Translated by poet Marne L. Kilates, this is Almario's speech delivered at the UMPIL Convention at the GSIS Museum on August 29, 2009.
I am posting this as recommended reading for NJ who commented on "Roman Catablan's 'For Art’s Sake: The 2009 National Artist Awards Controversy'" posted here on August 18, 2009.
Towards the end of An Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, Karl Marx suddenly mentions the mysterious appeal of Greek art and epic poetry. Why do they “continue to give us esthetic pleasure and are often considered the standard and incomparable ideal” of art and literature even up to the present?
Deliberately or mentioned only in passing, this was a big anomaly Marx himself felt was present in the political economy he had constructed. It is not possible that what had been created in ancient slave society could continue to be admired in the modern capitalist state. According to Marxist analysis, the appeal of Greek art should have died together with or after the death of Greek society and civilization. And like the great thinker that he was, Marx tried to explain the problem in the succeeding chapter. He compared ancient slave society with civilization’s age of innocence and proposed that the appeal of Greek art might be equivalent to the joy we feel towards little children and our happiness in recalling times past and unrecoverable.
But his explanation was rather brief and “un-Marxist.” Especially remarkable was that it even used, perhaps unintentionally, the Hegelian metaphor for civilization. Or perhaps his materialist dialectic was simply inadequate in grasping the “mystery” of art and literature—the esthetic of how art is art and literature is literature. Even here in Asia, the Taj Majal, Angkor Wat, and Borobodur are not just simple tourist attractions. Part of the fascination for them is their amazing ancient art and architecture which today’s mechanics and technology would be hard put to equal. Not only is the Mahabharata amazing because it is prodigiously longer than the Iliad but more so because of the imagination that shaped the narrative and lured the listener or reader into the intricate details of war and adventure and let them “believe” in the intervention of the gods and the use of wondrous weaponry. From the orthodox Marxist perspective, these are products of labor, and because they are products of labor, they are the result of the prevailing relations of economic production. Thus, the products of labor are fated to disappear when change occurs in the prevailing relations of production that created them. The Angkor Wat is the result of what was then the setup and which has since disappeared—the religious society of Cambodia. Darangan has been the Maranaws’ folk epic even before they embraced Islam. But today’s tourists are wide-eyed, not at the power of the religion that dictated Angkor Wat but at the opulent imagination that was poured into the intricate ornamentation of the walls and other parts of the temple. Until the American period, the Muslims’ chanting of the Darangan epic echoed along the banks of Lake Lanao in order for them, as it were, not to forget the magnificent narrative of their forefathers. And it is here that I am more trustful of the critiques from the Frankfurt School, especially those of Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse, who insist on a distinct and independent respect for the subversive and revolutionary work of esthetics, the interior and psychological components of form in order to recreate a reality that cannot be dictated upon by the relations of economic production and class conflict.
The Freedom of Literature
Literature has its own and firm standard as to why it is literature. It recreates the world through the world it creates in literature. That is the basic tenet of its freedom and, if ever, of its liberating power. Perhaps, this was what Marx couldn’t accept while addressing the problem of the long-lasting attraction of Greek art and literature. Why literature is literature is precisely what the obtuseness of Carlo J. Caparas cannot, at the very least, contemplate.
[My mention of Carlo J. Caparas needs an explanation. How does a junkie comics-maker suddenly become part of this decent conversation? That’s why I must, first of all, apologize for this. But it was a good opportunity that I wrote this as the National Artist controversy rages—the DNA (Dagdag National Artist) proclaimed by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo one Wednesday, on 29 July 2009. Caparas is one of the four DNAs and currently the busiest and most diligent in defending himself against the brickbats coming his way. In cahoots with him are second wife Donna Villa, co-conspirators NCCA Executive Director Cecile Guidote-Alvarez and Undersecretary Vilma Labrador, and fellow racketeers like Manuel Morato who just about stormed the radio and TV networks, and tabloids to (1) defend the prerogative of the President of the Philippines in selecting National Artists, (2) insist on their own qualifications as artists, and in the hard labor of ass-licking (3) praise GMA to high heavens as a good leader. The case concerning Presidential discretion has been elevated to the Supreme Court. But Caparas’ assertions of his own qualifications are laughable if not altogether strange for unintentionally using the “class struggle” or what he considers as the class struggle in national literature. The PDI put on record his 10 August statement thus:
“I am thankful for this experience because I have seen the height of our
society’s hypocrisy. The elite are angry because I was able to enter their
territory. I’m from the bakya (masses). They are not.”
