Carlos Celdran: A tragic struggle
In “The Plague” (1947), Albert Camus narrates the rapid declension of a sleepy town into a dungeon of unbearable suffering. Oran, the locus of the story, is a place filled with “smug, placid air,” where “you need time to discover what it is that makes it different from so many business centers in other parts of the world.”
It’s an unremarkable place “without pigeons, without any trees or gardens, where you never hear the beat of wings or the rustle of leaves…” Oran only gains prominence when it is struck by a vicious plague, with helpless denizens becoming prisoners of an indefinite quarantine. The unexpected plague shakes the placid residents out of a long stupor and into days of absolute despair. And it is precisely in these moments that tragic heroes are brought to light.
One of Camus’ protagonists is “a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in,” yet “he had much liking for his fellow men and had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth.”
In many ways, the character resembles the Carlos Celdran I knew, a larger-than-life figure drenched in all-consuming struggles against the modern plague of ignorance, hate and mindless violence.
For years, we knew each other only through our works. As a believer, committed to a fine balance between freedom of speech and faith-based sensibilities, I had mixed feelings about his most memorable act — the “Damaso” incident. Yet, I knew his intention, his love for the country and his fervent wish for a better Philippines.
And it certainly helped when I got to know that he eventually apologized for the “Damaso” stunt, which offended many believers, and that he never intended to enter the Church to begin with. As he explained, the inclement weather compelled him to push the frontiers of his political advocacy during that fateful day, which will forever shape his legacy.
It was not until last year that we struck an unexpectedly close friendship. Our paths intersected as we both wrestled against the demons of anguish. Over the months, our exchanges took an intimately gloomier, yet more defiant, turn, as we shared our pains over the state of the country, the viciousness of our detractors, and the tortured path of true patriotism.
Within weeks, the colorful public persona, and the overwhelming energy that came with his defiant artistry, gave way to a more tender and vulnerable soul. He gently reminded me of the need to take care of myself, both my sanity and my body, and to focus on things that truly matter: family and love.
He gave tips on how to deal with haters as well as the stress and distress of public life. Carlos became almost like my kuya, an older brother full of wisdom yet still devoted to a vision larger than himself.
The last time we met in person was during his hospitalization following a grueling year, just a few months removed from his megaproject, the Manila Biennale, which cemented Carlos’ place among our cultural heroes. He was visibly emaciated, yet he still demonstrated unparalleled humor with dignity. He told me about his impending exile to Spain, and asked me to visit him there. It was clearly a painful prospect, especially since he did not know how long he would be forced to stay out of the country he loved so much, and to which he dedicated his best years of artistic productivity.
Isko Moreno’s electoral victory brought him a measure of hope, yet it also painfully reminded him of his long and uncertain exile from home. It was heart-wrenching for a sensitive soul like him to wonder if the country he dearly loved missed him in return.
In Camus’ words, “the first thing that plague brought… was exile,” with people forced into a “prison-house, [where] we had nothing left us but the past” and the “keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.”
We just lost one of our greatest artists, a true patriot rowing against the wave of widespread denialism and cowardice. His legacy should inspire in us an uncompromising struggle against the modern plague of injustice and untruth.
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