top of page

Listening to Enchantment

Theories do not begin with dreams or nightmares. And yet, I have theorized about vanishing houses and enchantment because a dream, which I had many years ago, confirmed that the fieldsite I have chosen was the right one.

The night before I was to travel to a village in Quipayo, I dreamt about seeing a dead person being waked in a house with no walls. The body was not in a coffin. I could see the feet in white socks from the street where I was standing.

The next day, I was at the corner of the village in Quipayo, in Calabanga. The moment I got off from the jeep, I saw that a vigil for the dead was happening in a hut (or was it a multipurpose center?) right in front of me. This was in my dream, I told myself.

I was in Quipayo following the tip of an informant that a healer lived somewhere there. There was no definite address. Just ask from anyone, my key informant who was also a healer assured me.

I did meet the male healer. I completed my interview. Many things happened in that house. My sister, who was very young then, could vouch for the strange and unexplainable events that took place in that old wooden house where I did my academic investigation.

To make things simple, let me just say that the report on healing focusing on the ritual called “santigwar” was submitted. I left the topic. As any researcher with very strong link to field work and fieldsites would share with you, I proceeded to other topics. There should be other themes to look into, some of them more fashionable and sexier, more relevant to funding agencies. These were the kinds of researches that brought in money and comfort to anthropologists.

But, as I would realize much, much later, everything had just begun. Whatever theory I was applying as lens to view the phenomenon of unseen beings attracted to humans and the same beings bringing the mind and soul of the humans to the world of the unseen would remain incomplete, depressingly unable to explain the world around me.

I was studying enchantment but the anthropologist in me, the social-scientific in my attitude, told me I should bracket the experience. I should – with theories and research methodologies – step back and work on the material elements, write them down.

I was dealing with enchantment but I should not be enchanted.

As I write this, I am thinking of what I will tell my readers – and some students – in Savage Mind, a bookstore and culture hub in Naga City, about enchantment.

The talk is part of a series of conversation organized by Kristian Sendon Cordero, the multi-awarded writer and poet (He does not want to be called a cultural worker and he cringes at any label marking him as “international” although he aptly deserves the modifiers) to announce the books nominated for various awards in this year’s National Book Awards from the National Book Development Board and the Manila Critics Circle.

The book I wrote, The Last Sacristan Mayor and the Most Expensive Mass of the Dead. Tales from Ticao, has taken a life of its own. True, I supported the immediate appraisal of readers about the intensely personal account I have made when the book was released. I, in fact, added to the immediacy of the fascinating that I carefully wrought in the book by, with all candor and naïve wit, talking about them as if I was present in all the narratives. Still, I was not ready to confront a shadow universe I unconsciously brought back from a past. I was not the mere narrator in the book; I was there amidst the acts, in the chill of that morning as my grandmothers navigated the old, winding streets of the town as they followed the procession elaborately staged by the devils. I was there in the universe of Erlina and Maria as they fought life because true love happened only in the world of the sometimes unseen and enthralling.

The book, which started as a series of notes on fieldworks would put embarrass a traditional anthropologist.

Where is the critical stance? Where is the third moment when the participant-observer has already elaborated on the acts and appearances and after the constructs about life, death and life in the sense of societies, cultures, economics, and politics have already been laid out? Where is the analyst and the analysand? Where is the analysis?

Enchantment is the lesson I learned about the book and the writing of the book.

Theories do not begin in dreams; they begin in enchantment. And this sense of being captivated by another world or other worlds can only work when the observer drops all the notions that he had in the first place. But not totally. One does not even have to drop the theorizing that is the strong enterprise of the anthropologist in the field. But one must view theorizing altogether in a new light. I have only to go back to James Clifford’s call for “plural poesis,” because ethnographic truths – the truths or data we get from the field – are “inherently partial – committed and incomplete.”

That dead person at the juncture of the road, which brought me to the house of the healer, is part of the life of my field report. In that house, my sister was interviewed by the old man even as I could not remember any of that act happening.

When I visited the village again and I looked for the old man, the person who I asked happened to be his daughter. In ellipses, she told me his father went to the “other side,” the dark side. When I looked for the house, the daughter said the house vanished.

The report on enchantment should bear all these: the dead man in my dreams, the house that vanished, the feather of the “kataw” still in my possession, the “Onglo” – the half-man and half-horse fantastic being, alive always when I look at women battered, in love and out of love.

Enchantment breaks all boundaries and we must simply form a devotion to the freedom of enchantment.

Theories, now I know, begin with enchantment. And I should be in enchantment the believer.

bottom of page