Caparas wants to split literature in the middle according to its readers. The one kind with its scarce population of readers, he calls “elitist” literature, where current National Artists F. Sionil Jose, Bienvenido Lumbera, and yours truly, belong. At the other end of the weighing scale is literature “for the masses,” which he leads as merchant for his comics creations and commercial movies.]
In brief, literature has one standard because there is, after all, only one literature. Other literatures always need modifiers to their names, for example, children’s literature, academic literature, political literature (especially the type used in political campaigns), campus literature, popular literature, and Caparas’ specialization, commercial literature. The adjectives are needed to clarify either the noble or the earthly intentions of the writer who entered these distinct worlds of writing and not to let him bear the weight and dignity of the overall standard of literature. There should have been a daily literature (the origin of the journal, the daily, and the diary) to distinguish the service-in-a-hurry rendered by newspapers but this kind has become a republic unto itself under the name of “Journalism” although there are often journalists who attempt in their articles or columns what they dream to be recognized as “literary” essays.
A Case of Rulers and the Ruled
On the other hand, Caparas’ protestations using the labels of “elitist literature” and “literature for the masses” bears many traces of the long-opened dichotomy of society into the small ruling class and the broad ruled and oppressed classes. Such protestations echo the pre-War debate among writers on Art-for-Art’s-Sake, represented by Jose Garcia Villa, and the socially committed writers led by Salvador P. Lopez. But the split intensified even more during the period of activism at the close of the 60s decade until the early 70s, and was due as much to efforts to present the protests against the Marcos regime as Marxist in nature, including the concurrent and surrounding political upheaval. If there is such a thing as class struggle, according to the formulation of PAKSA (Panitikan para sa Kaunlaran ng Sambayanan)—the writers’ arm that the activist movement created for the National Democratic Front—then class consciousness pervades all writing and authorship. Accordingly, there is a reactionary literature that serves the interest of the ruling class, and opposite is the hoped-for revolutionary literature that participates in the oppressed classes’ struggle for more freedom and justice.
Caparas’ problem is that the writerly manner he wants to revive has long fallen into disuse. After almost half a century, the prophets of socially conscious writing have widened their horizons, taken longer views. These days, to be politically correct, the socially conscious writer must recognize other prevailing oppressions besides those coming from the ruling classes lording it over the economy and society. Even if Caparas is for the masses, he might not make the grade if assessed from the safety standards of phallocentrism—since he seems to be flaunting his machism—by the feminists and by the standards of racism from the Blacks, as he seems to be moving in the opposite direction of the dominant mindset of Orientalism in Europe, the United States, and other White societies.
Neither can the obtuseness of Caparas comprehend the notion that it is not sales that dictates the standards of literature. If his commercial standards were applied, then J.K. Rowling should have won the Nobel Prize after her second book, and so should the creators of Marvel superheroes whom Caparas imitates. But where are the bestsellers from the ranks of Gabriela Mistral, Octavio Paz, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Boris Paternak, Kawabata, Wole Soyinka, Derek Walcott, Nadine Gordimer, Tagore, and Wislawa Szymborska? Well, the best selling among Nobel Prize winners would be Saul Bellow and Gabriel Garcia Marquez but they would eat dust behind the bursting warehousefuls and container-shipfuls of orders just on the first day of release for the newest Harry Potter book.
And Rizal would be pathetic if measured according to the commercialist yardstick. It is not even known if the hundred copies of the Noli ever ran out that’s why he needed financial help once more from his Propagandist friends to be able to publish the Fili. And he would be pitiful, from Morato’s point of view, if he happened to walk alongside the likes of Caparas on Manila’s sidewalks. No one might recognize him while fans would swarm over their favorite, Caparas. For all we know, this might be the origin of the urban legend that Rizal did not die at the Luneta. Because no one among the ranks of the guardia civil would know or recognize Rizal, they arrested a different person. According to another legend, a Rizal substitute submitted to the arrest, got himself imprisoned at Fort Santiago, underwent trial, and sacrificed himself to the firing squad on 30 December 1896. And so it was even hoped that Rizal was alive and would later surface to lead the Filipino people during the time of the Americans.
