Nostalgia: The busy Manila I miss
One of the most memorable contributions of American philosopher Fredric Jameson is his concept of “nostalgia for the present.” On the surface, the idea makes no sense, since nostalgia is supposed to be retrospective, reaching far into the recesses of our memory box.
Think of the intoxicating sensation after stumbling upon pictures from your childhood, or burning memories of your first kiss, glimpses of your parents when they were young, beautiful and so in love, videos of your shabby look during the notorious high school days… Jameson’s seeming oxymoron, however, is a profound reflection on the nature of contemporary cinema and capitalism. In particular, he examined conditions of so-called “late capitalism”—how many of the West’s most iconic creative works such as blockbuster movies tend to portray a dystopian future, which makes the audience “nostalgic” for their present prosperity.
During a recent drive across Edsa, I was gripped by nostalgia. I couldn’t help but remember, and achingly long for, the hustle and bustle of Manila. The packed malls, which often went hand in hand with the insane carmageddon. The self-indulgent seasonal sales, the carefree walk across busy streets, and the 24/7 lifestyle in a city that never slept. Aliveness is what came to my mind, in its purest and most collective sense.
The Portuguese have an apt term for that pulsating nostalgia: Saudade. It’s longing for a past, or a person, with excruciating romanticism and an intoxicating sense of loss. Considering that I was just reminiscing about a Manila of a few months ago, perhaps it was also a form of “nostalgia for the present.” And at once, I truly realized how much I love this city, much to my own surprise.
Like any provincial, I grew up with an image of Manila as a megacity of unmitigated chaos — a landscape of unforgivable inequities and world-class mismanagement. Born in the high mountains of Baguio, we grew up with a protean sense of superiority, if not snobbery, toward “imperial” Manila.
Many among my peers and relatives prefer to speak English (rather than Tagalog), wear our autumn fashion (because it’s still way cooler up there, you know), and avoid local movies (because we have “high taste”). And perhaps, there is some factual basis to this ingrained self-confidence among Baguio folk. After all, my hometown is located in the country’s most developed province. Based on the Human Development Index, the most authoritative measure of overall levels of socioeconomic development, Benguet Province has a “very high development,” which is comparable to European Union members such as Slovakia. But it goes beyond material prosperity. More importantly, I have always been proud of Baguio’s egalitarian spirit, especially during my childhood. Most people I knew were also from middle-class families, and rarely did we witness the kind of grinding poverty and soul-shattering inequalities that has afflicted one of the world’s most congested cities.
Even our rich friends acted more like middle class, nowhere as imperious and deracinated as the Manila elite. Following the 1990 earthquake in Baguio, which devastated my father’s livelihood, we were forced to relocate overseas for a few years lest we struggle with impossible poverty. My dad’s deep sense of dignity wouldn’t have allowed that, and so we left.
Over the years, we largely settled along the lush, rice-producing shores of the Caspian Sea, a scenic and temperate region that wasn’t too different from my place of birth. When we returned to Baguio for my high school education, the city was no longer exactly the same, as an inchoate post-earthquake reconstruction process now replicated the same kind of maladies afflicting unruly lowland cities.
But I loved my hometown all the same, its evening fogs, the towering pine trees standing with uncompromising elegance, and the obstinate spirit of egalitarianism that heroically survived the horror of the earthquake and its chaotic aftermath.
And yet today, settling into my 30s, I have come to also love Manila in all its imperfect beauty.
Perhaps, now I can better understand what my late friend Carlos Celdran felt about the city, his birthplace.
As in Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist,” it took me traveling the world, and circuitously working through an excruciating journey, to discover my love for Manila. I miss my friend Carlos. I miss Manila, the ancient city of pearls. I miss the busy, crazy days.
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