Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

24 Dec 2010

(Short Story) Penmanship by Jose Dalisay

(Reaction) Outside Beginning and End by: Antonio Conejos

That there are two constants in a lifetimes is the one true universal binding every living thing. Whether the space between birth and death is barely a point of a moment, or a bridge that spans the gap of decades, the truth between a beginning and an end remains. Buildings crumble, people wither, seasons pass as the old inevitably make way for the new. Old men, from the Iliad's Nestor to our own graying grandfathers of today, love talking about their past because they feel displaced by a present that no longer needs them. Time, which they once held in the proud grasp of the young, has bestowed on another generation the all important title, modern.

The milieu of Penmanship is a deliberately old world, filled with objects and people that have been scarred by the cruel passage of time. Thus, the penman works in a "decrepit mansion", writes to a friend he hasn't seen in eight years, "not caring too much if So-and-So wished to be reminded of the darkness of his or her distant past." Both characters came from a background of plenty which has since evaporated. He, having a childhood of ease in "the large and airy house on Donato Street" and eventually. " All that was gone... his parents, the family wealth, the breezy mornings perfumed by hot chocolate and talcum powder." So different is this world now that the man cannot even recognize his own house, "but for the ancient fire hydrant at the corner." Nora, when asked what she once had, "Property. A life."

Yet Penmanship delights in challenging this notion of the old as decaying and useless. Indeed, throughout the short story the old is constantly rejuvenated by the new. Seeming anachronisms are given a new life by the actions of the present. Inheritance is the best example of the invigoration of the old by the new. As such, the penman receives the fountain pen, a heirloom, and gives it utility, a purpose in the age of typewriters and computers. The repair shop for old pens on Escolta is "now run by a Chinese woman who inherited the place from her father." Nora's arrival, someone who is nearly half his age, brings to fruition an unexpected event, "the penman fell in love again." It is through this new woman that a life of drudgery and solitude may be changed, that hope is born again, "I haven't had a chance to be, he thought, not for so long."

Neither is the relationship parasitic in nature. At times the old is essential in constructing the new. The penman, though advancing in years, is not a silent witness to the issues of his time. He writes numerous letters to various editors, proposing different solutions to a myriad of problems. That these suggestions are never enacted, merely "printed now and then in severely truncated form", does not detract from the penman's desire to contribute to his present, "it pleased him to flex his hand and to leave a records". Central to the short story is the penman's quaint, almost archaic skill, with an equally old instrument, the fountain pen. It is this oddity that eventually draws Nora, many years his junior, to him. In the penman and his skill, she finds a way to lay to rest her own troubled past. With the help of the old, she can begin anew.

Inevitably in this mingling of old and new are instances of failed synthesis, when the heterogeneous elements of past and present fail to cohere into a homogenous reality. Examples of this are replete in the story. The penman disregards the wishes of his father to become a doctor, in turn setting him on a path that leads him to solitude and emptiness. Yet he could have been a writer, except for the terrible presence of all the giants who came before, "the towering proximity of the greats on the shelves humbled him." Moreover, what dooms his relationship with his co-teacher (and eventually his job as well) is not that she is married, but that he cannot reconcile what he was with what he is. Frustrated by his tepid attempts to woo in college, "When he fell for that co-teacher, all caution, for once, flew out the window... 'and I wished that I had been younger and been one of your students'".

Nora, while younger than the penman, fares no better. While seemingly adjusted to the accident which left her blind, she still pines to offer a fictive illusion to a friend, perhaps a paramour, long gone. Tragic she may be now, but she insists on presenting him a picture of the young and carefree girl he once knew.

Noticeable in all these failed synthesis is a derailing of the linearity of events, the displacement of the smooth flow of a life from beginning to end. Nora cannot truly live in her present world of darkness because she still remembers the light, "she remembered many other things, but Victoria Park and a large dark bird darting across the landscape burned in her memory." A bird has morphed into an airplane, yet for her they are the same, a desperate bid to live in her memories.

This upsetting of the natural order interferes with the cyclical nature of time, resulting only in despair, the possibility of a future stifled by the clashing of the past and present. The synthesis of old and new begets the future. In contrast, the product of the penman and his co-teacher, even though he is interested in her "child-bearing figure", is nothing, not even a possibility.

