24 May 2009

beauty with(out) conscience

Two weeks ago, we had the chance to enter the Royal Garden Palace of Belgium in Brussels (see slideshow). To say that the place is beautiful is an understatement. But if you know the story behind the construction of this multi-million (or billion) glass house garden, you could not help but take the beauty in half-heartedly. History says that this is one of the many structures put up by King Leopold, who then personally owned the whole Republic of Congo. Before the Belgian government bought it from him and turned it into their own colony, this king has abused the republic excessively. He accumulated his personal wealth by extracting rubber from their land. Men have been turned into slaves and have been forced to leave their wives and children in order to work in the forests. There were several accounts of the soldiers under the king's command on their rape and maltreatment of the women and children. When the Belgian government finally took over, Congo's population has decimated from 20 million to 10 million.

There are many beautiful structures all over the world belying similar histories of atrocity. That's why, when we go to places, sometimes it's not so easy to readily appreciate the beauty that is there especially when you think of the many who have suffered at the expense of others' drive for power and glory. Sometimes, it even makes one suspicious of all the artificial edifices noted in history -- is there a structure that has ever come into being without having usurped the resources of another? Or without having caused injustice or suffering on another?

On one breakfast conversation, Lakay had a very insightful answer to my question: "Yes, the Banaue Rice Terraces." (Lightbulb in my head!) It's true. This is one place that you can admire as a great wonder, not just for it's sheer beauty, but for the story of solidarity that brought it into being. Sure, the natives of Ifugao may have had their own share of suffering while creating this, yet the suffering was done for the greater good of all, not just for the personal gain of a few. I know that there are a lot of similar sites in the world that take pride in a noble history. And these are the sites worth visiting.

But not all is in vain for places with a history like the Royal Palace garden. Even if one had a dark past, one also has an open future to correct its past. This may be why every year that the Royal Palace opens its garden for the enjoyment of the public, an NGO would tie up with this event for the purpose of fund raising. This year, the proceeds of the event would go to an international organization fighting against child abuse.

Perhaps, through the salvation of many abused children today, the worth of the suffering of all those unnamed men and women who died in Congo can be compensated at the very least, even if we know that nothing will ever quite fully do so.


Lou said...

Tricky issue and one that's vexed thinkers for a long time? Some would say beauty is its own excuse for being. Many argue that there must be an innate goodness or usefulness behind it. That a terrible history detracts from the enjoyment of beauty.

I'm pulled in both directions. Though sometimes I think, if an innocent child enjoys the gardens, then that garden, no matter how it was brought to being, is in itself inherently good and beautiful. Though the adult accompanying the child may know the history of the place, and shudder.

littleoneofgod said...

kaya nga ate e. I wish I were a child again where I am sheltered from all these disturbing questions. But you are right. It's good to allow ourselves to be pulled both ways. There's never just one side to anything.