. We know of course that now, the hymen can easily be restored by any plastic surgeon. Among Filipino males, to be “supot” or uncircumcised is to be stigmatized. I was in the medical corps of the American Army in 1945 and was surprised to see that almost all of the GIs were “supot.” The main character in my novel, “Ben Singkol,” is also “supot.”

“Ermita” is a novel about a high class prostitute living in Manila’s Ermita district; her name is also Ermita or Ermi for short. When I was researching for it, on one or two occasions, I was with Felipe Landa Jocano, our foremost anthropologist, in our visits to Manila’s massage parlors and pick-up bars. He was researching on sexual deviation and was very thorough, even taking measurements of the massage pads, while I was talking with the girls. I published his study in my journal, Solidarity, and right in the printing shop, a dozen copies disappeared. In a month, the journal sold out, I had to print a re-run. I got letters from academics describing the study as scholarly pornography.

Sex and power

It has often been said that power itself is a potent aphrodisiac. Since the 1950s, I started gathering material on the sexual proclivities of Filipino leaders, but I dropped the project years back when I lost interest in it. I do recall one salacious story told me by the late General Carlos Romulo. Quezon and other Filipinos were in the United States, and Quezon did not attend an important Washington conference; he was in Los Angeles with the movie star, Greer Garson. Only a man of great self-confidence can tell jokes about himself – General Romulo said his wife had filed a court case against him for “assault with a dead weapon.”

Since sexuality is an integral part of living, no writer (or artist) can avoid it. The challenge to the writer then is how to describe it, lift it up from its mundane nature and endow it with the habiliments of art, to portray it eschewing its physical aspects and rendering these in poetry.

Nothing beats Hemingway’s rendition of orgasm. In “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” when Robert embraced Maria, “the earth beneath them moved.”

In the end, there really is no pornography. In literature, it is simply bad writing. But make no mistake, obscenity is all around us, but we can’t recognize it as such because we do not give the definition a social value.

So then, Imelda’s 4000 pairs of shoes is a minor example. The real obscenities in this country are the billionaires who exploited this nation’s resources and its people, and with them, their political allies, corrupted and drunk with power. Obscenity is not aesthetics – it is a moral affliction that has ravaged many of us without knowing it.

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