A month ago news came out that Duterte would not live in Malacañang because he said it was full of ghosts. The statement, coming three weeks after election day, was one among many of the personal, close-up glimpses the country had of the incoming president as both the Philippines and the world were coming to grips with a new order. A video of his statement is here.
The newscast first sets up Duterte’s macho style, contrasting it with his multo fear, or, as he calls his fear of living in the Palace—“maramaing mumu diyan”—in deliberately childlike speech that both makes light of his position and underlines it: because as far as I can tell, only he can make fun of it.
There were the usual jokes in the comments section about Noynoy Aquino, his predecessor, being the real multo, and of course the irony that it was Imee Marcos—who should know—who relayed the information to Duterte that the presidential palace had “five” resident ghosts. The reporter interviews one of the Palace’s gardeners who reveals that he once saw a wheeled office chair move on Malacañang grass on its own, as if sitting on it were some unseen man just going about his official multo-of-Malacañang business. And, of course, now we know that “Mister Brown,” a tikbalang, lives in a balete tree on the palace grounds.
But to be honest, at this point in the post-election cycle, Duterte’s pronouncement was a cliché. We were used to strange moments coming out of Duterte’s press conferences. As a person, he was beginning to be predictable—a bit like a crazy uncle that you tolerate because at Christmas he might give you money.
So I began looking at the comments section to see what else was new. As many have noticed, the followers of Duterte are a fiercely faithful bunch. It’s also useful to note, as some have already, that they are a faithfully parsing bunch: they love to deconstruct the incoming president’s pronouncements.
What exists beside every Duterte statement that flummoxes normal beings is a paratext—a marginalia of interpretations that coexist with his oracular voice and accompany his message precisely like a ghostly trace: a trail maybe not of supernatural but of supra-aural or subliminal (at least to them) meanings. Duterte’s faithful are sophisticated readers of his words: literary explication is central to his followers’ understanding of the incoming president—they point out metaphors, puns, historical allusions, and so on. Like Biblical scholars, they constantly engage in exegesis.
‘Ekai Atoneg’ explains, “Ghost means under the table operatives not the literal ghost mahina talaga kayo di nyo pa talaga kilala si Digong.”
Ekai underlines ‘ghost’ as a political pun: ‘under the table operatives.’ He/she also emphasizes the “slowness” [mahina] of those who do not “know” Duterte [the verb used is kilala, which also implies something a bit more personal than abstractly ‘knowing’ someone: kilala is a verb that, however metaphorically one might mean it, includes interpersonal knowledge, e.g., being friends with him; contrast ‘kilala’ (know) with ‘alam’ (know): one verb is more personal, familial than the other]. They feel an intimacy with him.
Of course, Ekai gets it from a heckler, ‘Ravy Hackfield’—“Haha. Daming alam. Laliman mo pa.”
Equal to Duterte’s supporters are Duterte’s hecklers, those who laugh at the ‘deep readings’ [‘laliman mo pa’: or ‘yeah, keep digging for deep meanings’] and ‘daming alam’ [sarcastic phrase for ‘great knowledge’] of Duterte supporters.
But once you get into the mode of such ‘laliman,’ it is actually hard to extricate yourself from the possibility of alternate meanings. The language of Duterte becomes intrinsically intriguing because the possibilities for meaning have been opened up by his readers, his faithful audience who keep noting that all words have alternate texts—everything has a paratext.
‘Chum Bian’ says, “Hindi yan literal na ghost matalino yan si digong kung maka Du30 ka alam nyo na.”
Chum Bian does not even need to explain what the non-literal, metaphorical meaning might be (nor does he/she need punctuation, for that matter)—it is enough that a metaphorical explanation must be implied in ‘ghost’ because the man is “matalino”: intelligent.
(Of course, ironically this implies also the lack in Duterte’s words—one takeaway is that, because you need to reach for metaphor to understand him, you cannot take him, or his literal words, seriously, which is a drawback, politically.)
But there you have a third word for knowing, apart from ‘alam’ and ‘kilala’—‘talino,’ in this case a noun, not a verb—meaning intelligence. Matalino is a Tagalog adjective: the binisaya adjective could be baltok, or the Spanish cognate intelihente. (I see Chum Bian, a “maka Du30,” as a reader who speaks binisaya, likely Cebuano; though of course he could be Tagalog or Ilocano or Waray, who knows—Du30’s followers have a wide geographical swath.)
In Waray we might also use maaram; in Cebuano maalam. In short, our different Filipino languages have many root words for knowing and for intelligence. The fact is, given our various words for it, it seems we value knowing, but above all we recognize different modes of it: cunning, or academic, or commonsense Juan Pusong knowing, and so on.