Thus, the restoration of order, the reinstating of the cycle of life, birth to death, is what Penmanship seeks to achieve. In the valued synthesis of old and new, the past is righted, the present set on its course, the future a bright star on the horizon. The penman can now challenge "the awesome blankness of years", his potency (initially waning, "not that it mattered to anyone else") in the end reaches beyond a mere page to encapsulate the world around him. He merely has to bang a fist against the wall and his rowdy neighbors, "simmered down instantly." "That night he could hardly sleep... and his skin as well had begun to shine like a carapace." Similar to an insect, the penman had undergone a metamorphosis, he is in the process of shedding his old shape to emerge a new form.

Nora as well makes a tenuous peace between her past and present. In sending money to Mark she demonstrates that she is no longer to be pitied, that she is better off than he. Confident that the ruse will work, she says, "I know he'll think it was mine." The derailed lives of the penman and Nora are once again set in motion, synthesis achieved.

Ultimately however, what synthesis, and the greater schema of time, offer ring hollow. While on one hand the cycle of life promises change, the seeming promise of hope and vitality, the undercurrents of Penmanship subvert this supposed truth. The penman, who finds in Nora a potential partner after all these years, ends the story distraught, in anguish, more confused than ever before, to the point that his seeming potency (granted to him by the synthesis) is actually impotency. He can no longer weild his pen, that which has been his world, the source of all his hopes and dreams, now it "never felt heavier in his hand, but he could not even tell if he could call her 'dear'."

It is Nora who takes this subversion even further than any other character. In attempting to reconcile her past through the penman (the new seeking the old), she merely propagates the same past. "I can't show you everything just yet, can I?", she teases Mark, suggesting that there will be other letters in the future, a deeper plummet into fantasy, into a past, with Hong Kong, promise, sight.

As such, it is fitting that it is Nora who finally puts a lie to the promises of linearity, synthesis, in the circular nature of time. When asked why she smokes, the answer is a simple, "It fills up the time." Succinctly, the disarming reply speaks volumes. Implied is that the journey from beginning to end is pointless, a span so lacking in the meaning that the best thing is simply to fill it up, to get it over with, day by monotonous day. The penman notices that Nora, young Nora, had "the kind of stubby shoes that nuns and nurses wore to their graves". Even the new is infected by the old, time's circle corrupting possibility with the sureness of an end. As an end is inevitable, why begin at all?

The sureness of an end is not yet time's most cruel feature. Again, it is Nora's cigarettes (no better symbol of the present stealing from the future) which betray this. "She paused to crush the stub of her cigarette on the ashtray, and then lit up another one immediately." Thus an end is simply another beginning, the terrible cyclical nature of time nullifies any dichotomy between new and old.

Everything is the same, in this perverted circle called time. The looping nature of the beast calls into question any product of synthesis. In the beginning, the penman is alone, a quiet man on the fringes of society. Along the way he meets Nora and hope is born. Yet the end finds him the same, along, "What lived in this night was a filthy hurt." The same is true of Nora, initially keen to prove that she is as capable as any sighted person, "to reclaim and to prove their worth." Finally she takes this to a perverted extreme, creating a lie where she is sighted and unburdened. While synthesis reconstitutes linearity, the end always returns to the beginning, making any change irrelevant.

To escape the passage of time, it is not enough to freeze it, a moment in between the gap of beginning and end is just that, another point in the circle. Tantalizingly the penman and Nora come close to finding the truth outside of time's circle. Upon arriving at the apartment, before he begins writing and she dictating, the two characters are at their closest and most intimate. The moment is pregnant with potential, unprecedented in the story, the chance to connect and establish something hereto unknown to both characters, a true relationship.

Present with them is "a painting of a nubile provincial woman bathing in a stream, her shoulders glistening forever", an image of fertility in eternal beauty. This is what the land outside time, linearity and synthesis is like and it shines, a beacon in a room where new and old meet.

Yet the point of escape slips away, she goes on to construct her letter, binding herself to a sighted life in a blind world as the penman binds himself to his hate.


Still mulling it over.

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