These are exciting times.
Proust is back on the great, white space!!! And he has chosen to be “at home” in the country’s most vibrant paper today, one that’s expanding in girth and reach while everyone is sizing down and losing their hold on their readers. It simply means print is alive, writing is in, and you and I are right exactly where we ought to be, as my favorite doctor of the church, Saint Teresa of Avila, would say.
This is a redux, if you will, of the original Proust if only for one reason. This Proust is a social climber, too, as I keep saying, like Marcel. And social climbing is what this column is all about, in its various shades and subtleties, that is
This is, of course, one of the many incarnations of Proust, who lived in the late 19th the early 20th century, one of France’s greatest novelists, critics and essayists.
Just in recent times, less than a decade ago, Proust lived by way of a column called Cyber Proust in one of the country’s papers. Like the original French guy, he wrote long stories, sometimes appropriating for himself four long pages, just focused on one subject, more often one of Manila’s rich and powerful, and if he got lucky, someone from one of those old families that Cyber Proust loved to read about in the society pages as early as when he was nine years old.
But that Proust, of the Cyber kind, had since taken leave of us. He went on a self-exile to some parts unknown, as we are won’t to say when we do not want to reveal our destination, most likely either an ugly one of which we can only be ashamed, or an exceptionally, absolutely charming one, we would want to keep it all to ourselves.
Remember Boracay before it lost itself to the onslaught of the filthy revelers? By the time it was rescued, it was almost like inferno? Does anyone remember those mountains of real puka shells?
That Proust never came back, most likely devoured by the hungry beast of this secret paradise, the beast being the self. He ate himself, in short, and disappeared. He was disgusted by the beauty of his beloved. He had always been gay and then, as he was falling madly in love with this great beauty, he decided it was time to leave. There could be no two great beauties in just one home. Proust, aware of his superior incandescence, chose to leave. It would make for a good departure story instead of simply telling the truth: he never received another assignment after he failed to submit one.
Well, it is also the original home of the self-promoting selfie, at least for our getting-to-know-you phase, need I tell you?
We’re all society climbers, was how the late Chito Madrigal Collantes put it to this writer, who saw her when she was no longer that active in the social scene but still a name, a power and even an absence to reckon with.
Often, we hear people talk derisively about other people being social climbers. I could only laugh. Social climbing is what everybody does, even if they refuse to admit to their guilt. “We’re all society climbers,” was how the late Chito Madrigal Collantes put it to this writer, who saw her when she was no longer that active in the social scene but still a name, a power and even an absence to reckon with. In fact, she wasn’t feeling that well when I came to interview her in her Cambridge Circle home, where she received me in her ante room that doubled as a library.
Books from floor to ceiling, thick books and thin, gilt-edged and frayed, filled the room.
Awesome was her collection of coffee table books that might have fetched a fortune, if anyone thought of selling them. Or auctioning them off, like many beautiful treasures that have since been carted away from Manila’s grandest homes, ones that had seen their heyday in the last century when people still built mansions as mansions were supposed to actually look like — grand and elegant and subtly hinting at the patina of old wealth kind of gracious living. And, yes, as I recall now, she had large rocks, obviously to her elegant earlobes born — right in the privacy of her home and wearing them rather nonchalantly and undoubtedly not to show off to this eager intruder. For some reason, she agreed to receive me at a time when most of us would be having our siesta. Does she ever, I thought to myself. Serves you right, she must be thinking, I was telling myself.
It used to be that the ultimate place to social climb (easily, that is, because a ticket — make that paid invitation — was all you needed) was the lobby of Rizal Theater when people wore gowns to attend movie premieres.
It used to be that the ultimate place to social climb (easily, that is, because a ticket — make that paid invitation — was all you needed) was the lobby of Rizal Theater when people wore gowns to attend movie premieres. There were no shouting fans calling out the names of their idols, because fans then didn’t go to the Makati Commercial Center (as it used to be called) unless they were “yayas” and they knew of course the rules of decorum, having been “finished” by their senoras who were themselves Swiss-finished, a background that they beefed up with crash courses given by Conchitina.
Then, the Cultural Center was built, and if you could not afford a box, you went to the opening night of a show, and mingled with the first night set at the lobby. Of course, you didn’t tell them your ticket was for the uppermost balcony, although you were hoping that you and your far-sighted company would be herded by an usher down to the orchestra to fill up its empty seats, when the time came.
And then, too, if you knew which artists were lapped up by the Zobels and Sorianos, the Cojuangcos and Yulos and Aranetas and some such names you found out were real old, like La O or Cu Unjieng or Limjap or Kahn (Hi, Tita Marilou! Don’t deny we know each other!), you attended their exhibition openings. If you had the guts, and likely you did, you muscled your way in to the gallery, pretending to be a friend of David, the Medalla (before he went into exile), or Lee, the Aguinaldo or Caroline, the ex, the one who thought Filipinos were lousy lovers unless, of course, as she found out, they were visual artists.
Of course, that was much easier than insinuating you were chummy with Oscar Dahlin’ De Zalameda (the De was a fake appendage, in case you forgot), although he might have gone with you in your game of deception, either out of kindness for a fellow promdi or fun, or reverse snobbery. After all, he too loved fried galunggong and ate them with the proper cutlery if he wasn’t playing darts or fencing with them.
Today, if you want to be seen and to hobnob and to breathe rarefied air, you go to the preview cocktails or lectures or conversations hosted by an auction house and there you will find the top collectors. Except that there are a lot others, mostly kibitzers, who are in the same game that you’re playing. Most likely, they will snub you, like one I know who did exactly that to me.
Social climbers will do everything they can NOT to be seen beside another creature of the same habit. They would pretend to be busy ogling a painting, or intently listening to anyone holding court in a huddle of five intimates, as though they were part of that innermost circle. They would nod, laugh,and throw their heads back, sip hard from their goblets till they cracked, and in the corner of their eye, spy on you. “Please go away,” they whisper their prayer, fingering their imagined beads and begging the antique crucifix about to be auctioned or the dark naked santo in all its deadwood bareness, to please, please make him go away, or to not make eye contact with me at all and I promise I will be nicer to Prokopya at home.
Social climbers don’t talk to each other, if they could help it. That’s rule number one.
Social climbers don’t talk to each other, if they could help it. That’s rule number one. Not to be seen with the same genus of limp-wristed bird. (Don’t ask me to pinpoint exactly where the wrist of that kind of bird is.)
So, where am I leading to? Simply that if you are worth your salt, as they say, and make that signature sea salt, you should make sure to be in every preview showing of paintings and jewelry in the auction houses of Makati. If you know whom to butter up, they are easy to crash because you will find a lot of secretaries spying for their bosses, but in that crowd, there is a queue of polished collectors, if you get the hint, and you simply have to quietly crawl your way to their esteemed company. And I can assure you it will not be easy, if you’re targeting to stand next to the real guy because around him are hangers-on who are all there in the name of mother highfalutin art but who, like you, simply want to be there to pass themselves off as certified members of the new glitterati.
Never mind if once upon a time you all lived in the same subdivision in that far-away town from Makati, and they went to Sunday Mass in an owner-type jeep, and their all-around yaya Monchang borrowed salt, sugar, soy and MSG (the last, long before it became unfashionable and bad for the health) from your own all-around help who, as soon as your parents returned from work or mahjong session or neighborhood parlor told on your neighbor down to the sloshy details of their junky lives.
But now, you bump into her, the neighbor’s daughter, your former jackstone playmate, and she hardly recognizes you because, and precisely because, you have not changed much, still looking like you’re trying very hard to belong, while she has since acquired the twang and the understated style of the very rich or at least those who, too, have acquired the ways of the rich, and are now passing themselves off as very old rich. If you can find a way to listen closely (by standing behind her where she could not see you unless she opens her compact mirror), you will notice that she has a chameleon-like manner of speaking in that it changes, depending on who she is talking with. At one moment, she sounds like Helen Yuchengco Dee, and at another like Mercedes Zobel. When she is feigning sweetness, she sounds almost like Techie Ysmael (she was nowhere when Chona was around), but when she wants to curse, well, she sounds like these two women of the old high society who always punctuated their statements with the big P.I., so who said the crème de la crème did not curse in the most vulgar way?
So, that’s rule number two. You can never know. The person acting sweet and urbane next to you may well be Al Capone minus the flashy jewelry, while the uncouth guy may well be the great grandson of a national hero, if it was all that mattered to you.
Lest you forget, rule number one is never talk to a fellow climber, no matter if you’re about to fall off the precipice. Don’t ask for their help, they won’t give it anyway, lest people realize you knew each other all along. Believe that all is well, and you will see that faith, indeed, has saved you.
Besides, what did Saint Teresa de Avila say? “Let nothing perturb you, nothing frighten you,” not deadlines, not silverware that’s begging to be picked up by your ignorant hands and not those smartly dressed ladies at the reception desk — they borrowed their gowns or bought them cheap at the bazaar, you should know by now — checking if your name is in the invitation list. Don’t be ruffled if it’s not there (you knew all along, of course); instead, smile sweetly, and say, “Oh, there must be some mistake…” while keeping an eye on the next guest arriving, he or she might be your savior. (“Oh, yes, Tito Johnny, remember me?”)
Rule number two, if I may repeat, is you can never know. It happens that when you assume a guy who looks so lousy and downtrodden has no business standing beside you, could actually outbid anyone in the room, including all the tycoons who are beginning to appreciate the aesthetic value of these art works. Except that someone else does the bidding for him.
On that note, allow me to say au revoir for now, for want of a better goodbye phrase. I use French only because Proust was French, but let me assure you that I grew up in Isabela and here I am today because, well, I love to write and I love to meet people, if only briefly, whom I would never meet if I planted rice for a noble living. (Just to make sure we understand each other here — I love rice and I love rice farmers. I got fat because of too much rice. You should try my version of Inabraw paella with gooey saluyot for a topping.)
Next week, we shall explore the crazy, rich, world of auction houses, Manila style. And as an added bonus, I will tell you how I was wined and dined at the Manila House with no one throwing his weight around or over me, or I would have slapped his face with the best-dressed asphyxiated pink salmon in town. (Actually, the waiters were nice, I was tempted to ask for their phone numbers, but I decided I was going to play hard-to-get.)
As a parting shot to those who would climb the ladder or the mountains with me, let me share with you a quote from the patron of journalists, St. Francis de Sales: “You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working, and just so, you learn to love by loving. All those who think to learn in any other way deceive themselves.”
So, there, if you must reach the top and the only way to reach it is by climbing, come join me, and together let us do the climb of a lifetime!