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The Work of the Imagination in the Personal Essay: Reading Rowena Torrevillas By Noelle Leslie dela Cruz, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Philosophy Department De La Salle University

INTRODUCTION This paper is a philosophical reading of the autobiographical writings of Filipino poet, essayist, and fictionist Rowena Torrevillas, which exemplify the best Philippine contemporary nonfiction writing in English.1 I inquire into the workings of the imaginationi.e. that of the writer as exileand in the role of artistic sensibility in the articulation of this imagination. My findings, I believe, will have a bearing simultaneously on the debates in the philosophy of literature concerning the nature of imagination and the meaning of metaphor, as well as on the critical scholarship on the canon of Philippine nonfiction in English. My paper has five sections: In the first section, I discuss contemporary philosophical writings about literary works, particularly Stanley Cavells manner of reading Henry David Thoreaus Walden. An advocate of a view called the New Wittgenstein in ordinary language philosophy, Cavell emphasizes the form of language and the act of writing in his critical approach to the works of the American Transcendentalists. I cite Cavells The Senses of Walden (1981) as an example of the kind of philosophizing that I am doing when I read Torrevillas autobiographical essays.

My choice for a subject reflects my exposure to and ties with the longest-running creative writing workshop in Asia, in the context of which I first met Torrevillas in 2008. Prior to that, I had already come across her writings in a graduate class in creative nonfiction. My ongoing dialogue with her works, in the context of the National Writers Workshop in Negros Oriental, Philippines, is chronicled in the following essays: In My Mermaid Form: A Sojourn in Dumaguete and Conversations with Rowena Torrevillas and The Ballad of Dumas-Goethe: A Workshop Alumna Returns to the Source, available online at www.bluemoonhuntress.wordpress.com. See also About the Writing and Waters Call, available online at www.lanova1215.multiply.com. 1

The second section provides a brief overview of two accounts of the imagination from the perspectives of phenomenology (Gaston Bachelard) and moral theory (Martha Nussbaum). Since my primary concern is the work of the imagination, I want to show that there is a long tradition, across philosophical disciplines, of inquiring into the role of imagery in the quest for wisdom. The third section is about Torrevillas literary background. Any analysis of her craft is inextricable with her biography, as she is the daughter of the late Filipino writer Edilberto Tiempo and National Artist for Literature Edith Tiempo, whom poet and critic D.M. Reyes has called the pillars of Philippine literature in English. The Tiempos are the founders of the prestigious National Writers Workshop, whose inception and significance I discuss here. I also look into a particular literary genre, creative nonfiction, or simply nonfiction, which is a special form of writing about life. I discuss it in light of the inter-subjective, creative process inherent in the workshop culture, which necessarily involves mentorship, peer criticism, and the act of rewriting. The fourth section is the heart of my paper. Here, I address at least four autobiographical essays by Torrevillas, published between 1998 and 2010. While I summarize my main points in a chart, due to space constraints I focus on a close reading of one essay, Flying over Kansas. These essays are representative of the recurring themes in Torrevillas body of writings, namely: living and writing in a foreign land; using and subverting a borrowed language; crafting the narrative of self, which, I argue, is simultaneously the work of spiritual transformation; and describing ones fleeting encounters with the Numinous. These essays are also remarkable for their poetic turns of phrase, the sleight of hand accomplished at the end of each piece, revealing that a commonplace object is almost always a symbol of the soul. Finally, in the conclusion, I summarize my main contentions and attempt a preliminary formulation of the work of the imagination in the personal essay, and in belletristic writing in general. I also offer my comments and recommends about a new way of doing philosophy, exemplified by the work of Stanley Cavell and Martha Nussbaum, among others, which I loosely refer to as philosophy in/as literature. A NOTE ON METHOD: PHILOSOPHY IN/AS LITERATURE For a philosopher, as for a poet, to address language and its relationship with mind, meaning, and reality is to test the limits of thinking itself and imagination. These limits are indicated by, among others, the rules of grammar and syntax; the relics of other symbolic systems, dead and foreign, embedded in a given language; and the finitude of words themselves as referential tools. The Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously wrote, The limits of my language are the limits of my world. Meanwhile, from a different line of inquiry, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger claimed that Language is the house of Being.