But Rizal himself is proof contrary to the senseless claim of Caparas’ commercialist yardstick. How many Indios could have read the Noli and Fili? Maybe less than ten. Or maybe none, since none of them knew how to read novels, especially novels in the Spanish language, the language of education, the education denied them by the colonists. And only a small group of ilustrados could have claimed they read Rizal before the Revolution of 1896 broke out. And that was enough. It was not necessary that every Filipino set eyes on the Rizal novel. Enough that there was a small and “elitist” group that could read Spanish that was stirred by Rizal’s analysis of the colonial society to spark the tinder of revolution and form the subversive Katipunan that tore down the three-hundred-year-old redoubt of colonization in the Philippines.
Still on the other hand, for what purpose is the enticement of hundreds of thousands of people into the comics and commercial movies if not to entertain them and make money from them? Well, the weekly “to be continued” comics episodes simply outdo the similarly weekly sermons on hope and self-sacrifice of the Church. Both are legal opiates of the people. No wonder then that a security guard could succeed in the comics and be able to build himself a house in Ayala Alabang, in the same manner that a bishop of the new faith had been able to build a church to the tune of P1 billion culled from the alms of the blind and the sick. The millionaire prophets of commercial literature are never shot in Bagumbayan nor are made to drink hemlock.
The Desire of Literature
And so Caparas would neither understand Walter Benjamin when he says, “a literary work can be politically correct only if it is correct by literary standards.” This is an extremely metaphorical, if not altogether venomous, statement even for the activists at UP who have complete faith in the decisive function of the “economic base,” and especially of the “relations of production.”
Benjamin’s statement is founded on a liberating principle that has to do with why art is art and literature is literature. It proposes a literary consciousness that is within but not necessarily subsumed to a social and political order, moving according to its own and independent hopes, motivations, visions to create change in both the world of literature and in the present world that overarches literature. According to this point of view, literature is not society’s obedient tool for economic and political change. Instead, it actively moves and participates in scrutinizing the present and in shaping the possibilities of the future.
In 1957, Northrop Frye stated that the whole structure of civilization was not only the imitation of nature, like the idea of mimesis that we picked up from Aristotle, but a general form of desire—the desire of man to shape nature according to his own will. Example, he needs food and shelter. This is the desire that urges him not to be satisfied with tubers and caves for his uses but to put together and create the art and science of agriculture and architecture. Fry involved Marx when he said: “The efficient cause of civilization is work,” only to add “and poetry in its social aspect has the function of expressing, as a verbal hypothesis, a vision of the goal of work and the formation of desire.” Thus, according to Frye, the expert envisioning of archetypes is the work of critics in order for them to look at literature not only as mirror to nature but as part of civilization or the overall history of the human desire to give nature a human shape.
It was way back in the 1920-30s when the Frankfurt School spread the idea that there are no honest mirrors. If literature were a mirror, it was a deceptive one. Each metaphor or figurative in literature is a mechanism for distorting the truth. Distortion that results in what they call estrangement or what Slovski calls defamiliarization or even Todorov’s fantastique. Every metaphor in literature is a product of the intense and acute experiencing of the reality of the world so that it comes to us in the reading as not-ordinary, puzzling, and often unbelievable. And here, I think, is what must be marked from the Moscow, Prague, and Frankfurt schools. Distortion in literature happens in language—through the various games and operations of language—by way of amazing and unexpected comparisons and ironies, in imbuing the sentence with tone and music, in compressing or loosening the line of verse or paragraph, in the restraint or letting loose of emotion after the prolonged contemplation of memory and experience, in the refining of the roughages of pain and joy in daily life.
Popular Literature and History
Now, Caparas sobs, the “elitists” look down on him because he is only a comics writer. Apart from belittling his own livelihood Caparas is truly ignorant of history.
If he even bothered to read Rizal, he would have discovered that Rizal first admired a popular writer like him. This is Balagtas, also recognized as the first great poet of Filipino literature. Balagtas rose to fame at a time when the awit at korido was the equivalent of the comics for the masses’ popular consumption. What did Balagtas do in Florante at Laura? He raised the level of the metrical romance from whimsical verse narratives about princes and princesses to an original and symbolical romance of love for the beloved, for parents, and for country. Apart from Balagtas’ refining of the verse form and use of fresh metaphors, Rizal admired Balagtas’ political vision, thus pronouncing him a great poet and philosopher. When Florante expressed his grief thus:
Sa loob at labas ng bayan kong sawi
Kaliluha’y siyang nangyayaring hari…
He only wanted to present the grave conditions of the kingdom of Albania, but Rizal read in the verses the grave conditions of the latter’s Filipinas and became a beacon that guided the national hero in his writing of the Noli. Another Balagtas admirer and the most popular poet of the 20th century, Jose Corazon de Jesus, makes such melancholic sentiments reverberate thus:
Ibong mang may layang lumipad
Kulungin mo at umiiyak;
Bayan pa kayang sakdal dilag
Ang di magnasang makaalpas?