I am not sure if matalino and baltok imply exactly the same thing: though they both mean intelligent. To know (alam) might be different from being intelligent (baltok). In Waray, maaram hiya, she is smart or she knows, has a different shade from baltok hiya, she is smart. I do think in the adjectives maaram and baltok, cunning is implied, something beyond academic knowledge, perhaps intuition, too; though if one is being entirely complimentary, baltok or maaram will mean a layered knowing—erudition in school and smarts outside of it.
But Chum Bian uses a Tagalog word “matalino” for Duterte here. Let’s say Chum Bian is Visayan, perhaps Cebuano. Once in the Visayas you use Tagalog to describe someone, you have broadened your audience, of course—you are aiming beyond your home—you have cosmopolitanized yourself.
The fact is, that is the annoying default experience (so default we in the provinces never even think when we code-switch to Tagalog) of being outside of the metropole (for me who grew up in Leyte, that is Manila, not New York). In my view, one implication of the word matalino is that Chum Bian is suggesting Duterte’s linguistic sophistication, just as he, Chum Bian, is sophisticated linguistically (for one thing, unlike the Tagalog, Chum Bian probably knows at least three languages, English, Tagalog, and Cebuano, e.g.).
Thus, for his supporters, Duterte’s metaphorical language is part of his talino—just as Chum Bian’s trilinguality, and his knowledge of alternate linguistic meanings, including metaphorical meanings, is part of Chum Bian’s talino, of his having ‘alam’—unlike the non-followers of Duterte.
This intense parsing of Duterte’s words by Duterte’s followers is fascinating not only because his followers have given us a new president, a new regime—whether we like it or not. I think this parsing of words is fascinating because it keeps revealing to us something integral to Filipino experience but always somewhat unexamined about Filipino experience—that our ‘knowledge’ of the world is always ‘sophisticated,’ in that we are aware, because of language, of multiple worlds and meanings always at once.
We always bear within us several texts, a paratext for our English and a paratext for our Tagalog and a paratext for our Waray or Ilocano or Ilonggo—we bear a marginalia of tongues all simultaneously and at once. We cannot help it. We cannot help but bear multiple worlds in us. And I mean that word ‘bear’ in those multiple senses: we are burdened by it, we are born to it. [I will not get into our damned colonized history here that condemns us to what we are born to and to what we bear.]
We are always trailing ghosts of words, a trace of other words and thus meanings, as we speak. (Note: This is true of humans; but it is existentially transparent with Pinoys. Pinoys, in this sense, are uber-humans: or the colonized is hyper-human—but that is too much theory for now.) When I say baltok, I also have the word smart in me, as well as talino and maalam. As Eliot’s Wasteland goes, I can do the police in different voices. We live daily with the ghosts of our various selves, our triple languages, our multiple worlds via our several, and severing, tongues.
The emergence of Duterte, who makes prominent the language of an other, at least if we consider the political convention of Tagalog as the not-other (by the way, that is not, for me, my lived experience, since the language of a so-called other, Waray, is my motherland, my tongue-ina, to use that witchy code-switching term of poet Eric Gamalinda)—the emergence of Duterte only makes that existential multiple-tongued reality of the Filipino slightly more obvious.
Our ‘sophisticated’ knowledges—talino and alam and baltok realities arising from our everyday sophisticated experience of our multilinguality—are made prominent in the emergence of Duterte. But perhaps more importantly, in the emergence of Duterte’s readers.
But on the other hand, that existential linguistic quality is not enough to sustain the mesmerizing, messianic qualities of his words upon his followers (not to mention the distressing, to say the least, effect of them on his not-followers). Sylvia Mayuga, in her essay on Duterte and the Pilandok tale, and Ninotchka Rosca, in her comment on Duterte and his ‘duro’ politics, have brought out folk aspects of the man that many respond to. In another post, I looked at the most immediate historical moment that strikes me in Duterte: his strongman-nostalgia (and our strongman-attraction that may also be part of the country’s vote for him). And he does contain folk qualities—a Juan Pusong type, an insider who acts like an outsider, seemingly dumb but actually always victorious, a justice avenger, a pun-twisting joker, etc etc. One can look at him in an exterior, narrative way and parse him as a riddle, a folk image, and so on, and we can get a quite complex, edifying or not, mirror of ourselves achieved by those readings.
But reading the comments makes me also aware that his significance lies in the readers themselves—his readers are a fateful text. I’d say this includes both the responses of his faithful and of his hecklers.