While there is a wealth of context and interpretations behind these two oft-quoted statements, their dramatic simplicity speaks for itself. Inasmuch as human thinking and perception take place in and through language, to inquire into words themselvesinto the form of a given textis to say something about the structure of the mind. It is to recognize the inextricable connection between the subject and the object of inquiry, which simultaneously operates through and is revealed by language. The import of this fascinating phenomenon is given articulate expression in Stanley Cavells body of writings based on the New Wittgenstein, to use the phrase employed by Crary and Read (2000). Wittgenstein, particularly in his later work, was a main proponent of ordinary language philosophy. According to this view, most philosophical problems arise from misunderstandings or distortions of the meanings of words as they are used, which Wittgenstein calls, in Philosophical Investigations, bewitchments of language. Special attention must be paid to everyday forms of expression as a way of inquiring into the essence of language and thought. For the so-called third wave critics of Wittgenstein, the philosophers project is not metaphysical so much as therapeutic. Thus, they take into account what kinds of questions are asked, the inquirers relations with others, and how language is employed in general. Based on the above framework, Cavell engages literary texts, such as Shakespeares plays and the essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau2. Doing so, he reveals the work of language variously as an art object, as a way of looking at the world, as a way of being, and even as an ethical orientation or stance. A good example is his treatment of Thoreaus Walden (1845), a classic text in nature writing. Walden chronicles Thoreaus insights and reflections from his experience of living for two and a half years on the northern shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, in a cottage he built himself, subsisting on what the land can provide. In The Senses of Walden (1981), Cavell demonstrates that the project of nation-building, remarkably enough, can take place through wordplay and metaphor.3 Commenting on the special attention Thoreau pays to the form of writing as well as the act of writing, Cavell (1981, 33) states: Writingheroic writing, the writing of a nations scripturemust assume the conditions of language as such; re-experience, as it were, the fact that there is such a thing as language at all and assume

See in particular the following works by Cavell: Emersons Transcendental Etudes (2003), The Senses of Walden (1981), and The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear, in Must We Mean What We Say?: A Book of Essays (2002). 3 Compare this with Benedict Andersons definition of nation as an imagined community. 3

responsibility for itfind a way to acknowledge it until the nation is capable of serious speech again. Nationalist sentiments are in keeping with the jeremiad-like tone of Walden. However, particularly pronounced in Thoreaus text are certain literary techniques that extend the literal meaning of his observations about natural phenomena (e.g. the thawing sand and clay in spring, or the leaf) into a metaphorical reference to the society of humankind in general, and of American people in particular: No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The whole tree itself is but one leaf, and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth, and towns and cities are the ova of insects in their axils. (Thoreau 2003: 239) Thoreaus sensibility is in keeping with American Transcendentalism, which was well-known for its deification of Nature (a legacy of German Romanticism) and its corresponding elevation of human consciousness to transcendental knowing. It adopts Immanuel Kants idea that the possibility of human knowledge is confined in the intersection between the minds mental filters and the objective world. This perceptual bridge between self and worldan ecstatic ontological onenessaccounts for the anthropomorphic rhapsodies about Nature scattered in the writings of the Transcendentalists. The role of Walden in the nascent American nation, which was preoccupied with defining itself against the older civilizations of Europe, is only one aspect of Cavells reading. Others include Thoreaus attitude toward Nature and how this attitude simultaneously constructs its object, his contributions to the philosophical problem of consciousness, and the role of a self-conscious and mellifluous language in the conceptualization of ideas. Cavells approach to Walden thus pays special attention to the form of writing and recognizes its inseparable relationship with content. It shares with other contemporary writings on philosophy in/as literature4 a novel way of doing philosophy. This critical sensibility is encapsulated by his main thesis: The literary redemption of language is at the same time a philosophical redemption; the establishment of

Exemplars include Loves Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (1990 ) by Martha Nussbaum, particularly her take on Henry James novels; Literary Philosophers: Borges, Calvino, Eco (2002) ed. by Jorge J.E. Garcia et. al.; Wittgensteins Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (1996) by Marjorie Perloff; Being in Time: Selves and Narrators in Philosophy and Literature (1993) by Genevieve Lloyd; Nietzsches Case: Philosophy as/and Literature (1992) by Bernd Magnus et. al.; and Philosophical Tales: An Essay on Philosophy and Literature (1987) by John Re. 4

