Postures of power

On the front page of the Inquirer yesterday, there is a fascinating photograph of the main personalities who came to the launch of Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s memoirs. This picture is worth a thousand words. It shows four seated figures: Imelda Marcos, Cristina Ponce Enrile, Juan Ponce Enrile (JPE), and Benigno S. Aquino III (P-Noy), and is captioned “No permanent friends, only permanent interests.” I think one would have to be of a certain age or to know a little about Philippine politics to draw that message from the picture itself.

Yet there is something else about that photo that a perceptive reader might grasp even without any knowledge of the nation’s recent political history. It has to do with what the writer Elias Canetti, in his classic work “Crowds and Power,” refers to as “human postures and their relation to power.”

Everyone else is standing behind the seated dignitaries. JPE and his wife Cristina are flanked by P-Noy to their left, and Imelda to their right. The Enriles and P-Noy are comfortably seated on wide cushioned lounging chairs. Imelda appears to be sitting on a taller and stiffer dining chair, next to but slightly pulled back from Mrs. Enrile’s chair. Her presence is visible but marginal, almost like that of a lady-in-waiting. She wears no expression.

“The dignity of sitting is a dignity of duration,” writes Canetti in his eloquent deconstruction of human postures. We expect people who are sitting to continue sitting. The pressure of their weight, he observes, confirms their authority, and the longer they stay that way, the more secure they appear. “There is hardly a single human institution which has not made use of this fact to preserve and strengthen its position.”

JPE was definitely the picture of authority and ease in that Inquirer photo. Sitting on what could well have been his throne for the evening, he was durability personified. In contrast, while Imelda seemed securely glued to her own chair, like someone accustomed to privilege, hers was the posture of someone exerting pressure on something hard and inert. The usually graceful and elegant former first lady looked grim and uncomfortable.

“An upholstered chair is not only soft,” continues Canetti, “but also obscurely gives the sitter the feeling that he is sitting on something living. The give of the cushions, their springiness and tension, has something of the quality of living flesh and this may conceivably be the cause both of the aversion which many people feel for chairs that are too soft, and of the extraordinary importance which others, not generally self-indulgent, attach to this form of comfort.”

Once upon a time, Imelda Marcos sat on a throne, the powerful spouse of a powerful dictator. The pressure that the couple’s rule exerted on the living was immense. The Filipino people felt the enormous weight of their power, and for a long time, it seemed as though they would sit on their thrones forever. Today, the Marcoses no longer command the same royal treatment they used to get. But, they are not exactly powerless.

Ferdinand Jr. (Bongbong) is a senator.  Imee is governor of Ilocos Norte. And Imelda herself sits as the representative of her late husband’s congressional district. But, perhaps more than these, the fact that she can confidently take her place in any social gathering of the country’s elite without having to feel unwelcome or out of place signifies the durability of her own family’s standing in a society dominated by a small elite.

Offering Imelda a chair among the VIPs during Enrile’s book launch was perhaps someone’s way of acknowledging her status as a former first lady and as a Marcos. Whether by design or by accident, the chair she was given and the manner it was positioned in relation to those of the principal guests however effectively conveyed the diminished rank and authority she now wields.

Members of the elite may sometimes find themselves out of power, but they are never completely stripped of influence. Their awareness that dominant power oscillates within a very narrow band inclines them to be accommodating toward their rivals. The favors and courtesies they extend to one another in the worst of times are the bonds that unite them as members of a ruling group. Imelda is quite adept at this game. For now, she will gladly take the subtle humiliations that come with being out of power. She knows that if fate looks with favor at Bongbong, he may one day become president and escort her back to Malacañang.

As for JPE, I suppose the amazing longevity of his political career is in large measure attributable to the unique role he played during martial law. Many people say he gave the dictatorship a humane side. Families of detainees and those waiting to be arrested sought his help for the little things that mattered—extended visiting rights, prearranged arrests, transfer to less harsh detention camps, and even release from prison of the young and innocent. He was the martial law administrator that one could talk to without fear of losing face. In the end, he turned against the dictator.

Perhaps, the tribulations he himself went through in life—growing up as the illegitimate offspring of a prominent family, being jailed and tortured during the Japanese occupation, struggling to educate himself amid difficult circumstances, and the strong sense of being an outsider to an elite that could not fully accept him—equipped him for this role. He seems to have emerged from all these with no resentment. He has seen power and what it does to people, and he appears determined to show he would neither be seduced nor intimidated by its postures.

* * *