Courtesans and Fishcakes seems not a fitting title to a book about ancient Greek society. That civilization, in our mind, must be announced in somber lapidaries or monumental acclamations. Subtitled The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens, the book by James Davidson chronicles Athens and its ancient appetites – from eating to drinking to copulating. It is a book about the ordinary.
Do not be deceived: the book is not a facile undertaking. Given what entailed some seven years of writing, Courtesans and Fishcakes points, outside of formal histories, how stories of one’s generation or city or age is never an easy task. The truth is the regular tale of the regular guy is as significant as the account of anthropologist, the musing of a literary scholar, or the models of an economist.
What takes the cake with regard to what the book can accomplish is found right on its cover – a copy of the famous mosaic by Sosos of Pergamum. Called the Unswept Hall, Davidson describes the mosaic art as having a white background where there is “an even scattering of debris: a wish-bone, a claw, some fruit, various discarded limbs of sea-creatures, the remains of a fish.” The author attributes to Sosos the power of the images and its realness, as the artist was known for his ability to turn tiles into lifelike things. Davidson also sees the remarkability of the Unswept Hall not in the illusion it creates but in its “objective humility.”
More significantly, Davidson sees the art as saying more because for him, the floor is not really the subject of the piece. “The true theme,” according to him, “is an unseen banquet.”
When we our city – this region and this country – has become ancient, do we have a white floor to inspect in the form of art? What debris will serve as humble artefacts of information?
As with the book, Unswept Hall, which does not limit itself to the mysterious and intellectual fragments of Plato and other magisterial thinkers to profound an age, we need books or reports or oral traditions that will speak of those other lives. These are the biographies of the teachers in public schools, the narratives of vendors, the saga of healers who have access to real enchantment rather than the opus of beguiling charlatans.
In our society, the elite dominate the storytelling. Their homes are in the dreams of heritage societies. Even natural waterways like rivers are intellectualized beyond the comprehension of those who live by streams and canals. The cultural worker works for a culture that s/he wholly defines.
I walk around our city and marvel at wooden homes. They are forgotten elements in the histories of our towns and cities. These humble structures can tell strands of memories that are not found in quasi-palaces of the surroundings. In them lived and maybe still live inhabitants that define the quotidian, the mainstream class in whose hands this city – and other cities and towns – depend on growth and sustenance. These homes complete our cities.
Where did they come from the owners of these houses made of bamboo and wood? What forests were denuded when these homes were built? Who were the carpenters who worked on them?
Along Peñafrancia Street are ancestral homes of patriots. We are saddened when they become derelicts or are transformed into tacky beer joints and honky tonks. Along the same street are wooden homes that stare with staircases that lead its gaze onto the wide road. All of them have tiny verandas that could carry about two human beings. Were young men allowed only to the tiny space when they visited their beloved? How long were they allowed to stay?
Malls and fancy hotels will never make our city singular; these sophisticated avatars of conspicuous consumption homogenize needs and desires. But the quaint streets noted for foods that are not served in banquets are the tiny and multitudinous components of the equivalent of a civilized world.
Many things have vanished and been banished from our city. I am not talking about cathedrals that have become black or rituals that have been declared obsolete by a Church forever inventing itself but of the simple, unnoticed, familiar affairs.
The itinerant vendors roamed our streets before and served as timekeeper. The one selling bread came the earliest at five in the morning. He brought the scent of the newly baked day. The “kalamay” vendor could be seen trailing the one with pan de sal. The newspaper arrived at about ten or eleven before noon. The two in the afternoon initiated the coming of all kinds of snacks – the Pan Legazpi, which had no relation to that city of Albay; the “Pinagong” was sold with a thud. “Balisusu” had the loudest herald. Then when the sun was about a wee bit above the hills of Tangkung Vaca, the old woman hawking “Tinumtuman” came. In our neighborhood, she usually walked with her concoction of freshwater shells or clams, bamboo shoots, coconut milk and varied spices all gathered in a “nigo” placed on top of her head. We knew who she was. An hour or two after the old lady, the “Pinangat” vendor would be caught between Angelus and the bewitching hours of the early evening.
For some reason, those engaged in selling “baduya,” banana cue, and camote cue stayed fixed near bridges and churches.
We never just bought from these entrepreneurs; we conversed with them. We knew where they lived and we remembered their names.
These are memories that are scraps from our own civilization. Our memory of these vendors and their products make no sense. And yet it is in the lack of sense and historical significance of these memories, of the seeming debris and dirt that have fallen on the floor that we can recover a period. These are our histories that are freed from the slavery of archives and foundations.