American literature undertaken in Walden requires not only the writing of a scripture and epic, but a work of philosophy. (Cavell 1991, 93, italics mine) It is in the spirit of this novel tradition forged by Cavell and others that I write this paper. I veer away from linguistic analysis, which is commonly associated with the method of contemporary philosophy. Instead, I do a philosophical reading of literary texts. My three interrelated lines of inquiry include the nature of consciousness, or the phenomenology of imagination; the aesthetic articulation of exile, which I argue is a necessary condition for self-knowledge; and the role of metaphor and imagery in this overall project. In line with the new tradition forged by philosophy in/as literature, I believe that it is very much worthwhile to turn our philosophical inquiry toward the key works of Philippine literature. TWO PHILOSOPHICAL ACCOUNTS OF THE IMAGINATION My reading of Torrevillas work is informed by philosophical treatments of the work of the imagination, representing at least three areas of concern: being, knowing, and the self-other relation. The first is Gaston Bachelards poetics of imagination,5 which links literary creativity with ontological freedom. The second is philosopher Martha Nussbaums contention that ethics needs certain morally imaginative literary works for its complete articulation.6 There are myriad other accounts of the literary imagination since Plato at least, but Bachelards and Nussbaums stand out for their methodological specificity and their relevance to my own project. Moreover, their ideas date from the 20th-century onwards, thus uniquely addressing the role of the cinematic imagination in narrative. Bachelards analysis of poetic reverie departs from its typical association with passive daydreaming. One crucial difference lies in the fact that a reverie cannot simply be recounted, like a dream, but can only be written down: To be communicated, it must be written, written with emotion and taste, being relived all the more strongly because it is being written down. Here, we are touching the realm of written love (Bachelard 1960, 7). Unconscious processes that are not owned by the self in her creative initiative remain in the realm of (day-)dreaming, whereas true reverie is always a voluntary activity. The following is a wonderfully oneiric passage describing reverie in action: Under the pen, the anatomy of syllables slowly unfolds. The word lives syllable by syllable, in danger
See Bachelards On Poetic Imagination and Reverie (2005), translated and introduced by Collete Gaudin and Bachelards Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos (1960) translated by Daniel Russell. 6 See Nussbaums anthology of essays, Loves Knowledge (1990), in particular her reading of Henry James The Golden Bowl in Finely Aware and Richly Responsible: Literature and the Moral Imagination.

of internal reveries. The problem remains how to maintain the word intact, constricting it to its habitual servitude in the projected sentence, a sentence which will perhaps be crossed off in the manuscript. Doesnt reverie ramify the sentence which has been begun? A word is a bud attempting to become a twig. How can one not dream while writing? It is the pen which dreams. The blank page gives the right to dream. If only one could write for himself alone. How hard is the destiny of a maker of books! He has to cut and sew up on order to make ideas follow logically. (Bachelard 1960, 17) In this sense, the work of belletristic7 writing is actually a controlled art, achieving freedom by virtue of finely coordinated imaginative movements. (We shall return to the cognitive-aesthetic work suggested by the adverb finely in the latter part of this section about Nussbaum, who references a phrase from Henry James: Finely aware and richly responsible.) Gaudin (2005, xxviii) affirms that reverie is a meticulous, rather than a desultory, process, especially given its role in the construction of self. When a verbal artist conjures an imagined world, it has the capacity to transform our ways of being. We shall see that certain poetic reveries are hypothetical lives which enlarge our lives by letting us in on the secrets of the universe. A world takes form in our reverie, and this world is ours (Bachelard 1960, 8). Rather than being a largely unconscious reverie in the psychological sense, imagination-as-reverie is a form of artistic transcendence. Such labor of the imagination has a powerful potential to improve human existence: In times of great discoveries, a poetic image can be the seed of a world, the seed of a universe imagined out of a poets reverie (Bachelard 1960, 1). In his analysis of Bachelards poetics, Kearney (1993, 91-93) situates his ideas in the liberatory project of existential phenomenology. His view of imagination is a creative and playful one, representing a break from the determinism of psychoanalysis and expressing a similarity with Jean-Paul Sartres existentialism, which emphasizes choice and self-creation. Thus, there is an incontrovertible relationship between the capacity to imagine and human freedom: Bachelard believed that images can have a life of their own and that in order fully to appreciate the ontological dimension of images one must be prepared on occasion to forget ones private past for