‘Lea Sanchez’ goes, “May point si Mr President haha. Lahat ng kaganapan sa history ng Philippine politics dumaan diyan haha😄.”
The president has a point, says Lea Sanchez: to read Duterte’s comment on the palace is to read all the events [lahat ng kaganapan] of Philippine history through Duterte’s proclaimed fear of the ghosts of Malacañang.
An anonymous poster adds, “Malacañang means malaking lakan, o ahas [snake]. I think we have to change the name. Puro ahas diyan. SNAKEPIT.”
For both Lea Sanchez and Anonymous, Duterte’s fear of multo in Malacañang then is a historical allusion and political critique—and the historical allusion, inevitably, is encased in a linguistic pun. For Filipinos, history is a matter of pun. In Anonymous’s case, malacañang, malaking lakan, house of a big lord, but also, house of a snake, is a linguistic and physical pun, both the snakepit that is language and the house of ghostly snakes. I have no idea if this punning interpretation of the word malacañang, as snakepit, is accurate, but it is sufficient perhaps that Duterte faithful go there.
It is impossible in the Philippines to separate historical critique from language play.
Thus, the presidential palace, as parsed by Duterte evangelists through his messianic, metaphorical language (however aware he is of the meanings his followers will make), becomes a tongue-lashing snakepit, that is, a historically corrupt house of politics that has poisoned the nation through the years.
I would not say that his followers are mistaken.
But then an anonymous poster responds: “Malay nyo naman po matakot sila sa yo”—Who knows, sir, if it is the ghosts who will be afraid of you.
To which ‘Kevin Mercado Linsao’ gleefully answers, “The famous ghost still won as Mayor!”
And so ‘Losi Garo’ jeers, “Akala ko astig ka. Looks like he does not have balls afterall.”
But ‘Alesha Mohhamed Lavender Unica’ laughs at Losi Garo, “lol have sense to understand what he means.”
While ‘Rotsen Naalcab Agirab’ goes on, “Hahhahaha taga davao ako boy!! Hindi mo pa mkuha ang style ni mayor!! Ganyan yan marunong magbiro peru wag lng magalit dahil lion yan.”
And so on and so forth.
(I mean, even the posters’ pen-names seem like plays on words: anagram [Losi Garo: Roli the Siga?], palindrome [Rotsen: Nestor?], chiasmus [Ekai Atoneg: Genato E?]—all those slippery games of self-naming, our treasured secret identities, through language-play, that to me are precarious ways to hold on to a passing sense of superiority, a perilous control. I imagine we like to pun because when we play with words, at least we might feel, however illusorily, we have control over meaning—since we don’t over our lives.)
There is no way out of the tangled braid of language and interpretation and politics and history and jokes as ways of knowing that bedevils our islands.
In the voice of the Duterte critic, Duterte himself will become a metonym: Duterte will inevitably become the ghost that Duterte himself fears.
It is hard, in our political world especially, and in our tongues in cheek that respond to it, not to see the reflexive, inevitable fallibility of the leader.
Duterte, as far as history goes (even in the tautological logic of his own followers, who accurately label his future home as a snakepit, so that then Duterte himself is the big snake in it) will inescapably become the ghost of Malacañang.
The one who is killed and will kill.
Maraming mumu diyan. Including, who knows, what Duterte fears of and for himself even as he speaks.
It’s exactly as Freud calls it—this comment on the multo of Malacañang. It’s a psychopathology of the tongue: the extreme self-awareness that occurs in lapses of speech.
The fact is, the readers of Duterte, whether follower or critic, will keep on dragging our multiple ‘sense[s] to understand,’ our many ways of being ‘marunong,’ including, of course, our most palpable intelligence—the great intelligence of jokers—‘marunong magbiro’—our jokiness being ultimately a mark of our own sense of our slips—the way our completeness of self lies in our seeming ineffability, our multiple selves that constantly escape our grasp via our multiple tongues—as we slouch toward our Bethlehem, to one more inauguration of a leader who, one only hopes, will be not the lakan in the snakepit but the healer outside of it.
Malay nyo, as Anonymous says. Who knows?
I wish for him to be the hilot, the healer. Above all, I wish us all the best.
But then, my own paratext bubbles up in me, as I also think, he could also be just the snake charmer.
But does it matter who, in fact, he is?
Maybe it is for us the readers to go deeper, into ourselves. We are the text, the ghost, whose lips we must read. With empathy, with hope, with a sense of our mutual intelligences, for after all in our multiple ways there is only the one country for which the many dream.
Laliman pa natin.