Things numinous

When my friend Pierre told me he was coming to visit but mainly to birdwatch, I thought he had flipped.  In the literal sense, he had.  His previous visits had been thoroughly political: to let us know what European solidarity groups were doing to support the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship.  He was active in such a group in Paris, but he also happened to be one of France’s foremost Trotskyist writers.

Trotskyists are distinguished by their passionate internationalism. They make every social struggle in the world their own.  Local revolutionaries distrust them because their influence often leads to the formation of splinter groups.  It was not surprising that Pierre’s frequent visits would be looked upon as a sinister plot to sabotage the fragile unity of the Filipino left.  It never bothered me one bit.

But I worried for Pierre when he told me he was headed for Palawan to watch the birds.  What might Trotsky think, I asked, of a disciple who would travel seven thousand miles and spend precious time watching the birds rather than spreading the word.  What did social justice have to do with birds?

He never once explained it to me.  But his wife Sally, ever sensitive to questions unasked, said that a friend had advised him to take up a hobby to free his mind occasionally from the problems of an unjust world.  I understood that to mean therapy.  That was ten years ago.

Last month, they came and they were off birdwatching again somewhere in Mindanao.  This is no longer therapy, I thought.  On the eve of their return to Europe, they had dinner and spent the night with my family.  I suggested that we get up early so that I could show them the lagoon in the UP campus, where more than once I had seen a few kingfishers.

It started to rain when we got there.  But through the haze Pierre spotted a cinnamon-heron, slowly tiptoeing to the water’s edge, gracefully extending its neck to more than twice its body, and then, in a snap, spearing fish with its pointed beak.  Like three immobile ghosts shrouded by umbrellas, we silently watched this incredibly delicate creature perform its morning ritual.  I felt good that day, and I think I understood for the first time what the American philosopher Richard Rorty meant when, as a young boy in the presence of some rare wild orchid, he had felt “touched by something numinous, something of ineffable importance.”

It was this line that played in my mind when “this happy nihilist”, as a critic once described Rorty, came to Manila last month to lecture.  I had asked him where he wanted to go after his lectures.  Intramuros, he said, and, if there was a chance, he would like to do a little birdwatching.  I did not know a thing about birdwatching sites, and so I e-mailed Pierre for help.  He suggested the American Memorial Cemetery.

Rorty gave three lectures to three different audiences during his short visit.  By any measure, his schedule had been strenuous.  It was a joy therefore to see him get lost, on his last day in Manila, among the trees of the American Cemetery.  He was beaming when he emerged from this expedition; the exhaustion and the jet lag had vanished.  He had seen six different kinds of birds, he said, whereas I only spotted two, the ubiquitous maya and a queer-looking thing that Rorty identified for me as a rail.

The other day, I found myself around Fort Bonifacio, an hour early for a breakfast meeting in Makati.  Instinctively, I headed for the nearby American Cemetery, hoping to catch the birds while they were feeding.  The rail was everywhere having a fiesta.  At the parking lot, I was greeted by a gang of fat cats who, I presume, were there for less civilized reasons.  The birds did not seem to mind them.

This is a glorious refuge.  The majestic acacias around the marble monument exude an elegance that is difficult to find anywhere in the metropolis.  Except for the conversation of the birds and the cicadas, an eerie stillness pervades the whole place.  As I searched for the birds, guided by the sounds they made, I sensed an inner peace that I had once felt while walking around a lake in Norway.  I recalled the surreal sensation of being frightened by the thought of being alone with oneself.

Momentarily, my mind drifted to the paper on charter change I was going to present to a small group of executives.  Why have I taken a detour to a bird sanctuary?  What has this got to do with the Constitution?  I knew I was there not to clear my mind about anything, but only to see the rail again.  Rorty had said it is among the least evolved of the birds, but though its vulgar shriek made it so common, I thought nevertheless that it was as beautiful as the cinnamon-heron. To me, that was sufficient justification.

But Rorty would have said there is no need to find any reason for the weird unshared things we do.  In a short essay titled “Trotsky and Wild Orchids”, he wrote: “Your equivalent of my orchids may always seem merely weird, merely idiosyncratic, to practically everybody else.  But that is no reason to be ashamed of, or downgrade, or try to slough off, your Wordsworthian moments.  There is nothing sacred about universality which makes the shared automatically better than the unshared.”

“The two may, for some people, coincide – as they do in those lucky Christians for whom the love of God and of other human beings are inseparable, or revolutionaries who are moved by nothing save the thought of social justice.  But they need not coincide, and one should not try too hard to make them do so.”



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