From the French belles-lettres, this phrase means beautiful writing and refers to the literary form. 6

the sake of the speaking power of reverie. (Kearney 1993, 97) Another way by which reverie promotes freedom in Bachelards account of the imagination points to the creation of a private world: doesnt reverie, by its very essence, liberate us from the reality function? From the moment it is considered in all its simplicity, it is perfectly evident that reverie bears witness to a normal, useful irreality function which keeps the human psyche on the fringe of all the brutality of a hostile and foreign non-self. (Bachelard 1960, 13) It is in this way that the imagination creates a world of confidence (Bachelard 1960, 14). Bachelards ideas parallel those of philosopher Kendall Walton, who has written about the philosophical puzzles that arise from the discourse of fiction. In his landmark essay Fearing Fictions, Walton (1978) explores how fiction extends our worlds and selves through the psychological mechanism of make-believe. Finally, in a passage that itself waxes poetic, Bachelard (1960, 25) writes about the importance of poets and their work in the present age, which abounds with images. This concludes his introduction to The Poetics of Reverie, and captures the relationship between freedom and the imaginationas well as the crucial role of the verbal artist: How can we enter the poetisphere of our time? An era of free imagination has just begun. From everywhere, images invade the air, go from one world to another, and call both ears and eyes to enlarged dreams. Poets abound, the great and the small, the famous and the obscure, those who love and those who dazzle. Whoever lives for poetry must read everything. How often has the light of a new idea sprung for me from a simple brochure! When one allows himself to be animated by new images, he discovers iridescence in the images of old books. Poetic ages unite in a living memory. The new age awakens the old. The old ages comes to live again in the new. Poetry is never as unified as when it diversifies. If Bachelards ideas more generally address the ontological aspects of the imagination, Nussbaums account must be read in the context of her work as a moral

philosopher. Her insights emphasize the complexity of human relationships and how seeing itselfperceptionhas an ethical dimension. Nussbaum takes the novels of Henry James, in particular The Golden Bowl (1904), as a concrete illustration of Aristotelian phronesis, or practical wisdom. James novel is about betrayal and adultery in the context of a close-knit family. Nussbaum points to the many-layered silence and tact displayed by Maggie Verver, whose husband is cheating on her with her best friend, who also happens to be her stepmother. The sacrifice made by Maggie and her fatheri.e. letting go of each other in order to preserve their marriagesis hailed by Nussbaum as a complex moral move. Reading novels such as The Golden Bowl invites the reader to exercise the imagination in the service of ethics, which canonical philosophy tends to discuss mostly in the abstract. Nussbaum (1990, 52) writes, Moral knowledge, James suggests, is not simply intellectual grasp of propositions; it is not even simply intellectual grasp of particular facts: it is perception. It is seeing a complex, concrete reality in a highly lucid and richly responsible way; it is taking what is there, with imagination and feeling. Nussbaum borrows Henry James motto, which encapsulates the novelists description of humanity which it is literatures task to help us become: finely aware and richly responsible. This phrase unites aesthetic sensibilitythe writers craft, certain nuanced ways of readingwith moral value and responsibility. In more liberal accounts that favor compartmentalization, for example that of Posner (2005), the moral content of a literary work need not necessarily affect its aesthetic value, i.e. its formal elements. By contrast, Nussbaum considers form and content as two distinct yet mutually interacting aspects of the same text. Moreover, in her account, form has a special priority in the generation and articulation of meaning. This is in keeping with the critical and philosophical paradigm of philosophy as/in literature which I mentioned in the section on Cavell, whose work, along with Nussbaums, exemplify a way of reading and thinking that appropriates artistic perception. Nussbaum (1990, 30-35) discusses the inextricable relationship between form and content, using as examples various texts that may be classified under different genres. She analyzes works as disparate as Baruch Spinozas Ethics, Charles Dickens David Copperfield, Henry James The Ambassador, and Senecas On Anger, Book I. She enumerates copious diagnostic questions that a philosopher might ask, among them: Who is speaking here? What voice or voices are addressing us and/or one another in the text?... What sorts of human beings are confronting us, and do they, indeed, present themselves as human at all?