And this was the song sung during the American period and until EDSA I against the Marcos dictatorship.
The author himself cannot hinder or thwart the power of his own words. It is possible that Filipinas was not in Balagtas’ mind when he made Florante protest about “my country of grief” but Rizal was able to read it. Surely Batute could never dream of the Marcos dictatorship but his complaint about the “bird that’s free to fly” found its home and lodged in the heart of the Coristas. On the other hand, what did Caparas do with the comics? Did he attempt to shape them in order to, in the Frye’s words, make them part of the shaping of civilization?
No. Because he wrote for the comics only to earn a livelihood. At best, to entertain the masses. “Entertain the masses?” That is the most despicable purpose of writing. As filthy and as evil-smelling as the capitalist motive of profiting from anything sold. The capitalist studies the masses’ preferences, needs, dreams, and weaknesses to sell them products no matter that it might kill the consumer or destroy our planet. Likewise the entertainer studies the masses’ preferences, needs, dreams, and weaknesses in order to sell his comics, telenovela, or CD no matter that beggars and the homeless swarm the streets and the country drowns in debt from the World Bank. Which does not mean that the writer must become the “voice of the masses.” There are voices upon voices “of the masses” who only want to replace the trapos in Congress to become the next trapos.
The Country of Literature
Truth is, literature cannot be the “voice of the masses.” It was a Marxist illusion, a crazy dream of the apostles in Christ’s time for a “literature from the masses and for the masses.” Often the writer with this ambition has two options. First, study the cultural condition of the target masses and adjust to their capacities the kind and manner of writing he must do. Second, study likewise the cultural condition of the target masses and give them the kind and manner of writing that will elevate them from their condition and unite them in a revolution against the prevailing order.
If the “voice of the masses” really and truthfully studies his target public, he will soon discover what entertainers, capitalists, and traditional politicians have long known. Because it is a beggarly life, the public’s heart and mind are as beggarly. They are the same victims of the powerful exploitation and deception by businessmen and politicians and of the long history of frustration in dreaming of salvation and the instant satisfaction derived from public entertainment, vices (from liquor to drugs, from numbers games and lotto to the casinos), and sex. Thus the mass mind is far removed from the Marxist ideal of the “proletarian consciousness.” Instead of being progressive and revolutionary, it carries all the qualities of a seemingly eternal state of ignorance—broken dreams, distorted values and worldviews, and a superficial, easy-to-please kind of happiness.
What is the prevailing condition of culture? Here is how Joaquin Sy summarizes it while mourning the death of Aunt Cory:
And nowadays we are a nation having corruption anomalies for breakfast,
Wowowee and Eat Bulaga for lunch, candied scams for the afternoon snack,
and for supper an eat-all-you-can of scandals, after which we are lulled to
sleep by the Korean telenovelas and the comics stories of Carlo Caparas, whose
naming as national artist is being protested by national artists as I write this.
In these conditions of the national culture, where could the two options of the “voice of the masses” lead him? To bring down or to elevate? In the first option, it is impossible for him to write literature tailored to the capacities of his readers. He will be incomprehensible to the masses anyway. In the second option, he will need urgently to become a propagandist, a fiery propagandist, rather than a poet or novelist. As W.H. Auden said, the masses will not rise even if you wrote a thousand “When All Your Tears are Dry, My People” and read it daily at Plaza Miranda.
Country and society are now captive of this historic cultural condition. A cultural condition that begs for the transformative and liberating force of education, if not of a radical political and economic revolution. This maddening cultural state of affairs is being nurtured by Caparas as a commercial writer and by his capitalist and political co-conspirators. They nurture it to hold it captive and to profit from it. This is the same cultural condition that casts literature outside the prevailing order. Contrary to the good fortune of Greek art, which Marx admired, the poet and artist today are outsiders. On the one hand, he would not be welcome to the ruling classes. The capitalists will not patronize him because there is no profit to be had from his literature. Poems or short stories don’t make big and instant earnings. He will be considered a dangerous risk by government and other established institutions. On the other hand, neither would the oppressed classes love him. Why? The people can’t understand his own insistence on the humanity of man, because that’s not what is taught them by religion, television, their favorite commentator, or by the textbook they read in elementary school. Due to their ignorance, which is no different from the ignorance and obtuseness of Caparas, they might even condemn literature as “elitist”—useless because it doesn’t bring coffee and bread for breakfast, a dud at the tills because it fails to deliver sex and violence, too obscure if filled with mythological allusions (native or Greek), and when bold enough to expose the rot of their society, they themselves might accuse it of being an Enemy of the People.
