Professor Lector at the Faculty Center

I learned this week the UP Faculty Center burned down. I spent formative years there. My first novel, Bibliolepsy, was born there. I went to UP because I was told Franz Arcellana taught at Diliman. I never took his short story class, but I used to give Franz drafts of my work (they were all terrible—unbearable pieces of impossible malaise), and we’d talk about Dostoyevski (Franz talking about the fly buzzing about the the cold body of Nastasia Philipovna in The Idiot is somehow frozen in my memory) and Virginia Woolf and Kafka and so on. I liked best his stories of his friendship with Estrella Alfon, his Cebuano cohort in madcap literary stuff. Franz is not at all Lionel Lector in Bibliolepsy, but in Bibliolepsy, Lionel Lector is the only writer who escapes whole from the narrator’s crazy pen. I recognized once when I was reading Bibliolepsy to a crowd that the scene in Chapter 7: Third Poetry Reading is my own private homage to my conversations with Franz (you don’t think of these things when you are writing), and now I see it entombs my days at the FC.

Note: I was thinking of where Franz’s papers were: it turns out they were at the FC. This is very painful. May Jurilla blogs on the English Department: “The Department of English and Comparative Literature (DECL) suffered a particularly gut-wrenching loss: In February this year, the family of the late Francisco Arcellana, National Artist for Literature, donated his library to the department. It comprised over a thousand books, the most special ones marked with annotations in his hand and inscribed by their authors for him, along with rare first editions of Philippine literary works. Some of my colleagues and I were in the process of sorting through the collection. It was tedious and literally dirty work, but it came with the privilege of catching a glimpse of the life of the mind of a brilliant man who was a pillar of Philippine arts and letters and who was once one of us, a member of the DECL faculty.”

from Bibliolepsy, a novel

‘The door of the cafeteria, which was housed in the Faculty Center, opened. It had a slow way of moving, this door—a bit like the careful, rheumatic movements of many of the people who frequented the place: old or aging professors with different measures of gall drained in them. The door opened but did not close. Instead, a head seemed to hold it ajar. It peeked through the door and looked into the room. Not looking, you’d say, but glaring, or almost as if startled into our presence—the flies on the food, the aluminum dullness of the counters, the grime on the cracked plywood walls, colored flesh now, withered to the hue of our questioning faces as we looked at him, he who seemed surprised by his own arrival.

His head, when seen this way, preening back as though ready to be sliced by the door, was all eyes—a wide gray reckoning of his place and time. …

Professor Lionel Lector—though I don’t recall my naïveté anything to be proud of—was the reason I had decided to go to university at all, and this university in particular.

He was famous for one poem, a song of love and faith and dying, a common enough tale for any song, and a rare occurrence in being written so simply, powerfully and completely, easy to memorize and quick to move the one who reads. It was a poem embedded in our national memory now, published as it is in grade-school texts, definitive anthologies, commemorative books, and even periodically in the Philippine Journal of Education (as though it were a tic in this august body’s neck). Even babies, it is said, were affected by this poem. They cried at the right parts. Or so Prospero had said to me. I would cry, turning my head into my sheets, when my father recited the penultimate line of grief.

“I thought he was dead,” said burly but unsaintly Bernard.

“He should be,” said Tina. “It’s better than appearing mad like that. He gives me the creeps in the hallway, I think his dental fixtures will one day pop out. What’s he always chewing on in his mouth—cotton balls?”

“When you are old and gray, Tina,” I said, “I hope someone gives you a mirror and knocks it into your gums. I’d like to do that to you right now.”

“Hey man,” said Bernard, “chill out. It’s cool, Prims: everybody knows we worship the Prof.”

“He only wrote one poem after all,” said Tina.

—-

You know one learns a lot from one event, sometimes from even the most innocuous ones. Spending a day talking frivolously with a group of friends, you feel upon walking away from the table a generous repulsion in your chest, like a cotton wad of gross but natural excretions. You feel that you’ve wasted time, it will not come back, and worse still, you wasted it posturing, peacocking your image, or cheaply frittering away your passion upon indifferent people—the usual feelings of self-loathing that come upon us in fitful times. And you think: Why do I even allow myself to speak?

It was like this that afternoon, as I walked out of the Faculty Center to my new apartment in Area Six. I had moved all my books to the university area, and this trooping over from Adriatico to Diliman to Adriatico took a toll on my nerves. The daily diesel fumes were deadly. And as I passed by a room where people normally had classes, because of the shortage of space in the college, I saw again the old poet, Professor Lector, by a door.

His back looked like the upright back of an amphibian, leaning in.

“I like to look at them.” He turned to me.

I was startled by his address.

His voice was loud, from the habit of years of teaching, which unduly modulates speech to this high treble.

He motioned me to move closer.

“Look at them,” he was whispering. “It’s my class.”

“Then why aren’t you teaching it, sir?” I asked.

“I am,” he whispered, nodding his head. “They just don’t know it.”

“What are you teaching them, sir?” I asked.

“It’s just this.” He motioned me even closer to him, so that he said loudly in my ear: “It’s that the author is dead. He is no longer in our midst.”

Through circumstances and an almost strange delicacy, I had never enrolled in his class. I call it delicacy, a reader’s weird sense of abomination. Later as I got more comfortable being around these hallways, the mere sight of the poet in the building produced in me a kind of pain.

It was not just that he was old and intermittently lucid and altered from what he may have promised to be when he wrote the poem. It was not only the mental readjustments one had to make when one saw him (continual as those adjustments were), from one’s continuing historical image of him to his continuing, or may I say deconstructing, presence. The historical image, of course, receded as the present man daily peered through doors, gnashing his teeth as though chewing lifelong sheaves of paper.