What tone do they use, what shape do their sentences have? What do we learn about their relationship to the other participants in the text, and to the reader? How do they compare to one another, and to our own sense of ourselves, in security, knowledge, and power? (Nussbaum 1990, 32) What differentiates a philosophical reading of literary texts from a literary reading? I think the distinction does not lie in subject matter or topic, or even in method or process, but in objective or purpose. Whereas a literary reading confines itself to description and appreciation, a philosophical engagement with literature aspires for clarity and resolution of issues. The latter ultimately addresses perennial philosophical problems such as identity, the relationship between consciousness and the world, the nature of the good, and so forth. Above all, special attention is paid to the form of the text as a key to its content. Thus, it is in light of these two accounts of the imagination, and the tradition of philosophy as/in literature, that I present a philosophical reading the personal essays of Rowena Torrevillas. But first, a brief discussion of the context of her writings. CREATIVE NONFICTION AND THE WRITERS WORKSHOP Torrevillas, an award-winning Filipino poet, essayist, and fictionist, is currently a literature professor in Iowa University. She is the daughter of Filipino writer Edilberto Tiempo and National Artist for Literature Edith Tiempo, the founders of the National Writers Workshop. Established in 1961, it is the longest-running writers workshop in the Philippines and in Asia. It is alternatively called the Silliman University National Writers Workshop, after one of the premier universities in southern Philippines located in Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental. The Tiempo couple, and later Rowena, had attended Silliman and taught English and Literature there. For many years, the university has hosted and partly funded the workshop. The annual sessions typically take place within a period of three weeks in May, the summer vacation period in the Philippines. Currently, it offers annual fellowships for poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction in English. As Torrevillas recounts in Flying over Kansas, growing up among writers has given her a unique insiders perspective on the craft of creative writing. Ever since she was a child, she had been sitting in the workshop administered by her parents, thus meeting some of the most famous writers in the country. Many names in the history of Philippine letters in English are associated with the workshop, either as former fellows or panelists, or frequently, both. Among them are Nick Joaquin, Francisco Arcellana, his son Juaniyo Arcellana, Kerima Polotan Tuvera, Bienvenido Santos, Jose Garcia Villa, Alfred Yuson, Emmanuel Lacaba, Csar Ruiz Aquino, H.R. Ocampo, Gregorio

Brilliantes, Wilfredo Noledo, Merlie Alunan, Myrna Pea-Reyes, Ophelia Dimalanta, Marjorie Evasco, Susan Lara, Ernesto Superal Yee, D.M. Reyes, and Gmino Abad. Torrevillas sensibility bears the mark of her parents nomadic lifestyle, as Edilberto and Ediths work had them shuttling between their home in Dumaguete City and the United States. There they were mentored by Paul Engle, a former director of Iowa Universitys prestigious International Writers Program (IWP). During the Marcos years, when Filipino intellectuals were facing political persecution, Torrevillas immigrated to the US and helped administer the IWP. Currently, she and her husband, Lemuel Torrevillas, live in Iowa City; they have a daughter, Lauren, and a grandson, Mikey. Torrevillas frequently visits the Philippines and Dumaguete City to serve as a panelist in the national workshop, which she now directs. Torrevillas writes in three genres: poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Her main collections of published works include, in chronological order: Upon the Willow and Other Stories (1980); Mountain Sacraments (1991), a book of poems; Flying Over Kansas: Personal Views (1998), a collection of personal and critical essays; and The Sea-Gypsies Stay: New and Selected Works (2000). In this paper, I have chosen to focus on her nonfiction works. Creative nonfiction as defined by Hidalgo (2003, 10) is nonfiction prose which utilizes the techniques and strategies of fiction. Thus, some of its main elements include structure, point of view, setting, plot, character, and dialogue. Its main difference from fiction is that it is verifiable. Among the main types of creative nonfiction are the essay, the magazine feature article, the autobiographical narrative, and the biographical narrative. While ostensibly about her life, Torrevillas personal essays admit of another level, that of the metaphorical or symbolic. They also make use of mellifluous, poetic language to a greater extent than would a traditional journalistic account. A third characteristic is that the theme of spirituality or transcendence runs through them. In this way, a fair comparison of her works would be with the writings of the American Transcendentalists, in particular Thoreau. The story of ones life is the underlying theme of many literary works, particularly in creative nonfiction. Here, the particularity of the authors experiences feeds the writing. And its aesthetic value seems to be enmeshed with an ethical evaluation of the actions and choices of the subjectivity (i.e. the author-narrator) in the piece. The writer must be wiser than the one who had lived through the experience. To recount, artistically, certain events in ones life involves painful introspection. It is to adopt a transcendent perspective that was unavailable to the self that is being narrated. Telling ones story means (re-)constructing oneself and ones attitude toward life and people. The moral corrective is provided by readers, some of whom self10

consciously assume the role of critics. This encounter with other minds repositions the writers experiences with respect to those of others, which must be granted as equally valid. The processes of retrieval, critique, and revision in the writing of the personal essay thus entail the inevitable pain of change and personal growth. The creative writing workshop, such as the National Writers Workshop founded by the Tiempos, fosters a writing and reading process that incorporates the dialogical elements described above. Thus, it is in light of creative writing as a dialogical activity between Self and Other that I read Torrevillas personal essays. THE WORK OF THE IMAGINATION IN TORREVILLAS PERSONAL ESSAYS
Table 1. A summary of important symbols in themes in four of Rowena Torrevillas' most recent nonfiction works