25 August 2009
NOTE: This translation was originally intended for Filipino readers who don't speak the National Language, but subsequently was requested by our Korean guests at the UMPIL Convention for their Asia Magazine issue on Philippine literature, which is only timely. So I provided an end notes which has been converted here into a glossary (below) because the format of Facebook does not allow footnotes or end notes. The glossary terms follow the sequence of mentions in the text. I take full responsibility for whatever inadequacies of translation.
Carlo J. Caparas. Comics writer and movie director whose naming as National Artist for Visual Arts and Film is being disputed by the arts and literary community in view of the questionable quality of his work, and because he is one of four more persons whose names were arbitrarily added by Malacañang Palace, citing “presidential prerogative,” to the list recommended by the CCP and NCCA. The Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) are the two agencies mandated to conduct the selection process for the National Artist Awards. The dispute has been elevated to the Philippine Supreme Court, which has issued an injunction postponing the awards until all issues are cleared.
UMPIL. Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas (Writers Union of the Philippines)
GSIS. Government Service Insurance System (which has its own Museum of Art)
Virgilio S. Almario. Leading Filipino poet, critic, literary historian, and university professor, also called Rio Alma, who was named to the Order of National Artist for Literature in 2003 and is one of the main protagonists in the National Artist dispute and a petitioner for the Supreme Court to suspend the awards and rule on the violations of the selection process.
“DNA.” Literally, “Additional National Artist,” the mocking epithet for the persons the President inserted into the official list of persons who underwent the regular selection process.
GMA. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo
PDI. Philippine Daily Inquirer
PAKSA. The acronym spells the word theme or subject in Tagalog. It stands for “Literature for People’s Progress.”
Noli. Short for Noli me Tangere, the first of two novels written by the Filipino national hero, Jose Rizal
Propagandista. The 19th century Propagandist movement of Filipino exiles in Spain seeking initially colonial reform
Fili. Short for El Filibusterismo
Manuel Morato. Former government official and supporter of Caparas and company
Guardia civil. The equivalent of a Constabulary or National Police in colonial Philippines
Indio. Pejorative for Philippine natives used by the Spaniards
Ilustrado. The educated elite of natives and mestizos (half-breeds) that composed the intelligent middle class during colonial times
Katipunan. “Sons of the People” revolutionary organization
Ayala Alabang. A wealthy and elitist enclave south of Manila
“Bishop.” A very popular “born-again” evangelist
Bagumbayan Field. The old name of Luneta Park (now Rizal Park), where the national hero was executed by musketry
UP. University of the Philippines (known for its progressive ideas)
Balagtas. Francisco Baltazar Balagtas (1788-1862), considered the premier Tagalog poet, author of the metrical romance, Florante at Laura, which apart from being a masterpiece was first recognized by Rizal and others as an allegory for the suffering of Filipinos under the Spanish colonists.
Awit at korido. Songs and ballads. Metrical romance
Sa loob at labas… “Within and without my country of grief / Betrayal reigns…”
Ibon mang may layang… “Even the bird that’s free to fly / Encage it and it will weep; / So shouldn’t our lovely country / Hunger to free itself?”
EDSA I. The People Power Revolt (on EDSA, Epifanio de los Santos Avenue) in February 1986, as distinguished from the second EDSA uprising that deposed President Joseph Estrada and put then Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroy in his place
Batute. Huseng Batute: nickname for Jose Corazon de Jesus
Coristas. Cory Aquino supporters
Trapo. Another name for “tradpols” or traditional or “dirty” politicians, but the term preferred by Filipinos because “trapo” has the same sound as the word for rag
Aunt Cory. “Tita Cory.” Popular appellation for Cory Aquino
Wowowee and Eat Bulaga. Popular noontime television shows
“When all your trears…” Poem by National Artist Amado V. Hernandez usually read at protest rallies
Plaza Miranda. A Manila square that serves as a freedom park or venue for both political campaigns and protest rallies