Questioning the Past: The Cases of Jethro Calacday



Leo Tolstoy was alive last Monday in ”Savage Mind,” the bookstore that was more conjured than constructed by the poet-raconteur-parasugot Kristian Sendon Cordero. It was after all the turn of a historian to talk in that culture hub and refuge. (Weeks back, it was Eos Trinidad of Ateneo de Manila and on his way to University of Chicago, talking about research). And, as an historian, Jethro Calacday fulfils what the imposing Russian writer once said of historians, that they are “like deaf people who go on answering questions that no one has asked them.”

That night, to an audience of mostly young people, Calacday asked questions over and over as if someone had asked him those questions. He asked questions while looking intently at his listeners who looked at each other to check if they did ask the questions, or if they were ever interested in the question and, consequently, the answer.

The questions were dates about a seminary and about its disputed predecessor, the “Casa de Clerigos.” He presented books, papers, journals, programs, speeches and invitations showing different dates attributed to the setting up of the seminary in Nueva Caceres. He leafed through pages and went back to more pages as he compared the same historian quoting different dates at each point of writing. He cited historians who favored dates that were different from the more mainstream claims – mainstream being “accepted” and dominant, not necessarily correct. He also looked at dates that suddenly materialized in the present, as if the past was a space that could be swayed.

If you were carrying a pencil and managed to write down notes, you would have seen earlier on the reason for the obsession with which Jethro Calacday blew away the dust away from pages of what-ifs. He summarized the favored phrases of historians and researchers who, in moments of illumination, can easily gather gambits without thinking much about the implications of phrases and expressions. “There is a strong proof…” is one of these favorite starting points for historians and writers. Check again, Jethro Calacday would tell us, and marvel at the absence of any proof.

Indeed, we forget when we write that readers out there are like hunters always declaring an open season to hunt us wise men. “It cannot be denied” is a line we latch on for dear life when we want to claim a fact. “No one can question” is an assertion that is really more of cowardice than courage.

At the end of the lecture, Jethro Calacday asked the question: Why do we want to assert always an older provenance, a deeper, more distant origin?

One young student asked: what is the importance of dates. To which, another student responded by underscoring the many confusing dates of a single event.

The world of words is not certain about this propensity for the past, for old things. The word “antiquarian” is limited to one who collects and adores antiques, objects that belong to ages usually gilded than violated. Perhaps, we can call ourselves “archaeophiles” or “paleophiles.”

The past is always golden for us. That past, however, may not exist at all. It can be a politically motivated imagination of a glory that was never there. Remember that old green book, “The Glory That was Greece, The Grandeur That was Rome”? That is the book for our search for identities. We source epics because the great civilizations had epics. We concoct poetics because we should – as those who wrote in Latin and German and other old languages – engage our language with such form.

Archaeology is our succor. For every digging, we look into the pit and try to discern any lost civilization. The tracks of any waters in any dried canal can perhaps lead us not only to the year the first Franciscans arrived but back to where we could touch the waters of Babylon.

The water system that some archaeologists say, run like a badly written verse, beneath the old part of the city becomes easily a trysting spot for holy men and women. When summoned, however, in essays about romance and adventure, the idea of tunnels linking altars and sacred spots can cause guardians of this city to rise up in arms. Morality, after all, is also civilization. It does not matter if the concept of good and evil hundreds of year is different from what the present society has: the eternal of the West is also our infinity.

How do historians view nativism or the so-called millenarian movement?

The notion that there is a past that would come back and make us wealthy/wise/strong/independent/beautiful again is at the core of all revivalistic or revitalization movements. This is the deconstruction that historians of dates cannot cope with: the fact that there could be a nation who would not rely on the memory of dates about foundations, revolutions, executions and declarations of independence, that there are nations that would create myths endless and cyclical to combat the calendar-bound claim to freedom of other more dominant states.

As I write this, a great part of the globe is about to celebrate Magellan and all the attendant circumnavigation, discovery of spices and introduction of a religion through conquest.

“Caution in handling generally accepted opinions that claim to explain whole trends of history is especially important for the historian of modern times, because the last century has produced an abundance of ideologies that pretend to be keys to history but are actually nothing but desperate efforts to escape responsibility. Hannah Arendt said that.

Why celebrate, Magellan, we ask. In the meantime, Jethro is bound to leave for Yale Divinity School for graduate studies.

Would you be a Doctor of Divinity then? This was my question for Jethro. He politely ignored my question; instead, he told me, he was interested to look into the entry and rise of Protestantism in the country when the Americans came. That question is current and more important than going back again to an individual whose historical claim to fame is the discovery of fauna and flora long known to people who refused to discover themselves.