Flying over Kansas (1998) Important symbols Airplane, airport, handkerchief

Eating at the Roots (2000)

Butterfly Sleep (2010) The butterfly


The Manzanita tree, Ernest Hemingway (the man, the novelist, and the suicide) Nowherelessness/ The writers placelessness, the work and nomadic life, writers block, diaspora, the life force, transition, creativity, the journey, the nature of elusiveness of memory home Depression and sadness are redeemed by the willingness to accept change The dark side of artistic creativity is tempered by hope

Peering at the Ineffable (2007) Cosmic dust, the human body

The work of the imagination

The dream/reality divide (an epistemological problem), the meaning of life, daily life in Midwestern America Skepticism and the sense of the absurd are balanced by a consciousness of beauty

Infinity, death

Mortality is consoled by the promise of eternity

The above chart summarizes the important symbols and themes that I have sifted so far in four of Torrevillas most recent personal essays, together with a description of the transformative work of the imagination in each of them. Due to space constraints, I will present a close reading of only one of them, Flying over Kansas.


Flying over Kansas chronicles Torrevillas innumerable plane rides, as the daughter of two Filipino writers who have travelled from place to place over the course of their careers. She describes a series of shufflings that had begun before I was born: from Iowa to Negros and back, from Colorado to Iowa to Negros to Michigan to Iowa to Michigan (Torrevillas 1998, 70). A writer and academic herself, she inherited her parents nomadic lifestyle, eventually settling in Iowa City. The essay opens with a scene typically espied from a window seat in a plane, as the rocky mountains of the American Midwest loom into view: Wrinkles of self folded into the landscape seen from the air between Los Angeles and Cedar Rapids. I am thirty-three, traveling across America alone for the first time. The disconnectedness of two days of air travel across thirteen thousand miles, the illusory sense of purposiveness lent by the departures and arrivals at terminals looking all alike, the disorienting false night created when the airline attendant pulled down the jets window shades somewhere between Narita and Nome, are taking their toll. (Torrevillas 1998, 70) Torrevillas adopts a fluid sense of time in the telling of events, so that the several plane rides and airport scenes she describeswhich are actually years apartmeld into one another. This suggests that life is composed of a series of comings and goings. The vicissitudes in Torrevillas own life extend from and into stories from her parents generation: the war years, their stillborn son, which segue into scenes from her childhood and adolescent years. As these disparate memories are narrated, a clear picture of the Tiempo family writing enterprise emerges: One travels because the craft demands it. But this process of travelingwith its undertones of tragedy and inevitabilitymore deeply pertains to the metamorphosis of self. This is explained explicitly at the end of the first paragraph: . there is more of me left behind than there is of this person, who is looking down at the earth below that is at this moment only a name, America, and I think that perhaps for the first time in my life I am truly aware of how fragile an feckless is ones sense of self; and how atavistic the need is, to be of a place as well as from it. (1992, 70) This longing for an identity, in concrete or practical terms, is represented by permanent residence in a particular place, or perhaps belonging to a family or race or culture. Its elusiveness is a particular predicament of the Filipino writer in English,

influenced by an American system of education and American colonization, to say nothing of the long siege that a foreign language has laid on ones manner of thinking. Indeed, themes of displacement and diaspora pervade Torrevillas writings.8 But while she alludes to all of these things, her dreamlike description of the plane ride suggests that the inner experience of identity is less tangible, less namable, less capable of objectification, than the concrete symbols of it. And this sensation of namelessless, timelessness, and placelessnessmemory, after all, is at best unreliableis sobering and scary. Time is unmarked in an airplane; time does not hold: you are whatever time it is, but only whatever it is on the ground far underneath you, territory already abandoned even as you cross it, wherever you depart and arrive. The time on your wristwatch is arbitrary when you are in the sky, a designation you carry like luggage from wherever you come. (Torrevillas 1998: 71) The above passage brings to mind Heideggers landmark distinction between ordinary clock time and existential time, in Being and Time. Torrevillas grapples with the peculiar realization that the selflike memory, like timeis fictive, that in fact this strange, horribly unfamiliar experience is precisely the truth one would rather run away from. In the process of authorial introspection, which takes place largely through the work of the imagination, the writer constructs not only her self but that of the reader as well. It is in this way that creative nonfiction, particularly the personal essay, becomes an expression of universal human experience. Take for example the following scene, in which Torrevillas describes her first separation from her husband and young daughter at what was then the Manila International Airport: At the time I left I didnt know for certain if my husband and our daughter would be able to join me in Iowa; I did know, as I clung to my own mom, that it would be a long time before I saw her again. Turning away to walk toward the pre-departure area and Immigration, still blinded by the separation so palpable I could almost hear the sound of roots tearing in my ears, I went past the cordoned-off lines of people who were seeing their own relatives off onto other planes. (Torrevillas 1998, 75)

