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Looking Back

Benedict Anderson, in memoriam

/ 12:08 AM December 16, 2015

Benedict Anderson, one of the leading scholars of Southeast Asia, died in his sleep last week in Indonesia, during a sentimental visit. He was 79 and had at least half a dozen books in his head yet to be written. He will be sorely missed in Manila, where he made a wide range of friends who helped him understand the Philippines more deeply. It is hard to write an obituary for a close friend of many years, so I will mourn and remember with parts of a preface I wrote for the Philippine edition of his book “Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia and the World” (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2004):

There is a hidden gem to be found deep in the “Noli Me Tangere.” In a chapter entitled “Recuerdos” (Memories or Souvenirs), Crisostomo Ibarra goes around Manila in a carriage, immersed in reflection. He sees the familiar sights, sounds, and even smells of Manila in the 1880s, and all this sensory input results in a flood of childhood memories as well as reminiscences of the places he had visited while studying in Europe. His mind and memory are working overtime, moving forward and backward, in an exercise in comparison and contrast. While looking at the Manila Botanical Garden he recalls the well-kept botanical gardens of Europe, and here appears the term “El demonio de las comparaciones,” rendered in English by Benedict Anderson as “The spectre of comparisons” and used as an intriguing title for one of his books.

“Spectre of Comparisons” is quite apt because what Rizal was doing in the 1880s Anderson was also doing a century later in the 1990s. Not content with library or archival research, Anderson—as he did in Indonesia and Thailand—immersed himself in everyday Philippine life in order to understand the country and its people afresh. He not only learned Spanish by reading Rizal in the original, but learned colloquial Filipino from film, TV, and tabloids. He watched everything from thought-provoking works by Mike de Leon to protest films of Lino Brocka to Sharon Cuneta box-office hits to what was then known as “ST films.” Realizing that Philippine newspapers drew their readership from opinion columns rather than the hard news, he read voraciously even the comic strip “Pugad Baboy.” From all this he felt the pulse of popular culture.

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Anderson did not confine himself to academic circles in Manila but conversed with ordinary folk, traveled around the country in a beat-up second-hand car, and even tried his hand at the daily Filipino crosswords in the tabloids. Once, so the story goes, he was at a lecture in UP busy with the crosswords when the moderator opened the floor to questions and called him out: “Does Professor Anderson have any questions?” Looking up from his glasses he blurted out: “what is the Filipino word for ‘orgasm?’”

During the days of the coup attempts against Corazon Aquino he joined Pinoy “uziseros” watching the siege of Camelot Hotel. Another time, during an engagement, he took cover on the rebel side of Camp Aguinaldo, near the Mormon Temple, where one of the soldiers, thinking he was German, raised his hand in salute and shouted “Heil Hitler!” From all his reading and experiences Anderson drew his own Spectre of Comparisons.

Anderson and I bonded in our academic interest and affection for Rizal whom we both referred to as ‘lolo Jose” because he is the Father of the Nation. Our friendship deepened as we visited historic sites together: Calamba, Kawit, Biak-na-Bato, Binondo, even the Manila North Cemetery. When he requested to sit in in my undergraduate Rizal class at the UP Diliman in 1989 my immediate reaction was to refuse, but in typical Pinoy fashion, I said yes when I actually meant no. I gave him the wrong class schedule, but when he turned up outside my classroom one fateful Saturday afternoon I had no choice but to admit him. Anderson sat quietly among the unnerving bored students forced to take “Philippine Institutions 100,” whose course code PI 100 they rendered into a cuss word. Anderson’s presence made the students sit up and give Rizal a second look, shamed that if a foreigner was willing to waste his Saturday afternoons learning about Rizal, there must be something more to Rizal than meets the eye.

In retrospect, I wouldn’t know how to handle Anderson’s questions in class. These would have no definite answers but they would have set some people off into a lifelong journey of learning. “Did Rizal use underwear?” was the only question that I was able to answer because I had measured extant samples in the storage rooms of the National Historical Institute. “Did Andres Bonifacio dream in color?” was a tricky question. Better still: “What do you think is Imelda Marcos’ idea of ‘tacky?’”

These and many more posed over the past 25 years formed the beginnings of a long research trail that did not always lead to concrete answers. But then, as a true teacher utilizing the Socratic method of question and answer, the real lesson is that knowledge is a journey, not a destination, that the journey is often far more engaging and fruitful than the dead end of a final destination. It is at once the curse and the blessing of what Rizal called the “demonio de las comparaciones” the Spectre of Comparisons.

Benedict Anderson is but a memory now to those who were blessed to have known him. Southeast Asian studies has suffered a great loss, but his books will live on to inspire more questions.

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Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.

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TAGS: Benedict Anderson, Jose Rizal, Noli Me Tangere, Spectre of Comparisons
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