It was a pain of all of these but not quite—not simply an everyman’s sorrow over the passing of time, which happens to all of us, even though we are not poets.

I could not quite put my finger to it, at least not at that moment.

I had to return to the building for a class that afternoon, and I saw him again in greater shadow: the way light fell upon the day. He was in a dark hallway a bit ahead of me.

“And how did the class take it, Professor?” I asked.

“Ah, hello, hello,” he said jovially, seeing but not placing me. He spoke with that jocular twang of his, peculiar to him, although they say he picked it up from his student days in the American Midwest, in Iowa with Paul Engle or Kalamazoo, amid the scent of Bienvenido Santos’s apples.

Professor Lector’s speech was a healthy rounding of vowels, an amused adoption of a foreign language.

“Take what, my dear?”

He stopped in his tracks to wait for me near the glass entrance midway through the hall.

Light was better there.

“How did they take the fact of the death of the author?” I asked.

He put out his hands in that gesture of doubt, moving his palms up and down. “So, so,” he said, shaking his head conspiratorially. “It’ll take them a while to get over it.”

“How long did it take you?”

I regretted that I had spoken.

Because there was this tragedy about which people whispered. How Professor Lector had stopped writing at an age too young for everyone’s wishes.

It was as much a tragedy, for some folk, as it was a mystery.

People thought they saw some signs of its cause. Knowingly they point out how after the writing of his seminal poem, Professor Lector had condemned it. He condemned the anthologizing, the commentating and the repeated publications in Philippine journals. All of this is true. He liked the poem, he had said in an interview, but he liked others better. He pointed to his masterpiece, which the world ignored. He wrote other poems, but we continued to memorize the same lyrical relic. He grew old, but people still confronted him with his boyhood poem.

And then he had confronted them with silence. He showed them the speechlessness of his days. And it became a mystery to everyone that he spoke nothing (for when a poet publishes nothing new, he may as well be mute); when in fact, say some clever souls, when he had spoken before, readers had drowned out his words by their thoughtless applause.

That was one theory. That readers, by their early, too partial pleasure, had killed Professor Lector. The public had made him sit on his laurels, squashing them.

It’s a fanciful theory.

There are others.

When I saw him in the hallways, it would sometimes seem as if his speechlessness were a long bout of self-revulsion, a cradling of an unspent loathing—”Why do I even allow myself to speak?”

But I recognized my own pale miseries in that.

He looked at me with those wide-open, humorous eyes and answered my question, which I had regretted, with that booming trill to his speech: “How long did it take me? Most of my life, my dear, most of my life. I had to teach it to myself.”

I moved on with him. We had reached his office.

“Yes,” he said, frisking himself for his keys, “the author annihilates himself.”

“Literally or symbolically?”

“Eternally and daily,” he grinned. “That’s how it should be. But mind you,” he said, pointing a finger at me, “I’m not revealing any of my secrets.”

He tinkered with his door’s lock, as if it were difficult, but it was easily opened.

He gestured that I take a seat.

I did.

His office held the clutter of a life dwelt in the mind—books, scattered paper, college bluebooks, greeting cards from students illustrated with Virginia Woolf in facsimile smile. I suppose I sought what I hoped to find: a sign of writing in progress, his secret life that would astound skeptics and pierce the mystery once and for all.

A typewriter lay on a side table, a bulky, dusty Remington. On a sheet on his desk I quickly noted the type he favored, the merry, wide font of Pica.

“A letter to a student,” he said to me. “They write me from all over, you know.”

“You write them back,” I said.

“Everyone. When I can, you see, when I can.” He gestured to all the papers on his desk, chairs, settee and cabinets, and upon a host of other papers and books. “They like to write to me. That’s my son,” he pointed to a picture. “He lives in Belgium, in Liege. Where they have these town fairs, you know—market days where they only sell guns and bullets. Can you believe it? My son lives in the world’s marketplace for guns. He’s a travel agent. And that’s my grandchild. She plays the piano, but more spectacular than that—she drives a car. Mine! At the age of sixteen! And that’s my wife.”

I saw a picture of a lady in sepia. I saw calendars given by colleagues. I saw pens and penknives. I saw coffee spoons and cheery, literary mugs. But apart from the space held by the typewriter, cramped in the corner by a cabinet of books and a settee with a flowered footstool, shouldered by a calendar of wit, beginning with Oscar Wilde and downhill from there, draped with bluebooks on its keys, I failed to see his space for writing.

As if mysteries might be so easily unravelled.

And what I saw clearly was my bungling, sorry vulgarity.

Professor Lector had seated himself before me.

“Now,” he said, “why are you so interested in the death of the author?”

I knew somehow he had found me out—a sneaky reader with misplaced concern. My intentions were more folly than malice, of course. I had no excuse for my spying and indecent interest but my lack of understanding.

For here was a writer whole in his world—his letters and his sons and the books he read and spoke about; a man booming with amusement in his voice, with a healthy attachment to his world—always peering in through doors, taking us all in with bright, living eyes, with the penetrating, permeating voice of a midsummer’s turtle.

I may have caged him in his poet’s cell: I had given him only a strip of paper, long as a poem, on which to stalk and speak about things. But he had jumped out of it—he had bidden himself away from the reader.

And even when and if he did take the bluebooks off the Remington and dusted the keys to type his words in merry, fat Pica—did he have to wave the matter to the world, to the rampaging bull of readers that snorts in small circles, inhuman and impatient to see his unlifted, furled and secret cape?’