See in particular her critical essay, Other Tongue/Mother tongue: The Languages of Post-Colonization and Exile, in Flying Over Kansas. 13

She faithfully depicts the airport goodbye, with its concomitant loss of identity, as a palpable tearing. But she extends the clichd momentmade familiar by so many movies and novelsinto a description of what it is like to be in the pupa stage of metamorphosis, as it were. This is suggested by the false night she mentions in the opening paragraph. Her juxtaposition of two imagesthe rocky mountains below and the crinkly brainsuggests that along with the more overt physical travel, the Self also undergoes an ongoing spiritual journey: Under the shadow of the wing of the 747 the earth is ridged and undulant, lacking in sharpness, folds collapsing onto themselves like the convolutions of the brain where, invisible tangible, memory and learning tangle. (Torrevillas 1998, 70) The essay deals with profound, one might even say existentialist, topics such as the nature of memory, the subjective experience of time passing, and the construction of a self in flux. In dealing with these transcendental issues, Torrevillas relies on familiar imagery, defamiliarized in her use of language: the airplane and its false night, the wrinkles of self superimposed into the rocky mountains. No overt argument is presented in the essay: It is less an argumentative paper than a reflective one, even an oneiric one. This highly artistic writing incorporates the consciousness of reverie that Bachelard describes, and in so doing, bridges subjectivity and freedom. The writing (and reading9) of her experiences of airport goodbyes transforms their sadness and finality into a peaceful and reverential acceptance of change. Thus, the manner in which the reflections are undertaken constitutes a novel way of thinking and being. It is a good example, I think, of what Nussbaum (1990, 52) means when she refers to the moral perception of certain literary writers: It is seeing a complex, concrete reality in a highly lucid and richly responsible way; it is taking what is there, with imagination and feeling. Aside from the plane ride, another important symbol is introduced halfway through the essay. It concerns the place in Torrevillas life of an important avuncular figure, Jos Garca or Doc Ninong, for whom the essay is partly a tribute. He was a good friend of her parents, a stern yet caring provincial doctor who was a constant presence in her childhood and teenage years. During the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, he had carried medical supplies into the mountains and established an army hospital there (Torrevillas 1998, 80). She describes a striking memory of him, from her adolescent days, which she characterizes as particularly morose times in her life. She had just

Not merely the literal act of reading, but the critical and reflective reading of one who is attentive to the imagery and emotional nuance of the text, and presumably one who is responding to the authors cues about personhood and moral value. 14

confessed her feelings of depression to him, and Doc Ninong had pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket. He unfolded the handkerchief and passed it over my forehead. Then with the same quiet, matter-of-fact care, he tied up the corners of the handkerchief, so it formed a sort of pouch, the kind you put marbles, or coins, or found-treasures into. Ive put your bad mood in here, Rowena, he told me, tucking the handkerchief into his breast pocket, the pocket that held the pen and sometimes the thermometer or the flat metal end of the stethoscope. Tomorrow, when Im flying over Kansas, Ill open the plane window and drop the handkerchief out, out into the sky. And you will never have the bad feeling again. (Torrevillas 1998: 82) This anecdote is provided near the end of the essay, which brings the reader full circle into the image of a plane ride. An important turn is accomplished here as well, a shift in sensibility of the author-narrator, who learns to come to terms with the experience of despair. She describes Doc Ninongs handkerchief remedy as effective: Gray afternoons no longer held their vague, terrifying disquiet, terrifying because nameless. As I grew older I learned that the bad feeling, the one that hurt inside, that was in my head but not a headache, had its own healing; it was nothingness and all things, it was a stranger with my face who turned away and was also a cold and shining instrument that I had to learn to use rightly, that I could hurt with or hurt myself using. It was I that sought out the afternoon graynesses, and gave them a sort of a name. (Torrevillas 1998: 82) The handkerchief, like an object of sublimation, has a clear psychological importance. The object turns out to have had transformative powers, not unlike the personal essay, itself also a carrier of raw emotions filtered through the writers aesthetic sensibility. The essay ends with the image of the handkerchief fluttering in the air: Flying over Kansas, on my way to take up a writing fellowship at the University of Iowa, where my parents had had their own first start in writing, I know that the handkerchiefs still there, blowing in

