Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Blinded By The Light-- Notes on Corsello's Profile on Manny Pacquiao

The original article is here.

Some of it ranges from good to brilliant, I think. I've never seen an American writer draw such a successful bead on our culture. For that matter, I haven't read many Filipino writers who've done it as well as he does in this article. The wealth of detail. The meanings he finds in those details. His propensity for holding his self-importance so lightly. In spite of being slighted innumerable times, he understands on a completely instinctive level that the offenses are trivial matters, and it's this unwillingness to indulge his self-love that allows him to see that these slights as an entry into the real story, which is about surreal cordon sanitaire surrounding Pacquiao, a shell of chaotic social activity he and at least one other writer has described as "dysfunctional". Another piece of brilliance lies in the precision with which he describes how Filipinos see Pacquiao as embodying an innocence that is threatened and contradicted by his political aspirations and the monstrous trapos like Chavit and the Ampatuans that hover around him. The Filipino dark side, the pit.

Some of it, I repeat, is brilliant. Maybe even most of it. BUT.

But: Corsello crashes burning when he mystifies what his powers of analysis fail to grasp. And what he is most unable to grasp are the roots of the chaos -- a chaos with social, political, and apparently psychological aspects-- that restricts his access to the subject of his story, so much so that he is reduced to offering his readers Paquiao's indigestible and incomprehensible answers verbatim at the end of his article. This in spite of the fact that he did, after a long and merry chase, finally come face to face with Pacquiao, who looked him in the eye and invited his questions.

Corsello does not explain why the interview failed, which is the proper word to describe an interview that results in a clutch of cryptic Pacquiaoisms that Corsello abandons the reader to decipher without assistance. An interview where Corsello's words are obliterated by the Word of Pacquiao.

An interviewer is supposed to mediate between his subject and his readers. To clarify the subject for the readers. To help the subject make his meaning plain. But when Corsello finally sits across Pacquiao, he seems to disappear in a white light, as if he had been incinerated by a furnace at the center of the labyrinth, or taken up to Heaven like Elijah, where matters were revealed to him indescribable in the words of men. He draws a curtain across the failure, and does not make it clear whether he was prevented from asking follow-up questions by Pacquiao's lieutenants, whether Pacquiao refused to amplify his answers, or whether he, Corsello, was so frazzled to be sitting across a man that he describes with what must we must call religious language, that he was incapable of insulting his god by giving any sign of puzzlement or incomprehension.

For whatever reason, he runs into a wall. Or, perhaps, another labyrinth.

Incapable of making sense of the chaos around Pacquiao, he resorts, or is reduced to, mystification. Corsello attributes both the chaos and Pacquiao's boxing accomplishments to a mysterious quality in Pacquiao that Corsello intimates is beyond human ken, beyond language. "The strange," he calls it reverently, but he might as well call it "the miraculous", because he uses the phrase to assert the existence of some eerie, unsayable power in Pacquiao in which antithetical qualities are resolved and united.

Not true. The contradictions surrounding Pacquiao are all recognizable Pinoy weirdness. Not standard weirdness by a long shot, but not unique either. Corsello would have glimpsed similarities and parallels if he's gone to the celebrations of other big men, other stars. The untalented performances offered as entertainment, the excess, the schizophrenic/hallucinogenic interior design by untalented friends-and-relations are common phenomena in the celebrations of Filipino families. They're just amplified by orders of magnitude in Pacquiao's case, because of his wealth.

Many of the phenomena that Corsello observed are not even uniquely Filipino. D. A. Pennebaker's documentary Don't Look Back captured a similar vortex of idolatry, political jostling, mystification, transference and projection surrounding Bob Dylan in 1967. Accounts of Louis XIV's court in 17th Century Versailles record courtiers jockeying for the honor of handing the Sun King his shirt at his morning toilette exactly the way Pacquiao's lieutenants vye for the honor of fluffing his rice. However, I think Corsello may be the first to document the process by which the idolatry that envelopes the inner circle results in choking the flow of information to the idol the circle professes to love and serve. The process by which a star is eclipsed from view by the shell of asteroids it attracts.

A question kept hovering in my head the whole time I was reading the profile: To what extent does Pacquiao enable the weirdness around him? What does he get out of it? I can't help but think that Pacquiao is not an innocent here, not the simple victim of sycophants and courtiers that he cannot distinguish from true friends. An entourage, or any social structure for that matter (especially one as expensive and logistically unwieldy as the one surrounding Pacquiao) is supported and maintained in spite of its inconveniences for the sake of the advantages it confers. What those are however, I probably don't completely grasp, because I don't like large groups. However, I have a deep suspicion that the group serves as a portable jungle in which Pacquiao feels safe: Protected. Powerful. Hidden. One of the aspects of a large intimate group is that responsibility becomes shared and diffuse. Roach and Corsello find it impossible to blame Pacquiao or even the various "chiefs of staff" they speak to who represent Pacquiao, because the structure makes personal blame impossible. Nobody can be identified as Colonel Parker, as the one controlling access to Pacquiao. Roach's comments make it clear that Team Pacquiao's fear of Manny's displeasure makes it difficult to ask him questions, even if -- perhaps even especially if -- they are important questions, because it is precisely the important questions that could be freighted with unpleasantness. It appears to me that the main advantage of such an arrangement is that it makes it possible for Pacquiao to avoid doing things he finds distasteful, inconvenient, or just plain tedious. I specifically suspect that the shell allows him to elude the grasp of marketers, entrepreneurs, and garden-variety yahoos (Pacman dolls? Pacman sneakers? Lunchboxes? Video games? Cellphone borloloy?) that flock around American celebrities; allows him to avoid having to explicitly refuse them, avoid even listening to a Filipino intermediary plead their cases. Any such intermediary who persisted in backing a prospect, a deal, a person... Anyone backing anything Manny found tiresome would quickly find himself outside the circle of favor. It may seem like an expensive, inefficient way to avoid having to say no, but I suspect that many Filipinos would understand the motive. Saying no is work. Even just listening to proposals is work. How much is peace and quiet worth? It may sound strange to speak of peace and quiet in the middle of a mob. But as Corsello himself notes, it is Pacquiao's prerogative to end any conversation any time he sees fit. The slightest tilting of his head places him completely out of reach in a way even a foreigner can understand.

(It just occurred to me that it is probably the case that most foreigners -- or at least many Western foreigners -- might not understand. That it might have been precisely Corsello's sensitivity to these cues -- one might say his susceptibility to group pressure -- that was responsible for finally giving him access to Pacquiao. When I say this, I don't mean to say that I think meetings took place discussing what to do with the white guy. More likely what happened was that Pacquiao, and the people around him gradually became reassured that this Corsello guy was a good egg; marunong mahiya, as we say: capable of shame/tact/discretion. Corsello's reflexes reassured people, and their guards relaxed. And opportunities opened as a result.)

How much is peace and quiet worth? This question can be read in two ways. It can be a question about the price of peace and quiet: How much would you be willing to pay to have it? However, it can also be a question about the obtainability of peace and quiet. When your consent can set millions of dollars into motion, how much do you have to pay to get peace and quiet? In the Philippines. In America. In Las Vegas. Maybe it is extremely hard to get peace and quiet once the bitch-goddess of American success has rubbed up against you. Maybe it is so hard to get that you need a shell of Filipino chaos that large in order to obtain it. It could be, that against the chaos of entrepreneurial capitalism, that Filipino social chaos is a perfectly rational, perfectly functional defense.

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