that stratum between the earth and the sky that is finally the minds own territory. Gray wonder of words caught up in its four corners, that part of what I am that is most breakable and also most indestructible, flattening in the sharp air, disappearing behind the dreaded cloudbanks, lifting and being lifted, always there. (Torrevillas 1998, 83) CONCLUSION The work of imagination in Rowena Torrevillas personal essays transforms death, displacement, and despair into spiritual transcendence, belongingness, and hope. Language and the belletristic or literary forms are key in this transformation, in particular the genre of creative nonfiction. Two essential aspects of the formnarrative and autobiographical subjectivitymake it a particularly accessible medium for bridging consciousness and the world, i.e. of articulating cosmic meaning from a human perspective. The best contemporary nonfiction writing in English, of which Torrevillas works are cited here as examples, represent the triumphs of a life lived in beauty, which is meaningful, ethical, and creative. This work of the imagination, phenomenologically described by Bachelard as the consciousness of reverie, occurs in highly literary writing. Such writings are not the sole domain of literature, since philosophy (for example) is also replete with creative articulations of thought. Plato, Nietzsche, the American Transcendentalists, the French existentialists, and even Wittgenstein come to mind. There is a relatively new discourse that pays special attention to the form of philosophical writing, reading philosophy as literature. The belletristic personal essay lends itself easily and accessibly to a philosophical reading. It also has much to contribute to the activity of philosophizing. This is most aptly demonstrated by Cavell in his readings of Emerson and Thoreau10, who, writing in the mid-19th century with a Romantic bent, saw in Nature a mirror of the transcendent Self. In contemporary Philippine nonfiction writing in English, the workshop culturepioneered in this country by the Tiempo familyis crucial in the formation of the writers poetic sensibility. This imagination is necessarily informed by dialogue with others in the processes of critical reading and revision. I believe that such processes and their products have much to teach philosophers in terms of how to arrive at wisdom.


See in particular Emersons Transcendental Etudes (2003) and The Senses of Walden (1981) by Cavell. 16


Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso. Bachelard, Gaston. 2004. The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos. Trans. by Daniel Russell. Boston: Beacon Press. ______________. 2005. On Poetic Imagination and Reverie. Trans. with an Introduction by Collette Gaudin. Connecticut: Spring Publications Inc. Cavell, Stanley. 2003. Emersons Transcendental Etudes, ed. by David Justin Hodge. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ______________. 2002. The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear. Must We Mean What We Say?: A Book of Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ______________. 1981. The Senses of Walden: An Expanded Edition. San Francisco: North Point Press. Cracy, Alice and Rupert Read, eds. 2000. The New Wittgenstein. New York: Routledge. Gaudin, Collette. 2005. Preface. On Poetic Imagination and Reverie by Gaston Bachelard. Trans. with an Introduction by Collette Gaudin. Connecticut: Spring Publications Inc. Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and Time, trans. by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper & Row Publishers. Kearney, Richard. 1993. Poetics of Imagining from Husserl to Lyotard. London: Routledge. Nussbaum, Martha. 1990. Finely Aware and Richly Responsible: Literature and the Moral Imagination. Loves Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press. Posner, Richard. 2005. Against Ethical Criticism. Ethics, Literature, and Theory: An Introductory Reader, ed. by Stephen George. Boulder, CO.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Thoreau, Henry David. 2003. Walden and Civil Disobedience. With an Introduction by Jonathan Levin. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics. Torrevillas, Rowena. 2010. Butterfly Sleep. [Available online] Http://www.sisblog101.com/?p=21. Accessed 7 February 2011. ______________. 2000. Eating at the Roots. The Sea-Gypsies Stay: New and Selected Works. Quezon City, Philippines: University of the Philippines Press. ______________. 2007. Peering at the Ineffable. Silliman Journal XLVIII, No. 2, 145-148. ______________. 1998. Flying over Kansas. Flying over Kansas: Personal Views. Quezon City, Philippines: Giraffe Books. Walton, Kendall. 1978. Fearing Fictions. The Journal of Philosophy LXXV No. 1 (January 1978), 5-27. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 2001. The Philosophical Investigations: The German Text, with a Revised English Translation, 3rd ed. Trans. by G.E.M. Anscombe. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers.